Is free will just another name for motivation?

The concept of free will – the ability to make our own choices – has occupied me on and off for some time. Recently, my interest has been reignited by Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Research seems to point towards the idea that awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. In other words, wanting to do something seems to occur n parallel rather than as a cause to it happening. There are a variety of experiments to support this. The explanation in Crash Course rather elegantly shows that there aren’t many arguments to support free will other than the fact that it just feels like it’s there.

free will vs instinct


In this context, it’s interesting to consider the instinct to reproduce. While planning a child involves conscious cognitive effort, instinct is a big part of the process.  This instict is far more subtle than let’s say the instinct to eat when one’s hungry. This doesn’t mean it’s less strong. We are pretty clear that the need to eat is largely outside of our control or free will – it’s just there and we work around it. If I had to make a decision as to whether children were a product of a cognitive decision making process or an instinct – I would have to choose instinct. However, that’s not how it feels. It feels like one made a mostly cognitive decision to have a child – rather than the feeling of a mostly instinctive decision to eat when one’s hungry.

So if it possible to have a child and think that you consciously decided to do so, what’s to say that everything isn’t driven through instinct.

Of course, one can argue that free will has the potential to override instinct. However, even in that case, free will only gets to speak after the instinct made itself known, adding to the conditionality and frailty of free will.

free will in animals


It is quite conceivable to look at a cat and explain all of its actions through instinct. Or a dog – does a dog love its owner so unconditionally because it is a better creature – or because we relentless bred it into them, by getting rid of all the non-submissive dogs in a given breed? We are obsessed with explaining how we are different from animals. Maybe, the distinction is blown out of proportion.

free will autonomic function


Alerting someone to their breath is usually quite fascinating (unless they are used to it through mindfulness or have a healthcare background). People usually have this slightly blunted uncanny realisation in their eyes – “what, I’ve been breathing all time? Yes, naturally I have, but… Anyway, play it cool.”

I am sure, if someone randomly asked me: are you in charge of our own breathing? Without much thinking, I would say, yes.

We can, to some extent, override our respiratory drive, alter our breathing pattern, etc (at least that’s what we think tudum-tshh). However, the bottom line is that breathing happens because it has been hard wired genetically. The temptation though, is to say we control it – probably fuelled by the fact that we can “control” any of it. I wonder what else happens that way: how many of our choices and thoughts happen just like the breath? We breath when we sleep – we think and feel while we sleep too, we call it dreams. Buddhists see thoughts as something external – they are like clouds that come and go. So who’s actually in charge?


One of the reasons why it feels so… eery and empty to think about our lack of free will is that we are no longer in control.

Being in control is central to motivation – according to pretty much any study ever done on it.

Taking the lack of free will argument a step further, it is also possible that this sense of control is wired into us because it propels us forward. Most commencement speeches that get millions of hits on YouTube boil down to the same message: we have more choices and power than we realise. This feel good message is, in a sense, the opposite to the thought that there’s no free will. However, if free will doesn’t exist, by writing this, I -and countless people before me, prove that it’s possible to at least contemplate its lack. It’s possible to have insight, at least, even though it doesn’t feel good.

Maybe, this feeling of control is just like hunger and thirst – it is a drives us to accomplish, regardless of whether we have any choice over it.

There’s still hope…

That free will as we know it does exist.

Just because some actions occur without free will as evidenced through neurophysiology experiments, doesn’t mean that all actions occur this way.

… And if these bone fide free willed thoughts and actions exist, it is possible that they influence the will-less, or the subconscious, whatever you want to call it – just like you can teach your respiratory centre to stay quiet while diving for pearls for minutes at a time. This would mean that while decisions are made subconsciously, there is still a way to make them yours – and not predetermined.

18 thoughts on “Is free will just another name for motivation?”

