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.

A religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble

Breakfast of Champions was completely different to my first encounter with Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-five. Breakfast is vehemently anti-American – in a way that is could be anti-any nation and is disturbingly relevant today. Vonnegut has a way of stripping away the sugar coating. He speaks of the slave-trade as buying and selling agricultural machines. This comparison is brought back every time he mentions the social problems of those whose ancestors were slaves: he compares them to actual metal machines and explains that the latter are cheaper leaving the former jobless. Plain, cynical and sobering.

The book is largely centred around the concept of free will. As a medic, I recall learning about free will in physiology. Back in the 1980s, Libet et al did a clever experiment showing that the brain initiates a movement before we are aware of wanting to carry out the movement. Subjects were asked to sit in front of a clock. They were told to move at will – and note the time when they decided they were going to move . An EEG was recorded. Essentially, the EEG showed that the impulse to move occurred around a second before subjects became aware that we’re going to move. Libet and colleagues said:

“cerebral initiation of a spontaneous, freely voluntary act can begin unconsciously, that is, before there is any (at least recallable) subjective awareness that a ‘decision’ to act has already been initiated cerebrally.”

This is a good review of the subject free will in physiology. In short, awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. Whether volition is causal to movement – nobody knows. Our story-telling machine brains do like to think that it is causal of course.

As a person fascinated by mindfulness, I was curious about Vonnegut’s reference to transcendental meditation. Bunny, one of the characters, used TM. Vonnegut described the procedure in Breakfast. Vonnegut doesn’t hide his scepticism.

I appreciate that absolutely everything that involves a financial transaction can be called a scam. Some people think it is insane that the seemingly skill-less abstract art is sold for millions. Some people trust in banks, corporations, governments – and others are swayed by the evidence that these institutions cannot be trusted. Appreciating this subjectivity, my impression of transcendental meditation is that there is a big scam element to it. There are also some elements of religion in it. While I am interested in learning about the ancient tradition of this particular kind of meditation, the TM organisation and its specific take on the technique smacks of danger to me. I would certainly stay well away.

kurt vonnegut free will transcendental meditation breakfast of champions

Kurt Vonnegut’s wife and daughter were practitioners of TM. He said: “Nothing pisses them off anymore. They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” So far, so good. He later said about TM:

“a very good religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble.”

This really resonates with me.

Much like positive thinking, transcendental meditation promises the world via some very simple thing that you have to do compulsively – and preferably attend expensive seminars. It’s very important to never doubt the high priests of these respective philosophies – otherwise, it won’t work. I mean, come on.

It also makes sense that TM and positive thinking has worked for some trustworthy high-profile people. It’s because what they call TM and what they call positive thinking is different to what the seminar-selling folk mean. They take a common sense approach – not a “I will take everything literally and follow all instructions” approach that the gullible people these things attract take.

Escaping the cr*p never really works. Transcending into an imaginary ocean of perpetual calm is a form of cheap escapism that only works for seconds. On that note, I recall having a really bad stomach pain. Without any set purpose, my mind wandered and I imagined getting a shot of morphine. I immediately felt much better. However, I still had to go to hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. One simply has to acknowledge their pain and deal with it. Thinking magically won’t resolve it.

The proper, non-commercial, non-popularised practice of TM is a form of mindfulness -and I have every faith that it works well. It’s not my weapon of choice, but I recommend that people try it. Om is a always a good mantra to start with. I don’t see the value in getting mystical with “personalised” mantras. The point remains: if it walks and talks like a scam, it probably is. The other point is that Breakfast of Champions is another worthwhile book.

transcendental meditation scam kurt vonnegut breakfast of champions

Here we are, trapped in the amber of this moment

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Kurt Vonnegut is a genius – and it turns out he is a real connoisseur of the present moment – but he never stood a chance. I heard phenomenal quotes by him: ”We are what we pretend to be”, and rave reviews from a lot of well-read people. Reddit told me that Slaughterhouse-Five was a good place to start – and so I did. His examination of Christianity is excellent. The aspect of his book that left me feeling let down is the whole antiwar piece. He preemptively defends his attempt to write an antiwar book in Chapter 1 by acknowledging that its most likely a pointless affair – but still, his antiwar manifesto seems to lack depth.

“How nice – to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

Vonnegut’s reflections on religion are certainly striking. He seems to strip down all the bells-and-whistles. He makes this interesting point: Jesus was a man like the rest of us. The fact that he is glorified makes it OK for us to not strive to be like him – because we couldn’t possibly. However, an appreciation of Jesus as a nobody would allow people to take responsibility for their actions much more. It strangely reminds me of the G.O.P. philosophy and what a well-off Republican might say about the poor in the context of the American dream – just swap the concepts of morality and money around.

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse 5 meaning
This is what an American Nazi looks like – illustrated by John Holder

“All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

Vonnegut’s descriptions of women are hilarious. He’s a Dostoevsky-level psychologist. The emotion Vonnegut creates most masterfully is that he-gets-it feeling most of us yearn for. You’d definitely go for a pint with Kurt. For me, when he said that Lot’s wife looking back “was so human” elevated Vonnegut into the “can-do-no-wrong” status. Reading about her in this context tempts me to identify her as the first ever case of PTSD – before it had a name.

“People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”

His uncomplicated sentences and the absence of excess linguistic ornaments really add to Vonnegut’s main point – war is war. While it is tempting – and indeed seduces most, there’s no use in getting caught up in the ideology or the methodology of war at the expense of understanding the plain reality of it.

“I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

At the start, the frequent remark “So it goes” is gratifying. It occurs anytime somebody or something dies. It has an interesting effect – for me it breaks the forth wall and lets me, as the reader, know that the author and I are on the same page. However, as the book progresses, it becomes compulsive, matter-of-factly and annoying. His use of symbolism is a little too overbearing in general. His overly physiological remarks and “toilet humour” took away from the work for me.

Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse 5 essay
Absurd and relatable. Illustration by John Holder.

“If I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.”

The non-linear nature of the narrative emphasises the senselessness of war – but again, towards the end of the book it just seems to be happening for its own sake. There are lots of non-linear compositions that benefit from this structure. My favourite examples are the films Once Upon A Time In America and Pulp Fiction. I think Vonnegut overdid it.

“Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is.”

The fatalist aspect of the Tralfamadorian philosophy and the recurring quote about having the wisdom to know if you can change something, the courage to change it – and all that – seem to conflict. In a sense, Christianity is fatalist. The “So it goes” reprise has a memento mori quality to it.

“No art is possible without a dance with death, he wrote.”

Vonnegut doesn’t have a very clear philosophical message, but he seems to be convinced there is very little free will if any. The irony of the main character surviving the war despite having absolutely no survival instinct adds to this. Billy seems to have little insight into his own suffering. He escapes reality by travelling in time. Vonnegut doesn’t really offer us an opinion on whether that’s a form of madness – or real life. My impression is that Vonnegut’s outlook is that life in general appears pretty random and not worth sweating over.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

There is a lot of criticism in the above review, but actually I loved the book. My next stop is Breakfast of Champions.