Ahhh, sleeping in my own bed — such a delight.

After a trip to Denver for an FA Mag conference and then onto to Vancouver for the Agora event, I am back home again. It is just for a week, and then I head off to my annual Maine fishing event.

Travel is good for the soul. It gives you different perspectives, fresh ideas. As much as we like to believe we are independent, that our thoughts are our own, we invariably are influenced dramatically by our environment, culture and society far more than we may realize.

Getting out from your usual comfort zone has all sorts of surprising benefits. Let’s explore this concept a just bit more for our Friday philosophizing.

B. F. Skinner famously said “Free Will Is an Illusion.”

Skinner is for the most part, correct, and our concept of free will is a cognitive illusion. However, I want to add a corollary to his observation, noting that we can move a little closer to Free Will by understanding our own minds. It is not impossible to develop an awareness of our own inherent illusory tendencies, via knowledge of how our wetware influences our thoughts and behaviors. With knowledge, self-awareness, context, and understanding, we can in some small way, partially overcome that illusion.

In other words, you are not born with Free Will, it is something you must earn. Call it self-enlightenment through study and thought.

Its called “Independent Thought” for a reason. I assure you this will not be the path most people take. The vast majority of television watching, corn syrup anesthetized, self-medicated, endlessly entertained masses only confirm Skinner’s claim. They are spoon fed empty headed nonsense, even saying “thank you” for it. Most are poorly educated, taught to rote memorize instead of being taught to think critically.

While I am thrilled not to be a practicing attorney, I have great respect (and gratitude) for what I learned in law school. The Critical Thinking, Research and Analytical Skills that was taught stands in stark contrast to much (not all) of my prior education. I suspect there is about a year’s worth of critical thinking lessons that could be pulled out of the three years of legal course work, and made useful for high school and college students. Society would be much better off for it. No, we do not need more lawyers, but we do need more people who can think rationally, critically and have analytical skills.

I am not holding my breath waiting for this to occur . . .


Back shortly . . .

Category: Philosophy, Psychology, Travel

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

38 Responses to “Independent Thought: Earning Your Free Will”

  1. Hallsto says:

    Sentience, such a burden! I just want to wiggle some sub atomic forces around through coordinated electromagnetic impulses….come to think of it wtf is this “I” thing anyway?

  2. lburgler says:

    This morning, the bed got me out of it, the street walked my feet, the coffee drank itself to me, and the going-to-work went itself on me.

    • Looked at differently: Why do you have this particular job? Why do you live in this city? What factors led you to becoming who and what you are ?

      • lburgler says:

        I agree with you that free will must be earned.

        I disagree with people who say that free will is an illusion, presumably on scientific grounds.

        As you can see, the way we speak and think is predicated upon a priori agency. And the grammatical structure of our language is structured according to the ur-metaphor of agency.
        Science is inscribed in the logic of freedom.

        What agency is, how it is perfected and developed, that is another question.

      • Your what, 29? Give it a few years . . .

  3. lburgler says:

    It must also be admitted, by whomever or whatever, through me, that THE DONUT MADE ME EAT IT. Maybe if the donut had been wearing a birka, so to speak, it would not have done so. But it’s not my fault.

    I’m not even here.

  4. formerlawyer says:

    But in Texas, critical thinking skill is seen as a UN conspiracy to um steal our precious bodily fluids, undermine fixed beliefs, whatever?

  5. DeDude says:

    “taught to rote memorize instead of being taught to think critically.”

    I just talked with my wife about that this morning. Are people getting more stupid and unable to think critically (as it seems) and why? One thing we have been increasingly doing in our education system is to institute standardized memorization tests and reward/punish teachers for how well their students perform in that task. So all the rewards and incentives are for students to passively absorb information feed to them, and then without thought spit it right back out. No time for anything else. So you look at the Fox “news” that people brainlessly regurgitate, and it dawns on you that the reason they do so, is that it this was all they ever learned. So although critical thinking is essential for certain functions in society, our masters do not want the masses to have that skill. So they instituted “no child left behind” and “standardized tests” and “performance pay for teachers” to make sure that the masses do not get such dangerous abilities.

