The Reason I Don’t Believe In Free Will

Warning: The following article discusses my worldview and may make some people uncomfortable. If you choose to read this, remember that I am merely stating my beliefs, I am not questioning yours.

I don’t believe that free will exists. This might come as a surprise as my entire life is centered around a choice I made to make the purpose of life to complete my Life List. I make decisions every day that are my own but I don’t believe they are an expression of my independently functioning will.

Allow Me to Explain

Imagine a popcorn kernel laying in a frying pan which is being heated by a lit stove. Shortly it will explode into a piece of popcorn but that action hasn’t yet occurred.


The now popped piece of popcorn flies out of the pot in a specific direction and lands on the kitchen floor.

The instant before the explosion started, a decision was made. Many factors contributed to the eventual trajectory of the not yet popped popcorn; the shape of the kernel, the source of the heat, gravity and all of the other forces which eventually would act on the flying kernel. At that point, the instant before the kernel exploded, a series of motions were started, a determined set of events were forged by circumstance.

This is a very interesting type of event. I call this a circumstantial determination.

The final destination of the popped popcorn was the result of a previously established set of circumstances. The action of the popping wasn’t a decision in that someone or something decided it, instead it was a determination in that it happened a certain way and now is just so.

Now lets look at a circumstantial determination which happens to be in the extreme.

Rewind to the beginning of our Universe. Instead of the very moment before a popcorn kernel explodes, think about the very moment before the Big Bang occurred.

I believe that the same kind of circumstantial determination was made in that instant.

The piece of popcorn sitting on the kitchen floor and the current shape and trajectory of our Universe have at least one trait in common. Their current status was circumstantially determined prior to their current state. In fact, they were determined before their current forms were even created.

That is where the similarities end. The Big Bang was fundamentally different than the popcorn kernel.

Unlike the unpopped popcorn, the Universe didn’t have any other external forces acting on it before it formed. They simply didn’t exist yet.

As such, the instant before the Big Bang was the single most important circumstantial determination to ever occur. That instant determined everything that would happen after it.

The Big Bang happened and then everything throughout history occurred as a result of it.

Fast forward to today.

Earth orbits around the Sun. Our Sun orbits around the black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

While our current solar system formation is many steps removed from that initial action of the Big Bang, the current position and makeup of our present day cosmic situation was determined the moment the Big Bang occurred. The elemental makeup and force of the Big Bang were the first series of circumstances that determined the next series of events that eventually became us.

Our situation was not decided in the traditional sense of a design. Instead, our current big picture situation was determined circumstantially.

But How Does This Relate to Living Beings?

Gases cool.

Our Sun forms.

Earth forms.

Humans form.

I form.

I have intellect and can make decisions in my life. I can choose to pursue a Life List or I can choose to do something else. I can make a conscious directional decision and ultimately I can make the necessary actions to turn left or to turn right.

Or Can I?

I make decisions based off of my genetic makeup.

I make decisions based off of prior experiences.

I make decisions based off of current inputs.

I make decisions based off of expected results.

As a human, these are the type of circumstances which uniquely determine my decisions.

For the popcorn kernel it was things like heat source and physical shape that determined its trajectory (for the sake of simplicity I will label these type of circumstances as “natural circumstances”). These forces occurred outside the kernels ability to influence them.

As humans we are impacted by the same forces (natural circumstances) but unlike the kernel, we have additional circumstances (genetics, prior experiences, sensory inputs – which I will call “human circumstances”) that impact our paths.

But Humans Are Different! We Are Conscious Beings!

Unlike the pre-exploded popcorn kernel, I have a brain and a body that enables me to react to my environment. That is fundamentally different than a moot object that has no power to change its environment.

Human circumstances are a different type of circumstance but like the natural circumstances of the kernel, these human circumstances are also outside our control and not within the immediate command of our own consciousness. (For instance, I can’t change my genetic makeup or past experiences just like the kernel can’t change its shape or the heat source of the pot)

So it appears that while these types of circumstances are different, they are still bound by the same core limitations (an inability to directly change predetermined circumstances). So then, does the fact that there are different types of circumstantial determinations really even matter?

