Critical ThinkingCross-postEducation

Letting Go of Free Will

The most popular conception of free will—a notion that lies mostly unexamined until it becomes necessary to defend it—is that there is something inside our minds (a “ghost in the machine“) that, as Steven Pinker says, “reads the TV screen of the senses and pushes buttons and pulls levers of behavior.”

While it goes mostly without saying (I hope) that this kind of free will is not real, nor even possible, there are still plenty of things to be said about the implications of this truth—in particular, implications regarding schooling—that do not sufficiently affect our thinking.

“You Are Not Controlling the Storm, and You Are Not Lost in It. You Are the Storm.”

The best way to watch the idea of free will disappear before your eyes is to go looking for it. Make a simple choice in this moment—to turn your head to the right or to the left, say. If I ask what choice you made, you might say left or right, but you could also say that you chose to move one of your legs or to wink instead. Or you may have decided to not do anything differently at all as a result of my request. Ultimately, none of these possible individual differences matter to the analysis, because you did not cause your brain to produce the results, whatever they were.

If you believe you did cause this result—it certainly feels like you did—and if you are committed to describing a non-magical etiology of your behavior, you must account for the neurons that “you” controlled somehow to make the decision. If you succeed, you must then describe what caused the “you” neurons to do “their” controlling. I hope you can see that even my description of what is required does not cohere, and the job itself reduces to absurdity quickly.

Whatever it is you believe you have that can be called “free will,” it is not the ability to locate yourself—your thinking, your behavior—outside of any storm of prior causes. Your decision to turn your head or move your leg or give me the finger or ignore me was ultimately not controlled by you. You could not possibly have done what it did not occur to you to do in the first place, and, second, you can give no reasonable account of why one move occurred to you while another didn’t. It seems that only under a legal, compatibilist view can you do things “of your own free will.”

Some Things Change, Some Stay the Same . . .

Obviously, if we are not fleshy robots operated by mysterious incorporeal homunculi, then neither are kids. Yet we all share this subjective delusion that each of us is this homunculus, living behind our eyes. So it is worth wondering what effects, if any, the illusion of free will in ourselves (and the assignation of the same to others) has on our “normal” perspectives regarding teaching and learning.

For many, abandoning the notion of free will—accepting its absence in their bones and down to their toes—would change the way they look at punishing students for misbehavior. At the very least, a strong collective recognition of the illusion of free will would remove the social cover adults in schools receive when they punish children for no good reason other than that “they deserved it.” They don’t simply “deserve” it. Not ever. That view makes no sense.

Yet, similarly it makes no sense to take credit for achievements. We should by no means feel compelled to disown completely the rewards that we accrue by virtue of our hard work or planning or even innate abilities, but removing the illusion of free will places these rewards in the proper perspective. You are fortunate to have achieved what you have and unfortunate to have missed out on some achievements. Pride really has no place. Who is there to be proud? What could she proud of? And as we did with punishment, we can find a similar clarity with the way we reward our students when we are not confused by free will. (See Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets.)

We Are All Connected

It is hard to underestimate the confusion that can be sown by the illusion of free will when it comes to teaching and learning. I think Sam Harris says what I want to convey on this point more beautifully:

Some of you might think this sounds depressing. But, it’s actually incredibly freeing to see life this way. It does take something away from life. What it takes away from life is an egocentric view of life. We’re not truly separate. We are linked to one another; we are linked to the world; we are linked to our past and to history. And what we do actually matters, because of that linkage, because of the permeability, because of the fact that we can’t be the true locus of responsibility. That’s what makes it all matter.

We don’t own our thoughts. They are not ours to begin with. As a student, my thoughts have proximate causes in my past experiences and the thoughts of my peers and teachers. But these thoughts didn’t “belong” to anyone along the way. And they don’t “belong” to me now.

So why are we afraid to share our knowledge of the world with students? Because we believe that each of them has some mysterious inner ghost that is muted by taking on board the thoughts of “others”? This is silly. While it definitely makes sense to ask students to practice generating ideas with little assistance, it doesn’t make sense to draw a qualitative distinction between those ideas and knowledge from the outside world. There is no distinction. The thoughts I’m sharing with you here are now yours, for a moment, and in some form. “Your” internal thoughts appear to you in almost exactly the same way.

And, on the other hand, why are we so afraid of giving our students time and space to explore and succeed and fail? Because we see the world as a collection of atomized individuals, hoarding particular bits of knowledge and expertise in order to sell them for a price? Again, while it makes sense to prepare students for the reality they will likely face as adults, it doesn’t make sense to enforce a “knowledge capitalism” on them, especially when that system rests on a delusion.

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J.D. Fisher

J.D. Fisher

Josh Fisher is an author and designer for K-12 mathematics curricula, currently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


  1. April 24, 2015 at 11:03 pm —

    I have free will because I believe that I do. It matters not a whit as to whether my belief is true or false. To take your line of reasoning to its logical conclusion I will never abandon my belief in my personal free will because I lack the true free will to do so. I am forever constrained to believe my fallacy. Hence, I (or we) punish our students not because they deserve it, but because we are incapable of not punishing due to the illusions we are fated to hold on to. Therefore, why should we give “our students time and space to explore and succeed and fail”, because they can no more take advantage of it than we can actually give it? What happens, happens. So I believe that I truly make choices, and as far as these choices have gone, they have improved me as a teacher. True free will may be a myth, but a belief in it is essential in order to bother getting out bed every day.

    • April 26, 2015 at 5:07 pm —

      It’s true that an implicit belief in free will is so naturally a part of our day-to-day functioning and sense of self that it can’t be given up completely. However it’s still possible to not believe in free will in an abstract, intellectual sense–and that can affect how people approach education and discipline.

  2. April 26, 2015 at 5:29 pm —

    Lacking free will does mean that determinism holds, but it does not mean that fatalism does. So, it matters how we educate our children. In a deterministic universe, it still matters that you get out of bed every day or not.

  3. April 28, 2015 at 1:30 am —

    Tomorrow morning I may decide between having cereal or bacon and eggs for breakfast. What I see as your argument is this. If you knew everything about me and my entire life experiences, you could predict with 100% certainty which choice I would make. But neither you, I, nor anyone else could possibly have all that information. Thus, my choice is determined and inflexible, but unpredictable simply due to information constraints. My question to you is then this: What experiment or observation could you do to differentiate between my choice of bacon and eggs being due to having actual free will, or simply not being able to process enough data to predict with total certainty? This is why I find, on an abstract level, discussion about free will to be fun philosophical musings best done over beers, rather than scientific inquiries with real-world implications. Unless you can experimentally disprove free will, I see no difference in looking out over a sea of my students and assigning them all the unpredictability of true free will, or seeing them as deterministic robots whose responses to me are still unpredictable because I cannot factor in the cascade of potential causes & effects that a butterfly once had in flapping its wings in the Amazon.

  4. May 1, 2015 at 5:43 am —

    While I’m not decided on whether free will in any way shape or form exists, I’m pretty convinced that belief in a deterministic universe might well be detrimental (I think there are even studies that show that people are more likely to lie after having read an rticle that argues for a deterministic universe).
    Even in a deterministic universe the idea that we can decide between good and evil may be the one condition that makes the switch flip to “good”.

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