No Free Will, No Freedom

Ah, here we go again, down the “free will” rabbit hole.

photo by Pavel Danilyuk, for Pexels, CC0

In a recent post, Caitlin Johnstone got to the heart of why we continue to tolerate the massive dysfunction, corruption and inequality of wealth and power that characterizes our political, economic and social systems. She wrote:

People say “I’m free because where I live I can say, do and experience anything I want!” But that’s not true; you can’t. You can only say, do and experience what you’ve been conditioned to want to say, do and experience by the mass-scale psychological manipulation you’ve been marinating in since birth. You can do what you want, but they control what it is that you want.

In the world of cognitive dissonance in which Caitlin and I apparently both live, we can, on the one hand, appreciate that we have no free will — that everything we believe and do is strictly the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment — and, on the other hand, rail against stupidity, greed, incompetence and the thousand other sins that, somehow, ‘shouldn’t’ be allowed, or ‘shouldn’t’ be. As if we had some choice in the matter.

So the questions that Caitlin’s remarkable paragraph raises for me are:

  1. She says we are conditioned by “psychological manipulation”. By whom? Just the rich and powerful control freaks? Or everyone we meet, read, and otherwise interact with?
  2. She says they control what we want. I might agree, but that depends on who they are. Again, just the rich and powerful they? Or everyone?
  3. Presumably they control what we want through persuasion, manipulation, propaganda, censorship, advertising, PR, misinformation, and otherwise feeding into our conditioned beliefs and desires. Don’t family, friends, co-workers, writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, neighbours, acquaintances, community-members and just about everyone else we interact with basically do the same things? And don’t they often have more influence than the miscreants Caitlin principally seems to want to blame?
  4. Where exactly do the miscreants and other influencers who condition us get the ideas, beliefs etc that they try to push on us? Aren’t they just conditioned the same as we are?

We are conditioned by our biology, and by everyone else, and we condition others in return. The research that Arlie Russell Hochschild did in Louisiana suggests that even died-in-the-wool Faux News viewers don’t buy half of the rhetoric or conclusions of their ‘reporters’, though they do get reassurance from the network about their beliefs, which are influenced mainly by their community, their peers, not by media propagandists.

So, back to Caitlin’s paragraph, and its last sentence: “You can do what you want, but they control what it is that you want.” I think this is very clever, and true, but that control is not coherent or coordinated. You and your brother may grow up in the same community with mostly the same friends, but he may believe in Reptilians while you believe that Bernie could get us out of this mess.

So I would rephrase Caitlin’s paragraph a little, as follows (apologies to her if this seems to be putting words in her mouth; I’m just reframing it to conform to my conditioning, which is different from hers):

People say “I’m free because where I live I can say, do and experience anything I want!” But that’s not true; you can’t. You can only say, do and experience what you’ve been conditioned to want to say, do and experience by your biology and your culture — everyone and everything that has caught your attention and influenced what you believe, say and do. You can do what you want, but your conditioning determines what it is that you want.

What I like most about Caitlin’s argument is that it undermines the argument from many slippery modern philosophers that we “kind of have free will, but not really”. IMO this is akin to arguing that someone is “kind of” pregnant. We either have free will or we don’t. And whether you believe we have it, or believe we don’t, following that belief down the rabbit hole is going to get you into a lot of trouble either way.

As a non-believer in free will, I think (though I find it troubling to do so):

  • ‘blaming’ anyone for their beliefs and behaviours, and suggesting that they could have thought or done otherwise, is absurd;
  • holding anyone ‘responsible’ for their actions is absurd;
  • believing that we can somehow ‘overcome’ our conditioning and awaken to a greater truth is absurd; and
  • believing that ‘humanity’ will somehow rise up and change course before civilization collapses (or before we blow up everything in a nuclear war), is magical thinking.

Caitlin would seem to believe that we can be free despite not having free will — that we can, as the slippery philosophers would like us to believe, overcome our conditioning. But you can’t have it both ways. We have no free will, and we can therefore never be free. I’m not comfortable believing that, but at least I’m consistent.

