Is Free Will an Illusion?

Who am I? I can say that I am a human. I can also say with relative certainty that I have green eyes and messy brown hair; that I have an above average height of 5’9 and a shoe size is 10.5. I can pinpoint the sensations my worldly vesicle is experiencing: some sadness mixed with a bit of stress, but also excitement peeking behind the corners of my mind. This collection of atoms under the label of Katherine is….me? But how can a group of atoms following the laws of physics in the way, in which they interact, reproduce, and contribute to my existence, create my unique human experience? Can I even be sure that my physical body is real or that some metaphysical consciousness within me has some control over the actions of each tiny particle constituting me? What if, since the big bang, atoms went down their deterministic course, and I am the result of the actions of the billions of atoms that were destined to lead to my creation? Does that mean free will is us breaking the laws of science? Or, does that mean free will does not exist, and that we are all just cogs in a machine doing what we are all destined to do?

The problem of free will came up with the philosopher René Descartes, as he was contemplating the question of consciousness. He concluded that the physical world was indeed made out of particles and did run like a machine to the extent of controlling our human reflexes, which are pre-programmed motor or cognitive responses that do not require any thinking in advance. But what can be classified as a reflex? And at what point does this kind of classification begin to infringe on the notion of free will? To solve (or maybe avoid) this question, Descartes proposed that, although the human body was governed by physical laws, humans also had a non-mechanistic and nonphysical rational soul that was responsible for our voluntary decisions and therefore our ability to think. From this mind-body dualism idea arose Descartes famous creed of “I think therefore I am:” the essential idea behind this is that we can doubt the existence of everything, even of our physical bodies, but we cannot doubt the fact that we are thinking, and the fact that we can think means that we exist. From this arise the implication that, because our existence is not determined by the physical world, then neither are our actions fully dependent upon it. So does that mean we do have free will?

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Humans have the ability to think coherently and linearly, for the most part. This means that the path of our thinking follows a cause and effect pattern: a physical stimulus promoted us to think of something, or one thought has a natural association with another one. Thoughts do not appear out of nowhere: we don’t randomly think about purple elephants, but now you are because you were stimulated by a collections of letters on this screen. And do we really have control over the thoughts in heads, and can we really know how they appeared there in the first place? For example, I am now thinking about potato chips. I did not create this thought, it just appeared in my head. And I can hypothesize that it was a result of my being hungry, but it could also be because I saw a yellow car through my window. Additionally, if I ask you to think of any random book, and you pick, for example, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, how do you know that you had the ability to choose any other book? If we do not know where our thoughts come from, nor could be control what we think, does this mean that our consciousness is not the creator of these thoughts but simply an observer of them? For example, neuroscientists concluded that we only become aware of a decision full seconds after the neurological makeup of our brains indicates the creation of said decision. So does that mean we make decisions or an organ in our skulls does? Do the biological states of the neurons in our brain, influenced by all the previous causes and effects leading up to this moment, decide our actions? But what about our emotions and desires? Are those also purely a result of physical laws? Are we just another link in the unbroken chain of events that is human life?

The existence of free will has some implications in the areas of personal and moral responsibility. Does the lack of free will mean we should give up and just see where the chain of causes and effects take us? Personally, I find it very difficult to wrap my head around this concept. I’d like to believe that I have at least some control over my life. Ultimately, I think that all this stems from the question of consciousness. Since we don’t really know in what regard consciousness is responsible for our human experience and where the metaphysical entity of it comes from, solid claims about free will should not be made, yet. Hopefully, a scientific law on free will won’t come anytime soon, because I rather like living in a confused and blissful ignorance.


Sources: Sam Harris The Delusion of Free Will (Video) , Determinism vs Free Will (Video) , The Consciousness Instinct by Michael Gazzaniga (Book)
Image: Google Images

21 thoughts on “Is Free Will an Illusion?

  1. I was just thinking (while reading) about Shakespeare’s “To Be or not to Be” speech, and wondered if he proceeded Descartes or not, (he did) then I thought of Lucretius, who proceeded both by a millennia – yet seemed to talk about molecules and perhaps atoms! Then I was thinking what does Judaeo / Christianity have to say about free-will, (and what influence did that have on Descartes) then on to the modern age of particle physics, and wondered what Descartes would have made of inter dimensional thinking? It was around that time I decided I’m just not that smart! 😀

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    1. Those are some pretty interesting thoughts! The thing with science and philosophers from the past is that religion stifled a lot of the progress made in human thought. For example, if Descartes said that we indeed do not have free will, that would be going against the sayings of the church. I believe that this also forced Descartes to say that the soul is immortal. The New Christian Church during this time had adopted some scientific thinking, but a lot of it ended up being wrong anyway. This forced many scientists and philosophers, including Descartes, to bend their thinking a bit. But I’m sure that Descartes would have enjoyed studying modern physics immensely.

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  2. Great post Kat. I especially like the last sentence. Personally, I think our head elves make all the decisions and then convince us we did it all on our own. The human mind is a magnificent organ even when it doesn’t function correctly. The mind is still capable of weaving a fluid and contiguous story out of the slightest number of bits and pieces. Perhaps free will is an illusion in that it doesn’t exist external to the body but our minds can weave a free will event any time it pleases and we can trust our minds that the event is reality. We don’t often give much thought to the network of bioelectro-chemical impulses that make it all happen.

