Probably one of the most hotly contested issues in science, philosophy and religion, the question of free will has plagued humanity in one form or another for thousands of years--at least, the portion of humanity whose basic needs are taken care of, and who have enough idle time on their hands to waste it sitting around discussing lofty philosophical notions. For the portion of humanity that spends their days making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s the issue is of no immediate concern.

In the beginning, was the Word. The Word came in different guises, depending on one's culture. For the Jews, the Word came on an immense scroll called the Torah, to be lovingly reproduced and passed to future generations. For Muslims, the Word was the Qur'an; the Christians had their Bible.

In a society which has grown accustomed to the idea of the Word as absolute truth, to question free will makes little sense. When you take it for granted that God created you and is telling you how to live your life, it is only natural to make the minor jump to believing that God is directly controlling your life.

As the years passed, technology and science evolved from obscure tools of the literati to religions in their own right, and people began to ask: what's so sacred about the Word, anyway? At about this time a number of early scientists, known at the time as natural philosophers, tried to unify the ideas of God and Nature. Within a few hundred years of each other, Anselm, Aquinas, Kant and Paley all took a crack at it. Suddenly, the appropriateness of determinism was in doubt--because the idea of God's very existence was in doubt!

Then came a chain of radical new ideas, completely at odds with convention, that yielded Newton's laws of motion, and eventually, Rutherford's model of the atom and Freud's nurture-over-nature explanations for human behavior. Suddenly we were all living in a clockwork universe, our actions dictated by easily derivable laws, and it was only a matter of time until we understood the working of the universe down to the last subatomic particle. In 1906, the dean of Harvard physics was heard to remark to prospective incoming freshmen that physics was a very poor career choice for aspiring young men, because there remained only six unsolved problems in the entire field.

Within thirty years, those six problems had turned classical physics upside-down. The work of Bohr, Einstein, Maxwell and Heisenberg (among others) fueled a paradigmatic shift; in this brave new world the universe is random, chaotic and unpredictable. Alan Turing showed us that, not only are some problems unsolvable, but some problems cannot even be determined to be solvable, or unsolvable. In the brave new world of 20th-century physics, free will was suddenly on very shaky ground. The straw that broke the camel's back was the development of quantum physics, which buggered the entire problem by suggesting that things might be deterministic and unpredictable. In the end, nobody was sure of anything regarding free will, and a lot of people threw up their hands in disgust.

Not me, though. Growing up, learning the history of science and coming to think about the world from a modern point of view, I was always fascinated by the concept of free will. And, after a great deal of thought, I have come to a conclusion: the question of free will is irrelevant.


  • Before you have made some decision, there is no way to predict the outcome of your decision, because you have not made it yet. This is true whether or not free will exists.
  • On the cusp of your decision--as you are making it--there is no way to prove, or disprove, that your decision is the result of your own free will.
  • After your decision has been made, the outcome has been decided. Because the outcome can never be changed and the decision can never be exactly repeated, there is no way to determine whether a different outcome was possible.

In other words, having or not having free will makes no difference in your day-to-day life. Your best bet is to act as if you have free will, and not to fret about what might be coming in your future if you don't have free will. The future is impossible to predict, irrespective of free will. The past cannot be changed, irrespective of free will. Worrying about it isn't going to make a whit of difference.