Tom Mellors on Free Will

This is a guest post by New Escapologist contributor, Tom Mellors.

In a recent article in the Independent entitled “The uncomfortable truth about mind control: Is free will simply a myth?”, Michael Mosley argued that, although we don’t like to admit it, the notion that humans have free will is a delusion.

Mosley cites the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram to back up his argument. Milgram is famous for a controversial experiment in which volunteers were enlisted to take part in a “memory and learning experiment”. According to Mosley, Milgram wrote that the experiment was intended to answer the question: “How is possible, I ask myself, that ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life could act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience.”

In the experiment, volunteers were told that they would be ‘the Teacher’ and their job was to give ‘the Learner’ – who they believed to be another volunteer – a simple set of memory tasks which they would be tested on. For every wrong answer the Teacher would have to give the Learner an electric shock. The voltage of the shock increased with every wrong answer. The Teacher and the Learner conducted this ‘memory experiment’ in two separate rooms, with a microphone and speakers connecting the two.

The results of the experiment were shocking. 65% of volunteers increased the voltage to a level that would have killed the Learner. Mosley goes on to cite other similar experiments which demonstrate the extent to which we are willing to blindly obey authority or conform to social expectations. All of this is convincing evidence for the assertion he makes at the start of the article: “We like to think that we exercise free will, that put into a situation where we were challenged to do something we thought unacceptable then we’d refuse. But, if you believe that, then you are probably deluded.”

Although Mosley’s article raises fascinating questions about human behaviour, it does not prove that free will is a myth. Every human action is preceded by a choice. The volunteers in the experiment chose to obey authority, even if it made them uncomfortable. It is easy to think that this means humans are not free, that the majority of us are hardwired to blindly follow orders or seek conformity. I disagree. Although the volunteers did not feel free, they were free.

To say that Milgram’s experiment proves that free will is a myth is like saying that because Queen Elizabeth II does not dissolve Parliament when she feels like, it means the Queen does not have the power to do so. Technically the Queen can dissolve Parliament at any time; she just chooses not to for practical reasons. In the same sense, a person who obeys authority or conforms to social expectations has the power to choose freely; they just choose not to use it.

The question that Mosley should be asking is not, “Is free will a myth?” but why are we so willing to give up free will in order to conform? The 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described this as the “herd instinct” and was rather scathing about the people he believed to be “herdmen”. However another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, believed that the herd instinct is much more complex than a simple desire to fit in.

Heidegger gave the name “They-Self” (or Das Man in German) to the state of being which is governed entirely by the herd instinct. The “They-Self” is you in everyday life: it is the Parent-You, the Work-You, the Neighbour-You. In other words, it is the you that plays the roles and lives by the rules that society, not you, construct. Heidegger described the “They-Self” succinctly when he wrote, in his seminal work Being and Time, “Everyone is the other and no one is himself.” For Heidegger, the “They-Self” is the most basic form of our existence; the “They-Self” comes first and the “I-Self” comes afterwards, if at all.

Stanley Milgram’s findings are disturbing because they prompt us to ask, “How would I act such circumstances? Would I act as “Them” or as “I”? It is a question with frightening implications and which often leaves us believing vainly that we would be in the minority. As Mosley rightly points out, such a belief is a terrible delusion.

The question of whether or not we exercise our free will is not limited to life or death scenarios. It is a question which can be, and should be, addressed in everyday life. As Heidegger argues, it is in everyday life that people tend to relinquish their individuality and become a part of “Them”. The real test of individual freedom for most of us will not be in the dramatic scenarios fabricated by psychology experiments but in the way we live out our lives. Everyday choices, while rarely a matter of life or death, are always a matter of freedom.

There’s more on free will in Issue Four and more Milgram in Issue One.


Robert Wringham is a humorist and the editor-in-chief of New Escapologist.

13 Responses to “Tom Mellors on Free Will”

  1. Maus says:

    The question of free will is a momentous one. Thanks for the insightful essay. Ironically, I just attended a lecture today by a Dr. S. Alex Stalcup M.D. of the New Leaf Treatment Center in California. He’s an expert on addiction medicine and was talking about new science that supports the argument that what we consider free will is really just the balance between the executive judgment functions of the pre-frontal cortex and the limbic systems that control emotions in the mid-brain. Drugs of addiction reduce activity in the former and heighten it in the latter on fMRI scans. It explains why chronic addicts have no control over their use of a substance despite the negative consequences. Very fascinating stuff, but a bit intimidating to a humanities guy like me.

  2. Tom says:

    It’s interesting to hear a medical perspective on the free will question, especially in relation to drug addiction which, as you point out, is an extreme example of where free choice seems to be absent. I agree that this scientific perspective is a bit heavy-going, as a humanities guy myself. Seems like science is keen to reduce free will to ‘just the balance’ between two functions in the brain. The idea that free will is something more than that – maybe something metaphysical – is rejected completely. I don’t have a deep knowledge of this debate, but I agree it’s all fascinating stuff. Thanks for your input Maus!

  3. […] article was originally published in New Escapologist – a magazine I contribute to and would recommend to […]

  4. Alex says:

    In the study of cognitive science the issue of free-will is considered as kind of a failing point for a computer model of the mind. If neurons just perform basic summation of their inputs and fire when they reach a threshold then at what level of the brain do we begin to see “free-will” manifested? Certainly if we talk about the human brain as a causal engine, a series of locally stupid decisions that add up to consciousness, then we can’t have free-will. So where does free-will come from if it exists at all? Certainly it can’t be defined using science, as a study of observation, since we can only observe the outcomes of some “free-will” execution and not the factors that “make” such a decision. And this is really the crux of the issue, what causes this decision? is it inherently causal and just too microscopic to observe (quantum theory) or is it extra-normal and defined by the spirit, in the form of the mind?