Imagine an astroid heading on a crash course toward a distant planet. It’s current trajectory was set in motion sometime in the past. It is on a predetermined path but like the path of living beings, the astroids path through the Universe can still change. Other forces, like the gravity of nearby stars could potentially reverse the astroids current trajectory. Just because the astroid is heading toward the given planet does not mean it will absolutely make it there.

Other forces could affect it on the way which would be outside the scope of the forces that initially set it in motion. This is similar to the situation where a human chooses (based off of predetermined circumstances) to change their own path.

But even if this happens, was the initial circumstantial determination that set the astroid (or human) in motion changed?


The initial determination did not change, only the outcome changed.

This was the key insight I had on how I understand fate. Just because something was predetermined doesn’t mean it can’t change.

More recent circumstantial determinations can override older circumstantial determinations. It appears that the movements of my body can change the world around me.

Does Being Conscious Disqualify Us From Being Bound To Predetermined Circumstances?

When I look backwards, I humbly think the answer is no.

Wasn’t the secondary (more recent) force that ended up changing the trajectory of the astroid also determined by previous circumstantial determinations itself? Isn’t my propensity to be attracted to brunettes determined by prior experiences and the makeup of my DNA?

Every new circumstance was determined by a prior circumstance. Even the circumstances that change.

It all goes back to the Big Bang. One circumstantial determination was made, the power, the shape, the makeup of the original burst happened and then like a pinball in an infinitely complex pinball machine, other circumstantial determinations reacted with each other. That has been the course of everything.

This is the reason I don’t believe in free will.

I can make choices but my intellect and physical form don’t enable me to change the circumstantial determinations that dictate my decisions. My decisions may be my own but like the trajectory of the popcorn kernel, they are determined by pre-existing and ever changing circumstances.

Being a conscious being does not change the fact that everything that happens now is the result of circumstantial determinations of the past. Natural circumstances and human circumstances are indeed different from the point of view of a human but they have the same limitations when considered on a galactic scale. Now that life exists, there are simply more types of circumstantial determinations but that doesn’t change the circumstances that determined everything in the beginning.

Like the popcorn and astroid, my life’s trajectory can change. That however is not free will. It is the still the circumstances of my existence that determine my conscious decisions. These circumstances are the results of a multitude of other interacting circumstances that were initially set in motion and predetermined the moment of the Big Bang. It was an instant in the past that determined the future.


Special thanks to Jack Peterson for pre-reading and arguing this with me in order to improve this. Thanks for asking the tough questions. Somehow you made a determinist out of me :-p

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I want to give a little more background on this.

    About once a year I sit down and dedicate time to testing my assumptions by questioning one of my core beliefs. I pretend I believe the opposite of my true belief and try to craft a logical explanation for why my new perspective is true. In the past I have found this to be a really helpful exercise as it inevitably teaches you a lot about what you think you think.

    This year I did this exercise with a friend and actually ended up reversing one of my core beliefs. This has never happened before. So what does it mean? I am still trying to figure that out. Free will has been a core part of me my whole life. It is the core of self development. Now that I don’t think it exists, I am in a funny spot. I am not going to stop pursuing my Life List, that hasn’t changed, but I do now have a lot more questions. :-)

    Oh this life thing is complicated!

  • That marketing works to such a subtle degree seems to agree with your premise. That said, there is such a massive variety of variables within the human existence. Yes, we are predetermined in so many ways, yet there is still a randomness to our nature.

    I don’t have answers. I’m just saying.

    One thing I do love, though, is when something comes my way that changes the way I thought about something. Be that large philosophical beliefs or something as simple as learning I actually do love tomatoes. (I just didn’t like the ones at the supermarket because they were picked too early.)

    Thanks for sharing your thinking.

    • Randomness is an interesting element that I certainly should put some more thought into. Smart thinking :-)

      > Be that large philosophical beliefs or something as simple as learning I actually do love tomatoes.

      :-D You are right, sometimes those “small” things can have as much of an impact as those “big” revelations.

      Thanks Leigh! :-)

  • Jack Peterson


    I wanted to say thanks for allowing me the opportunity to have the discussion on the topic of “Free Will” with you a while back. I still look back fondly on that conversation as it had re-sparked my interest in the topic and it was a lot of fun to hash through to concept. It forced me to clarify my own thoughts on the topics.

