Is Free Will a Myth – Are You a Robot?

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to explore the debate surrounding free will – do we make our own choices or are we controlled automatons?

First a quick update:

“Tony Little overcomes pain and trauma”
Tony Little is an American television fitness personality and businessman, best known for the “Gazelle” exercise machine. His empire is valued at 3.5 billion dollars and yet he is a humble, sincere man. Watch the TV interview as Tony Little reveals the extraordinary pain and suffering he has experienced in life and how he has conquered all of it. Tony, the high-energy, inspirational “You can do it” man, actually tears up as he becomes vulnerable. Watch the video here.

Now, let’s talk about the debate over free will – do we make our own choices or are we controlled automatons?

“The devil made me do it…I was out of my mind…I don’t know what overcame me.”

Do you believe you have the power to choose or do you believe that someone or something controls you, with or without your awareness?

Do you believe in self-determination or that you are simply a robot or automaton?

And which of the two beliefs above is more empowering?

There are two aspects to the concept of “free will”:

  1. Religious – that humans are free to make choices without divine intervention
  2. Secular – that humans are free to make individual choices

Free will thus refers to the capacity to control one’s destiny. It also implies that thoughts and actions are not random nor are they thoughts and actions which are controlled by something or someone outside of us.

Today, many philosophers and researchers are attempting to prove that free will is a myth, that it does not exist. Various studies of the brain reveal that prior to conscious awareness, a decision has already been made by a part of the brain. Therefore, according to the researchers, we do not have free will. However, their conclusions are faulty. First, most of the tests are made with simple decisions such as choosing a number or pressing a button and do not include complex life decisions. Second, science cannot fully map every moment and every neuron associated with decision-making and therefore, it is incorrect to conclude that because a conscious choice was not made it is not a choice that was made by the individual.

Other researchers, such as Heidi M Ravven, Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College, NY and author of “The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will” claim that “free will” does not exist because it is influenced by nature, nurture and circumstance.

This is another faulty conclusion because it attempts to strictly define free will only as a choice that is made but not influenced by anything or anyone else whatsoever. This is logically impossible since all of life is subjective experience.

Nonetheless, I argue that free will is the ability to choose in spite of nature, nurture and circumstance.

Of course, we are all influenced by various factors:

Nature – genetic and hormonal
For example, males with high Testosterone levels are prone to violent fantasy and jealous rage; they are over 10 times more likely to commit murder and over 40 times more likely to commit sexual assault. Women with higher Oxytocin levels are more likely to express compassion. A second example is neurological hard-wiring such as the Fight-or-Flight response.

Nurture – programming and experiences
For example, a child raised in an abusive or violent setting is more likely to commit acts of violence and abuse.  Various traumatic experiences in childhood also negatively impact the development of the brain and can lead to impairments in the prefrontal cortex thus leading to sociopathic behavior.

Strict religious and moral upbringing can lead a child to rebel as an adult or to strictly follow suit.

Circumstance – Social situations and culture
This refers to the influence that group thinking has on us, as well as social, economic and political systems. The majority of German soldiers went along with the directions to kill and torture Jews (thus copying the example of others.) Some, though, expressed “free will” and rebelled by refusing to follow those orders. There are many examples of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust who refused to expose Jews, even though that meant that they too, would be persecuted and tortured. Were the Jehovah’s Witnesses expressing their free will or simply following their own religion and culture?

This above example is the best way to demonstrate that free will does exist but within certain parameters. We are all affected by everything we have experienced, everything we feel and believe, everything we have studied and learned, and by our brain (be it hard-wiring or dysfunction as the result of some disorder – organic or the result of chronic stress.)

The point here is that the sum of what we are (gender, thoughts, feelings, emotions, attitudes, beliefs and consciousness) does not automatically guarantee an outcome.

The significance of the concept of free will is directly tied not to our ability to be successful in life (to be, do or have what we want) but rather, it is tied to morality and ethics.

Heidi M Ravven, inaccurately argues in her book “The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will” that it is modern Christianity that introduced the concept of free will by Saint Augustine in the fourth and fifth century, and, that the belief in free will is an American and Western phenomenon.


Free will is a concept that has been around for thousands of years and is a primary teaching of most religions:

  • Jainism (focus on self-control and not harming others)
  • Hinduism (control of one’s senses and conquering one’s self)
  • Buddhism (karma and reincarnation as the result of the conscious choices we make)
  • Judaism (God commands Jews to follow certain laws or be punished – thus implying that there is free will)
  • Taoism (connecting one’s will with the harmony of the universe)
  • Islam  (On Yawm al-Qiyāmah – Day of Resurrection, Muslims believe all mankind will be judged on their good and bad deeds)
  • Zoroastrianism (introduced the concept of heaven and hell and focused on performing good deeds to keep chaos at bay)

Ravven says “We cannot break free of how nature and nurture make us. Nurture is soft wiring, so to speak, but not voluntary. You cannot choose how your experience and past and present and culture, etc., affects you or choose not to be affected.”

This is false as I have witnessed many clients change their perceptions of the past, thus setting themselves free emotionally and behaviorally, and creating new beliefs and outlooks on life. Further, choosing to believe the premise that Heidi Ravven presents, only serves to make us victims, removing all moral responsibility for our actions and wrongdoings.

Heidi M Ravven also believes that we cannot will ourselves to have new beliefs and that the only way we can change our beliefs and adjust our morality is via learning and diversity. But learning is a conscious choice. And yes, through new knowledge and understanding we can make better choices in life.  Click here to learn more.

Finally, we all have factors that drive us to make choices – both good and bad. We all experience violent or loving thoughts but we still have the will and ability to not act on those thoughts. We can abandon or embrace the morality with which we were raised. We can choose to act in spite of nature, nurture and circumstance by choosing to also focus on how we affect others, to understand the consequences of our actions and to choose the possibility that there are alternatives before we react.

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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    Erol says:

    So, we might say that Miley Cirus is not “expressing herself” and some freedom pundits would suggest. She’s really expression cultural pressures to be a porn star like Kim Kardashian, to get fame. The pressures of a manager to push the envelope to be rich and famous. The rebellion against a strict evangelical upbringing or away from an old control of looking like a disney mouse.

    Is there really any free will in what she’s expressing or is it many unconscious drivers having her think she is making decisions for herself? Fun to notice when we see anyone do anything, are they really in control or just being puppeted by so many unconscious drives?

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