Post 1: The Psychology of Free Will

At this point I have read three books and done some online article research on the topic. The first book I read was titled Free Will by Sam Harris. It was the first book I tackled purely because it was the only one readily available at my local bookstore, and I had to wait for the other books to come in from an online order. While this book only briefly goes into the psychological studies I have set out to focus this project around, I still felt it was an important read because it worked to define free will and deeply explored the potential implications a lack of free will would have on life as we know it. My favorite quote to sum up Harris’ view of free will was as follows: “You can do what you decide to do – but you cannot decide what you will decide to do” (38). This is my favorite quote first of all because I think the phrasing simplifies the whole view in an amusing manner, but also because it addresses what to me seems to be one of the most confusing aspects of his (and my) belief in a lack of free will. Many people would like to argue that as long as I can choose what I would like to do, then I have free will. However, you need to then ask the question WHY would you like to do that? And the answer why you would like to do that is what he (and I) believe you lack control over. I may have decided to come to William and Mary and I have done just that, but why I decided to come to William and Mary was the result of an infinite number of biological and environmental factors that I had no control over all coming together in precisely the right way to cause me to decide to go to William and Mary.

The next book I approached was Incognito by David Eagleman. The most interesting part of this book for me was the many ways Eagleman explored in which we as a person or a personality can be altered by our biology. He discussed examples such as how excessive testosterone can result in hormone rage leading you to do things you’d never imagine yourself capable of like killing your wife the way wrestler Chris Benoit did. He discussed studies that showed a connection between the presence of the hormone vasopressin and fidelity. And, of course, he discussed Phineas Gage and how a railroad spike through the head drastically altered his personality. It is cases like these that are the most persuasive to me that we lack free will. As Eagleman says, “who you are depends on the sum total of your neurobiology,” and to me since we have such limited control over our neurobiology it seems that we also have such limited control over not only who we are, but also our decisions in day to day life.

The third and final book I have read so far has made me consider that perhaps I need to better define what exactly free will means to me. I wanted to explore a book that argues that we do have free will in an attempt to make my research more well rounded. Since I am looking at the idea of free will through a scientific lens, Alfred R. Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will seemed like the perfect book for my research. I will say that the book raised a couple good points against experiments attempting to disprove free will. For instance, he first approaches Libet’s experiment. In Libet’s famed experiment, Libet supposedly disproves free will because he has proved that there is brain activity that precedes our conscious decision to move our wrist. This, in theory, shows that our unconscious brain has decided what we will do before our conscious brain realizes it. This should mean that we lack the ability to make conscious decisions, and therefore we lack free will. However, Mele points out that “free will might work very differently in this scenario rather than when weighing pros and cons and having to make a tough decision” (15). This is a fair point, and I would love to see research done on this more complex decision making process. However, Mele fails to provide any counter evidence that I personally found convincing. Several times throughout the book Mele would come to a conclusion attempting to prove that these scientists he is examining are wrong and that we have free will, but it felt to me that he was only isolating their work and if other arguments against free will had been combined with the specific scientists work than Mele’s argument for free will would in fact be found void, or at least need to be seriously reconsidered. However, in his book he did mention that he worked on a television series with PBS that I intend on watching in hopes that he will further develop some of the ideas presented in this book. I will also most likely be searching for another, more convincing book in favor of free will.

In the mean time, the next book I plan to read is Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett. I am very excited to begin this book because it was recommended to me by my advisor, and it has great reviews online.


  1. smgoyocalat says:

    Hi Hannah,
    This topic is fascinating and I really look forward to your next update. Have you found a better definition for free will? If so, what is the definition of the free will you are disproving? I agree that we lack free will if the definition is the freedom to make a choice without being influenced in some way by environmental factors, such as cultural conditioning and consequences, and biological factors.

    Since you are also looking into the topic of free will from both a psychological and philosophic lens, have you considered looking into why the concept of free will exists? Personally I think that it is a result of the human need to have control or the illusion of control over our lives and decisions. While our “free will” may be limited, it still gives us some measure of control over our situations. On a different note, have you by any chance heard of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre? He has written on the subject in his novel Being and Nothingness, where the famous quote that says we are “condemned to be free” is from. Essentially, his argument is that the world is indifferent to the individual, in the sense that objects and situations are indifferent to a person’s existence, and thus our ability to choose and act is ultimately useless. It could provide you with another perspective on free will.