Do We Have Free Will?

There is, currently, a Patheos-wide discussion regarding people’s beliefs about free will.  Many brain scientists deny the existence of such a thing as free will.  They correctly observe that the impulse to act emerges from the lower brain between  .3 – 1.5 seconds before we even become aware of the impulse.  The implication is that most of our actions are guided by impulses that we are barely aware of before we act upon them.  There is something to this.  Many, even most of our actions are unconsciously driven.  The majority of our actions are the result of repetitive programming (environment, training, experiences) that we don’t even stop to consciously consider.   God made us that way so that we could function.  We wouldn’t be able to walk across a room much less make complicated decisions if we had to consciously analyze every variable before taking the next step.  Maintaining this level of free will would be practically impossible.  Having to process that level of information on an ongoing basis would cause us to experience even more choice paralysis than we currently do!

But none of this means that free will doesn’t exist.  Brain scientists who believe in free will tend to speak more in terms of “free won’t.”  In other words, although it is true that the impulse to commit an action occurs before we are aware of the impulse, there are other regions of the brain that give us veto power over those impulses and, in fact, allow us to then redirect that energy into other actions.  This is the process psychologists refer to as “response flexibility.”  That is, the ability to pause before acting and redirect oneself to other, alternative, responses.

For instance, if something makes you angry and you want to punch someone in the face, the impulse to deliver that punch has been building for a good amount of time (neurologically speaking) before you even become aware of your fist beginning to clench.  But having become aware of this impulse, your higher brain kicks into gear and offers a few other choices. You could express your anger in words.  You could shut down entirely.  You could excuse yourself to go exercise. You could take a break to figure out how best to proceed.  Or, you could punch the person.  You have a choice to make.  Do you go with the impulse, or do you veto the impulse and redirect (i.e., sublimate) that energy into another direction?  This is “free won’t”

It appears that mindfulness-based practices such as some forms of active reflection can increase a person’s capacity for response flexibility.  Mindfulness is the ability to stand apart from one’s feelings, impulses, and environment and non-judgmentally take in all the available information so that one can make the best choice rooted in the best information. From the point of view of mindfulness-based practices, the original impulse to act is just one additional source of information that a person has to reflect upon and choose from.

While brain scientists argue among themselves, it would appear that simple observation of the process of change proves that impulses are not destiny.  If they were, it would be impossible to alter behaviors.  While it is, admittedly, difficult to make changes in behavior, emotion, or personality, there is no question it is possible.  The more self-possessed, self-aware, mindful a person is, the more behavioral choices they have available to them and the greater impulse control they have.  The mechanisms guiding these processes are just beginning to be studied much less understood, but as we come to understand the intricate interactions between the brain, mind, and relationship, we see that not only is free will (or, if you prefer free won’t) a reality, but that we have more choices available to us than we ever thought possible.

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit