Can I Keep My Free Will Now?

An interesting study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute indicates that many of our decisions are influenced by past experiences (which is the leading cause for determinism) but also points out that random choices (or what I might perceive as a bit of free will, otherwise touted as compatibilism) might be benefecial at times.

A couple of notable quotes from the article: “Scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus have shown that the brain can temporarily disconnect information about past experience from decision-making circuits, thereby triggering random behavior.” and : “in certain circumstances, random behavior may be preferable. An animal might have the best chance of avoiding a predator if it moves unpredictably, for example. And in a new environment, unrestricted exploration might make more sense than relying on an internal model developed elsewhere.”

The article here:

Shows how rats were able to switch between these modes of thought, predictably, by using different ways of presenting food/reward scenarios. There was noted an interesting side effect, notably the possibility of being stuck in the random mode of thought once it was initiated. They did figure out how to reverse that behavior by suppressing a stress hormone in the study animals, which I thought was pretty cool.

Now, admittedly I am extrapolating a bit here, moving this new information to the free will argument realm. But this study seems to show that having the ability to randomize our actions can be beneficial. What is free will if it is not the ability to make a random decision? I contend that yes our past experiences influence our decisions greatly, but that we do have the ability to occaisionally make a random choice if we want to. I don’t feel like EVERY decision we make has to be influenced by our past, and that yes, we do have a modicum of free will. Although it may be a small part of our makeup.

I just cannot buy into the determinist camp as of yet, and yes I’m probably grasping at straws here. But I remain a compatibilist for now. I know it’s not feasable just yet to be doing a happy dance for free will, but in this article I’ll take what I can get. πŸ™‚

24 thoughts on “Can I Keep My Free Will Now?

  1. Interesting information. It would seem that free will gives creatures an evolutionary advantage. It’s so simple I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of it before. But the explanation does make sense.

    I don’t buy into the determinism camp either. I make decisions all the time that go against my best interest, or decisions that experience would tell me not to make. I consciously realize that…and then I still do it anyway. People make those kinds of choices all the time. People can even make choices that overcome hormones and neurotransmitters that are trying desperately to get us to make a certain decision.

    I think the key here is that we recognize what our experience or biology is trying to get us to do. So if we do that thing, is that really determinism, or is sometimes that the automatic or experience based choice is just the best one? I think self-awareness is a big argument against determinism. But that’s just me. Glad to see other people are looking into this!


    • This is a deep and intriguing subject, with a lot of good points on both sides. I get the draw to determinism, it makes many valid points, but my experiences with being able to change course in my actions, even after I have made my initial decision, makes me feel like I do have some control. Many will call that perceived control an illusion, but if it is an illusion, it is a damned convincing one.

      I am only getting my feet wet with this dilemma (thanks Mak!), my understanding thus far is basically the Wiki version, and the net result of my own experiences. I still have much to learn.

      My take on the subject, if I can be permitted to make an analogy I have made before…

      A determinist, a theistic determinist, and a compatibilist are all sitting at a bar. A mean drunk walks in and hauls off and slaps them all one by one. The determinist says “I understand you had no choice but to do that.” The theistic determinist says “I understand my god made you do that.” …and the compatibilist says “What the fuck?!! Why did you do that?” …The mean drunk then walks over to a table and slaps the guy sitting there. This guy gets up and punches him in the nose. I think I am that guy.

      I am sure Mak will be along sometime soon, I don’t know if you guys have met but Ryan, meet Mak. Mak, meet Ryan. You guys both have good blogs and should check each other out πŸ™‚


  2. Hey mate,
    How would a random choice be free?
    And what evolutionary advantage is ryan talking about that freewill would guarantee?


    • My best counter to that is how is a random choice not free? Let’s take the game rock/paper/scissors. You are limited to 3 choices every time. One could choose rock every damn time, but that would make your play entirely predictable to an opponent.

      By randomizing your choices you have a better odds of success. You can literally make that decision very quickly on the fly, even change up your call as your arm is moving. You can start with every intention of making the rock call, but change it quickly, right in that micro second before you act.

