Is Free Will Real?

As a child I drove my parents and teachers bat shit crazy, and “fiercely independent” was a phrase I heard often (“pain in the ass” was also pretty common).

A lot of people have asked me, “Sam, why are you so __________,” rotating between stubborn, persistent, non-traditional, annoying…you get the idea. I used to respond with whatever smart ass remark came to mind, but I’ve actually given this question a ton of thought over the years. I think I finally have an answer:

Free Choice Programming

For a very, VERY long time I believed fiercely in the principle that we all possess free will, and that we’re free to make our own choices.

I have since changed by mind.

The subconscious part of the brain clearly makes many if not most of our decisions (the neuroscience of free will is a fun rabbit hole), and our conscious brain explains and justifies them after the fact. The “thinker and the prover” as Robert Anton Wilson would phrase it. If you don’t believe me, go look up Split-Brain Syndrome and have your mind blown (sorry not sorry).

fMRI studies have shown that our brain has reached a decision before our conscious mind does, and if our decisions are made subconsciously, then how can we in fact have free will?

The more I study this, the more I’m inclined to agree. I’m not fully convinced, and there’s plenty to debate, but I’m leaning that way 🙂

Despite this change in perception, some part of me still wants to believe that through conscious effort, we can take some measure of control over at least some of the choices we make. That maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to seize control of important decisions from subconscious us, and giving that control to conscious us. Learning to actually become the sort of rational actors we like to think we are by default.

On the flipside, many different spiritual paths indicate that surrender, releasing the tiller, is in fact the optimal way to live. Even the Bible indicates this is the way.

So which is it? Do we need to try and seize the tiller? Or release it and let some higher intelligence steer the ship?

Let’s dig deeper.

First, I’ve learned that no matter how you slice it, “free” choice is FAR from free.

For something to be truly free, it must be unencumbered, not dependent on anything else…and if you do even a tiny bit of digging, philosophically or scientifically, you’ll find that EVERYTHING in the known Universe appears to be connected to and dependent on everything else, from the Big Bang until now.

I shared this recently on Twitter:

Thoughts on Free Will

If everything is dependent, then nothing is independent, and therefore true free will (unencumbered will) is not possible. Even if we can make *some* decisions, they are hopelessly encumbered by factors not in our conscious awareness or control.

Just think of all the social conditioning we go through as a child, our genetics, our environment, our emotions, our deeply wired biological drivers…does that sound independent or unencumbered to you?

Each human is a piece of wetware running code placed there by “others” (nature, parents, society, etc.), and most of that code has never been examined or debugged. We’re a bunch of “Moist Robots” as Scott Adams would phrase it.

And whether one turns to philosophy, logic, neuroscience, psychology, or even physics, there appears to be no such thing as free will, no “free” choice.

It appears that we are not, and have never truly been, free.

Tough shit friend.

Go Google “Sam Harris Free Will” if you want to dive DEEP down this rabbit hole, it’s literally multiple books worth of material coupled with thousands of years of philosophical debate.

This video is a great place to start:

This one is fantastic as well:

Or read this article. So many resources 🙂


Just because your will is hopelessly encumbered doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t make ANY choices (well, it might mean exactly that, but this is all still fiercely debated and I haven’t actually made up my mind on this point so bear with me).

While true Determinism is certainly a possibility, and perhaps even a statistical probability, I find the idea of a fully scripted Universe with no real choices to be made boring as fuck.

I’m absolutely biased and projecting here, but as a lifelong gamer I prefer open world games with minimal guide rails, and hate heavily scripted games, so I’d like to imagine whatever created our reality would be equally bored by a choiceless game, dream, simulation, illusion, hologram, or whatever the fuck this is.

However, if this is in fact a game or a movie, it *could* be highly scripted and constrained. And if it’s a simulation, then all outcomes would likely be a product of initial conditions and rules of the sim…

And make no mistake, this reality is almost certainly artificial and created by *something*. I’ve written about this extensively here, here, and here.

Nick Bostrom has made this case strongly, and the latest research into quantum physics strongly backs this up (take a look at the observer effect, the delayed choice quantum eraser in particular). The Planck length (the smallest size something can be) appears to be the equivalent of pixels, and the speed of light appears to be a sort of processor limitation. Our reality very much functions like a rendering and physics engine in a video game. The book The Simulation Hypothesis by Rizwan Virk explores a lot of this.

