Is Free Will Really Free?

free will determinismI’m sure I’ll live to regret this, but I have the itch to write about free will today.  What the heck, it’s Friday, right?  I was reading The Desire for Autonomy on one of my favorite blogs, The Creativity Post.  In that article, the author, Alex Lickerman, argues that we all like to feel like we are making choices according to our own free will.  And I agree with him.  I think we all do like that.  He also points out that it doesn’t matter whether or not we are actually free in making those choices; it is the feeling of being free that matters.  Again, I think he’s probably right.

So part of what I’ve been kicking around for the past little while is what controls feeling free versus feeling controlled?  We can probably agree that we like feeling free and we don’t like feeling controlled.  But under what sets of circumstances do we feel those things?

After mulling this over, I’d like to propose the following and see what you all think:

1.  I think we feel free when our behavior is being subjected to conditions of positive reinforcement.  That is, when we are working toward earning, achieving, accessing something that we want.

2.  I think we feel controlled when our behavior is being subjected to conditions of either negative reinforcement OR conditions of punishment.  So this is when we are working toward avoiding something we don’t want OR someone else is trying to get us to stop doing something.

My point here is that in either case our behavior is under the control of contingencies, but in the former case it feels “good” and in the latter it feels “bad.”

What do you guys think of this proposition?  And how might this influence what you do in the classroom?  Would students feeling as if they have free will change the classroom environment?

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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5 Responses to Is Free Will Really Free?

  1. karen mahon says:

    KM: Here is a response from Mommy me V.I.P., who accidentally posted it on a different page:

    My reply to “Is free will really free?”. What do you guys think of this proposition? And how might this influence what you do in the classroom? Would students feeling as if they have free will change the classroom environment?

    Yes, free will is free, one always have a choice, no matter if one can see it or not. Free will is a conscious choice that is made on the inside of us whether we are aware of it or not. It’s not about feeling free or feeling controlled, it’s about what you do about the situation that your in at the time. It is about knowing that you always have a choice, it’s up to each person to know what that choice is. Changing the classroom around gives a false since of control, the world does not work that way. This is a great lesson to teach our younger generation. Basing our since of control from our external environment sets up a pretense that it is possible, which can set one up for failure, especially when our external environment is subject to change at any given moment. This environmental change puts one back in that feeling of loosing control and a lack of feeling the since of free will. True free will is mastering your spirit, mind and the perspective in which you look at things. Love the post.


    Mommy me V.I.P.

  2. npresa says:

    I find that when helping students try to achieve their goals; telling them that they have no free will empowers them. People don’t like to hear they aren’t in control so they try to prove me wrong and do what I want them to. Lol

  3. J. MacAuslan says:

    Introspective impressions or imaginings (mine or others’) aside, I think you have actually made a little progress in the age-old debate. Congratulations.

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks, Joel! Ironically, one of my good friends from Italy, Nanni Presti, pointed out (after I posted this) that the position I articulated here is actually the same as that articulated by BF Skinner. I’d had no idea, so I’m now in the process of tracking that down. But I’m honored to be in such great company!

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