Free Will and the Business of Being Human

Teresa Roberts
6 min readAug 31


There’s Still So Many Unanswered Questions

How do we know which way to go? (my photo)

I don’t know where I was before I was born but did anyone bother to ask me if I wanted to join the parade before assigning me an embryo?

Did I get to make a well-informed choice to be here? Or did my free will start the day I was born? Wait a minute! Did I actually have free will as a child even though I had no rights or voice and if not, when did my free will privilege kick in? And, by the time I was a free-wheeling adult, how did I choose what to believe, or did I merely believe what society had trained me to believe?

If you can’t know what you don’t know, then how do you ever know if you’ve made the right choices?

I asked my therapist a few of these questions last week. Yes, I have a therapist. Why? Well, I’ve been asking questions since I was around five years old. I haven’t gotten a lot of answers yet, but the questions keep coming. Sometimes it’s nice to break it all down with someone. Frankly, most people either don’t have the time or lack the interest in discussing such matters. Still, I can be plagued from time to time by persistent questions.

The first question that I can remember asking was why didn’t my dad love me. I was in kindergarten.

We were living in a Quonset hut in Boulder, Colorado where my dad was a graduate student. The Quonset huts were provided by the university as cheap housing for families. One night I heard my mom and dad talking. I was lying in bed in the dark but I could hear their hushed voices. My dad was telling my mom that he’d never loved me. All these years later I now understand the importance of bonding. He didn’t meet me until I was almost a year old because he was a soldier in the Korean War. After he was injured he returned home to a young wife and a daughter that he’d never met.

Nowadays psychologists understand the importance of the bonding process between parent and child and how crucial it is during the first few years of a child’s life. When I asked my mom the next morning why my dad didn’t love me, however, she had little to no knowledge about the bonding process and certainly no details about how it affects the development of a child’s brain. That was back in the good old days when the average person would never have dreamed of seeing a therapist. They had a serious lack of psychological terms that hampered their ability to even describe depression, anxiety, bipolar, well, you name it. My mom told me that my dad actually did love me and not to worry about it. We never discussed it again.

Oh, well, you can’t know what you don’t know.

That’s the first question I can remember asking. From that point on it was one question after another. I started questioning free will rather late in life. I can’t remember the first time, but it certainly was after I got out of high school. The questions came in bits and spurts, however. Most people that I talked to seemed quite content with the American belief in free will. That is, we are the masters of our fate. But I began to see a lot of disparities. It seemed to me that if there was such a thing as free will it wasn’t handed out in equal portions.

There’s a lot of confusion about free will even though our culture largely tells us that humans have an abundance of it. We’re also told that we can grow up to be anything we want to be if we only apply ourselves.

Our cultural expectations are full of contradictions, however. I mean I certainly grew up in a period when American women definitely couldn’t be anything they wanted to be. Most women were fairly compliant, however, and went after the things they were told they should want. You know, a husband, children, and a house with a picket fence. I don’t ever remember having many conversations with my girlfriends in middle school or high school about what they wanted to be when they grew up. I’m pretty sure my mom and grandmother had even fewer conversations like that with their friends. Yet, I suspected even as a 50s child that if my mom had wanted to go to graduate school like my dad, he would have objected. Even getting admitted into a program would’ve been a long shot.

It’s just the way things were back in the day.

So exactly how much free will do I have? How much freedom of choice is mine to embrace and use to my benefit? And, how much is left up to genetics, environment, and opportunity?

I won’t give my take since people far more qualified than me have offered their opinions on the matter. Suffice it to say, there are people in both camps and plenty of resources out there to peruse if you’re so inclined. I think it’s fair to say that sociologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and many other great minds continue to grapple with these questions.

I do know that American culture is based on the premise that it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves. It’s easy for us to embrace this cultural belief in part because we’ve been told to believe that this gift of free will leave us with no excuses if we fail in life. Never mind that the game is rigged from the beginning for many of us. Some of us start the competition miles ahead of others, either genetically or environmentally.

And, it appears to be a crap shoot what we inherit through the lottery of birth.

Even our cultural religion, Christianity, is contradictory when it comes to the topic of free will. On the one hand, we are told that we’re made in God’s image but on the other hand, we’re fallen creatures. What a dilemma. How do we even begin to understand the challenges humanity faces with a double-edged sword like that? If you’ve been told since the day you were born that you look like god but act like the devil but that if you fail at making your life a success it’s your fault and nobody else’s, I suspect the psychological ramifications are pretty grim for a fair portion of the population.

I wish I could remember where I was before I was born and what I was doing.

That question piques my interest far more than where will I be after I die. Americans don’t ask that question very often, however. Our culture has always been more concerned with achieving money and fame in this life and then living forever from that point on. It’s no surprise to me that we are concerned with whatever our culture has indoctrinated our brains to worry about. We are indeed a product of our own particular culture and subcultures. Other cultures promote strong beliefs about past lives. It’s completely natural for their children to grow up thinking that they’ve been reincarnated.

Oh, well, you can’t know what you don’t know.

And that keeps humans in the dark about a lot of things. Many of us can’t even ask the right questions. I realize that my persistent questions are limited by what I don’t know that I don’t know as well. But I’ll keep asking because my brain appears to be wired to ask questions.

I guess I have enough free will to ask questions whenever I please, but I do wonder why many don’t question much of anything. And if it boils down to wiring in our brains being different, well, that seems preprogrammed to me.

But who knows? We may never know what we don’t know.

Teresa is an author and professional myth buster. You can find her books on Amazon.



Teresa Roberts

Teresa is an author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. She’s also a top writer on climate change and the future.