The thing is, there are major, MAJOR social repercussions to this entire line of thinking (both the free will thing, and the artificial reality bit). If there is no free will, then there is no right and wrong, no good and evil, and therefore any sort of praise or punishment is unjustified, inequality is hardwired, not just anyone can rise to the top…you get my drift. And if this is all artificial, does anything really matter?

All the social cohesion myths fall down go boom, society implodes. Not a pretty picture.

It sure *seems* like this mindset could lead to chaos and anarchy, BUT, it could also lead to a massive shift in empathy and compassion, to living in the moment and releasing regrets and worries, to non-resistance and releasing the tiller, to Mushin and perhaps even true blue Enlightenment (the very heart of Zen and Advaita Vedanta).

Thus you see both the promise and the peril of this line of questioning, and why it forms the foundation of my book Screw the Zoo. True freedom begins with questioning EVERYTHING, *especially* your most sacred and closely held beliefs.

I can’t tell you what to think (nobody can, or at least nobody should), but for me at least, regardless of whether we’re in a artifical, deterministic Universe or not, I personally think this amusement park we call life is vastly more fun if you assume you can make at least some choices, and operate accordingly…perhaps with a few caveats:

Caveat #1 – No matter how you slice it, there seems to be some sort of intelligence that underlies our reality, the nature of which is simply not clear. There is an order to our reality, negentropy and shockingly consistent rules and structure where we would expect only entropy and chaos. And if you study religious history, mythology, spirituality, quantum physics, or hell, if you just take a nice fat dose of psychedelics, you’ll find the same omnipresent idea wherever you look…there is vastly more to *all this* than meets the eye.

Caveat #2 – Whatever this intelligence is (and it is NOT a fucking judgmental sky fairy daddy god, that much seems crystal clear), it appears to communicate with us, sometimes subtly, sometimes not subtly at all. Keep your eyes peeled, and watch for clues. There appears to be *something* there. Just be extra wary of confirmation bias and the frequency illusion.

Caveat #3 – Whatever is, is right (or at least, is acceptable or permissible). If it wasn’t acceptable, it simply wouldn’t be as it is. This sounds paradoxical, but it’s pretty clear. The Universe has rules, some of which we know, many of which are still a mystery, but those rules ARE obeyed, and this much is obvious…existentially speaking there is no right and wrong (those are purely arbitrary human constructs, highly malleable over time and across different cultures)…so as far as the Universe appears to be concerned, whatever is, is permissible, whether the tiny little insignificant speck that you are likes it or not 😂

Now, I don’t much care if you move forward with determinism or non-determinism, with solipsism or panpsychism or whatever mental model you can find that fits ALL the available data, the Universe will keep on keeping on either way.

But if you choose to move forward with the belief that you are free to make some choices, it then becomes your responsibility to question everything, to probe deeply, to think for yourself, weigh your choices, and ultimately accept ownership of both your actions and the resulting consequences.

Suffering stems from a disconnect between reality (how things are), and how you wish they were (resistance).

Stop resisting, and you stop suffering.

I once would have said that it is self-control that sets us apart from other animals…but I’m not sure that’s accurate. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that our belief that we have self-control is what sets us apart from other animals.

It sure seems to be the source of all our drama…

Food for thought.

This will undoubtedly offend some people. When I first heard these ideas explained, I resisted them HARD. I didn’t even finish Sam Harris’ Free Will the first time I picked it up, it was too jarring for me at the time.

And to be frank, I still haven’t fully made up my mind on the topic…I certainly think we don’t have free will as we generally like to think of it, but I can’t say for certain that we have no choice at all. TBD.

Perhaps it’s just a semantic disconnect…the us we think of as us may be false, and thus that false us has no free will, but the real us (everything, Universal Consciousness, God, call it what you will) may be in full control and have truly free will. Who knows.

But this is good material to chew on, not to be offended by. Keep an open mind!

I think true intelligence is the ability to see and evaluate many possible mental models of reality, without personally attaching to any of them or seeing them as certainties. Those who lack intelligence seem to personally attach to one model of reality and defend it vigorously.

Born Trapped

Explore widely, think deeply, hold nothing as certain, and take no offense.

And as a wise man once said, “Offense can be taken, but never given.” If you believe that offense can be given, then you’ve already given whatever control you may have to someone else.

Alas, many seem to give both generously and foolishly.


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Sam McRoberts

Author of Screw the Zoo. CEO of VUDU Marketing.