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What Is Free Will? Is It Real Or An Illusion?

Written by: Dean Nelson, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Dean Nelson

First, let’s answer the question, “What is free will?” Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines free will as 1: voluntary choice or decision. 2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention. This, of course, assumes their definition of “divine” refers to God or a god and not one’s intuition, which is an alternate definition of divine in the same dictionary.

A shadow of  man in water.

If I possess free will, then I make all the decisions in life that are not determined by prior causes or by a deity. Many people believe that God, other gods, angels, demons, ghosts, etc., are making decisions for them. This is based on their inculcation of these beliefs at a young age and will likely lead to insecurity and delusion. It may seem easier to allow other people or perceived spiritual beings to make decisions for us, but it is not healthy. Still, I certainly would not want to be relieved of the right and responsibility of making my own decisions. This is not referring to those with dementia or other brain diseases or mental disorders, which will require others to make crucial decisions for them.


Most people believe they have the free will to make their own decisions in life. That is an easy belief to ascribe to. It seems logical that I am the one making the choices and decisions. Sure, I have to consider my options, conduct some research, possibly consult with others, and then make my decision. That sounds reasonable, but am I the one making the decision, or has it already been made for me?


When confronted with a decision, does your brain examine the data input, run the comparisons and calculations, consider the best option available, and then present its findings so you can make a choice? Or does it make the choice for you? Are you your brain, or are you separate from it? The brain is an organ within your body, much like your liver, heart, or lungs. Are you located behind your eyes in your brain?


A path forward


These are very difficult questions to answer. Neuroscientists and philosophers have varied opinions and theories, and much research is underway, but there are no solid conclusions. We may never discover the answers to these questions—at least not in our lifetimes. However, it is fun to contemplate free will. Let’s consider other interesting implications.


Does possessing free will mean that I can choose what I like and dislike? If I am free to choose a favorite color, can I change it anytime I wish? Can I change my favorite food into one that disgusts me, or vice versa? Can I use my will to make a beloved song into one I despise, or vice versa? Am I free to control what thoughts enter my brain? That may be impossible as no one can predict their next thoughts or control them with any degree of proficiency. Can you choose to stop your inner dialog or monolog for more than a few seconds before the stream of thoughts begins to flow again?


Free will may be merely an illusion. It seems like we are in control of our decision-making processes, but are we really making those decisions, or is our brain making them for us? We operate on autopilot most of our waking time. Our subconscious works nonstop to control many bodily functions and make a multitude of unconscious choices each day. We drive automobiles around, making hundreds of unconscious decisions while having conversations in our minds (with ourselves and imagined others), planning dinner, remembering the day’s activities, and giving little thought to driving. Your brain is making all these decisions for you. Do you have the free will to make your brain do otherwise?


Do you have an alcohol, drug, or food addiction? Are you obsessed with sports, fishing, hunting, playing games, or watching your favorite TV shows or movies? Do you have a predilection for illegal things or situations? If you have free will, you should be able to decide to change any of the above—instantly.


Is your will free?


The will does not appear to be entirely free. Think of your favorite song. Is your will free to recite the lyrics in reverse order? You know the lyrics. Why can’t you will yourself to recite them backward? Using your free will, bring to mind another song. Do you have any control over what songs come to mind, or do they seem to be randomly generated by your brain? It is as if a menu of only a few songs you know is presented to you.


Why did these particular songs populate your brain? Why did only a few present themselves out of the hundreds or thousands of familiar songs? Why do you not have any control over the results? As you contemplate your list of songs, more and more will come to mind. After you complete this exercise, you may think of other favorite songs and wonder why you did not consider them before.

“Here’s the question. If you can’t control your next thought, if you can’t decide what it will be before it arises, and if you can’t prevent it from arising, where is your freedom of will?” —Sam Harris, neuroscientist and philosopher


Sam has several free will thought experiments that may interest you. Click this link to check out his second exercise. It is illuminating. Immerse yourself in a considerable amount of free will concepts and thought-starters here.


Do you believe free will is real or an illusion? Either way, it is an enormously fascinating subject that will continue to engender ongoing discussions and debates for decades to come.

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Dean Nelson Brainz Magazine

Dean Nelson, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dean Nelson is the best-selling author of three self-help, inspirational, and motivational books with another in the works. For nearly 30 years, he spent countless hours attending seminars, researching, studying, and seeking out ways to awaken his potential. His sincerest passion and mission in life is to provide simple shortcuts to living a more fulfilled and inspired experience. For those who are struggling and ready for change, Nelson shares his enlightening psychology for those seeking an immediate positive transformation.



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