Free Will and Mental Health


Many people live out their lives under the critical assumption that they are the ultimate agent and executor when it comes to decision making, thought, and behavior – but is that the case? This topic and the questions that will come from it are a bit deeper in terms of axiomatic presuppositions, so it is very likely to instigate some emotional responses depending on what side of the discussion you find yourself on.


~An axiom is a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true~


Most people in the West hold free will to be an axiom without ever even thinking about its implications or what it means mental health and Being in general. Personally, the conversation around free will was always a biblical one regarding the nature of the Judeo-Christian God and His ‘chosen’ people. It was a topic of great contention, even as a child growing up in the church: If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, knows us before conception, and knows our every move before we make it, how would that permit any amount of agency on the part of the individual? This was the divide between the Calvinists and the Arminianists, but it is a divide that reaches even the secular communities as well. Ultimately, the concept of free will as we know it has two critical assumptions:

  1. Each of us is free to think and act differently than we did in the past.

  2. We are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions.

Before continuing, I want to fully acknowledge that my primary influence in this line of thought is Sam Harris, PhD., and I want to credit all he has done in the landscape of developing this argument for widespread discussion and debate. For anyone who wants an easy read to delve more into these ideas, his book Free Will is short and succinct. I also have copies in the office so just ask for one if you’re interested!

To introduce the topic, below is a video my brother did briefly outlining some of the context this discussion was born out of!


Assumption #1 – each of us is free to think and act differently than we did in the past.

Honestly, when you say it out loud it’s actually ridiculous. In the wake of making a choice, we as humans have a unique ability to reflect on our choices and evaluate their effectiveness in accomplishing our goals. This is the essence of learning. If a mistake is made, assuming one owns the mistake and does not disguise it with an excuse or bend truth with a lie, we often talk in terms of what we should have or should not have done in that particular circumstance – as if we could in a sense remedy the scenario if given a second shot at it. This is nonsensical because that moment is gone forever and we cannot go back to it. Rather, what this does is point out that if the same scenario were presented again, you would maybe change your ‘choice’ and display a different behavior because of learned experience. See, that event is now added to the individual’s history, their totality of prior causes.

All events have prior causes, and leading up to any decision, choice, or behavior, there exists the totality of prior causes – not just seemingly relevant proximal causes, but historically distant and seemingly irrelevant causes. The kinds of parents you had, the place you grew up, the early friendships you had, the interactions you had with extended family, the socioeconomic status born into – these are all formative experiences that shape the way the brain surveys, interprets, and builds predictions to make the future a less surprising place. Let’s say that we somehow learn how to time-travel and someone wanted to go back to change a certain action or string of actions in their past. Even if they could manipulate conditions and variables that led to behavior change, that is also not an example of agency or free will – they are literally changing the environment and other factors that their brain used previously to motivate the behavior in the first place, so the nervous system is still acting on what it knows to pay attention to given its experience, goals, drives, and desires. In another example, let’s assume that the time traveler could speak to their prior self, and advise them on certain things surrounding their decision and its future consequences. That, too, is a violation of the concept of free will, as that information allows the predictive process to update. The proximal cause of this decision to not act is indeed the new knowledge given by the future self. Is that choice then really free? In reality, if time were to repeat itself in the exact same manner 100 times over, with no new information we would make the same choice every single time. While it is by no means a scientific account of the phenomenon, the movie Groundhog Day provides an interesting example of this. Everyone except Bill Murray’s character does the same exact thing each and every day, and the only way that things change is when he interjects with new information that influences others to behave differently. Interestingly enough, some behaviors are extremely difficult to change and require what seems to be divine understanding and predictive power, like when he calls out the wait-staff dropping dishes in the diner or reveals newly acquired skills as if they were always in his social repertoire. All this to say that once you understand that a prior action was not the appropriate one to take, it is pointless to stay there and wish things would have gone differently, or to assume that you would have done differently. That is the basis of guilt and shame – more on that later.

It is key to take responsibility for our actions, but also to avoid assigning fault – you cannot blame yourself for the way your brain motivates your every move, as it does so based on a history of events that you had little to no control over. What we can do is become more mindful of the way our unconscious processing dictates what we pay attention to, and how thoughts and feelings arise to promote behavior. Importantly, dropping concepts of agency and free will does not mean our actions don’t matter and that we should throw our hands up because everything is predetermined. Determinism is not fatalism – we are not destined for a certain outcome no matter what happens in between point A and B. Instead, point B is a continuously changing destination based upon an individuals’ desires, motivations, and needs, and how the past has shaped the brain’s predictive processes. This brings us to assumption number two.


