Free will is dead

Free will is dead

The majority of people are convinced that humans have free will, though what exactly ‘free will’ means is not so simple. The reason behind the elusiveness of this subject is the lack a of clear concept of what free will actually is. Understanding free will depends on many factors, such as historical period, political system, religion and culture. Free will is the ability to make choices without the restraints of certain prevailing factors.

Such prevailing factors that have been studied in the past have included metaphysical constraints (such as logical, nomological, or theological determinism)[1], physical constraints (such as chains or imprisonment), social constraints (such as threat of punishment or censure), and mental constraints (such as compulsions or phobias, neurological disorders, or genetic predispositions). “The principle of free will has religious, legal, ethical, and scientific implications” (Clark 1999:279–93).

Sociological theories include a unit as a part of society. The concept of freedom of a single unit in society, though, can be defined in different ways. To define ‘freedom’, we use organicist, nominalist, and functional theories.  The multiplicity of possibilities reveals how ambiguous the idea of freedom is. And so in organicist theories the unit is understood as part of the whole – a society in which the individual shall sacrifice his own good over the well-being of society. In nominalistic theories people in society are free, because they form and shape this society by themselves. In these kinds of theories, there is no such thing as a common good, which people that live in a given society want to reach. All these theories concern the external freedom in society.

The subject of internal freedom of the individual in society is dealt, among other things, by internal theories which describe social personality, social character and social roles. By social personality, we understand a single human in a specific role, which a person has achieved, based on the information collected from society, such as behaviour and looks characteristic looks for that role.

Goffman argued, however, that man has slightly more opportunities for expressing his individual characteristics. In his concept of social life as a theatre,  a man becomes an actor, who plays a role. An individual does this through the selection of props, clothing, gestures, and by his speech. Nevertheless, the foundation of the role is always the same and it can’t be modified so that it could change completely (Goffman 2000:47-99).

But in my opinion free will doesn’t exist. Human behaviour is being determined by some external force. The nature of those forces which affect the society varies. It is important to understand, however, that our inability to do things outside the box isn’t a result of us being physically compelled but because we literally do not believe or realize that alternative possibilities exist. In sociology some perspectives emphasize the way in which our behaviour is influenced and directed by social (and therefore external to the individual) forces. Other perspectives assume that people are actively and creatively interpreting the social scripts that society provides for us, rather than viewing people as puppets with society pulling the strings,. One example of this type of perspective is one that draws upon the analogy between humans as actors in society, and the way in which a dramatic actor would work in the theatre.

Additionally the man, as the social unit, needs other people to create the concept of his own self. It is associated with Cooley’s theory of reflected ego  - people are shaping their vision of themselves and form their self-esteem, based on reactions they are receiving from other people. In other words, we can see our own reflection in other people. When they treat us well, with respect, appreciation, sympathy, and when they are rewarding us and praising us – we have the right to think that we are people of value. When they are sneering at us, avoiding, criticizing,  attacking, and punishing us – our self-esteem significantly decreases. An individual who interacts with another person begins to interpret their gestures and overall behaviour, and through that perceives himself from that person’s point of view. Because high self-assessment is bringing satisfaction, people try to come out well in this social mirror, therefore they care for the vision of their own in the light of others (Mucha 1992:39-51).

The Concept of Cooley’s reflected ego consists of three aspects. The first one is our imagination of ourselves based on other people’s reactions. The second aspect is a feeling of satisfaction or humiliation caused by that image. The third one is our judgement about ourselves.

There are a lot of sociological, philosophical, and political theories which are trying to explain what free will is. But what if there is no free will?

In my opinion, people, as the Homo sapiens sapiens are authors, recipients and bearers of the culture which is their life environment, and which is the opposite of  nature. In this sense, people are a social construct which operates in the produced culture. Our ancestors developed the ability to act in a way, which was necessary for them to reach success in the culture and environment in which they were living. Free will likely will be found right there — it’s what allows humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.

The culture, as the opposite of nature, became an environment of life, in which social instincts required to survive are made by human. In this sense culture is our living environment; it is the primary means of survival. Humans manipulate their environment to create relative safety and to provide what they think they need to survive. But humans participate in the natural world as organic beings, just like any other creature. This society is protecting, teaching, helping, and meeting the needs of its members. The freedom though, disappeared the moment when man passed the power of himself  to another man, in exchange for protection. Now, freedom in society is limited by the rule that I’m free to do anything, as long as I don’t limit other men’s freedom.

