Freewill explained

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes. A follow-up article has also been published.)

The movement of domino's is fully determined by the
laws of physics. Are our choices too? Source: Wikipedia.

In my book Why Materialism Is Baloney I briefly discuss freewill. My intent there wasn't to elaborate extensively on the meaning of freewill, but rather to place our intuitive notion of it in the framework of my metaphysical model. That model, as my readers know, could be seen as an idealist metaphysics. It states that reality is exactly what it seems to be: a subjective phenomenon existing in mind, and in mind alone. One of my readers, however, recently posted a very well-argued critique of my rather brief treatment of freewill in the book. His post in my Discussion Forum has prompted me to write this essay, for I think my reader brought up valid and relevant points.

What do we mean, intuitively, when we say freewill? I think most people mean an ability to make an intentional choice unconstrained by factors outside subjectivity. If a choice is merely the outcome of mechanical laws as they apply to the brain, and if the brain exists in an objective world fundamentally outside mind, then there is no such a thing as freewill. After all, what we think of as a free choice would be, in that case, simply the deterministic outcome of particle interactions in a world outside subjectivity. All phenomena in this objective world – like falling domino's – supposedly unfold according to strict causality and are, as such, strictly predetermined.

Under idealism, however, there is nothing outside subjectivity. As I argue in the book, a world outside mind is an unknowable and unnecessary abstraction. We can explain all reality – even its shared regularities – without it. The implication is that all reality is then fundamentally subjective. The difference between the 'outside' world perceived through our five senses and the 'inside' world of emotions and thoughts is merely one of misidentification, not of fundamental nature. Indeed, we merely misidentify ourselves with a particular subset of our stream of subjective experiences – namely, emotions and thoughts – while deeming the rest of the stream – namely, sensory perceptions – to come from a world outside ourselves. Both parts of the stream, however, are still entirely subjective in nature. Think of it in terms of your nightly dreams: you misidentify yourself with a character within your dream, believing the rest of the dreamworld to be external to you. Once you wake up, however, you immediately realize that your mind was creating the whole dream. In that sense, you were the whole dream, not only a character within it.

There is a sense, thus, in which my formulation of idealism directly implies the existence of freewill, insofar as it denies anything outside subjectivity. Yet, this may sound like a copout, for if our choices – purely subjective as they may be – are still the outcome of strict laws of 'mental cause-and-effect,' the intuitive meaning of the word 'freewill' somehow still seems to be defeated. Indeed, I emphasize in the book that my formulation of idealism does not deny that mind may unfold according to strict patterns and regularities, or 'laws of mind.'

To make sense of this we have to look more deeply and rigorously into the meaning of freewill. If we mean by it that a free choice is an entirely arbitrary choice, then we end up with randomness. Clearly, randomness is not the spirit of freewill: we know that we make our choices based on our prior experiences and preferences; it isn't merely random. On the other hand, if we say that a choice is actually the non-random output of a process that takes a number of factors as inputs, we are basically saying that the choice is determined by those factors. At first sight, this also seems to defeat the spirit of freewill. But does it really?

To answer this question properly, we must first bite an unavoidable bullet: it is incoherent to think of a free choice as a non-determined outcome that also isn't random. And a random choice is not intentional. An intentional choice must thus be determined by something; by some set of determining factors. The essential question here, which I think most people overlook, is: What factors? The core of our intuition about freewill is that the determining factors must be internal to us as subjective agents. Because nothing outside subjectivity can be internal to us in that sense, materialism immediately defeats true freewill. But my formulation of idealism again endorses it: according to the metaphysics in the book, our individual psyches are split-off complexes of the cosmic mind within which the entirety of existence unfolds as parallel streams of experience. Since there is nothing outside this cosmic mind, all determining factors of each stream can only be internal to our true selves. Freewill is thus true.