What if we were to claim, and tell, an AI robot that, because it made decisions, it was ‘responsible’ for those decisions, and therefore had ‘free will’. What would that mean?

In fact, as Indrajit Samarajiva has explained, we have created AI robots that make decisions, and which are held (somewhat) responsible for those decisions, and we have even conferred ‘personhood’ on them. They’re called corporations, and there are millions of them. Do they have free will? How about political states that we personify so easily (“Russia has announced plans to…”) — do they have ‘free will’? Of course not.

So why should we believe that individual humans have free will, when the scientific evidence suggests the opposite — that everything we do is conditioned?

What would it mean to acknowledge that none of us is free, that we can do what we want, but have no control over what we want? That we are just all acting out our conditioning every moment of our lives?

How would this affect our views of what ‘democracy’ is? Is it nothing more than a wealth-and-power-biased ‘consensus’ of our biologically and collectively-conditioned preferences? Is this the basis on which we go to war, and on which we inflict such horrific suffering on each other and on the planet that birthed us?

Even worse, what would it mean to acknowledge that none of us actually ‘knows’ anything — that what we call ‘knowledge’ (beyond in the narrow sense of technical know-how) is merely our conditioned beliefs, mere opinions, none of them really ‘ours’ at all? And on this basis we feel justified in judging, and even killing, others?

I warned you it was a rabbit-hole, and there is no way out. Unless you stop now, in time, and turn back. Just tell yourself: I have free will. I am free. I can do anything I set my mind to, if I try hard enough.

Though you just might find that such statements will take you down another rabbit-hole, one even deeper and more vexatious. But maybe your religions, sacred or profane, will help you navigate that one.

Still, you just might find that you had no choice over which rabbit-hole you find yourself in.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to No Free Will, No Freedom

  1. Ivo says:


    There is this other lens through witch we can see that no one is in control using the energy/consumption/markets/behavior metrics to spell the dis functionality. I bet you have come across the human super organism thesis of Nate Hagens. And I like to ask you if you find this useful? [ ]

  2. realist says:

    It’s not that we don’t have free will but it actually Breaks Down. :-)
    Breakdown of Will by George Ainslie.

  3. David Beckemeier says:

    Ok Dave I’ll just put this out there. Like maybe that’s why language was developed by,, oh let’s just say “Evolution”(seems the one deity you believe in) to break out of the instinctual determinism animals have been stuck in. Make things a little more interesting. I mean it seems we can clearly think about an apple or an orange, chicken or beef. Maybe it does mean a choice is made. Now here’s the thing, a choice by what? Well you could say a choice by nothing. Or everything. Just my stream of conciousness coming out.

  4. Theresa says:

    Well it can’t be that you believe everything is predetermined, to unfold in a preordained way that is inalterable because that would mean that life is a perfect script, made by a creator/God. As an atheist, you might believe that there are small random anomalies that govern how things turn out (evolution), deviations and outcomes determined partly by chance, (odds; math). In that case, I wonder that you haven’t arrived at the idea of this world being a simulation (matrix etc)?
    Personally I do think individuals have some limited free will that can manifest itself in the some of the small anomalies, glitches, etc that drive evolution, but it’s very much more limited than we think, given the forces that drive us as members of mass humanity in a powerful biological & global environment. I have no proof, just that some choices feel so right, so uncompromised, so aligned that it feels like the freest most natural “decision” ever. I know that doesn’t sound “free” but Liberty(choice) & freedoms aren’t the same thing.

  5. Theresa says:

    To me individual free will (should be one word) just means self expression, desire to live and grow, thrive, or merely survive. It’s not a feature with a self correcting mechanism either in individual free will or the free will of a body of people or species. A free radical may have autonomy, but the rest of the body might be strong and unified enough to survive the cancer.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    No, I am not a determinist. While I do believe everything we do is conditioned by our biology and culture, it is also affected by the circumstances of the moment, which entails an infinitely complex number of variables. For example, if I were being mugged, my pacifist conditioning might well be overcome by immediate circumstances such as some third party unknowingly darting between us, or the mugger being seized by a sneezing fit in reaction to my perfume, allowing me to switch from a freeze to flight strategy. Nothing is predictable, and nothing is ’caused’, so nothing is predetermined. There need be no purpose or reason for things to appear to happen exactly as they do.