  6. denim says:

    Barry, I think you will find systems engineering knowledge of similar value.

    NASA Systems Engineering Handbook (>340 pages incl TOC and Index)

    “Systems engineering is a methodical, disciplined approach for the design, realization, technical management, operations, and retirement of a system. A “system” is a construct or collection of different elements that together produce results not obtainable by the elements alone. Te elements, or parts, can include people, hard-ware, software, facilities, policies, and documents; that is,all things required to produce system-level results. The results include system-level qualities, properties, characteristics, functions, behavior, and performance. The value added by the system as a whole, beyond that contributed independently by the parts, is primarily created by the relationship among the parts; that is, how they are interconnected.

    It is a way of looking at the “big picture” when making technical decisions. It is a way of achieving stakeholder functional, physical, and operational performance requirements in the intended use environment over the planned life of the systems. In other words, systems engineering is a logical way of thinking.”


  7. Petey Wheatstraw says:

    I have a 17 y.o. son. Smart as a whip, and very literate. He’s all about free will. Risks be damned. Come to think of it, I was pretty much the same at his age.

    Free will is the folly of youth.

    By personal experience, I take the opposite view: Free will diminishes as “understanding our own minds” takes place.

    I’ll also note that the older I have gotten and the more I have learned (critical thinking, research and analytical skills being what they are), the less I was sure of. The more I learn, the more I know I don’t know. Not exactly a “freeing” dynamic.

    “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
    — Pablo Picasso

  8. I grew up on an Island, and pretty much always wanted a boat. I have a boat, and I love it — but would that have happened if I grew up in Kansas or someplace where it was really cold?

    Consider every major decision you ever made — what factors impacted those decisions? Where you consciously aware of these?

    • Hallsto says:

      I think as you quoted in your article, that the notion of choice itself is very open to challenge. Terence McKenna was enamored with the concept of attraction, that we are experiencing more or less a memory with the outcome built into the function of existence. Some quantum physicists would argue everything that can happen, does.

      I personally take the Two-Face approach and just flip for everything.

      • Petey Wheatstraw says:

        All of life is swimming against the current of time. A person’s direction/expended energy/decision-making path matter, but every now and again they get hit by things driven in the current, or an eddy will push them forward with relative ease. Free will is relative perception, at best. Life is a game of chance.

    • S Brennan says:

      Barry, not to be contrary…well this posting does invite that, but most US Navy ships contains a FULL COMPLIMENT of prairie boys eager for adventure at sea. Granted, from personal experience*, many are puking their guts outs as the ship leaves Pearl heading up Molokai Passage.

      I was Army, but dropped down to reserves to finish school, when I moved west, I affiliated with a Naval Reserve Unit as a “frocked” Quartermaster. Week-end drills were boring as hell, but 2-week duty was great adventure.

      • Thats hardly contrary at all — what are their circumstances? What other opportunities do they have that le them to this choice?

      • Joe says:

        When yer walkin’ the streets of a small town in Kansas late in the afternoon of a skull melting summer day, and the recruiting poster onna wall of the P.O. shows a nuclear submarine surfaced at the North Pole, with a smiling sailor inna parka doing the thumbs up to a fighter pilot roaring overhead inna clear cold blue sky, watcha gonna do? You’re gonna enlist inna Navy to see what the world away from Kansas looks like. An’ then yer gonna spend 5 years in quartermast corp navagating a desk and counter in a quonset hut in Texas, passing out uniforms…

        I’m a huge believer in free will and the ascendency of human thought and intellect. I will not live in a behaviorist world where you cannot be unshackled from being a quantified product of weighted stimulus/response/reward events. After all, what is the purpose of intellect, if not to rise above reflex? And occasionally, late at night, I lie awake and wonder, “Just what series of events and the positive and negative reinforcements leads to me being this way.”

      • I agree — hence my preference (hope?) that we can think our way to free will . . .