According to my formulation of idealism, choice is the outcome of mental processes. These mental processes may very well be 'mentally deterministic' insofar as they obey yet-unknown mental patterns and regularities that we may call the 'laws of mind.' But watch out: the 'laws of mind' are not necessarily reducible to the dynamics of subatomic particles. My formulation of idealism grants fundamental reality to things like feelings and emotions, and does not require them to be reducible to known physical laws. Since feelings and emotions are clearly valid determining factors in the making of a choice, the 'mental determinism' I am suggesting here is clearly of a very different order of complexity, richness, meaning and nuance than physical determinism. Moreover, the word 'law' must not be misinterpreted here: the 'laws of mind' are simply a metaphor for the observed patterns and regularities inherent to the natural flow of mind, not external constraints prohibiting mind from doing this or that. They describe what mind happens to be, not what it must obey. They are ways to describe observations – like the observation that most human beings happen to be born with two arms – not an imposition of limitations – like some nonsensical law requiring every human being to be born with two arms. When correctly understood in this manner, 'compliance' with the 'laws of mind' does not contradict the spirit of freewill.

In summary: my formulation of idealism states that reality is the unfolding of experience in a kind of cosmic mind. Since this entails that all choices are purely subjective, my metaphysics endorses our intuitions about freewill. Yet, it is inevitable that the unfolding of experience must obey determining factors: whatever processes unfold in the cosmic mind, they must necessarily be the result of the inherent properties of the cosmic mind. Its behavior and choices can only be a deterministic consequence of what it essentially is; there is nothing else they can be. In this sense, existence is 'mentally deterministic.' Finally, since all factors involved in this unfolding of experience in the cosmic mind are necessarily internal to it (there being nothing external to it), our intuitions about freewill are again endorsed: choice is fully determined by the internal subjective dynamics of our true selves.

POSTSCRIPTUM for readers of Why Materialism Is Baloney: I have intentionally avoided the argument above in my brief discussion of freewill in the book. I didn't want to lose the main thread of my story there by getting too deeply entangled in a difficult and contentious sideshow. That said, some readers may think that my position in this essay contradicts what I do end up saying in the book. After all, while here I acknowledge that free-willed choice is ultimately determined by unknown 'laws of mind,' in the book I take free-willed choice to be non-determined. This contradiction, however, is only an artifact of language: to say that a choice is non-determined in the sense of not being determined by anything other than what the chooser intrinsically is – which is what I implicitly say in the book – is the same as to say that a choice is only determined by what the chooser intrinsically is – which is what I say in this essay. To say: 'I chose A but I could have chosen B' is an assertion of freewill. Yet, it is entirely equivalent to saying that 'I chose A because it is my intrinsic nature to do so, although there were no external factors preventing me from choosing B.' Do you see what I mean? More on this article. Moreover, the hypothesized 'laws of mind' I refer to here cannot be explained, not even in principle, by the metaphors of mind that I use in the book (like the vibrating membrane metaphor). These hypothesized 'laws' far exceed the explanatory power of any intellectual model or metaphor, since the intellect is but a small subset of mind. Therefore, from the perspective and scope of the metaphors in the book, freewill is indeed non-determined.


  1. Hi,

    I really enjoy your writing. For me there is a little bit of word games happening, and it's not easy to tease apart. But this is normal when the conversation shifts to Free Will.

    There are always ways to set up terms so that we must say yes or no to this question. But the only one that I find very compelling is when somebody's system of thought implies that an action that took place wasn't brought about by everything through which it was shaped and emerged. As if the action was somehow a separate "unit" from the entire unfolding from which and into which it is emerging.

    And most importantly, it is the inherent shame that comes with the notion of "chooser" that we all deal with, regardless of how we end up creating terms around the yes/no of free will. Great stuff!

    1. I agree with the risk of word-games here. To try and minimize it, I wrote a follow-up article that you may find useful:

  2. Bernardo, I would like your reaction to the following quote by Arthur Schopenhauer in his defense of Compatibalism: "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills." What do you make of it, and how does it compare or contrast with your views on free will?

    1. He is referring to a meta-will. It's a nice abstraction that you can play recursively: man cannot will what he wills to will, etc. The essence of the statement, in my interpretation, is this: man cannot escape his essential nature (i.e., what he wills). That, in my view, is true and entirely consistent with what I wrote in this article, as well as the article after this.