      In every day life the choices that are ours to make are boundless. But predictably we do fall into patterns. Which makes us fairly predictable creatures, and I would agree that much of the time our choices are influenced by 2 things, being experiences and genetics. But I still reserve the belief that we can occaisionally make that random call, that out of the box choice. I can’t count the times that I may have made a smart ass remark, only at the last second stopped short and changed course. Or almost react in anger, and again stop short of my action, intent, or reply, one split second before I acted upon the initial impulse. Like I said, if free will is an illusion it is a damned good one.

      As far as what Ryan mentioned, in the article it is suggested that the rats in the study were prodded to react randomly in a case study with a food/reward test. This paragraph is key:

      “”We thought if we came up with very sophisticated competitors, then the animals would eventually be unable to figure out how to outcompete them, and be forced to either give up or switch into this [random] mode, if such a mode exists,” Karpova says. And that’s exactly what happened: When faced with a weak competitor, the animals made strategic choices based on the outcomes of previous trials. But when a sophisticated competitor made strong predictions, the rats ignored past experience and made random selections in search of a reward.”

      Meaning that random choices can generate better fitness in some cases.

      Also rabbits. Rabbits have evolved the escape plan of dashing back and forth as they get away from a predator. If a predator keys in on the probability of a rabbit jiving left every time, it would soon make a meal of the rabbit. I have no idea if any studies have been done on whether rabbit getaways are randomized or entirely predictable, but I would guess, at least to some extent on random.

      Maybe I am just resistant to the call of determinism. Maybe I am just rationalizing my desire to maintain my concept of compatibilism, and with it my notion of free will. Maybe I don’t quite get the good arguments for determinism, whatever the case I am still clinging to my free will dammit. πŸ™‚

      Sorry it took me so long to reply to the thread, was a long busy day, and I should be sleeping but woke up, restless. So…I wandered to the blog.


      • Thanks mate for your very considered response and don’t worry about time, we all get caught up sometime.

        Drawing from the example you have given of the game above, the choice to change from one to the next is not free nor random. There are constraints and circumstances that inform it. For example you don’t want your opponent to know how you will act and you don’t want to lose the game.

        In my response I meant to say we can have no control on a random choice just like we have no control on the weather.

        In acting a person will follow the strongest motive. When a decision can’t be made between the two motives, we suspend acting till later. I don’t deny that we are at all times faced with innumerable choices. We can only act in one way and no other regardless the number of choices. And for me I think if we can plot all situations, we can tell how you would act just like we can tell the next solar eclipse.

        Well, maybe I am unable to articulate well why I think we have no freewill. The fault could be with me πŸ˜› you know. I will try to work this out in a post we discuss, though I have written enough of these on freewill.


        • Oh I hear what you are saying, and I get that it has valid points. I am just an old stick in the mud, hard headed fogey. I am clinging to my free will with the same desire I have to keep breathing. πŸ™‚

          What motive does one have with R/P/S? The only motive I have is to try to be unpredictable in my game, and to look for predictability in the opponent.

          I lifted this from a dictionary: “Motive . An emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse that acts as an incitement to action.” My desire in R/P/S is to outwit my opponent, to do that I need some degree of random.

          The rabbits motive is to not be eaten. The rats in the study, their motive was a desire to eat. The unpredictable rabbit lives another day. The rat that throws out the strategic choice in favor of the random factor, enjoys more treats.

          A jilted lover has many options. They can resort to murder, they can have a hot headed moment of non physical hostility, or they could walk away. Or they could have a drink to settle their nerves, which in turn led to getting shit faced drunk. Was the motive then to get drunk? Or was that net result of a reaction to a situation? What if at that very moment they decided (very stupidly) that suicide was the path to take, was that the motive or the half baked reaction to a highly emotional human condition?

          I am sure that if a guy had nothing better to do, they could chart every possible scenario, align that with a personality profile, and be very successful in predicting human behavior. I would also bet that there will still be a degree of randomness to the outcomes. (greater than a typical random factor, or with a higher than expected random outcome)

          I agree that once we have acted upon a motive, that action becomes an irreversible outcome.We cannot go back and change that action. (But, if necessary if enough apologizing is done it could still be a forgivable action) But prior to the very moment of that action, I reserve the notion that we have many options available. That we choose one of those options, is our lottery winner, good or bad. I also think that every outcome or reaction has a high potential to a cascading effect. Meaning that one decision has the potential to affect many future scenarios, that again require a motived action, and a moderately unseeable future lies before every choice we make. As predictable as we may be, others react to our decisions in ways we did not foresee, making for awkward situations that we initially had no intent of, or foresight into.