      • S Brennan says:

        Where can I start with such ignorance parading as jaded worldliness?

        Let’s start with the duties of Quartermaster in the US Navy. Quartermaster in the Navy is a highly respected rate. A Quartermaster in the USN is the enlisted sailor who handles the navigational duties of the ship. He serves on the bridge, things may have changed, but in my time that means handling the charts and navigational gear. In my time, the rate of Quartermaster in the US Navy, was required to handle, Loran, GPS gear as well as being able to navigate the ship with non-electronic gear such as sextant, time piece and reduction tables. It would be an exceedingly rare event for a ships officer to show anything, but respect to a rated Quartermaster.

        If you don’t know the differences between the services enlisted rates & MOS’s perhaps you should use “critical thinking” and refrain from judgment?

        Moving on. It’s pretty a pretty rare event that when somebody joins the USN and who wants sea duty, is assigned shore duty, generally, shore duty is hard to get. Many a weak man having served on ship would drool over your suggestion of “5 years in quartermaster corp navagating a desk and counter in a quonset hut in Texas”…because it ain’t gonna happen.

        Continuing, service is how those with few options increase their ability to choose a different course in life…one would think that on the subject of FREE WILL “choice” might be seen as an essential ingredient. I guess not.

        I uderstand the not so suble put down of the enlisted man…but having had the experience and being able to compare those who educated themselves using the GI Bill with your typical “frat boy” at university, I’d bet on the GI, for being more independent and more likely to edorse theories obtained through a collection of empirical data points than those ‘frat boys” who are “are spoon fed empty headed nonsense”.

        This post began by Barry expousing the value of travel…and I could not agree more. If travel is a value to exspouse, then those who choose service should be respected, the service forces you to travel both in space and time, but also…through a different social systems, something, few who are well born, ever choose, as a percentage few civillians have willingy adventured farther.

  9. open mind says:

    Barry , my respect for you and what you make available for us all keeps growing . I very much enjoy your thoughts and look forward to them each and every day . Well done and thanks .

  10. czyz99 says:

    Whenever I read history I think ‘what would I have been like if I lived back then’. Would I have gone along with things I disagree with now? Would I be a totally different person? The answer appears more and more to be yes, but that’s not the answer I want.

  11. vipasyana says:

    As they say in eastern philosophy:

    There is neither destiny, nor free will…in the context of all pervading spirit! There is a little bit of both, in the context of the journey of the individual soul towards the supreme soul/reality.


    Free Will & Destiny: (June 19, 1936, p. 171)
    Mr. B.C. Das the Physics Lecturer, asked about free will and destiny.
    M: Whose will is it? “It is mine”, you may say. You are beyond will and fate. Abide as that and you transcend them both. That is the meaning of conquering destiny by will. Fate can be conquered. Fate is the result of past activities. By associating with the wise the bad tendencies are conquered. One’s experience are then viewed in their proper perspective… Free will is implied in the scriptural injunctions to be good. It implies overcoming fate. It is done by wisdom. The fire of wisdom consumes all actions. Wisdom is acquired by association with the wise [satsang], or rather, its mental atmosphere.

    M: Free will and Destiny last as long as the body lasts. But wisdom transcends both, for the Self is beyond knowledge and ignorance.

  12. S Brennan says:

    Nice Post Barry, I had a high school English teacher who taught me critical thinking. My poor writing aside, I try my best to live up to her kind admonitions. I am sure Marie Stone would praise this post…because I suddenly felt like I was in her classroom when I read this:

    [Y]ou are not born with Free Will, it is something you much earn…Its called “Independent Thought” for a reason. I assure you this will not be the path most people take. The vast majority of television watching, corn syrup anesthetized, self-medicated, endlessly entertained masses only confirm Skinner’s claim. They are spoon fed empty headed nonsense…

    …or perhaps..I am becoming unstuck in time, like one of her favorite authors.

    PS, I would think it fair to warn people, that while the rewards far outweigh the downside…there is a considerable downside to thinking critically, you will be ostracized by many for not conforming your mind.