  3. I agree with Arthur Young's claim that randomness is precisely what the free will of others looks like.

  4. Summarising, Bernado, it seems you would explain freewill by reference to identity. This seems correct to me. Perhaps it is relevant that that Lao Tsu says that the laws of this realm are as they are 'Tao being what it is'.

    I found the best explanation of freewill I ever came across in a completely wonderful book 'The Ultimate Understanding' by Ramesh Balsekar. He was a follower of Wei Wu Wei, who was a mate of George Spencer Brown, whose work inspired Varella's work on autopoetic systems, which seems immediately relevant to your work. Round and round it goes.

    Just finished 'Rationalist Spirituality', by the way, and really liked it. Will try to post a flattering public review sometime soon.

    1. Thanks Peter, not only for the gracious comments but also for the interesting references!

  5. Hi Bernardo,
    Thank you very much for writing this post on free will. I will give my comments fully tomorrow when I have more time, but for now I would like to ask one question. You say (comments in square brackets are mine):

    "according to the metaphysics in the book, our individual psyches are split-off complexes of the cosmic mind [agreed] within which the entirety of existence unfolds as parallel streams of experience (agreed). Since there is nothing outside this cosmic mind [the concept of inside and outside of mind has no meaning here], all determining factors of each stream can only be internal to our true selves [what do you mean by true self?]. Freewill is thus true. [not so sure about that!]"

    In your book you talk a lot about the "unconscious" and how it can be thought of as experience not amplified by self-reflection. My question then is: Does the "unconscious" contribute to the determining factors that give rise to free choices. IF so, then I would argue that this is NOT free will as is usually defined. If my "unconscious" is part of the decision making process, then the choice arrived at feels, at least partially outside my control. Consider a choice that was made entirely "unconsciously". Would you consider this choice free?


    1. Hi Mark,

      >> [what do you mean by true self?] <<

      Our true self would be the one mind at large, the 'membrane' itself. According to the book, our personal egos are just split-off complexes of this one mind. So there is only one true self.

      >> [not so sure about that!] <<

      My point is, freewill is true at the level of the one mind.

      >> Does the "unconscious" contribute to the determining factors that give rise to free choices. <<

      In my view, it certainly contributes to determining what our egos think to be their free choices.

      >> IF so, then I would argue that this is NOT free will as is usually defined. <<

      As explained in the book, I think individual egos have rather limited freewill, since their choices are conditioned by the 'unconscious,' or mind at large.

      >> Consider a choice that was made entirely "unconsciously". Would you consider this choice free? <<

      Certainly at the level of our true self, or the one mind at large, yes. Ultimately, that's what matters. I'm not too worried whether my ego has lots of freewill, for the same reason that I am not too worried whether my character during a nightly dream has lots of freewill in the dream. What matters to me is that what I really am is free to choose according to its own true nature, in the sense defined in the blog essay. Zen-leaning teacher Adyashanti calls this true will 'the will of the heart,' though different traditions have called it by different names. The meaning is always the same: our true will is not the ego's wishes. In this sense, I can only try and trust my 'unconscious.'

      Depth psychology knows empirically that egoic freewill is largely -- though certainly not completely -- an illusion. Our choices are highly conditioned by 'unconscious' forces. That doesn't mean that freewill is untrue at the only level that really matters.

      Cheers, B.

    2. Bernardo said: "Depth psychology knows empirically that egoic freewill is largely -- though certainly not completely -- an illusion. Our choices are highly conditioned by 'unconscious' forces. That doesn't mean that freewill is untrue at the only level that really matters."

      As a practicing psychotherapist for over 35 years, who might best describe my primary orientation as a transpersonal or depth psychologist, my experience aligns with Bernardo's statement.

      Egoic human consciousness is almost by definition deeply conditioned. It rests upon relative belief systems, stacked one upon the other like window pane glass, and thus lying transparent to the awareness of everyday waking human consciousness of the modern ego.

      What appears to be free choice for most people is actually a product of unconscious perception, conditioned habits of mind and behavior and the parataxic (unconscious) distortions that lie within our socio-cultural belief and sensori- perceptual systems.

      That which remains outside of the constricted view of our normal everyday awareness cannot, by definition,cannot be acted upon intentionally.

