The Trouble With Free Will: A Cell’s Perspective

Man is a being with free will; therefore, each man is potentially good or evil, and it’s up to him and only him (through his reasoning mind) to decide which he wants to be. ~Ayn Rand

There is no free will. There are no variables. There is only the inevitable. ~Chuck Palahniuk

Does free will exist?

It’s a knotty question if there ever was one, and it’s been debated time and time again through the ages. By philosophy. By religion. By college students passing a bowl and attempting lofty, intellectual conversation. By fiction. By science. By science fiction.

There has never been a consensus, however. Depending on the situation and the lens through which you are viewing it, the answer seems to shift. Some people hold strong beliefs one way or another, while others, like Jawaharlal Nehru, have tried to find some sort of middle ground:

Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.

One would think that almighty science, rife with equations and no-nonsense logic, would have the answer. Would be able to concretely say, “Here, world. This is how it is. Not that many of you are going to listen, but hey, that doesn’t change facts, now does it?” Alas, even science is still wrestling with that damn question. For example, the laws of classical physics are deterministic. Therefore, in a classical universe, people would have no free will. People are made up of particles and the laws of classical physics could determine everything about your constituent particles at any moment. As Brian Greene says:

The equations are indifferent to the supposed freedom of human will.

However, we don’t actually live in a classical universe, we live in a quantum universe. Now, Schrödinger’s equation lines up a deterministic universe. If Schrödinger’s equation is all there is, then the universe is deterministic. But there is a small chance that we’re missing part of the puzzle, that there is something else required to pass from probability to definite outcome. So, technically, there remains a tiny chance that free will could find a concrete home in quantum theory.

Of course, even if the universe were found to be deterministic, it wouldn’t stop the debate. Because there’s still another divide, that between people who believe we are more than the sum of our parts and those (like myself) who do not. And this “more,” this “soul” or “essence of personhood”, could allow for free will. Or, at least, allow the debate to continue.

Do we have free will? The question remains unresolved. And while we could spend hours here in circuitous chatter (which is a favorite pastime of mine, to be sure), in the end, I’d have to type that same sentence again: The question remains unresolved.

Instead of plunging stark-naked into the sea of free will vs. determinism, we’re just going to look at a small microcosm of it, a tiny pushpin on the map of this theoretical land.

So, galleons… do cells have free will?


There are immune system cells responsible for making antibodies. We call these little guys B cells (which makes them sound like the day crew at a strip joint), and B cells are interesting because they can actually have multiple fates. They can die. They can divide. They can start secreting antibodies. Or they can change what type of antibodies they make.

Now, all of this happens while the cells are growing in the lymph nodes. Up until now, scientists have believed that the end fate of a B cell is determined by external forces, such as particular hormones or cell-signaling molecules, acting upon the cell in the lymph node.

A recent study by Professor Phil Hodgkin, Dr. Mark Dowling, Dr. Cameron Wellard, and Jie Zhou from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute says otherwise. Their study was crafted to observe B cells and create mathematical models of their behavior, particularly in relation to how those hormones and external molecular cues impacted cell development (the end result being a tool to be used in the development of new immune therapies and improved vaccines). The surprising result of their research is that those little B cells actually determine their own fates.

It’s like cellular Invictus all up in here.

The group’s study involved a recreation of the conditions required for B cells to develop into different cell types, which was then filmed (using new tech and image analysis developed by an Australian bloke). With help from an Irish mathematician with an expertise in probabilities, the team studied 2500 B cells.

What they found was the little B cells acted as if they had little internal devices deciding their fates, like each fate was on a timer. Dowling explains the idea further:

Each cell will, in some sense, set up a clock that starts ticking for each of the outcomes and whatever clock goes off first is the decision that the cell makes. The cell is trying to do everything but only one fate wins.

But how can we be sure these decisions are based on internal devices and not external cues? Naturally, as part of the test, various external forces were exerted upon the developing B cells. Despite receiving these external signals, the group still found considerable variation in the final B cells, suggesting that those external cues don’t so much tell the cells what to do as, perhaps, tilt the probability of what they were going to do anyway. Make a few of those little internal clocks tick faster, so to speak.

In the end, it’s not that the cells have complete control over their destiny, but that they do have some say. Complete free will? Perhaps not. But there is a level of autonomy evident there that flies in the face of what our researchers expected to see.

Interesting, no?

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