Is There Free Will? Finally an Answer

by Alfred A. Barrios, PhD

The question of whether man does or does not have free will has been debated down through the centuries by some of the greatest minds but has never been fully answered. There are those, call them idealists, who say that of course we have free will; we can control our own destiny; we can choose between misery and happiness. Then there are the realists who point to all the miserable people in the world and ask did all these people freely choose to be miserable?

Do we really have free will? Do we really have control over our own destiny? Can we change our behaviors at will if we see that they are detrimental to us? Or is everything set in stone, pre-determined? In order to finally answer this question, we must first properly define our terms. Although there are currently many definitions of free will, I believe the most correct one is: Free will is the ability to control our automatic side, our subconscious behavior, by means of the power of sufficiently concentrated thought. And by concentrated thought I mean the ability to block the interference from any negative automatic behavior or thought that would tend to contradict the action or change we wish to empower.

If you stop to think about it, most people's behavior is of an automatic nature:  habits, attitudes and beliefs that have been so deeply programmed in over the years as to be so automatic that they are very hard to change. In this sense then you could say that many people are automatons, governed and slaves to this automatic (subconscious) behavior. [The "subconscious" is to be differentiated from the "unconscious" here. I define the subconscious as behavior that has been so deeply programmed as to occur automatically, below conscious awareness and often beyond conscious control. The unconscious can be defined as engrams or memories beyond immediate conscious recall.]

So from this definition of free will we can see that the answer to the question of whether there is free will or not is that all humans have the POTENTIAL for free will because all humans have the potential to enter this state of concentrated thought and thus have the potential to re-program themselves at will (an ability that differentiates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom). But not everyone has learned how to do this. Consequently, people differ from one another in the amount of free will they have.

However, there is a way of achieving this state of sufficiently concentrated thought and that is by developing a heightened state of belief in the outcome or change you are trying to program in; for I define belief as concentration on a thought to the exclusion of anything that would contradict that thought. Or another way of putting it:  a state of heightened belief includes a strong inhibitory set which can suppress the existing negative program you are trying to replace sufficiently so as to keep it from interfering with the re-programming you are attempting.

This is why hypnosis is such a powerful tool for facilitating change since I define hypnosis (as did B.F. Skinner) as a heightened state of belief. This is strongly supported by the evidence showing that hypnotherapy is the most effective form of psychotherapy. I refer the reader to the review of the literature I presented in my article "Hypnotherapy: A Reappraisal" [Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 1970]. It was found that the average success rate for hypnotherapy was 93% after an average of 6 sessions; this compared to 72% after an average of 22 sessions for behavior therapy, and 38% after an average of 600 sessions for psychoanalysis.

This is also one of the reasons why religion is so deeply entrenched in the hearts of many since religion offers another way to a heightened state of belief. It also explains why the placebo effect in medicine (both standard and alternative) and psychotherapy plays such a big role in facilitating positive changes in humans since the placebo is based on the power of belief.

Those among you who are adherents of determinism need not feel that this approach to free will contradicts your beliefs - if you define determinism in terms of the lawfulness of nature instead of the opposite of free will as some mistakenly do. What is the opposite of free will is fatalism. If you believe that your life i pre-ordained or pre-destined and that you cannot change it from that, then you are a fatalist and do not believe in free will.

We should also clearly differentiate between the terms "heightened belief" and "beliefs". When I refer to the power of heightened belief, I am referring to the power of concentrated (unhindered) thought. When I refer to the term "beliefs", I mean specific attitudes, ideas, ways of seeing things a person might have.

I also feel it is important to differentiate between the concepts of faith and belief. Faith I define as a form of guided or directed belief. And I like to point out that belief alone is often not enough for positive change. If it is directed in a negative direction, it can be harmful and dangerous.

Finally, with regards to how thoughts can directly affect human reactions I refer you to Pavlov's writings on the power of speech (as well as inner speech which is how Pavlovians refer to thoughts) to affect humans:

"Obviously for man speech provides conditioned stimuli which are just as real as any other stimuli... Speech, on account of the whole preceding life of the adult, is connected up with all the internal and external stimuli which can reach the cortex, signaling all of them and replacing all of them, and therefore it can call forth all those reactions of the organism which are normally determined by the actual stimuli themselves."

All articles and quotes referred to above can be found in the "Dr. Barrios Articles" section of my website:, including my "Theory of Hypnosis". See especially my articles: "Science in Support of Religion: From the Perspective of a Behavioral Scientist" and "Hypnotherapy: A Reappraisal".

(back to top)