The concept of free will refers to the ability of humans to consciously make their own choices and determine their own futures.
This is a central concept in philosophy, psychology, and theology. The central question being:
Do Humans Have Free Will?
There are myriad perspectives from various paradigms, including:
- The Determinists: Determinists believe that the future is predetermined and we don’t have free will. There are determinists from a range of perspectives, from Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) who believed everything is a product of God’s/The Universe’s will, through to modern-day neuroscientists like Sam Harris, who point out there is a hidden cause that we cannot control underlying all the decisions we make.
- The Existentialists: Existentialists emphasize that choice is inherent in everything we do. Even when it seems as if there isn’t a choice, our mindset toward a conundrum is itself a choice. While this sounds liberating, famously, Sartre pointed out that we are “condemned to be free” – free will is an unbearable burden[8,9].
- Compatibilism: The compatibilists believe that determinism and free will can exist simultaneously by redefining free will. They hold that an action is free if it is the result of the individual’s desires, motivations, and rational deliberations, even if these are predetermined by nature or prior events.
The interesting conclusion we reach if we believe in determinism is this: how are people morally responsible for behaviors they were predestined to participate in?
Whether we believe that free will itself truly exists or not is a matter for each of us to contemplate. Working from the presupposition that it does exist, below might be some examples that demonstrate ‘free will in action’.
Free Will Examples
1. Choosing a Career Path
A person deciding to become a doctor instead of a lawyer is exercising free will by making a choice about their future based on their interests and desires.
By selecting a particular candidate or party in an election, individuals are exercising their free will to shape the political landscape according to their values and beliefs.
3. Altruistic Acts
Volunteering at a local shelter represents free will, as it is a selfless act chosen without external compulsion.
4. Dietary Choices
Opting to follow a vegetarian diet instead of consuming meat is a manifestation of free will, reflecting personal values and preferences.
5. Religious Beliefs
Choosing to practice a particular religion, or none at all, demonstrates free will through the exploration and acceptance of personal faith and spirituality.
6. Educational Pursuits
Enrolling in a photography class instead of a painting class shows free will by prioritizing one interest or passion over another.
7. Social Interactions
Deciding to strike up a conversation with a stranger is an exercise of free will, as it involves overcoming natural hesitations and making a conscious choice to interact.
8. Relationship Choices
Ending a toxic relationship, despite the emotional difficulty, showcases free will through the prioritization of one’s well-being over immediate comfort.
9. Hobby Selection
Picking up the guitar as a new hobby instead of the piano is a reflection of free will, as it is based on personal preference and desire for a specific form of self-expression.
10. Choosing a Travel Destination
Opting for a beach holiday over a mountain retreat exemplifies individual choice, reflecting personal preferences in leisure activities.
11. Adopting a Pet
Deciding to adopt a cat rather than a dog demonstrates personal autonomy, as it is based on individual lifestyle and pet preference.
12. Selecting a Book
Picking a mystery novel over a science fiction book at the library showcases decision-making autonomy, reflecting one’s taste in literature.
13. Participating in Sports
Joining a soccer team instead of a basketball team is an expression of volition, indicating a preference for one type of physical activity over another.
14. Fashion Choices
Wearing bold colors instead of neutrals is a manifestation of individual preference, showcasing one’s unique style and personality.
15. Learning a Language
Deciding to study French instead of Spanish illustrates self-determination, as it is influenced by personal interest and goals.
16. Artistic Expression
Choosing to paint in an abstract style rather than a realistic one demonstrates creative autonomy, reflecting one’s artistic vision and inclination.
17. Health Decisions
Opting for a morning run over sleeping in is an act of self-governance, prioritizing health and well-being.
18. Friendship Formation
Reaching out to make friends with diverse backgrounds instead of sticking to a homogeneous group is a display of social autonomy, reflecting openness and inclusivity.
19. Entertainment Selection
Choosing to watch a documentary over a comedy film is an exercise of personal preference, indicating a desire for learning and reflection.
20. Career Change
Deciding to switch careers from finance to teaching is an example of individual choice, reflecting a shift in personal values and job satisfaction.
21. Charitable Giving
Allocating a portion of one’s income to different charities showcases decision-making autonomy, as it is based on personal values and beliefs about worthy causes.
