Are Decisions Governed by “Free Will” or Algorithms

My girlfriend (Jenny) was posed the following question in her upper level Neuroscience course (paraphrased):

Do humans have “free will” or are their actions predetermined by a system of algorithms encoded in their brain?

Her response is the following:

Ultimately, I believe that humans are prisoners to algorithmic systems that determine our choices – however, I think we can work within the parameters of these constraints, or possibly stretch/push their boundaries. This is what I would consider “free will”. I am under the impression that free will is an emergent property of the brain – that we can rule our thoughts and control our behaviors if we understand how to tap into that inner consciousness. I think that at the very basis of our being, most of what we do is predetermined and hardwired into our systems.

There was an interesting study done by Benjamin Libet in the 80s – he asked each of his subjects to flick their wrist while he measured the readiness potential that went off in their brains[1]. He also had his subjects record the times they first felt the conscious intention to move. Libet found that the unconscious brain activity of this readiness potential began about half a second before the subject was aware of a conscious intention to move. This sounds pretty predetermined to me.

However, there is also the case of the Tibetan Buddhist monks, who can defy nature’s restrictions of bodily regulation and can raise the temperature of their fingers and toes by as much as 17 degrees and lower their metabolisms by 64%[2]. When looking at both of these examples, it is clear to me that there are defined restrictions that we are bound to by biological implication, but there are also aspects of being human that can be mastered and (in my opinion) can be altered and/or manipulated using free will.

I think it is a complex question and requires a complex answer. My friend Robb has mentioned on more than one occasion that he has noticed his actions are more subconscious than he previously realized (he discovered this after many months of practicing mediation). Implying that many of his/our actions  are likely decided by a series of algorithms which are more or less hardcoded into our brains. This is a semi-scary, but not uncommon notion [3], it would mean that our actions our not necessarily our own (conscious decisions).

Assuming our brain is more or less a collection of interlocking algorithms, the question then becomes are these algorithms adjustable? Given the evidence I would have to say, yes they are. If we take for instance the Tibetan monks it is clear that they have the ability to control their bodies far beyond what the average person is capable. At least without training, that is. These monks are not born with this “gift,” rather they train night and day and over the years obtain powers. This implies that the subconscious mind can be altered, or at least controlled.

On the other hand, I am currently thinking of words and my mind is automatically translating these words into commands for my muscles to execute (i.e. typing on a keyboard). Clearly, there are algorithms governing such actions, I do not remember ever thinking about how to move my muscles, my brain has simply translated desired positions to motions executed by my muscles. To me this raises an interesting question, can I even think of particular muscle movements. Based on the attempts the last couple of minutes to move my ring finger, but no others I would say sometimes.

We clearly have prebuilt algorithms in our brain that govern motion, sight, breathing, etc, and we likely have many other prebuilt algorithms governing emotions, focus, and even some of our thoughts. However, I question whether this prevents us from having “free will.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to argue that we, as humans, have “complex thought,” or “expandable thought.” Essentially, our thoughts are a mix of complex interlocking algorithms, which based on our past and current environment we develop/form thoughts, which I would call free thought. In fact, I believe many animals have free thought, we likely just have more degrees of freedom given our background knowledge (as well as language, time not worrying about food, etc). The interesting catch-22 about “free thought,” is that it is also governed by these basic algorithms that we rarely think about and almost never notice.

These free thoughts are what give the Tibetan monks their ability to override their subconscious minds because they have learned to think their subconscious algorithms to bend to their will. The same algorithms that govern the monks physiology and thought also give the monks the ability to override and to control the algorithm, this is more or less what we would all Intelligence. This reminds me the book by Douglas Hofstadter, The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul in which he discusses the idea (often times abstractly) that we are more or less a program constantly changing.

Expanding upon free thought it seems a small step to make it to “free will.” If our thoughts are a combination of predefined algorithms in our brain, our past events, our current environment, and we have the ability to alter our predefined algorithms we then have control. Just understanding you can change your environment and change your thought gives you “conscious” control, because we have a predefined algorithm for greed or the self-interest axiom[3] and it is in our best interest to enable more “free” or “complex” thought. The reason for all the “quotes” is because, is it really free…? The answer seems to be no, and yet yes.

I argue that we have “free will” and animals do not because we have language. Humans have the ability to pass complex information between individuals and generations. This enables us to have the most free thought in the animal kingdom, because we essentially have past events from other people. Given more information, our predefined algorithms are better honed and we can hone them the way we decide by reading what we chose (or at least are self-interested in). Further, as the Tibetan monks demonstrated with knowledge we can alter the way we think, gaining control over our body. To use a word from Robert Heinlein, once you grok your algorithms you can alter your algorithms, you have complete control.

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

– Stranger in a Strange Land

The implication being, if you understand the algorithms that run you, you can alter or at least control their inputs. This gives you the ability for mostly free thought as well as free will. The evidence being the countless individuals who practice meditation and can alter their mental state[4], push themselves to the extremes (such as starvation), or those who become brilliant thought countless hours of studying.


Yes, I would agree that our “free will” is built on a system of systematic algorithms, semi-hardcoded into our neurons. However, I would argue that this does not bind us to the algorithms, but instead it gives us a starting point, a basis from which we can develop and grow. In other words, the algorithms which are currently in our brains can adjust/change over time and provide us with the freedom to adapt and expand. In essence what binds us also gives us our freedom of thought and expression. Although in many cases our subconscious is in the drivers seat, the fact that we can change our subconscious gives us the power to determine where we are going.

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One thought on “Are Decisions Governed by “Free Will” or Algorithms

  1. I think that we don’t have free will. More, free will is impossible. We don’t understand what consciousness is, but probably it is “generated” as a by-product of our neural network. So, it is dependent on this neural network. Your decisions, this “free thoughts” are also algorithms. Or, when you think about these algorithms, these are meta-algorithms.

    How would free will work in deterministic universe with some randomness(quantum theory, and I think that it is fundametally deterministic, we just have something missing in this theory(I’m not physicist but Einstein also claimed))?

    We simply are this neural network/algorithms. There’s nothing wrong with it. Is animal prisoner or being animal?

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