Why is it not possible for us to have Free Will?

Like many of us, I enjoy keeping up with the news. Yet every time I read a newspaper or listen to a radio dispatch or watch a television bulletin my first reaction is frequently one of mild irritation. This quickly disappears, as my mind realises I am being irrational and has had time to qualify most of the information that has been received.

The reason for my temporary discomfort is because I belong to a small, but likely growing, group of people who look at everything from a different viewpoint than that of the overwhelming majority. We feel certain that most people’s understanding of life is little more than an illusion, the way they contemplate the world around them is not at all as it really is. We think this way because simple logic tells us that none of us can be in charge of our own lives. We accept that it is nonsensical to believe that human beings could, under any circumstances, have free will. Although I therefore consider almost every comment on or in the media as irrelevant and the commentators’ suggestions for solutions to problems just wishful nonsense, I still find news interesting and am aware that this may be simply because – like most of us – I am inquisitive. If we take the simple example of a news story that has appeared almost daily for the past two or three years. The headline invariably includes the words ‘Euro Crisis’, a topic likely to persist for many more weeks, months and years to come. Currently the story particularly involves Greece, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Ireland, Portugal, France and Germany but generally every other single country in Europe and most of the others in the rest of the world. If no one has free will, then no one, be they politician, analyst, banker or economist, will be able to devise or implement any ‘original’ solution to this muddled situation. Yet it is likely that Europe and its currency will alter and it is certain that the changes will not be brought about by individual people but by evolution.

I will try and explain why it is impossible for any of us to make original choices. I’m sure we will all agree that throughout our lives we are at the mercy of influences, So perhaps our disagreement is only about whether these encompass everything or not. You probably believe it is possible for some stand-alone will inside yourself to override these effects. Let me suggest why that cannot be so. First of all it may be helpful to divide the term causes, or influences, under four individual headings. Although these are linked they are separate, yet together it is they that make us what we are entirely. Three of the four have already done their worst, or their best, at the moment of our birth. If free choice existed, we all have to agree that it could not be possible to change any of these elements because they occur before we have our first conscious thought or taken our first breath. Let us consider them.


Our life as an individual starts at the moment we are conceived. We do not chose our biological parents and they did not choose theirs. Our sex is decided at conception and all of our particular mix of ancestral genes, including our racial mixture (we are all mongrels), are ours following a long series of accidental happenings going back over many generations.

Development between conception and birth

Many present day scientists conclude that this initial period of our lives can be even more important, or as important, as our genes. Our time in the womb may govern our lifelong health, including our brain development and the length of time we might live.

The environment into which we are born

The Emperor Penguin

The date, the time of the year, the place and the circumstances – economic and otherwise – of the family or group that we are born into may be as important as our biological inheritance or our pre-birth development.

The fourth factor, that starts after our birth and continues with us for every moment until our death, is our diverse and individual encounter with the business of living. Every experience in which we participate will influence later experiences and, coupled with the first three factors that were fixed at birth, we do not have choices. There is no ‘us’ outside or inside our brains that is able to change anything. We, like all other living things, are creatures of causality. Everything in our lives is the result of chance

Many of you reading this will find it difficult or impossible to accept and there will be nothing I can write that can change that. I have no wish to alter anyone but am simply stating the conclusion to which simple logic must always arrive.

My book, You Cannot Change the Way You Are, considers the life-story of the Emperor Penguin – a tale of unimaginable hardship that could not have been invented by the most creative science fiction author. Yet the lives of humans, although infinitely more complex, are in many ways as bizarre as those of the Emperors. If you are able to, I hope you enjoy thinking about this as contemplation about reality, which should make your life less stressful!

Written By Michael Greening