22. Daily Routine
Choosing to meditate every morning instead of scrolling through social media is a form of self-determination, prioritizing mental well-being.
23. Musical Preference
Opting to listen to jazz music over rock demonstrates individual choice, reflecting one’s unique taste in music.
24. Home Decoration
Decorating one’s home with minimalist furniture instead of ornate pieces is an exercise of decision-making autonomy, showcasing aesthetic preference.
25. Conflict Resolution
Addressing a disagreement with open communication instead of avoidance is a manifestation of self-determination, valuing resolution and understanding.
26. Time Management
Allocating time to learn a new skill instead of watching TV illustrates individual choice, reflecting a commitment to personal growth.
27. Food Preparation
Choosing to cook meals at home rather than ordering takeout is an example of decision-making autonomy, prioritizing health and budget.
28. Exercise Routine
Opting for yoga over weightlifting is a display of self-determination, indicating a preference for flexibility and mindfulness over muscle building.
29. Social Media Usage
Deciding to limit social media use to maintain mental health showcases individual choice, reflecting awareness and prioritization of well-being.
30. Learning Method
Choosing to learn through online courses rather than attending traditional classes is an example of individual choice, reflecting a preference for flexibility and self-paced education.
31. Gardening Approach
Deciding to plant a vegetable garden instead of a flower garden showcases decision-making autonomy, based on a desire for sustainability and homegrown produce.
32. Conflict Approach
Opting for a peaceful and diplomatic approach to resolve conflicts instead of aggression demonstrates self-determination, valuing harmony and mutual understanding.
33. Sleep Schedule
Adjusting one’s bedtime to ensure adequate rest, despite the temptation of late-night entertainment, is an exercise of individual choice, prioritizing health and well-being.
34. Transportation Mode: Choosing to cycle to work instead of driving is a manifestation of decision-making autonomy, reflecting environmental consciousness and a preference for physical activity.
35. Financial Decisions
Saving money for the future instead of spending it immediately is a demonstration of free will, reflecting long-term planning and self-control.
Arguments for and Against
Arguments for Free Will
Many people argue for free will because they feel the subjective experience of making choices – it feels common sense because we feel ourselves grappling with choices before executing our decisions.
People universally experience the feeling of making decisions, from mundane choices like what to eat, to more significant ones like career and relationship choices. This subjective experience of freedom in decision-making is a powerful indicator that free will is an inherent aspect of the human condition [4,5,7].
Similarly, the diversity of human behavior and the uniqueness of individual personalities suggest the existence of free will [4,7].
If human behavior were solely determined by external factors, there would potentially be less variability in people’s actions and reactions. The vast array of human achievements, innovations, and variations in lifestyle across different cultures and individuals points to the presence of free will.
Arguments Against Free Will
The deterministic nature of the universe, as posited by some scientific theories, is a strong argument against the existence of free will.
According to determinism, all events are predetermined and thus inevitable, due to the natural laws governing the universe. If all actions and events are predetermined, this leaves no room for free will, as individuals would not have the ability to act otherwise [5,6].
Another argument against free will comes from neuroscience. Research in this field has shown that neural activity in the brain precedes the conscious decision to perform a voluntary action.
This suggests that decisions are made subconsciously and that consciousness only becomes aware of the decision after it has been made, challenging the notion that individuals consciously exercise free will in their decision-making.
Similarly, the influence of genetics and environment on human behavior challenges the concept of free will. People are born with a certain genetic makeup and are raised in specific environments, both of which significantly shape their behaviors, preferences, and personalities [3.5].
The extent to which these factors determine human behavior raises questions about the degree of freedom individuals truly have in making choices.
Some good sources for reading further into this topic are provided below:
-  My Guide to Technological Determinism
-  My Guide to Environmental Determinism
-  Sam Harris’s Neuroscience Argument Against Free Will
-  Megan Griffith’s Free Will: The Basics (Book)
-  Kluz & Goldenbaum’s Doing Without Free Will (A Good Overview of Spinoza’s Perspective)
-  David Lahm’s Coffeehouse Compatibilism (Book)
-  McKenna & Pereboom’s Free Will: A Contemporary Introduction (Book)
-  Pages 37-41 in Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction Provides a Good Outline of the Existentialist Perspective
-  Sartre’s Existentialism and Human Emotions (For those who want to dabble in Existential Thought)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]