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    1. Yes, the brain can do some truly amazing things. Even if we do not have free will, the brain’s ability to present such a beautiful image of the world for our conscious viewing is impressive nevertheless. I think that the picture that the brain paints for us is unique for every single person. The variations come in from our past experiences, desires, biases etc. I think that this adds to the uniqueness and wonder of the human experience that the lack of free will seems to discount. So maybe if we might be cogs in the machine, the brain’s ability to make us so much more than that is truly impressive.

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      1. So well said Kat. Our greatest treasure is our ability to imagine something greater than ourselves and strive to be that which we imagined.

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  3. I have had this type of discussion with my kids a few times. Usually it’s the more spiritual side of “free will” then scientific, but I have to admit I came to the same conclusion that you did, ignorance is bliss. I suppose most of us will leave this life with many unanswered questions and I believe there is such a thing as knowing to much. Really great read thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. I agree, there is a thing as knowing too much. I wonder if science even needs to answer this question. Image the implications if scientists said that we don’t have free will, not just for the individual person, but for society at large. What would that mean for the stock market, the criminal justice system, the banking system? Of course scientific progress is great for our society, but I do think that some aspects of the human existence should remain unknown. Thank you for reading, very glad you liked this post 😊

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  4. Hmm.. From a developmental standpoint I’d disagree to some of the things you are stating. Because the brain is able to adapt and alter its shape and neurological pathways (the theory of the plasticity of the brain) I think there might be something more. If I write a poem for example. Is it really my brain tricking me into the idea I had to carefully select words, phrases or how to interconnect them? Is it really a decision already made and I’m the mere motor, holding the pen? My self-image would deny this in order to protect my psyche because what are the implicatons if there would be no such a thing than even the illusion of free will?

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    1. I think the theory of the brain having the ability to mold isn’t concretely proven yet, but I’m sure the brain does have the ability to adapt to both mental and physical stimuli. That’s just another one of the functions of the plethora of others that the brain is able to perform. And really, we do not know even close to everything about what the brain does, so everything in regards to the topic of free will it is just informed reasoning. I guess the brain could be tricking someone into thinking they have free will by presenting other perfectly viable decisions, but how do we know we could have picked them when we had never done so? So even when you write poetry, all the past events you’ve experienced, your emotions and desires and your genetic makeup could only really lead to one ultimate decision. Of course, whether or not we have free will, the brain does a very good job of painting for us a picture of the human experience, that it would be very hard for us to imagine that we do not have free will. Personally, I would really like to believe that we have free will: that something within our consciousness makes our existence somehow beyond the causes and effects of the physical world. There’s just not enough science to move this argument beyond simple hypothesizing and observation.

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      1. I just accidentally (or not?) deleted a very long comment.

        The gist of it: I trust science up to a certain point. Scientifical data can and will always be abused and tampered with.

        But you reignited my interest in neuroscience, if you know of any good reads along those lines (I’m particularly interested in mirror neurons and neurodiversity..) You seem to know quite a bit about the field.

        And then if we leave science behind… there is always the great unknown which is the universe. (Although I haven’t seen it, so if I was an empiricst, it probably wouldn’t exist for me 😉 )

        Thanks for engaging! Appreciated. 🙂

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      2. That’s happened to me before too. My comments would just disappear randomly. WordPress better fix that soon.
        And yes, I try not to completely believe everything that science says, especially modern science. For example, when the weight of the electron was discovered, no one even thought of testing it again because the scientist who came up with the number was so well respected within the scientific community. But as the years went on and scientists began to test that number, the number got further and further away from the initial value. Confirmation bias is just too real in the scientific world.

        I can’t think of any specific articles right now, but most of what I read comes from the website Scientific American. I also read a lot from Philosophy Now: they take a lot of philosophical questions and put a scientific spin on this, usually related to neuroscience. I also watch speeches on YouTube from neuroscientists Anil Seth and Sam Harris, they both have some very interesting ideas about how the brain works.

        And thank you for reading and commenting 😀

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  5. This was well written. I’m glad you starting exploring dualism. Don’t have much to add, except that I find your shoe size suspicious. I’m 6’1 and 10…

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      1. Descartes’ theory of dualism is very interesting, but it’s making me have an existential crisis. Thank you so much for telling me about it. 😀Also shoe sizes are very weird. Some of my shoes are 8.5 and some are 10.5 I have no idea why there’s such a difference.

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      2. Don’t be… The damn shower head is always too close, and most beds don’t fit, especially in south Asia. That said, my cousin’s the same height and he’s the shortest guy in his batch in Indiana. I guess things must be super sized in the mid West.

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  6. It’s curious to me that so many of us feel our lives change when we change our beliefs on free will. I don’t really understand why that should be so. After all, we will continue to live as seemingly freely as ever, regardless of whether or not that freedom is an illusion.

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    1. Hmmm..I don’t think that one’s life can really change that much if they embrace the fact that free will exists. They will probably keep on doing what they were all ready doing with their life, but maybe their outlook on life might change a bit. I think that our brains’ ability to paint the perfect picture of free will will never allow us to fully accept the theory that there is no free will; we’ll just keep on living as if we have all the power in the world.

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