  13. davedk says:

    I’m reminded by the (substantiated?) rumor that Steve Jobs in his early days asked job interviewees whether or not they had ever done LSD. While I guess most people understood this as wanting rebels rather than corporate types, I also took it to mean he wanted people who intuitively knew how limited our conscious mind is, and that what is really interesting is how consciousness is shaped somewhere else. A line of thought follows from an understanding of our mind as that of an by evolution assembled animal rather than a rational agent, to his and Apple’s endless obsession with simplicity. Our brains want to do what is easy, and what is easy for the brain are the structures of neurons already learned.

    Certainly where neuroscience, biology and psychology is presently suggests we are mostly fooling ourselves when we believe we are unique snowflakes with lots and lots of free will. But that is mostly a sign of health, how would we otherwise get _anything_ done?

  14. trafficengineer says:

    An interesting recent discussion on this from Edge.org:
    Free will, determinism, quantum theory and statistical fluctuations: a physicist’s take :

  15. [...] his Friday philosophizing today, my friend Barry Ritholtz offers the famous B.F. Skinner claim that free will is an illusion and [...]

  16. constantnormal says:

    We should also not confuse “free will” with “being correct” … we can occasionally (or frequently) exercise our free will to freely walk into blunders.

    Having free will does not guarantee freedom from bad thought processes, it only allows us to recognize errors and attempt to recover from them, and hopefully not repeat them in the future, and optimally, to try to correct the errant thought processes that led us into the errors. That part is difficult.

    Those who lack free will wind up being trapped in their delusions and errors by prejudice, biases, and whatever thought-leaders they happen to worship. That is the difference between having free will and not.

  17. faulkner says:

    Framing this in terms of Behavioral Economics/Dual Process Theory (see Kahneman’s book), most of the time most of us are act with our automatic, perceptual, pattern recognizing, wantonly associative and analog System 1. Through physiological development and deliberate education, we can develop some degree of deliberate, conceptual, sequential logic of interpretation and evaluation System 2 – though only to a skill level in an area of expertise.

    “Earning your free will” can be described as when these System 2 expert skills are applied to another domain of experience, particularly to the unconscious categories and associations of System 1. Legal thinking, critical thinking, systems thinking and other excellent approaches are essential skill of a sufficient System 2 education, but the work is not done until their distinctions and strategies are used to reorganize System 1. How to do this is largely not codified in most fields.

  18. Frilton Miedman says:

    Would be nice if the Department of Education made Plato’s Allegory of the Cave required curriculum in grade school.

    Free will?
    In the most important sense, politics, here in the U.S. voting is now a choice of the bribed guy or the other bribed guy, because our options are restricted via a Bayesian process that procures a small selection of those most willing to sell their souls for campaign bucks.

    Without a fair public finance system to avail a broader selection of qualified candidates with equal air time, and eliminating bribery, we’re guaranteed a continued move away from Democracy and real choice – We’re always going to be presented with the candidates who sold their souls to the highest bidder.

  19. VennData says:

    BR makes the claim that “Society would be much better off for it.” however a powerful force in society would not. They finance the GOP and have hauled together a coalition of loonballs to pull the lever for the “tax cut for the rich” candidates.

    Dogma or data, take your pick.

  20. WallaWalla says:

    I completely agree with your sentiments regarding the need to foster critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, with the advent of standardized testing and strict curriculum requirements, this does not seem to be a priority in the public education system.

    Moreover, I am noticing more and more disdain for the liberal arts approach to education. I suspect those espousing it, which inherently emphasizes a broad holistic approach, lack the critical thinking skills necessary to see its value. (those lacking independent thought cannot rationalize it). It’s a shame to see something with societal, as well as individual, value rejected out of hand by so many.

    Thanks Mr. Ritholtz. This post provided interesting food for thought.

  21. eideard says:

    Were you watching Morgan Freeman Wednesday night? This was the topic on “Through the Wormhole” this week.

    Now I have to find stuff to read from Nobel Laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft.