Assumption #2 - we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions.

Are we the authors of our thoughts? Do thoughts spontaneously arrive or are they invoked by some other process? It seems odd to think we don’t produce our own mental inquiries, since we can literally produce them on demand. However, what we fail to account for is the neuronal activity that precedes the conscious awareness of our internal dialogue. Just like with movement planning, the areas of the brain involved in such a process have already undergone massive computational work: path prediction, error signaling, and pattern updating given environmental variability. When it comes to thought, it is always motivated by something, and identifying that ‘something’ is the key to unlocking self-awareness.

A discussion surrounding the motivations of the mind has to start with consciousness itself, another epiphenomenon of being that we take as a unique human endowment. There are several types of consciousness, but the one we tend to assume in normal conversation is the reflective type – the ability to view oneself as an active agent in the world that is both affected by things and effects things. A more comprehensive definition of consciousness is the state or activity that is characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, or thought. Consciousness is the medium of any and all possible experience, where pre-reflective awareness is not reflective consciousness, but the former is required for the later. To simplify, the Indian author Bagchi (1975) describes a ‘scale of sentience’ that outlines the lesser forms of consciousness we tend to leave out of discussion:

  1. “This.”

  2. “This is so.”

  3. “I am affected by this which is so.”

  4. “So this is I who am affected by this which is so.”

This scale develops from simply experiencing - without self-concept, spatial or temporal context, or the ability to describe the experience - all the way up to our human understanding of consciousness. Still, to see, to hear, to feel, or otherwise to experience something is to be conscious, irrespective of whether in addition one is aware that one is seeing, hearing, and so forth. Such additional awareness, as in reflective or self-consciousness, is one of many contents of consciousness available to beings with sophisticated cognitive capacities. However, as sophisticated as the function is, it is present only intermittently, in a kind of time-sharing with more immediate, unreflective experience. Importantly, to dwell in the latter is not to fall unconscious, but to be unselfconsciously conscious. It is metabolically expensive and practically inefficient to be conscious, which is why the brain prefers to construct algorithms, predictions, and expectations in order to guide motivation, perception, and behavior without conscious intent. Reflective awareness is thus more akin to a luxury of consciousness on the part of certain big-brained species - not its defining property.

The functional utility of consciousness turns out to be independent of the level of sophistication at which the contents it integrates are defined, and instead are fundamentally organized in the brainstem, not the gelatinous cortex where the cognitive neuroscientists commonly place it. This brainstem system performs a basic function: that of integrating the varied and widely distributed information needed to make the best choice of the very next act. That function is the essential reason for our being conscious in the first place. The integrated and coherent relationship it establishes between environmental events, motivation/emotion, and actions around the pivotal node of an ego-center/self-concept would seem to offer a definition of a “being” in biological terms. Consciousness starts to play a role when behavioral impulses arising in upper brainstem systems need to be delayed and modified – with reference to past experience – to adjust to complexities and variations in the interplay between multiple and conflicting goals and unpredictable opportunities and obstacles.

The nervous system is constantly surveying signals from within the body, from the gut, heart, skin, etc. along with signals from outside of the body to ascertain next steps. It is within this framework that thoughts arise, usually along with the experience of authoring them if they are flavored with intention: the feeling of hunger, which manifests as a consequence of various gastrointestinal and neurologic peptides conveying metabolic and nutrient status, leads to thoughts and feelings that motivate the subject to perform behaviors that are likely to, based on previous experience, get the need for energy intake met. This relatively simple example illustrates the primacy of feeling and affect as a prerequisite in conscious behavior – feeling is intrinsically conscious - there are no unconscious feelings. The basic value system that underpins all life is that surviving is good, and the opposite is bad. Feelings are the way that the subject of the mind becomes aware of these values, which can then motivate action to maintain preferred states. Consciousness will likely get its own blog and newsletter down the road, so let’s return to the second assumption and bridge the nature of consciousness and its consequences for free will.