          I hate to say it but at times the worst possible decision we could have made, was probably the random one. (if that of course is possible, if not then the lowest statistical option)

          Of course one can argue that EVERY possible action is a statistical probability. And I suppose it is. But what leads us to choose our actions, that thing that makes us fallable, is our ability to choose an action that was not in our own best interest. Or as well, there could be cases where that low statistical probable action was the one that saved our skins. Deciding to take a shortcut that causes you to miss the plane, that eventually crashed, was a positive result of a negative action. At least from the perspective of survival. If the rabbit jukes left every time, the predator has a lot of young that soon learn rabbits tend to juke left.

          Don’t make yourself do a free will thing on my account Mak. I do though appreciate your input in my meanderings. I do wish we could have these kind of discussions over a cold beer though…


          • If I do a freewill post, it will be to consolidate the thoughts I have had on it to the present. It will not be too much for me. And these discussion could actually be interesting over a cold beer!

            As I said before, there are many choices open to us, but we shall act according to the greatest motive. And it is always important to remember that the choice followed is never seen as stupid. It is the overriding motive. With reflection, one can say they acted stupidly but this is never evident at the time of acting.

            Not to be eaten, that is, to live or to preserve life is the greatest will for any living thing. The rat will act in a way that will assure it of this, all the time.

            And I don’t deny random decisions. All am saying is that random does not make them free. We can no more say we know why we acted this or that way.


  3. Hi; I’m a hard determinist but I enjoyed this post.
    I agree with makagutu that there’s a difference between “random” and “free”. (This reminds me of Ken Miller’s idea that although in his opinion the universe is mostly deterministic, God’s control of the universe resides in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and quantum swerves, which I wouldn’t find very flattering if I were God.)
    But I’d argue that this randomness is not one that grants credence to free will. As you pointed out, random behaviour is evolutionarily beneficial, which is to say it is determined by evolution. And each “random” choice is not truly random; it’s simply the choice that doesn’t fall into any pattern that would allow the competitor to predict the rat’s next move. (And occasionally a smart rat may double-bluff by choosing to follow a pattern if it thinks that its competitor thinks that it would try to avoid a pattern.) Randomness IS a strategy.
    I hate to advertise but my latest blog post happens to be about exactly this. Here’s the link if anyone’s interested.


    • I would agree that random can be a strategy. What though dictates, at the very moment, that split second before we act on an action, what causes us to pick “that” particular action?

      Is it merely a predictable statistic? What then accounts for that degree of our makeup that indeed makes us a wee bit unpredictable?

      If your stat chart can cover an infinite list of options, then overlayed with an individuals mental profile, I agree that almost every possible action can be predicted to a certan degree of certainty.

      But this in reality would be an enormous wheel of chance, with every option a stat, but there will remain a degree of random. I am hiding my free will there. πŸ™‚ A free will of the gaps argument.

      …at least until I can get it through my head that I have become a predictable automaton with no control over my actions.


    • I wish I could be half as eloquent as you are!


    • Oh, and thanks for joining the discussion, and I thoroghly enjoyed your blog post.


  4. I would agree with the above sentiment that a random choice is not necessarily a free choice, just a random choice. More importantly even if it was that still doesn’t mean you are making a conscious choice to make the unexpected random choice. Again fMRI evidence shows that we make our decisions before we consciously become aware of them. Remember that there are just simply different parts of our brain that encompass different things. Consciousness gives us awareness, but what if consciousness fires up a split second later than a decision is made? Our ability to tell time may actually make us think that the consciousness fired up first, the decision making afterwards. Our rationalization processes lead us to a decision, but again, consciousness just makes us aware of the process, it may not actually be affecting the process. In another example, they say that feelings of Deja Vu are misfiring where something we see is implanted in our long term memory, before we become consciously aware of it, giving us the illusion that something has happened in the past. The point is that even if you are an automaton, you won’t really know you are one, because nobody even knows themselves well enough to be able to predict what decision you are going to make every step of the way in life.


