Free Will is an Illusion & Why You Should Care

“You can read the life you’re living, but you cannot change a word” -Leonard Cohen

Free will. We all feel like we have it. We feel like we make decisions and either suffer the consequences of those decisions or reap the benefits of them.

We regret choices we’ve made in the past and have a strong intuition that we could have done otherwise. These intuitions are sometimes even backed up by our partners telling us how we should have done otherwise.

We feel we should have tried harder, pushed further or we wish we’d given up sooner. But, if we were put in the exact same position as before, could we have behaved differently, or is the sense of agency and control we feel just an illusion?

In this post I’ll pull on a thread that I hope unravels your preconceived notions about free will and agency. And perhaps even changes the way you feel about things like hate, regret and luck.

Baby Steps

Imagine for a moment, that we rewound the last 30 seconds of time for you and then pushed “play”, right now. Would anything be different? Could anything be different? Could you have chosen to stop reading, or to not understand the words that formed the sentences you were reading?

What if we rewound the last 5min and pressed play… any changes? Or would your exact same thoughts and actions happen in the exact same way? What if we rewound back a year, 5 years, 20 years, back until the big bang even, and then pressed “play”? If we began it all again, what would be different, what could be different?

For sure, if we knew what we know now and we rewound time back 5 years, we would certainly make different choices, but only with memory and hindsight. Take these away and things would just play out exactly the same way every time.

It’s like watching dominos falling down and knocking the next one over. No matter how many times you start again or where you start again, the same result is inevitable.

What We Know We Don’t Know

Think about all your brain does, completely without your knowledge, to keep your body running well. From digesting your food, regulating your blood pressure when you stand up or sit down, increasing your heart rate or fighting off disease, farting in your sleep..

All of this happens without you being aware of any of it (although our partners typically become acutely aware of the sleep farting). It’s all just cause and effect. We like to say it all happens subconsciously, and we’d be correct, but what else happens subconsciously? Is it just our bodily functions that happen without us knowing or is there more?

The Annual Review of Psychology, in 2011, suggested that a full 99.44% of all behaviors are automatic i.e. subconsciously carried out. Exactly how they got to the alarmingly precise figure of 99.44% is a journey I’ll spare you from but I think we can take their point, it’s a high percentage.

Could this mean that we walk the earth with little to no free will and that consciousness is a fairly useless state of awareness? Was Leonard Cohen right when he said, “You can read the life you’re living, but you cannot change a word”? Perhaps, but I’ll tackle consciousness in a later blog, for now, let’s crack on with free will.

What Most of Us Assume

The popular perception of free will seems to rest on 2 assumptions:

Assumption 1: Each of us was free to behave differently than we did in the past. EG: you became a fireman, but you could have become a policeman. You chose strawberry, but you could have chosen vanilla. It certainly seems like this is the world we’re living in.

Assumption 2: We are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions and the experience you have of wanting to do something is the root cause of you doing that something. EG: You feel that you want to move your arm, and then you move it.

However, we now know that both of these assumptions are untrue.

What we now understand is that our will is either determined by prior causes, or they are the product of chance (or some combination of the two). But whatever they are, no one of these (or combination of any of them) gives us the free will that most of us think we have and cherish.

Further Down the Rabbit Hole

The problem of free will though is deeper than the problem of cause and effect. The fact is that we have a subjective experience of free will but this subjective experience, if we drill down into it, can’t be mapped onto physical reality.

If you pay close enough attention to your own experience, you will notice that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us. If you pay attention you will see that, you no more decide the next thing you think than the next thing you are about to read..

Thoughts simply appear in consciousness very much like these words you’re reading. What are you going to think next? What am I about to write? I could suddenly start talking about the pleasures of Indian head massages.. 

Where did that come from? From your point of view, it came out of nowhere, and the same thing is happening in the privacy of your own mind with each and every thought you have. Except your thoughts come from deep inside your mind and have nothing to do with the “you” which you believe to be in charge.

You’ve arrived at this blog post and you’re reading along while presumably enjoying this thread, but there is also a voice in your head that is saying things in the background. (as if you hadn’t noticed).

Many of these things have nothing to do with what you’re reading here. You’re doing your best to follow my thread of reason, but there’s competition in your mind. You suddenly start thinking things like, “that cereal I bought is definitely making me fat..”.

Thoughts just emerge in consciousness; you are not authoring them. To author them would require that we think of them before we think them, which is impossible.

And if you can’t control your next thought, and you don’t know what it’s going to be until that thought arises, then where is your freedom of will?

You’ve either had this thought already or you’ll soon be thinking, “what the hell is this guy going on about?”..  but know this, you didn’t pick that thought either..

Stay with me, appreciating all of this is a process..

Come Up To The Lab

Many scientists have demonstrated in a lab that a person’s behavioural voluntary choices can be detected seconds before they are even consciously aware that they’ve made a choice. 

Benjamin Libet is known to have pioneered these studies with an EEG, but they have been replicated over and over with FMRI. In the studies the participants are asked to decide between pressing a left or a right button while watching a clock.

When they first become aware of which button they will push, they indicate to the doctors where the clock was when they consciously made the choice. In every case the EEG and FMRI scans indicate that the parts of the brain, governing the decision-making process, decide half a second or more before the person has consciously decided which button to press.