  22. peterkrause says:

    Here it is. You only do what you want to do, AND, you dont do anything that you dont want to do. That is the truth of free will. And if hell is other people, as someone famous once said, I would add as a corollary that it is other people who gainsay your understanding of free will. And it is the exercise of your own will that frees you from other people. Ur.

  23. Giovanni says:

    +1 on earning one’s free will. Not that I am any more removed from the general stupidity of our media/advertising culture than anyone else, but I believe the first step is relocating to a place that encourages independent thought.

  24. Greg0658 says:

    been wondering what I could add for your entertainment ..
    1st – wondering what BR’s next book is all about :-)

    yesterday morn’g got my wrist cast off after 41 days of anti-freedom of choice (from a neighbors dog chase mishap while deliver’g phonebook*s) – 9 yrs of work cash** wiped out – but it was never so much for the money (tho wouldn’t do without it) it was(is) a test I can still be a paperboy .. all will be well with the wrist (ok – not’ish)

    the real effect is the wake up call*** .. I’m getting older and more fragile .. I see that all around me/us … these issues will make and break us .. and I wanna be on the feel good side

    * 1 of 3 we will see (& a bartender friend threw-out “who needs ‘em”)
    ** that’s another can of worms I care not to open (as it’d be offT)
    *** I choose not to be encapsulated in a healthy corporation or government entity (a few other smaller enities come to mind) .. remiss to not dig again > or a dealer of air

  25. Thanks for this excellent article, Barry. I hope it’s OK that I abstracted and linked to it from one of my own posts:


    The opportunity to recognize we aren’t born with free will but could earn some, then getting training and encouragement to make the effort, that really is a crap shoot. It’s so important for our society to improve the odds.

  26. DTouche says:

    Denim has a great point about systems engineering.

    S Brennan’s outlook is relevant because to me he is saying that personal aspirations that lead people out of their basic comfort zone typically lead individuals to accomplish much more than would be expected given their starting position in life. Critical thinking stems from an internal discomfort with the status quo. Those that are completely comfortable tend to accept the status quo and this can lead to stagnation.

    Understanding the interrelations and performance of separate systems integrated into a larger system with varying inputs and output consequences has been the most valuable skill I have acquired at 33 years of age.

    One small example, I view the practical function of the Federal Reserve as a financial surge vessel. Surge vessels are a tank, vessel, sumps (Capacitors, inductors for rough electronic equivalence) that handle working fluids (gases, liquids) to accommodate for density changes as thermal and pressure conditions found in the working fluid system change during operations. To me the FED pushes or pulls money from the financial markets to keep the system from completely freezing up.due to system conditions. It is a counterbalance to excessive greed, excessive thrift and lately TBTF mal/nonfeasance. Clearly my understanding doesn’t meet the academic rigor of finance, economics etc but it works for my needs as a market participant.

    On a pragmatic level, free will is directly proportional to an individual’s free cash flow and net worth. Once an individual discovers that establishing a savings rate and working to increase their savings rate and ability to invest their own capital, a positive feedback loop emerges. This good behavior feeds upon itself since by creating it’s own reward of upward mobility. As the individual progresses, they become more self confident and less concerned about external inputs regarding their decision making processes. The noise fades away while data, analysis, causality, reflexivity and synthesis becomes stronger and stronger. In short working from behind generally pushes people towards muddling through life while working ahead pushes people towards achievement. I wish our education system would confer this understanding to everybody early and often.

    Machinists Mate 1st Class (SS) Nuclear Qualified aboard USS Oklahoma City (SSN723)

  27. Greg0658 says:

    capitalist’s wanted/needed more consumers – WW2 devastated lands needed rebuilding .. my savings allowed offshore’g of jobs for that precious yield .. a job is the most important vehicle(instrument) in a planted laborers lifetime

    so storm surge ponds/lakes are important to ride’g out the storm waters .. but sub-superior to working for a living .. hense why I’m so upset with the financial sector and their thoughts on GDP work for a living