On Freewill


As human beings who feel themselves to be insular with a strong sense of self, we do not like to think that our lives are already mapped out and we are but slaves to fate. Why should we exist to play out our roles if all of our actions and thoughts are pre-ordained?

Perhaps a revision of the meaning of Freewill will give clarity.



Freewill is defined as ‘The power of the human will to choose without restraint’. We generally regard this as the ability to make spontaneous and inspired choices and then act upon them.

What this implies is that our environment, memories, situational context and the physics of our brains can be overridden by a sudden and spontaneous creativity, a completely new thought that has come from nowhere and unless one is inclined to accept that there is some undetectable creative consciousness out there, to which it is possible to make a connection then we must accept that we are slaves to our neurocellular structure and our neurochemistry. Everything we sense and think is a product of the physics of the brain and to say that a person exercises freewill seems to be spurious.

If thought itself is the result of brain chemistry and the choices one makes depends on this chemistry, the structural organization of the brain and its neural pathways, then freewill, as it is defined, does not exist. Particularly when one discovers that we only become conscious of our own intention to perform an action after our brain has initiated the signals to do so.

"Our earlier evidence had indicated that a substantial duration of appropriate cerebral activity (up to about 0.5 s) is required for the production of a conscious sensory experience; this means the sensory world is experienced delayed with respect to real time". (Libet, B. (2007) The Neural Time Factor in Conscious and Unconscious Events, in Ciba Foundation Symposium 174 - Experimental and Theoretical Studies of Consciousness (eds G. R. Bock and J. Marsh), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9780470514412.ch7)


Before accepting that life is redundant we should consider further the functional organization of the brain.


All of our habits and I mean this to include how we put thoughts together, are contained within the neurons, their synapses, neural pathways and the action of neurochemicals. Some neurons have grown more dendrites than others, some pathways are larger and more defined accepting more traffic (signals) and offering less resistance to that traffic. Other neurons possess few if any dendrites. Other neurons have dendrites that have grown outwardly but connect to nothing. These may be regarded as ‘lanes of potential’ just waiting for the opportunity to connect to other such lanes. When they do, a thought becomes reconciled and a new pathway is created and enters the system as a viable route of the network. With use this ‘pathway’ becomes a highway with the possibility of discernible change in the way a person thinks and behaves. There is a mutual evolutionary dependency between thought and the properties of the network. The way we think and what we think determines how the neural network is structured and how it operates and conversely the network structure determines the way we think and what we think.

The brain is has a high level of plasicity and is capable of very fast development of new neural outgrowths (dendrites) which may or may not end as a synaptical connection with dendrites from other neurons. The speed of this development is from fractions of a minute to hours. "Time-lapse imaging of dendritic segments showed that dendritic morphology is dynamic on time scales of minutes to hours. Protrusions appeared and disappeared or changed shape ... ".(Rapid Dendritic Morphogenesis in CA1 Hippocampal Dendrites Induced by Synaptic Activity

Science 19 March 1999: 283 (5409), 1923-1927. [DOI:10.1126/science.283.5409.1923] )


Freewill, one might say, manifests from a pre-conditioning of the neural pathways, let’s call this pre-determinism, to process signals a certain way and this pre-conditioning is wrought by ‘Thinking about things’, pondering stuff and attuning the mind to a particular attitude to things to create a pre-disposition or potential for us to think and act in certain ways. This is what we see in a Winner, a Risk taker, a Coward, a Loser, a Procrastinator, a Leader, the list goes on. Any characteristic one would care to think of is a mirror of the internal structure of the brain. The thought occurs that we need time to ponder, time to reflect, time to deduce and induce and to pattern our thoughts according to some refined logic that might include ethics, morality, shaping of habit etc. etc.


In conclusion, it would appear that freewill does exist but it does not manifest itself spontaneously when a choice occurs or when, out of the blue, someone decides to take a course of action. Freewill occurs well before any action is taken. It occurs in the thought processes that grow new dendrites and complete new connections within the brain and this growth takes time, it does not occur spontaneously. There will, of course, be those who have a sudden change of lifestyle who, for example, might suddenly give away all their possessions and go off to India to work with the poor after having led a life of decadence. I would argue that some thought processes prior to the sudden change had created the potential for this to happen.


We do have freewill, then, and it might best be described as a cultured and delayed process so we owe it to ourselves to think and learn and reconcile and ponder so that we have control over our destiny.


Marek Dobiecki