    Our conditioning is just an appearance, evolution is just an appearance, and the fact that these things seem to follow a pattern stems from the fact that our brains are always looking for a pattern, and believe that pattern to be ‘real’ until something upsets it, after which we just look for another pattern. When it all gets too much for our brains to handle, we just put in ‘the gods’ as a placeholder for the pattern that makes everything make sense to us.

  7. realist says:

    @Theresa and Dave
    Yes, there ARE causes but it’s beyond anyone’s “control” because of Causal Degeneracy.

  8. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Copernicus discovered the earth revolves around the sun. That discovery made zero difference to the lives of the majority of people. The sun came up, they went about their business, the sun went down. And yet Copernicus feared for his life with this discovery because he knew it made a massive difference for a small group of powerful people.

    This is the stage we’re at with free will. The moment someone finds unequivocal evidence that free will is an illusion (the likeliest result in my opinion) everything and nothing will change – the sun will come up, go down… society will stumble along as before. What it will do however is give us some comfort when civilization collapses: at least we’ll know there was absolutely nothing we could do to avoid it.

  9. Mark Bevis says:

    In the counselling world this is called ‘conditions of worth’, which are imposed on us as soon as we are born. The way your parents bring you up, the interactions with other family members or just members of the public, provade a frame of experience around which our development occurs. TV and to a lesser extent radio are prime examples of imposition of conditions of worth.

    Take for example two children, one brought up in Elon Musk’s home, and the other brought up in Palestine. The 10 year old Palestinian can field strip and fix an AK47, the 10 year old Muskovite could call on a myriad of servants to do anything he wanted, except perhaps see his almost permenantly absent father who is away all the time making money. Or he sees him through an electronic screen. He will never know material want, nor understand those in need of material sustenance.
    And so on. It is indeed a matrix of infinitely variable number of variables. By the time we’ve grown up enough to realise the conditions of worth imposed on us, we’ve usually had the obligatory mental health collapse/mid-life crisis and suffered irrepairable mental damage.

  10. Theresa says:

    Dave & others: these answers make a little more sense and resonate a bit with metaphors and ideas that are a little more familiar to me, something for “my” mind to hook itself onto. Thanks

  11. Sriram N says:

    “You can do what you want, but your conditioning determines what it is that you want.”

    After realizing the truth of this, people might say, “I’m more free because where I live, the conditioning is relatively benign.” Well, 70% conditioning is better than 90% but it is still far from being free of external influences.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for all the well-reasoned comments on this, everyone.

    As for free will, I can only add that I’ve had endless debates with fans of the popular “we kinda sorta have a little free will at least apparently and for all practical purposes” philosophers (Dennett, Harris et al), some of whom argue, ludicrously IMO, that we’d have anarchy and massive nihilism if everyone believed/realized they had no free will. They apparently make up 90% of all philosophers, according to a recent poll.

    So I continue to believe we either have free will or we don’t. For now, I’m on the “we don’t” side. Note that I am not at all a determinist, of any degree of ‘hardness’, because in an infinitely complex universe anything can be changed by the circumstances of the moment, so nothing is predictable or determinable (including the circumstances of the moment). Hence I believe the whole argument about compatibilism is moot.

    Our conditioning may be radically different, and that conditioning may lead to a happier or unhappier, healthier or unhealthier life, but that has nothing to do with free will. The people who have the most influence over our cultural conditioning were as conditioned as we were, and have no control or free will over how they attempt to condition us.

    We’re all playing out our roles on the stage, acting out the lines as they’re given us just when they must be delivered. But no one and nothing knows what those lines will be, because they could change at any moment, based on an infinite number of variables.

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