Is our behaviour a choice?

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Arguments about free will date back to ancient Greece, but the scientific consensus now tends towards the belief that free will is an illusion. It’s become an article of faith in the life sciences that all organisations can be reduced to algorithmic processes written in our genes. We either respond to environmental stimuli either by rapidly and unconsciously processing the best option in terms of survival or through random biochemical blips. We may believe we choose our actions, but in actual fact, choice is an illusion.  If every choice we seem to make is just an electrochemical brain process – a deterministic reaction to external stimuli or a random event caused by the spontaneous decomposition of a radioactive atom – nothing we do is really our fault. You may disagree with this, but you need to know that this is current scientific dogma.*

So, where does that leave us in schools? I’ve maintained in the past that behaviour is a choice, but is this just a romantic, liberal humanist illusion? Certainly, some people think so. There’s no end of apologists queuing up to tell us that children have no agency or control over how they behave, that their poor behaviour is caused by poor parenting, poor self-esteem, poor reading or poor teaching. Interestingly, there are very few people willing to suggest that poor behaviour might be caused by poor genes though this is probably more credible than the other usual suspects.

The key is to understand that determinism is not the same thing as inevitability. The mistake philosophers have made over the centuries is in conflating determinism with physics. It makes much more sense to look to biology. Inevitability suggests our fate cannot be avoided – this is clearly nonsense as we have evolved precisely to be able to avoid all sorts of potentially grisly fates. We anticipate risks and take corrective measures. Think about it like this: if you duck to avoid a stone thrown at your head, have you demonstrated free will? No – your eyes saw the light bounce off the stone and your response – ducking – was biologically determined. Having seen the brick you had no choice but to duck. What you have is a limited freedom of action – you could (and would) have acted differently if you hadn’t seen the stone.

So should we just accept that children have no choice in how they behave and let them do whatever they want? No. Our reactions to the environment may well be – at least in part – pre-determined, but we can also learn to suppress and control our desires. This still isn’t free will, my choice to delay gratification or to avoid a risky situation may still be governed by algorithms but we can, thorough socialisation, influence children’s perceptions of what constitutes a good choice through well-chosen rewards and sanctions. The key here is to understand that there may be all sorts of very valid reasons why children may choose to misbehave, but these reasons should not be accepted as excuses.

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-11-58-48For instance, it may be the case that if a child is unable to read fluently and accurately their predetermined reaction to being asked to read aloud is to feel ashamed and punch someone. That’s perfectly understandable, but it’s not acceptable.

Now of course, it’s equally unacceptable that a child is not taught to read fluently and accurately. Reading difficulties are much more likely to be caused by poor teaching than low intelligence and schools should be held responsible for any children who leave unable to read. Just like the child who feels angry at being unable to read, there are many excellent reasons why schools feel unable to invest the time and resources in teaching children to read. But there is no excuse.

If we accept excuses then we allow children (and schools) not to take responsibility for their actions. I’m not suggesting that children (or schools) should always be punished for making mistakes, but I do believe that we should all be accountable for our actions and not allowed to duck our responsibilities. By forcing children (and schools) to take responsibility we change the environmental stimuli against which they are reacting. If our algorithms compute that throwing a chair, or consigning a child to a bottom set would be a bad choice, then we’re less likely to ‘want’ to make that choice.

Free will may be an illusion, but the environment is – at least in part – within our control. Let’s seek to understand the reasons why poor choices are made, but let’s also refuse to accept these reasons as excuses.

*If you’re interested in pursuing the free will argument, the following list makes a decent starting place:



  1. Pauly Tak September 29, 2016 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    Dogma* There is little actual dogma in science. Those who hold something to be incontrovertably true do not fully understand the scientific method. Science tells us what we currently understand about the world, due to the facts and evidence we currently have. This evidence can potentially change at any time. If we find mammal fossils in PreCambrian rocks, the theory of evolution will have to change.

    Sorry to be so dogmatic in this… 😉

    Otherwise, I agree!

    P.S. Daniel Dennett, one of Sam Harris’ “new atheist” colleagues has a differing opinion to free will. You might want to check that out.

    • David Didau September 29, 2016 at 1:21 pm - Reply

      The belief that there’s little dogma in science is delightfully naive. If only this were so. But I take your point. The definition of dogma is helpful: “a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted.” I think that sums up the mainstream life sciences view.

      Dennett and Harris are kinda talking past each other. Dennett agrees that what Harris calls free will doesn’t exist but is suggesting we call something else entirely free will. The fact that we feel like we have free will is good enough. I think for practical purposes this is the most useful stance.

