Skip to main content

Free Will

The Illusion of Free Will 

Free will is an illusion. I will try to explain why I believe this is the case using a scientific and a philosophical argument. I want to first clarify what I mean by "Free Will." I think that free will can be defined quite simply as the ability to have acted differently. In other words, if you could go back in time at any point in your life you have the ability to have made a different choice. This is demonstrably false.

Scientific Case against Free Will

One of the strongest cases against free will have been studies done by neuroscience to study our decision making process. A study done in 2008 showed that researchers could tell what decision a participant would take up to 10 seconds before they became aware of their decision. This and other studies have put into question the idea that we are the authors of our own actions. It seems to me at this point one fact is indisputable, some moments before we are aware of what we'll do next, our brains have already determined what we will do. It is only later that we become aware of the process of having made a "decisions." Sam Harris says it best in his book Free Will:
Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have a complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom - for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

 Philosophical Case against Free Will

Following Harris's logic indeed in order to have free will we would necessary need to be aware of and have control of everything that determines our choices: environmental factors, our current moods, other people, past experiences and much more. This is simply not possible. Think about a movie. Why did you choose that movie? Why did you not choose The Avengers or Harry Potter. Did you have any control on why you chose that movie? Could you have chosen to want to to choose another movie? Of course not, not any more than you can choose to like one song over another or choose to like chocolate over vanilla ice cream. 

Everything that you think and do arises from prior causes in which you have no control over. You did not choose your parents, your genes, where you were born and your upbringing. Most of these come down to luck. Where is the free will in that?

Your choices still matter

Free will is an illusion but it is indeed a very useful one. Dispelling with the notion of free will need not make you fatalistic. Actions will still have consequences, and what you "choose" to do will still matter to your personal life. You just don't have control over what you "want" to do. And do you ever really do anything on purpose that you don't want to do? Excluding being forced to of course. If what you've read has convinced you that free will is an illusion, you had no choice in the matter. If you remain unconvinced, again you had no choice in the matter. Freedom never entered into it.

Knowledge still matters. David Deutsch says that everything, not forbidden by the laws of physics, is possible as long as you have the right knowledge. With or without free will beliefs will always have consequences and knowledge helps us make better choices. 


  Harris S, 2012. Free Will: 
  Surviving The Cosmos - Waking Up with Sam Harris and David Deutsch
  Bode S, He AH, Soon CS, Trampel R, Turner R, Haynes J-D. Tracking the Unconscious Generation of Free Decisions Using UItra-High Field fMRI. 


Popular posts from this blog

How I came to be a non-believer.

The Sun is average.
When I was a six year old my father bought me a magazine about Astronomy. I don't recall why he did it, probably to keep me busy while we went grocery shopping. I learned for the first time a few things about the Universe. The one fact that I learned that blew my mind was that the Sun was a star, just like any other, an average star. Armed with this knowledge I went to my catholic school ready to impress my friends and teachers. This was a mistake. Turns out the teacher was not thrilled when I brought up the fact. I don't know if she really thought the Sun was not a star or if she did and was pretending not to, but she quoted the bible to me and told me to be quiet. Also, to add injury to insult, a kid walked up to me at the end of class and punched me in the belly for "making up lies." (I don't feel bad as I got him back the next day pretty good)
 I tell that story because I learned something that day. Authority figures could be wrong. The B…

If We Could Jail Hurricanes We Would

Since I wrote my last post on Free Will I have come across some interesting criticisms of my view.
My goal in this post is to respond to some of those criticisms and to also dispel some misconceptions about what it would mean to not have Free Will.

If there is no Free Will then why should we care about criminals or murderers? This is perhaps the most often brought up point when one starts talking about dispensing with the idea of Free Will. The idea of punishment and retribution is at the very core of our being. A remnant of our evolutionary past, primates do it, even bats do it. Nobody likes cheaters, freeloaders or worse, killers. We still need to differentiate between voluntary action and involuntary action, particularly because this will reveal your future intentions. So how would our justice system, and how we view those who wrong us change if we were to admit to ourselves that Free Will is an illusion? The answer is, not much, but it would change in one crucial way.  We would be…