  1. On your babies example, I think it’s interesting to note that more educated people have fewer babies–not that that disproves your point about instinct. I tend to think that we have many layered instincts that are in tension with one another, and that learning that there are many lives possible other than devoting oneself to raising many children brings some competing instincts into play. Also, I’m totally with you about cats. My intuition, at least, says that the gaps between us and other animals are different from and not nearly as large as many scientists seem to think.

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  2. This challenges the 17th Century Spanish theatrical theory of libre albedrio — free will — and the ability to make choices. Spanish libre albedrio was more of a literary concept than a real life one. Re-reading the Phenomenologists and their morphing into the Existentialists, I was struck by Sartre’s philosophical emphasis on man’s need (and ability) to choose. “Man is what he does” i.e. what he chooses to do. I need to think further about this. Thank you!

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  3. Great article! The implications are important. If people are motivated and responsible when being in control, societies should give everyone more control over their lives. This sounds uncomfortable from an individual perspective, but as you point out, wanting to do something comes parallel to the activity. Therefore, if people were left with more control, they would lose fear of that freedom and start to appreciate it?!

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  4. A philosopher said we don’t have Free Will but rather Free Won’t. I can dig. Especially love Nietzsche’s account in Beyond Existence that all philosophy was merely man following impulses. Some may have an impulse to knowledge or knowledge a manifestations of other impulses.

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  5. Behaviorisms pleasure and pain principle denies freewill. Neurocognitive science denies it on the fact of biological determinism. Freud’s Psychoanalytic theory denies it because we can’t know out own motivations because they are sublimated. Yet for some reason we intuitively know we are free. Maybe not completely free but even the infant can darken the world by closing his eyes. As we get older we have a wider array of actions to select from. And instead of acting on reflex we can sit down and decide which one is best. Kant’s categorical imperative is completely rational principle that takes us out of passions grips and into the intelligible realm where we are free to choose some things.


    1. I agree with some of what you said! I think that all of the theories you mentioned that suggest we aren’t free actually mean that we aren’t free in a particular way, rather than in total.

      I don’t really see how the categorical imperative is that different and doesn’t fall into one of the theories of not being free though.


      1. Kant’s Epitaph read “The Starry skay above him, The moral Law within him.” What is in the intelligeible realm is given to freedom. The passions are not included there. So reason is the path where people can begin to free themselves. What is the Categorical Imperative but a moral code passed on pure reason, thus acting upon it is an expression of that freedom.


      2. Now you’re corning me. 🙂 I like it. There are two strands of thoughts on freedom in Germany. Kant, and romantic. The Kantian notion of freedom is super rational. It divorces us from the passions, because decisions based on the passions aren’t really decisions, there more like reflexes or reactions. Remember, Hume, saved that reason is the slave of passion and Kant, his critique, is saying not a bit of it. Now I’m not a Kantian in regards to the idea of freedom. I take a post Kantian position on freedom that I take from the romantics–F. Schiller to be precise. In his Letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man he writes, “Man is never so authentically himself as when at play.” This may seem childish at first but imagine doing something you love and it arrests time itself, you might even go without a meal because you express yourself through the activity fluidly. Its the marriage between the innocent and the formal that fuses and gives birth to this play drive. Kant put up an imprenetrable wall between the noumenal and the phenomenal world that the romantics loathed. The way into the noumenal realm, to tap into it, is through play, chiefly through the expressions of art. That is how we come to be most authentically ourselves at play. So this form of play enables freedom on their account.


      3. Hmm, I don’t know if there is anything free about being ourselves.

        I like what Schiller said and here’s a related concept: “If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man.” That’s from Dostoevsky.

        I think you will really like this blog


      4. Being ourselves is tapping into the Kants Noumenal realm where things are things in themselves. Our eyes need to be liberated from the scientific perspective to realize this the romantics believe. Thank you for the blog recommendation. I followed the professor.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. free will still has three rules that do apply, forethought, thoughts and afterthought. in other words, no matter what we are never free til we really die from it all.


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