    I think that there are some very interesting and profound consequences to the concept of the lack of free will to note and are definitely worth exploring further.Free will, morality, and society – If there is no free will, is it reasonable to have laws of any kind? Is it reasonable to punish an individual who breaks a law – even if it is ‘just’? Is the concept of justice just a meaningless word? If humans are not ‘moral agents’ in the sense of having any capacity of free will . . . however limited it may be, what is the appropriate response for a society to handle deviance?

    Somehow our conversation allowed me to choose to conserve my belief in “limited free will” :P

    • Hey Jack!

      I appreciated the conversation as well. I especially appreciated the fact that we had the opportunity to have it in multiple mediums based in multiple countries. That was pretty neat!

      The law and punishment aspect is interesting. I view it as free will is still present as an illusion that society shares and as such can be something we base judgement and punishment on. (Admittedly though, this thought has some holes in it!) There are a lot of generalities that society accepts in the pursuit of the great good (legal tender for example) that aren’t actually based on anything solid.

      With regard to “limited free will”, what do you think establishes the limits? Natural laws? Human laws? A combination?

  • Joe Dover


    Another great post. I have thought a lot about the concept of free will. I am a strong believer in it. I mark a difference between the science of how the physical world exists and how humans ( and other earthly life forms) conduct themselves. We can not control natural events, but we can control how we interact with these natural occurrences (think global warming and human response to disasters such as Nepal). In my mind, free will exists and it enables me to be the “human” that I choose to be. I don’t control everything around me, but I do have a choice over how I think about my surroundings.

    Let the discussion continue! Great post.


    • Thanks dad!

      There are certainly things that we can’t control today (weather, earthquakes, etc) but I don’t think that means we won’t be able to control them eventually. Controlling electricity in the ways that we do today would have seemed like complete magic to people 1,000 years ago.

      When I break the pieces of humans down (molecules, systems, predictable processes), I can’t help but see how similar we are to what we deem separately as nature.

      That said, these ideas do not warrant a reason not to react to the problems of today. On that point, I agree with you.

  • I’ve arrived at the same conclusion but from an entirely different angle, namely that of subconscious thought. Our consciousness, such as it is, is a vastly overestimated part of our psyche. Most of our decision making actually originates from the subconscious mind and is subject to all kinds of predetermined impulses (nature) and external stimuli (nurture). Most of these impulses and stimuliu affect us without any conscious awareness of them, on our part – hence the subconscious part.

    Free will is illusory. However, it is useful to believe in the existence of free will, as it gives the illusion of control and responsibility and helps makes us better people.

    • Hmm, super interesting! I have never thought about free will from that perspective before. :-) I need to explore your idea more but the points you made make perfect sense to me.

      I am in complete agreement with you. Thank you for adding that to my view on the subject!

      • I tend to agree with Barry mostly. Lot’s of of decision making is determined from our subconscious.

        I have believed for a while that free will is very much a state of mind, and like you say later on, doesn’t make too much of difference if we have it or not. It’s very much our perception which makes us human.

        What I would add though is that we don’t have to have “full” free will to have free will.

        Growing up in a privileged and educated society, the free will choice for me not murder my friend is not really a choice for me. I know it’s wrong and this is not a struggle or even a choice I really can make freely. It’s a non starter.

        That said, someone who grew up in a society, or 3rd world country, or a place where this is not a value for them, the free will choice between killing and not killing becomes more real. And the further down into the slums you go, the choice to kill may not even be a question. They will absolutely do the act, but what weapon will they use.

        Free will doesn’t have to mean that every single decision we think we make is ours. Some choices aren’t really choices. It’s based on our environment, how we were brought up, and what we are genetically predisposed to.

        Fantastic article.

        • Your addition of adding different degrees of free will is interesting. I think that does a good job of compartmentalizing the meaning of a very broad phrase. Thanks for shedding light on that!

  • Matty Heckeroth


    A question in retort to what you have laid out as a foundation of thought, “does it matter that you have free will or not?” And I guess a follow up, “would you truly live your life differently if you had the perception of free will?”


    Check out Joseph Keim Campbell free will. Might give some additional info.

