Suppose I want to go to a store and buy a few items- coffee, cereal, tape, and gum. However, I’m at work so I have to wait a few hours before I can go to the store.

When I finally make it to the store, I grab the coffee, cereal, and gum- but the thought of tape never enters my mind. When I get home, I see a ripped $100 bill and realize I never got the tape.

Why was I unable to do what I wanted to do, despite nothing physically stopping me?

Is there a relationship between memory and free will?

  • I think you are equating free will with free self. I am not sure it is a common assumption.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 5:23
  • @rus9384 What is “free self”? I’ve never heard of that before.
    – Cannabijoy
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 5:30
  • When people tell they are free they mean exactly this. In either way, this makes sense if we assume that mind and behavioural processing is divide to conscious and unconscious part, where unconscious sometimes contradicts interests of conscious and conscious tries to tame unconscious.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 5:34
  • Because at any time you have multiple "wants", some conscious some unconscious, competing for being acted upon. That one fell off the priority list and got skipped.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 20:12
  • Anyone of at least average intelligence can make a shopping list as a reminder to get all the things you want to buy. Why didn't you do that? You chose not to, for some reason. Maybe challenging your memory is more enjoyable to you than buying everything you need in one trip to the store.
    – Bread
    Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 21:47

1 Answer 1


Kevin Timpe distinguishes between the concepts of free will and free action. He writes, "We most often think that an agent’s free actions are those actions that she does as a result of exercising her free will." And,

If we assume that human actions are those actions that result from the rational capacities of humans, we then see that the possibility of free action depends on the possibility of free will: to say that an agent acted freely is minimally to say that the agent was successful in carrying out a free volition or choice.

Although free will and free action are related he cautions that "it is important not to conflate them":

However, one might still believe this approach fails to make an important distinction between these two related, but conceptually distinct, kinds of freedom: freedom of will versus freedom of action. This distinction is motivated by the apparent fact that agents can possess free will without also having freedom of action.

In the case of the example provided by the OP where someone goes to the store intending to get tape but forgets to do so, free will was exercised in the choice to get tape. Free action was constrained when the person forgot to actually do so.

With that preliminary, let's consider the questions:

Why was I unable to do what I wanted to do, despite nothing physically stopping me?

Sometimes we forget. Memory is then a constraint on our free action.

Is there a relationship between memory and free will?

In some situations there may be more of a relationship between memory and free action than memory and free will.


Kevin Timpe, "Free Will", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/freewill/

  • Thanks for the link, it was very interesting. I understand what Timpe means by freedom of action, but all of his examples have to do with physical constraints- such as a blizzard or a mind-control device. My question is just about memory, which is a function of the mind. Does this mean the brain acts as a physical restraint against our free will?
    – Cannabijoy
    Commented Sep 20, 2018 at 4:28

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