The Illusion of Free Will

Blue or red pill

Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.

Arthur Schopenhauer On The Freedom Of The Will (1839)

What is free will?

According to Wikipedia, “free will is the capacity of agents to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” In other words, it is the ability to have acted differently. We chose chocolate when we could have chosen vanilla, and if it were possible to rewind time to the exact moment we made our decision, it would be entirely possible to make the opposite decision and choose vanilla instead.

We all have this innate feeling of agency. We feel that we are in control of our actions and any decisions that we make are determined by our own conscious selves.

The problem is that our actions are motivated by our desires, and yet we don’t control our desires. That is, we only do something because we want to do it. But where do these wants come from?

Is it possible to want vanilla if we in fact prefer chocolate? Only if we have another desire that’s more powerful in this moment that the desire to go with our preferred ice cream — perhaps to prove a point and give a demonstration of our free will. But why is that desire more powerful than the desire for our favourite flavour?

These wants are not within our control. We simply want things, and we helplessly act in accordance with those wants (in the case of voluntary actions, at least).

What would it mean to be able to control what we want? We’d have to choose to want that thing. In other words, we’d have to want to want that thing. Do you notice the infinite regress?

More generally, all of our thoughts are like this: from the point of view of subjective experience, each thought simply arises in consciousness out of the blue. What else could they do? Take your very next thought — can you control what you will think next? Perhaps this question provokes you to suddenly start thinking about pizza. Where did that come from? We don’t know. How could we? Again, what would it mean to be able to consciously control what we think next? It would mean thinking consciously about what we want to think next, and then thinking it — it would mean having the thought before in fact having the thought. A paradox!

So where do our thoughts actually come from? Well, given that we live in a universe of cause and effect, they come from a long chain of prior causes that eventually give rise to each thought that appears in our conscious minds. The exact structure and chemical contents of our brains in this moment; the environmental and social influences around us while growing up and their subsequent effects on our cognitive development; how hungry or tired or stressed we’re currently feeling. These and innumerable other factors influence our every thought, and we have very little control over any of them.

In the 1980s, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet performed an experiment in which he monitored the brain activity of subjects who were asked simply to move their hand whenever they felt like it, and record when they were conscious of making the decision to do so. He found that the brain activity showed that the decision had already been made well in advance of the subjects being aware of their choice — some hundreds of milliseconds before.

This is an interesting (though flawed) study for its implications on free will, but it’s important to note that the free will debate doesn’t rest on the validity of the experiment nor on the time difference Libet reported between a decision being made and our becoming aware of it. Even if each thought and decision is truly simultaneous with our being consciously aware of it, our thoughts still come from a causal chain of prior events that we don’t control, and they still appear to come out of the blue from the point of view of subjective experience.

Often we may be able to piece together a coherent pattern of thoughts that in retrospect seem to signify a conscious agent purposely driving our thoughts in a particular direction. But this only goes to show that each thought necessarily influences the next, and yet each thought therein comes from unconscious processes of which we have no control. Back to the example of ice cream, perhaps you decide to go with vanilla after all, because you had chocolate last time. But why does the thought that you had chocolate last time have the exact effect that it does in convincing you to choose vanilla this time? Again, this is not something we can control.

And what about randomness? What if the laws of physics are not fully deterministic, and the chain of cause and effect is interrupted by occasions of quantum indeterminism? If our thoughts were indeed born of true randomness, this would only mean that, in fact, nothing controls our thoughts, including ourselves, and each thought would be totally incoherent with the next. Needless to say, this does not provide a basis for free will.

So what?

So, why is this important? What good does it do to recognise that free will is an illusion? Should we all sit idly by and just wait for things to happen, since we have no control over our actions anyway? Of course not (though whether or not this post provokes you to do so is out of our hands… sorry).

But what the realisation can lead us to is more compassion for others. Since no one really chooses who they are, we can learn to be less judgemental and more understanding of other peoples’ ignorance or obnoxious or difficult behaviour.

It also has implications for our criminal justice system and our impulse for vengeance. For example, if a circus elephant escapes and, in its desparate panic, rampages through the streets and tramples a number of people, would we be so outraged that we’d seek retribution by hanging that elephant? The population of Erwin, Tennessee in 1916 did just that. But most of us would recognise that the elephant was simply acting exactly as we’d expect a scared elephant to act after escaping from the circus. We wouldn’t blame the elephant, for it’s simply acting on instinct.

But the same is true for human beings. We too are in some sense victims of biology, and we helplessly do whatever we are “wired” to do in each circumstance. Can you take credit for the fact that you don’t have the brain of a murderer, and therefore don’t experience irrational violent impulses or the urge to kill? Can you take credit for the fact that you do have the mind of an ambitious and curious person with the drive and potential to achieve higher things in life?

Truly, all of life comes down to luck — both good and bad.

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