      A person can only "act out" of the unconscious.The psychiatric definition of "acting out" is essentially the "acting out of unconscious material (that experience that lies outside of ego awareness) without benefit of insight or the intentionality that awareness brings to a behavior" (my definition but look it up).

      I have come to conclude that humans must first wake up to distorting beliefs, conditioned habits, and what lies in the unconscious that has been subconsciously or unconsciously "banned" from egoic awareness and discarded to the outer corners of the unconscious Self for multiple reasons. The perception/experiece may be too painful, miraculous, or just off the ego's radar because the experience seems socio-culturally inconsequential or it is disgarded as "irrelevant" or "impossible".

      A lack of self awareness severely limits a person's ability to discover, describe, delineate, articulate and narrate the complexity of human experience necessary to choose and act intentionally. As we take the journey inward the unconscious unfolds into wider awareness and gradual ego dissolution.

      The unconscious reveals itself through dreams, meditaion and psychotherapy. There is also potential increased self awareness that one might call "the grace from which we grow" inherent in the suffering that arises through the universal vicissitudes of a life. We are biotically/psychologically open ended processes. We are verbs not nouns.

      What is allowed to arise from our unconscious from our wider/fuller Self awareness almost always dismantles our former egoic sense of self and expands our previously constricted sense of ourselves.

      We, as Ken Wilber likes to say, are holonic processes who are transforming and "transcending and enfolding" from our ever-present origin of Being into potentially more spacious, complex, richer/deeper/wider and ultimately intentional Human Beings.

      Ego cannot choose. Self can choose. As we move through the life experience we must earn our intentionality and expand our "choice palette".

    3. Rick (raspsy) Amen brother! Beautifully, beautifully said. Tentatively, step by step, we each find and walk our own path of grace, there-in lie the choices that matter.


  6. Bernardo, I realize I am coming in very late on this, but I'd like to toss in my two cents. If we have really thrown off all vestiges of materialism and are conceiving of mind as fundamental, and therefore unconstrained by anything more fundamental than it, then why can't we imagine mind having the power of fresh causation, causation that was not the result of a history of prior causes? I mean, that is our experience of free will, is it not--that our self is an agent that precisely has this power of fresh causation? That it can do things that it causes afresh? Such a power is not randomness and it is not truly determined by any other factors, be they physical or mental. So if mind is truly fundamental, why can't we at least allow the possibility that it possesses such a power? What other reality would say that power is impossible?

    1. "why can't we imagine mind having the power of fresh causation, causation that was not the result of a history of prior causes?"

      I think we totally can. I don't think mind at large is conditioned by history or prior causes. But it is "conditioned by itself" in the sense that, whatever it chooses, that choice is an expression of what mind intrinsically is. Otherwise, there is no choice, just random events.

    2. It seems that the individual attention, due to the conditioning that takes place over a lifetime as well as that of society, history, etc., is placed upon consciousness to collapse a decision or a thought. If we were to remove all of the conditioning from the equation, and the complexity of life itself, as well as the specific makeup of the individual brain and body, then how would this affect decision-making? How can we remove what certainly exists from the equation? To map this out better, we may say that consciousness contains the whole of what is. In this are thoughts. The individual mind is conditioned by life, ideas, memories, society, religion, politics, and the rest. As with any other quantum situation, consciousness exists as a field of probabilities. So when the conditioned mind holds onto certain mental tendencies, when its awareness is on these tendencies, then out of the consciousness field those thoughts and actions collapse to unify with the conditioned mind.

  7. For me,we all are part of an ocean of ebullated energy of a whole,a web, where everything is interconnected, individuality is an illusion.
    There is nobody here to have or not to have free will.
    What is,is only a total functioning of the manifest consciousness(or whatever name one gives to THAT) there is no individual entity.

  8. You wrote, "choice is the outcome of mental processes." This seems quite obvious, but what may not be obvious is that, in order for the mental processes to occur, there must be something — ideas, memories, beliefs, and so on — that condition the mind so that it acts in accord with this conditioning. Therefore, what can we say is "free" in the action of decision making when each decision is predicated upon all of the forces, thoughts, complexity, dynamism, and actions of the whole universe?

  9. I think you can call your view properly libertarian free will