The illusion of free will

“We must believe in free will – we have no choice.”

– Isaac Bashevis Singer

Do we – as human beings – have free will or is the concept a mirage constructed by the mind? Why would you even ask the question? Allow me to write some words on one of my favorite topics of philosophy.

We humans – and in extension our mind – are quite a complex construction. Throughout our lives we compose music, we dance and we solve mathematical problems of increasing difficulty. We live our lives with goals in our mind and make guided steps towards them. But are we really the architect of our lives or is our story already written in our cells?

Many of the processes in our brain are not fully understood by science yet; We can however, objectively state a number of observations that will allow us to bring us closer to an answer. Although the human mind is extremely complex, we can compare ourselves to species that we evolved from, such as the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees. The further we go down the evolutionary tree, the simpler the construction of the mind becomes and can eventually be compared to the inner workings of a plant or – in the extreme – to a single-cellular organism. If we look at our past with this perspective, if becomes more and more viable to look at the mind as a big blob of cells that perform tasks that seem to bring a species forwards. All day long, our brain is sending electrical impulses to other parts in the brain and this in turn decides our behavior.

Are we a machine?

A great example of this is laid forward by neuroscientist Sam Harris in his book called ‘The Moral Landscape’. Imagine a fictional situation where a mad scientist figures out how to make a machine that can control all desires – and in turn – the behavior of all humans. As soon as he turns on the machine, all humans are slaves to the instructions communicated by the machine. These humans, I would argue, do not have any free will, since they cannot decide to go against the wishes of the machine.

This fictional scenario is not all that fictional. We humans are naturally victims of such uncontrollable behavior from the impulses in our brain. It appears to us that we are consciously weighing options and making a choice – because our perception of this process is also in our mind – but it is merely a window to the inner working of our mind. You cannot choose to not make choices, it’s impossible. Your brain decides to make choices every second of the day, whether you like it or not. Your mind – and in extension, yourself – is programmed by natural evolution and environmental stimuli to respond in a certain way.

In fact, there are many examples of so called ‘free will’ being overridden by torture, much like what happens to the character Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. No longer is it an active choice to act against earlier held beliefs but the brain has been trained to make certain choices. As a software engineer myself, I think the comparison of the human mind to a computer program is surprisingly accurate, the only difference being that the human mind is a multitude of factors more complex than any program civilization has constructed so far.

Can you judge nature?

So let’s assume that you are reading this and exclaim out loud: “Yes! I agree!” (and if you don’t, I would love to see a debate in the comments below). Why would it matter? What practical benefit does this conviction give me in life? I can only speak about my own experience. For me, it provides me with a greater understanding on the behavior of individuals and acceptance of this behavior.

For example, it has been reported that certain individuals possess a greater amount of impulse control – the management of short-term desires – than others. Those who have a low amount of impulse control are prone to addiction, violence and bad financial habits. Is it their own free will that guides them to make foolish decisions, or is it a purely natural consequence of the fact that this individual was born with a brain that possesses a low amount of impulse control?

Once it is accepted that individuals have certain traits that are granted to them by evolution it means that morale judgement becomes rationally impossible. One cannot judge a tree for growing towards the sky, one cannot judge a rock for defying the wind and one cannot judge rain from falling just 5 minutes after you decided to walk your dog. So why would you be able to judge a person for actions that nature forces upon him or her?

What does it mean?

So does this mean that as a society, we should abolish the justice system? No, absolutely not. I believe the justice system is a necessary component of a functioning civilization. Murderers should be exiled from society and there should be an incentive to life in harmony with each other. (It does raise significant ethical questions though, since you are effectively punishing a human being for the way they are born.)

Does it mean we should all throw our hands in the air, accept that there is no control and stop improving ourselves and reaching for the goals we set out for ourselves? I’d argue that this is also not an option. In fact, I’d argue that anyone would fail in this endeavor even if you would try. We cannot alter ages of evolutionary biology. We are programmed to strive for happiness.

Does it mean that there is a ‘path’ set out for us, like the grand design a God might have in religion? For this to be acceptable, it would mean that given the starting parameters of the universe, it would theoretically be possible to calculate all actions and reactions leading to this exact point in time. Possibly, but there is a significant indication that modern quantum mechanics disproves this possibility. It seems likely that life itself has a certain amount of randomness embedded in it’s core.

The idea promotes humility

The people reading this blog have great luck in that they ended up winning the evolutionary lottery upon birth. All of you have above average intelligence and are more likely to succeed in reaching your goals. You did, however, not decide to be intelligent.  You were simply born this way. Your life – as it stands now – is a reaction on the actions that occurred since your birth and in extension a reaction on the entire history of evolution throughout all generations. It is something to cherish and be ecstatic about.

Feeling pride about this, however, is foolish. It is the same reason I reject nationalistic behavior, you did nothing to be born in the country you are born in and you have no reason to feel superior over those who did not. Likewise, you have no reason to feel better than people born with lesser intelligence or any other characteristic.

Be Humble.

3 thoughts on “The illusion of free will

  1. It’s paradoxical that the Western religions command that you have Free Will. From my recollection, I was never asked for permission to be born. I don’t beat my own heart. I don’t pull levers and push buttons that regulate my endocrine system. And of of the trillions of biochemical processes taking place within me, my conscious decision making mind is totally uninvolved and unaware.
    When we meet, both of us are affected by each other’s presence, by the words spoken, and by emotional influences. We are not separate individuals as much as mutually dependant creatures operating in a static standing field of behaviour. And neither is there a discernible difference between us and the natural environment.
    The food and drink that you ingest, the temperature and climate, the chemicals that are adsorbed, the length of daylight, sunlight, rain, wind, smells and so on all work to affect the mind.
    You have no more Free Will than you did a choice to be born.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robert, you have an excellent way of putting it into words. It occurs to me while reading your comment that western philosophy/religion is always striving for control where there is none to be found. It is – in a way – an expanded form of arrogance and superiority. Sometimes, the best we can do is to let go and enjoy the ride.


      1. The West separates matter from intelligence insisting that the physical world is commanded to behave by an external commander instead of being intrinsically intelligent and organizing itself. A tree isn’t commanded into existence, it isn’t created, it grows out of the solar system on the earth. A table is created out of wood, but a tree isn’t made out of wood like the table. A tree is wood.

        Liked by 1 person

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