    • Hey Matty,

      “does it matter that you have free will or not?”

      Excellent question! In my opinion, ultimately it does not. If everything is truly circumstantially determined then we are really just along for the ride.

      That said, that is not a reason to not ask the question. Science is the pursuit of truth, however uncomfortable the truth may be.

      Do the orbits of galaxies on the edge of the visible universe matter to the normal person on earth? They certainly don’t on a day-to-day level but that doesn’t mean they don’t impact us somehow. I think the same is true of free will. If free will really doesn’t exist, that fact wouldn’t affect us on a day-to-day level (we still live with the illusion) but it is certainly worth investigating the nature of its existence.

      (Checking out that book now)


  • James

    Interesting article. I am trying to digest it. Would you say a fair summary is “Free will does not exist because the appearance of choice is actually a predictable reaction based on numerous predetermined factors”?
    Also, if that is the case, what definition of Free Will are you using? I’m not prepared to argue either way, right now I’m trying to understand.

    • While a summary would strip away a lot of important nuance, I’d go with the following if forced: “Free will doesn’t exist because any given choice is actually the result of an event that already happened.”

      > Also, if that is the case, what definition of Free Will are you using?

      I don’t know exactly how to answer that. I think the definition evolves throughout the article.

  • Simon

    Cool article! I have had similar discussions as well and come to a lot of the same conclusions. One thing that is an interesting consequence of this belief is that it pretty much follows that we could simulate a human with a computer. If the brain is truly just a state machine predictably responding to the set of inputs it receives, there is nothing that it does that could not be replaced by a computer, given proper understanding and enough computing power. Maybe someday our brains will live on forever virtually ;)

    • I think you and I might have actually chatted about this at Burning Man. :-)

      While we don’t have the technology today, I think we will absolutely be able to fully simulate a human brain with computers at some point in the not too distant future. Assuming mankind lives long enough to invent the required technology, I see this as the most likely outcome of our evolution.

  • Tim

    Great article Danny, I have thought much the same for sometime now.

    I came to similar thoughts due to a great little read:

    And honestly you can just listen to the author’s lecture about the book-which captures about 95% of the material anyway :)

    Hope you are doing well!

    • Thanks for the shortcut Tim! Added to my watch list :-) Cheers buddy!

  • Great quote at the end of Forrest Gump:
    “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.”

    Food for thought. I also encourage you to watch “Journey of the Universe”, if you haven’t yet seen it (it’s on Netflix). Touches on some interesting ideas that life thrives because of it’s adjustments and reactions.

    Either way, this post is compelling. Thanks for sharing!

    • Great quote :-) Thanks for that addition Lauren! Adding Journey of the Universe to my movies list now.


  • Carlos V.

    Hi Danny,
    From a physics point of view what you describe is deterministic behaviour of the universe. Where if you could now all the variables of the system you could predict its outcome precisely. Hence, there would be no free will as you exposed. However, we are still not sure that the universe is fully deterministic. The deterministic behaviour kind of breaks apart on quantum physics. And its known as quantum indeterminacy. Where there seems to exist a non-deterministic behaviour (at least from the observer point of view) of the system. Einstein believed that this indeterminacy was wrong, an a complete description of a physical system was missing. So together with Podolsky and Rosy, determined that if this quantum theory was true it will violate local realist view of causality, meaning that something would travel at infinite speed, and not at the limit of speed of light. And this became the known EPR Paradox, since experiments have shown that this does occur on the quantum physics world. And is known as quantum entanglement or as Einstein call it “spooky action at a distance”.
    So in the physics there is still a debate of the deterministic or non-deterministic behaviour of the universe. Therefore, a debate on the existence or not of free will.

    PS I am not a theoretical physicist, so its not my domain of expertise.

    • Glad to hear it is still an on-going debate and not a settled absolute. Thanks for your additions, I now have some additional reading to do :-)

    • Jaseem Umar

      Non-determinism doesn’t support the idea of freewill. Unless conscious decisions can somehow decide the results of some quantum events, freewill remains an illusion.

  • Ben Shepard

    I would add that if free will is illusory, so is the self, or the individual. ‘Me’ is a social construct. Identity is illusory.

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