People are also consciously imagining various scenarios for the future, and guide their present actions based on this disciplined imagination, so they can reach their objectives. It’s what an individual might need in order to adjust his behaviour to different situations, to get what he wants while still following the complicated rules of society (Kłoskowska 1981:32-52).

Members of any large society perform millions and billions of social acts in the course of a single day. The outcome of such social activity is not chaos but more often a reasonable approximation to objectives. The importance of these patterns largely depends on the social setting of a potent means of enforcing conformity. Social control is established by encouraging individuals to conform and to obey social norms, both through formal and informal means. “Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms. The tendency to conform occurs in small groups and in society as a whole, and may result from subtle unconscious influences or direct and overt social pressure. Conformity can occur in the presence of others, or when an individual is alone. For example, people tend to follow social norms when eating or watching television, regardless of whether others are present. As conformity is a group phenomenon, factors such as group size, unanimity, cohesion, status, prior commitment, and public opinion help determine the level of conformity an individual displays” (Bond, Smith 1996: 111–137).

In human behavior, obedience is a form of social influence in which a person accepts instructions or orders from an authority figure. Obedience differs from compliance, in which behaviour is influenced by peers, and from conformity, in which behaviour is intended to match that of the majority. Obedience can be seen as both a sin and a virtue. For example, in a situation when one orders a person to kill another innocent person and he or she does this willingly, it is a sin. However, when one orders a person to kill an enemy who will end a lot of innocent lives and he or she does this willingly; it can be deemed a virtue.

Morality, norms and the law also affect what free will is. But the meaning of the rules of our behavior will be in a stronger effort to adjust it. Another factor influencing behaviour will also be responsibility. The idea of man’s free will describes human behaviour as free of coercion; an individual is responsible for their own actions. So if one intentionally violates established norms, he will meet punishment. But what if I broke the rules, but I acted under duress, or was tampered with? Should I be punished for my actions, or the punishment for my actions can go to someone who made me do that? If free will exists, then everything that I do depends on me. This means that no external forces can push me to do anything.

“It depends on the law, but if there is evidence that my action is not from me, the same moral freedom is impossible to carry out. In this sense moral responsibility and legal responsibility are inter connected. A person is legally responsible for an event when a legal system is liable to penalise that person for that event. Although it may often be the case that when a person is morally responsible for an act, they are also legally responsible for it” (Forsyth 2006:214- 281).

In conclusion, people are not free. Every human action is a result of what one wants to achieve. A goal of  every society is to meet the needs of its members. In the course of socialization and living in a society, we learn how to behave to reach certain objectives. People are unaware of some reasons behind their behaviour, such as unconscious cues or genetic predispositions, and extrapolations, which help them to reach their targets. That’s further evidence behind my claim, that free will doesn’t exist and that conscious choice is only an illusion. Free will is a much more advanced mode of operation, so advanced that it can’t be realized. That is the reason why free will doesn’t exist. People need society to live and society need rules to work properly. Like in Panopticon, people live with rules because rules are in their head, they don’t need any other control to live in society.



Forsyth D. R. (2006) Group dynamics, New York, Wydawnictwo Cengage Learning.

Goffman E. (2000) Człowiek w teatrze życia codziennego, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Aletheia.

Kłoskowska A. (1981) Socjologia kultury, Wydawnictwo PWN, Warszawa 1981.

Mucha J. (1992) Cooley, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Wiedza Powszechna.


Bond M. H., Smith P. B. (1996) Culture and Conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using the Asch’s (1952b, 1956) line judgement task, “Psychological Bulletin” nr. 119.

Clark T. W. (1999) Fear of mechanism: A compatibilist critique of The Volitional Brain, “Journal of Consciousness Studies” nr. 6.


The Institute of Art and Ideas. Fate, Freedom and Neuroscience, IAI, (10.12.2014).

[1] The Institute of Art and Ideas. Fate, Freedom and Neuroscience, IAI, (10.12.2014).
Ilustration: Tiffa Day