      This is a good take on the free will wars: as is this

      • Pauly Tak September 29, 2016 at 2:07 pm - Reply

        That may sum up what non-scientists think of these things, but science and our knowledge of nature would NEVER progress if actual scientists did not question or doubt existing theories. Things can be realistically questioned and doubted in science, if you have new information which casts doubt on a theory or a new hyposthesis which explains all of the current evidence for the prevailing theory.

        It may come across to non-scientists as “dogmatic” in some cases, but this is because no realistic alternative theory exists. Do you think it is dogmatic to dismiss people who literally believe that man and woman were made from ash and elm trees (rather than having evolved from ancestral primates) with absolutely no evidence to back their claim?

        If a theory can be falsified with new information (the very essence of the scientific method) how can this be called dogma? Dogma, by any definition, is unchanging; scientific knowledge is constantly changing.

        • chemistrypoet September 29, 2016 at 7:53 pm - Reply

          The idea of dogma in Science is based on experience. I accept that theoretically there is no dogma in Science, but experientially there is, because Scientists are human.

          • Pauly Tak September 29, 2016 at 11:00 pm

            Cool. I can see where you are coming from.

        • David Didau September 29, 2016 at 8:30 pm - Reply

          Dogma is not by nature unchanging. human history is littered with examples of once dogmatic beliefs that have now been discarded. As I pointed out to you, dogma is “a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted.” To take your example of mammal fossils being discovered in PreCambrian rocks I’m pretty sure this would not, on its own, be accepted that evolution had been falsified. Evolution is so deeply embedded that most scientists would want to try to accommodate the mammal fossils and it would probably take a weight of evidence to sway the consensus. This is what I mean by dogma. Scientists now start from the assumption – rightly so – that evolution is a fact. The theory of organisms as algorithms has reached a similar foundational stage.

          If you’re interested I’ve written about falsification here:

          • Pauly Tak September 29, 2016 at 10:58 pm

            I really can’t let this one go. How can an idea change, in a completely non-random manner, without being questioned or doubted? If science is dogmatic, how has scienctific knowledge advanced exponentially in the past 200 years?

          • David Didau September 29, 2016 at 11:32 pm

            I’m not suggesting science -as a disciplinary way of thinking – is in the least dogmatic, but people are, aren’t they?

            Ideas sometimes go unquestioned by the majority (of scientists as well as ordinary folk) for long periods. Then, awkward bugger comes along and starts asking questions and unpicking assumptions. Before you know it, the consensus has changed and a new dogma has taken hold.

  2. johnmatthewsg September 29, 2016 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    For those interested in scientific dogma it just so happens the Guardian did a podcast today touching that very subject

    My own view as we know from Kahneman etc that there’s type 1 and type 2 thinking. Type 1 lies squarely in the did not make a choice where as type 2 long term thinking there is some free will (though much less than we probably think).

    Most behavior issues happen within the type 1 time frame in that children are generally not coming to class with the intention of causing problems.

    As per Stephen Pinker and Sam Harris might say just because there is little to no free will does not mean we need to throw the whole justice system out the window but it does mean we should think about it differently.

  3. Hugo kerr September 30, 2016 at 7:40 am - Reply

    Every thought, feeling or other mental activity is always “just an electro-chemical brain process” so this has nothing to do with whether free will exists. The extrusion of a bullet from a gun is just a chemical process, but the question of how and why the thing came to be fired still rattles loudly around. The brain is only the machinery which accomplishes the mental activity, the activity is something else. We must not, either, get caught in the assumption that if it is not conscious it cannot be freely willed, as everything is, initially at least, unconscious. We are constructed, derived perhaps, from our genetic inheritance and our history, which will include all our previous experiences, thoughts and decisions (all electro-chemical processes).

    • David Didau August 11, 2017 at 8:01 am - Reply

      This sounds like an argument against free will masquerading as an argument for. Not at all sure what you’re saying here.

  4. emanciplaytion October 3, 2016 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    The problem with the Free-Will debate is that it is typically presented as a false dichotomy. Either we have it or we don’t. Either we are determined or we aren’t. And this problem partly arises out of a belief in a purely mechanistic universe of separate “things” that bounce off of and into each other (stimulus-response)…

    Spend enough time with people like Bergson and Whitehead and you will probably come away thinking that we are partially determined and partially free. Life works in continuities and degrees, not absolutes.

    • David Didau August 11, 2017 at 8:02 am - Reply

      You’re confusing ‘determined’ with ‘inevitable’

  5. […] Contrary to much popular wishing thinking, shared environmental effects like parenting have no effect on adult’s behaviour, characteristics, values or beliefs.* The reason we are like our parents and siblings is because we share their genes. Identical twins raised apart will be more similar – often strikingly so – than non-identical twins raised together and no less similar than identical twins raised together. Moreover, adopted siblings raised together will be no more similar than random strangers. Free will, it would appear, is nothing but a convenient and persuasive fiction. […]

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