~Preferred states of an organism are domains of physiology in which homeostasis is actively sought, such as with body temperature, fluid status, electrolyte balance, nutrient status, etc., and cannot withstand prolonged deviations for the sake of survival~


With all this taken into account, ask the question posed earlier once more – are we the authors of our thoughts, actions, and behaviors? Can we legitimately blame ourselves for the things we do? Or can we say that voluntary behavior instead reveals desires, motivations, and needs that are a product to the totality of prior causes, including evolutionary endowed needs? Perhaps, but this is where the human desire for punishment and retribution can muddy the water – we tend to conflate people’s poor decisions, actions, and behavior as purposeful transgression against us or others, which leads us to desire or even demand that they pay for such volitional indiscretion. This again presupposes that the individual could have behaved differently and just chose to behave in an abrasive manner despite knowing the potential consequences such actions would have on other humans. In other words, we seem to expect people to have all the necessary information to make appropriate decisions (in relation to us, at least) and that when they perform to the contrary, then it is their fault and they deserve punishment while we deserve retribution. In the same sense, the transgressor or individual that made an inappropriate choice is often riddled with guilt and/or shame because they also perceive themselves as the perpetrator and/or agent of harm or negative consequence. If what we think at any given time is a consequence of unconscious interpretations of internal and external environments, then this tertiary process of reflecting to punish beyond simple correction of behavior is unwarranted. We do not need to blame ourselves or create a complex around our inappropriate use of agency in order to alter behavior for more favorable human experience – indeed it is quite the opposite.

This piece on punishment is one of the most contentious consequences of dropping free will is a belief. While society has made it a point of having a set of rules and regulations that create expectations for behavior and social cohesion, the punishments for deviating from the norms have been geared more toward negative reinforcement and suffering rather than a desire to rehabilitate the individual. What the disentanglement from free will instead dictates is not that we shouldn’t punish behavior, but that punishment should aim to correct the behavior - rather than provide ‘justice' because of retribution. Locking a 17-year-old away for years because they were carrying a load of marijuana is not the most appropriate way to correct the behavior, assuming that the behavior need be punished at all. On the other hand, a murderer should be detained for the protection of society and attempts to understand the person’s motivations to figure out if rehabilitation is possible. The point is that behavior is biologically driven - Harris (2014) uses the example of Charles Whitman (UT Tower shooter) as an example - his behavior was objectively reprehensible, free will or not, but as soon as people understood that he had a glioblastoma on his amygdaloid/hippocampal complex, he, as a free agent, was cleared from the personal indictment as society instead blamed his biology instead of his personal decision making - as if they are not causally related in normal, noncancerous circumstances. Will rehabilitation always be possible? I think not, but that should still be the goal. If we cannot agree, though, that that should be the focus then society will never move toward figuring out how to create and refine that process.

When it comes to retribution, one biblical passage comes to mind. The account of the woman caught in adultery that was brought to Jesus by Pharisees as he was teaching in a temple. The Mosaic law instructed that such an act be punished by stoning, but knowing Jesus' compassion and wishing to ensnare him, they asked what he would have them do differently, if at all. To this enquiry, Jesus responded by asking the accusers that were without sin to cast the first stone – and feeling the guilt of their conscience, the accusers left one by one with no stones cast. Jesus then instructed her to go and sin no more. Regardless of historical accuracy, this story illustrates the point that everyone makes choices that aren't necessarily wise, and that the proper relationship to have with confrontation is to own the mistake, go, and sin no more. To the degree that one can learn from mistakes, punishment need only serve as gentle bumpers. For those that cannot adapt to the demands of society, the consequences must be geared toward safety and stability of the whole.


Implications for Mental Health

To summarize the above points, humans are inundated with undue grief and suffering at the behest of believing in free will - believing that, given the chance, we would be able to think and act differently than we did in the past. Since this places the locus of culpability on the individual, we then blame them or ourselves, if that is the case, in those terms - i.e. that they/we should have NOT acted/behaved in such a way. So, we begin to demand retribution for how others have been affected by such agency. However, if we begin to look at those individuals as simply acting out the unexamined programming that they are running, we can actually come to understand that, while their behavior may be wrong, reprehensible, or inexcusable, that is not really their fault (putting responsibility aside for the time being). They did not pick their parents, the time they were born into, the schools that they went to, the peers that they were around, the adult influences they had, etc. - all very formative inputs into ‘how to behave to survive and succeed’. Couple that with a very early sense of agency, and you create a breeding ground for shame and guilt, as the biological needs of the individual begin to shape motivations and behavior, which must be constrained by cultural and societal norms.

