Free Will and Semantic Priming

I first learned about the argument against the idea of us humans having Free Will after watching a Sam Harris YouTube video on the topic. Perhaps you too first encountered the premise from Sam, if you have not, he has a book aptly called ‘Free Will’. I recommend you read it, if you’re interested.

Now, what is Free Will? Here is the Wikipedia definition.

Free will is the capacity for agents to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded. Free will is closely linked to the concepts of moral responsibility, praise, guilt, sin, and other judgements which apply only to actions that are freely chosen.

If you are like me, raised with the idea that we are free to make our decisions. Say and do as we see fit, based on our inner morals and critical thinking. Some of which we know are culturally driven, others we suspect come from somewhere within. But what if that is not the case? What if we do not have as much choice as we are led to believe?

So, first of all I would like to say I do not know what I believe yet. I am still trying to work through these ideas, take what I have to say and make up your own mind. What I will ask is that you be open to the idea and try not to fall into a pit of despair imagining yourself doing all sorts of horrible things because you have no control over your actions. That is not what I am implying. 

If you will, I would ask you to follow a short thought experiment. 

I would like you to either say outloud or repeat to yourself in your head the first word that comes to mind when you read the words below. Remember, the first thing – no contemplating what you should think. Give it a go.





Okay, so you may be an outlier, but if you’re like me you thought  Dog – Cat , Black – White , Day – Night , Hot – Cold. 

This is what we call Semantic Priming. If you step back a moment to contemplate (you’re allowed now) what this means in relation to Free Will we have an interesting revelation. You did not choose any of those responses to the words I listed below, they just popped into your consciousness as a result of my ‘priming’. This in my estimation is the case for the majority of the thoughts that arise in your mind, either they arrive out of nowhere or they are somewhat primed by your environment. Think of the first country that comes to your mind – go. You instigated the thought sure, but you did not choose which country appeared. Now if I had been asking you that question in a French accent, or we were just having a conversation about my travels in France, your answer would be much, much more likely to be Paris. You see my point here. 

Think for a second if you were raised in a crime ridden area, your parents did not care for you or weren’t there. All you knew was a world of trauma and pain. How much different your thought patterns would be based on the input and environment around you. The words that were being parried about around you, the only things you had primed in your mind. Would you say that person has ‘Free Will’ ? Would they be free to just wake up and make superior decisions to improve their lives? I am not sure.

I believe we do have the mental space to choose what we do with the thoughts we receive, and then act upon them. To cultivate a loving mentality that compassionately looks at our thoughts and sees them for the river of consciousness they are. However, I am not so sure about whether or not I have any say in what thoughts I think. I would like to think I have control over my actions, the deeds I do in this life and be a conduit for good as much as possible. And either way, I intend to live as if I do have Free Will, even if it turns out I do not. 

So, I ask you fine reader to ask yourself the question do you have Free Will? Do any of us have Free Will?

Feel free to answer the question in the comments.

❤ Mitch

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