    • Gah! I am surrounded by determinism!

      I am trying, I really am. The logic that determinism holds is plainly pretty solid. I suppose much as a person must go through several stages of personal growth, to leave behind the silliness of youth, or the understanding that there are no magical invisible friends… it takes time to outgrow these things. It takes a growing realization that to go where the evidence lies instead of relying on the things that were always taken for granted is indeed the logical conclusion, despite the strong pull to remain entrenched in your beliefs.

      I am trying, really I am, to make this transition. I admit to grasping at straws, and rationalizing. Resistance to the new and idealogically opposing view that we have no free will, after a lifetime of enjoying it, even if it was illusory, is a road that lies before me, waiting to be traveled.

      Pardon me if I resist a bit along the way. πŸ™‚

      I do get the pull of determinism. I see it has validity. I have read about some of the studies, including the one you mentioned here. I still find it hard to believe that we have no choice in our decisions. That we cannot choose between a coke and a dr. pepper, that to see it is a clear night, with steady skies, and decide to set up my telescope, to hug my kids, to kiss the wife on the cheek, to be the things that make me human on a daily basis. These things are known to me. They are my cozy blanket.

      I am freaking Linus. I am holding on to my damn blanket, just a little bit longer.

      Good to see you again Swarn.


      • Thanks Shell…finding it hard to spend much time on here with the hectic pace of the semester so far and watching the baby who is starting to require a lot of attention and energy! There are good reasons to be exhausted though. πŸ™‚

        I think that you can hang on as long as you like to your security blanket. I don’t pretend to be completely comfortable with the idea either. It’s just something that you sort of get used to because the illusion is extremely pervasive. In some ways actually watching my baby grow has made me more convinced simply because I don’t see him having free will, and it’s not like free will is a particular area of the brain, it’s really just a concept. Consciousness is also a big unexplained phenomena of the brain, although we learn more about it every day. So it could be that additional research on how consciousness actually works might give us more insight into our decision making process, right now the evidence seems to indicate that our consciousness is really more of negotiator between the different parts of our mind, rather than something that actually makes the choices themselves. This is very Freudian, but what I’ve learned recently is that a lot of Freud’s theories about the id, the ego and superego are actually being confirmed by the fMRI data.

        I think our brain presents us with many illusions. Many who think they hear or see God are having hallucinations or seeing illusions. When they are external it might be easier to explain away, but things that happen inside our head are harder. And what about an illusion you’ve experienced all your life. Overall it might not matter whether we think there is free will or not, but I think that it might an overall useful thought to at least admit that we might not always be in control. That for the same situation, the choices we might make can vary, sometimes vastly. So I think that for purposes of moral progression and building compassion for those who seem to cause the greatest amount of harm in our society we look at those people as perhaps being sick rather than consciously choosing to cause harm.

        Dawkins theorized that one of the possible reasons why we might believe in Gods or invent such a thing is that when we are young, and our consciousness becomes more fully formed, we simply aren’t aware that it is ourselves talk to us. We have a voice in our head and don’t know where it comes from. It may also explain why kids are so susceptible to stories of devils and angels telling them to do things. It also supports the study that shows when people are asked what they want, and what God wants it activates the same area of the brain. Consciousness might just be something that may constantly be playing tricks on us. And perhaps overall for good reason, because our developed consciousness is one of the reasons we have been able to achieve so much more.

        In terms of comfort I guess I don’t mind thinking that I’m really somewhat reactive and in some ways if I take the evening off to just cuddle with the wife while watching a movie instead of thinking it as a decision, I’d like to think of it as…this is who I am. I’m being me. A person who makes sure to take the time occasionally to enjoy the simple pleasures in life and to foster the love I have in my life. And it lessons the guilt when sometimes I have to do other things and can’t spend time doing the things I want to do. I don’t know, such things simply take time to get used to them. In every other way you are a determinist Shell, so I have faith that you’ll toss the blanket someday. LOL


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