Freedom of Will

I wrote my rabbinical school thesis on Freedom of Will. In particular, I wrote about the varied thinking of medieval Jewish philosophers on this topic. The core issue with which these religious thinkers had to contend was how God could  control everything, offer humanity freedom of will, and justly condemn the wicked.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. I no longer believe that we have as much freedom of will as I initially thought. And I’m ok with that.

While it runs counter to our normative North American Protestant work ethic, I want to suggest that we are not as autonomous as we might believe ourselves to be. For example, we know that our environment has a very strong influence on us. In fact, it’s so strong that it affects our choices, even when we think we’re choosing freely.

Imagine you don’t have freedom of will

I want you to imagine for a moment that this is true – that you don’t have freedom of will. Or, at least, that you don’t have as much freedom of will as you think.

I’m not saying that you can’t make the decision to stop reading these words right now; of course you can.

You continued reading, but that was a choice freely made.  😉


(Start the experiment of not controlling now.)

I want you to imagine that the percentage of consciously controlled and decided events is less than you had thought it to be. If you had thought you were in control 100% of the time, imagine it’s 99%. If you had rated your personal autonomy at 10%, I will ask you to imagine for a few moments that it is 7-8%.

The number doesn’t matter, just that you are willing for a minute or two to imagine that you are not the master of your domain. Or, at least, not as much as you usually give yourself credit for.

Think for a moment about breathing or blinking, two bodily functions that you were not consciously controlling while you were reading these words.

Notice how you feel with this slight diminution of conscious control.

Having done this experiment with people, I can predict with great accuracy that you feel a bit more relaxed, a little less tense, and perhaps even a little joyful.

Let me ask you: why not dive into that feeling more? Why not give up control a bit more?

Now – again, because I have done this experiment with people – I know that the very mention of broadening this lack of control, may have caused a slight panic, a quickening of the heart. I don’t know the science behind it, but it seems like we are able to get the guards around the active mind and ego to relax for a moment, but the suggestion that they do it for a long period of time triggers some internal panic sirens.

(End the experiment of not controlling now. Go back to the feeling of control you usually have.)

Science proves we don’t have (so much) freedom of will

While I am a spiritual man, and a proponent of living a spiritual life, I am a recovering intellectual and pure-rationalist.

I take great comfort in the intellectual.

Accordingly, I would like to let you know about three experiments that back up my strong claim that we aren’t in full control of our lives.

  1. When you stretch out in power poses, even for just two minutes, your testosterone levels increase and cortisol levels decrease, leading to greater risk tolerance. And the opposite is true; if you are scrunched in a middle airplane seat, you wind up feeling diminished and more miserable. If you didn’t choose the middle seat, then the mood is worsened because this act was out of your control, and it affects your life.
  2. Subjects who were randomly told that they had been secretly rejected by fictitious colleagues binged on comfort foods to control themselves; those who were told that they had been secretly admired by fictitious colleagues refrained from the comfort foods. Similarly, after finding my car had been ransacked and the radio ripped from the dash, I found my desire to indulge with a can from my secret stash of Pepsi too overwhelming to ignore.
  3. People who are deprived of sleep tend to remember words and images with negative associations rather than neutral or positive ones. (So, how much control do you have over what you remember?)


Our world is not as filled with choice as we might have once imagined it is.

We are not fully masters of our fate.

And, yet, relaxing or surrendering into the world can be very uncomfortable.

I’d like to suggest that you should practice relaxing, surrendering to allow the world to unfold in your life. I’d like to suggest that you live with a little less of a sense that you are fully autonomous. But I’m not going to make those suggestions — because I think it is going to happen to you this week anyway. If I were to suggest it, it might – like before when I did – trigger a bit of panic and cause you to close off. So I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to know that I have given you the seed and hope that it finds a crevice in your mind so it can grow.