So what then are we to do to promote well-being for all? If we can’t blame people for their behaviors do we just let them do what they will? The straw-man argument here falls apart relatively quickly when we consider exactly what generates individual behavior: individual personality and environmental scaffolding. If we as a society could actually agree on what the ideal set of behaviors would be for optimal human flourishing (something that religion attempts to do – get everyone playing the same game with the same rules), then we could establish procedures and programs aimed at mechanisms that we know disrupt neuronal development in children and adolescents. If we live with the assumption that a toddler is doing anything other than acting out primitive drives and impulses to get its needs met, we begin to shift the locus of responsibility too early to the individual. Let’s appreciate the fact that most parents are not equipped to raise gurus – as a father of two little humans I am very aware that their interaction with themselves and others is a direct reflection of how my wife and I, their uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends, etc. treat them, treat each other, and how we deal with meeting our survival needs. Their development is subject to the development of those they interact with. Once again, voluntary behavior reveals desires, motivations, and needs that are a product of the totality of prior causes. Why does anyone do anything at all? Because they need something. It isn’t even a question of what they want in the moment – someone may want financial security, but it’s because they need to solve the problem of hunger, housing/safety, thirst, and even improve their attractiveness to potential mates. Getting comfortable with the idea that we are self-aware, complex systems running a somewhat malleable program that is the source of our motivations, thoughts, and actions takes a bit of time, but it can reveal just how pliable the programming can be.

If you are not getting what you want, and by proxy what you feel you need, then there are two options if you believe in free will: allow bitterness and resentment to take root, and blame others for getting in your way or not facilitating forward progress, or blame yourself and take responsibility for where you are and the actions you’ve made to get you there. Both of these options result in negative emotion and pain, which isn’t necessarily bad and can absolutely be used to a shift in behavior and reform; However, it doesn’t have to be that way: If you ascribe to determinism, there is only one way to interpret the scenario - your past has not prepared you to act adequately in the world to meet your needs in a way that isn’t abrasive to society. No fault is assigned, not even to the individuals who may have strongly influenced your programming, because they themselves are subject to the same exact constraints – they could not have behaved or acted differently given their previous experience. However, once this assessment is made, which is actually much more difficult than one would think (about programming being insufficient), it becomes quite clear that help can be sought to understand where current predictions and expectations are invalid or unrealistic and they can be updated to allow more appropriate functioning.

One last important point, as some readers may confuse determinism with fatalism. Fatalism is akin to predestination, or the belief that all actions, events, and outcomes are destined to be so and are inevitable. Fatalism gives rise to a nihilistic outlook, that nothing matters and there’s no point to it all due to the inevitability. Determinism is not fatalism - reality is structured in a way that allows reason to be used to better understand the hidden causes of our motivations, thoughts, and actions. That reality is constrained by cultural and societal norms - what one wants to do, even if based on seemingly objective causal inference (I’m hungry, so I’ll eat), may have a surprising outcome if the non-natural consequences are not taken into account (eating food that is not yours/not paid for). Choices matter because we are self-organizing systems that need to maintain preferred states. If we do not listen to our intrinsically signaled needs, our existence will cease as we derail into equilibrium.



For those of you that read this, I am excited and interested to discuss these ideas further, answer any questions to the best of my ability, and also debate about the truthfulness of it all. The concept of free will is a useful tool to make individuals punish themselves for inappropriate behavior, missed goals, moral failings, etc., and such punishment, as with most punishments, can be quite useful in order to promote not making the same mistake again. That is what memory and the past is technically for anyway – a repository of information that influences decision-making in a way that avoids pain, punishment, and displeasure, while optimizing pursuit of euphoria, reward, pleasure and its future potential. To do anything else with the past is to avoid living in the present time, which may just as well be a strategy of avoiding pain and displeasure in order to cope with the current state of being. Everyone is capable of making better decisions under the right circumstances, and it should be our highest priority as a society to agree upon expectations and boundaries for behavior as it relates to human flourishing. Otherwise, tribalism will continue to manifest and divide us.