  5. I’ve definitely never heard you say so much in one go.

    As for where FW comes from, cognitively and biologically, I have no idea.

  6. Alex says:

    Personally, I think that the science is sound, and it actually illuminates the point of this article very well. If you look at the brain as a series of smaller adding machines then you can end up with a “They” computer, that is, our brains will usually converge on one output for some contrived input. Physically speaking if everything else is equal, two brains should take the same input and return the same output (say we had two brains that are exact copies). But now the interesting part comes in, even if both brains are identical, we can even assume they occupy the same space. Everything being equivalent, quantum theory explores the notion that multiple possibilities exist. It’s easiest to use the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment: basically at some moment in time on a microscopic level we can’t observe some particles with certainty. So what this means for Schrödinger’s cat and for our two brain experiment is that both (or more) possibilities exist leading up to some decision. So the cat is either alive or dead. Our brain hasn’t chosen between A or B (or something else entirely). Now we can begin to see where free will may come from in science, this is not to say we always exercise our free will. In fact we exercise free will very very rarely according to this model. The actual impact of some electron’s position in our brain is almost null compared to the size of even a single neuron and it’s decision engine. The important point here is that even though it is minimal, the uncertainty of particles in our brains can cause two brains to chose differently, even if they are identical in all other aspects. This is where the idea of parallel dimensions comes from, and I personally think it has a strong link to many spiritual explorations that often deal with duality and approaching a state of one-ness with this unknown decision engine. Hopefully this is clearly explained and not overwhelmingly complicated.

  7. Samara says:

    Alex, I want to get a beer with you and you can elaborate on this. ASAP.

  8. Tom says:

    Hi Alex, I’d like to say I followed that last comment but I’m afraid it went over my head. I have heard bits about the influence of quantum theory on the question of free will and although I don’t understand it now, I’d like to learn more about it. I’m particularly interested in your opinion that the uncertainty of particles in our brains is linked to spiritual explorations. Is there anywhere I can read more about this? Preferably in layman’s speak!

  9. Tom says:

    Like the idea of a beer Samara! That always helps me grasp difficult ideas… or just get drunk trying.

  10. Alex says:

    I’d love to grab a beer with as many people as possible and attempt to explain my understanding of free will and it’s fun implications. That sounds lovely! On a side note for people that might not able to grab a beer with me I think the best place to read up on this idea is really just Google. Wikipedia in particular can be rabbit holed into oblivion about the notions of a computer model of the mind, quantum duality and Mandelbrot sets (chaos theory). With a bit of luck and some slightly generous generalizations there’s a great wealth of understanding to be made in these areas. I haven’t personally read or found any specific reading that combined all the ideas, but from the Wikipedia article it seems like “The Significance of Free Will” by Robert Kane does try and do that… but i’m not sure how layman it would be. I could say that I personally came to these understandings through notions of the Tao Te Ching, a universal “way”, combined with some fun and understandable PBS nova specials about quantum theory. What mostly led to the linking of spiritual and quantum understanding comes from the computer scientist Benoit Mandelbrot and his infinitely expanding Mandelbrot sets. In particular the notion that all things are composed of infinitely many smaller sub-structures that all kind of share similarities (again this seems to link back to spiritual notions that we as people have spirits because our cells have spirits and the whole world has a spirit). In some sense this understanding motivates the whole idea, that we have free will because at some point in time it becomes impractical to measure the farthest star in the universe’s impact on my brain at one time… As much as hard science defines who we are, the entirety of the universe and beyond defines who we become from moment to moment, so even causally there’s no practical sense of entrapment into some “fate”, though without introspection perhaps less so. I’m terribly sorry for the terms that i have to use, but the ideas are really supposed to be poorly defined and open to interpretation so read the articles if you want to and come to your own conclusions.

  11. Tom says:

    Many thanks for the suggested reading Alex. Next time I’m out in Canada we’ll have to discuss in person. Or if you’re ever in the UK, please drop me a line.

  12. David says:

    Although I’m nearly 5 years late into the discussion, I just wanted to point out that, if 65% of participants raised the voltage to the level that would have killed the Learner, that means 35% of people refused to conform, despite a lifetime of brainwashing through the school system, workplace rules and so on. From that I’d draw the opposite conclusion to Mosley, namely that free will is surprisingly resilient in the circumstances.

    Speaking personally, I don’t feel I’m deluded in thinking I wouldn’t go along with something I disagreed with. I’ve spent my whole life getting in trouble for exactly that! Of course, if authority was also threatening me or my family I might act differently. The actions of ordinary people in Nazi Germany do not prove free will is an illusion, rather that people may act pragmatically when under extreme pressure.

  13. Very good points. Less pessimistic too!

Leave a Reply

Latest issues and offers


Issues One to Seven

A bundle of our first seven issues. Featuring minimalism, Houdini, Leo Babauta, Bohemianism, Alain de Botton, Sartre, and Tom Hodgkinson. 567 pages. £35.


Issues Eight to Thirteen

A bundle of our last six issues. Featuring Luke Rhinehart, Flaubert, Mr Money Mustache, part-time work, Will Self, home life, Richard Herring, and E. F. Schumacher. 593 pages. £30.

Issue Thirteen

Our final edition. Featuring an interview with celebrity mortician Caitlin Doughty; Matt Caulfield on zen fool Ryokan; and Reggie C. King on David Bowie and Sun Ra. 122 pages. £7.

Escape Everything!

A hardbacked guide to scarpering. Essential reading for wage slaves and slugabeds alike. Published by Unbound. 230 pages. £12.