This proves that moments before you are aware of what you are going to do, your brain has already determined what it is you’re going to decide, consciousness is just along for the ride.

Sam Harris on Free Will (from his book “Free Will”)

An Experiment On Your Own Free Will

Let’s run a little experiment. Think of a city, anywhere in the world.

Pay careful attention to what this conscious process feels like as you make your decision. The 1st thing to notice about this, is that this is about as free a decision as you are ever going to make in your life. You literally have ALL the cities in the world to choose from, I’m just asking you to pick one.

Take a few moments and carefully choose one.

Once you have decided on a city, then read on..

Right, now that you have chosen a city, let’s have a closer look into what just happened in your mind.

First, let’s set aside all the cities that you don’t know and therefore could not have picked, because you couldn’t have picked those even if your life depended on it. Then there are many other cities whose names are well known to you, but that didn’t occur to you to pick. Mombasa perhaps didn’t occur to you even though you know this is a city, but for whatever reason, this city did not occur to you.

Now answer this. Were you free to choose that which did not occur to you to choose? Based on the state of your brain a few moments ago, Mombasa didn’t raise its hand as an option. Where is the freedom in you not selecting Mombasa as an option?

It’s likely that the city you did choose is one you were just talking about, reading about or recently visited or want to visit. Your lazy brain just went into the file and grabbed a city that was floating on top of the others and handed it to your left hemisphere and you feel like you made the choice to go with that city.

Where was your freedom of will in this process? Even if you tried to be a little smart and changed the city while reading the last couple sentences, were you free to make that decision, or did it just pop into your head along with the idea to change it?

If You Believe You Have a Soul

If you are a person of faith i.e. if you are religious and believe you have a soul, nothing about the free will argument is lost. If you drill down to what you think your soul is, it’s really just consciousness that you believe outlives your body.

And this consciousness has no more free will than someone who believes that they do not have a soul. If you don’t know what your soul will do next, then you’re not in control of your soul and have no free will to direct it. And if you believe that your soul makes all the decisions for you, then you also don’t have any free will over it, you’re merely a puppet either way.

Are You Proud Of Yourself?

Are you proud of your achievements in life? Can you be proud? Should you be proud? If you’re successful, how much of that was your doing?

You were likely born in a developed country with the IQ you have and perhaps you were fortunate to be raised in a country where higher education was available. So you were born with a decent IQ and were given a great education in a country where both of these things helped you. How much of that did you choose?

You chose to study hard? Did you? Or were you just born with genes that made learning easy, or a sound constitution and a desire to do well. Did you really choose either of these? Could you have chosen not to have studied hard? You think you could have lived with that choice?

Have you tried and tried your entire life and continuously failed to succeed? Do you lay awake at night lamenting choices you’ve made, mentally kicking yourself for not making different choices or decisions?

None of it is your fault, at no stage could you have done otherwise. Should you try harder and work at your best, yes, of course, but never beat yourself up for the past. The future is where you can make changes and reading posts that encourage you may just be the ticket.

People argue with me often that, if we have no free will then we should just lay in bed and let things happen. Oh yea? try it. Try do nothing. It’s impossible, and even if you did lay in bed all day after a debate with me, it’ll be because of that debate that you “decided” to do it. Were was freedom to choose?

University of Texas Tower Shooting

Charles Whitman was a loving husband and son who one day bludgeoned his wife and mother to death by stabbing them in the heart, before climbing the clock tower at the university of Texas and committing the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history.

After Whitman was eventually killed, authorities found a note and evidence that Charles had been pleading for help because something was wrong with him. An autopsy revealed that Whitman had a tumor pressing on his amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for violent urges.

Had this diagnosis happened before Whitman killed all those people, the tumour could have been removed and he would have been the loving husband and son he had always been.

In fact, had Whitman not been killed that day, but instead had received an operation removing the tumor, no judge or jury would have found him culpable for the massacre. It would have been clear to everyone that he didn’t have the free will to choose not to act out the way he did.

“But these were special circumstances” I hear you say, “a tumor is an unnatural pathology”, fine, but imagine then we had a cure for psychopathy, an injection that cancels the parts of the brain that causes problems.

We wouldn’t arrest the people for doing bad things, give them an injection to make them not dangerous and then put them in jail..  What would the point of that be? They’d be as docile as you or I are and wouldn’t require rehabilitation of the incarceration type.

Swapping a Child In a Crib

There once was a baby born addicted to crack because his mother was a crack addict. The child was skinny, hunched, under developed, malnourished and neglected (except when being sexually abused by his mother’s many suitors).

At the tender age of 14 the skinny child eventually runs away from home to try and survive in a cold harsh world that treats him only mildly better than he was treated at home. This is actually a true story..

A touching story until I mention the child’s name was Charlie Manson.

Charles Manson was arguably one of the most manipulative and evil men in history, but I’d like to suggest a thought experiment here.

Imagine we replaced Charles Manson with you, in his crib, when you were just a baby.  You would then be exposed to the horrors that Manson faced as a child. Would you grow up to be exactly like Manson?

Of course not, you would be totally different, you might be worse actually, but whether better or worse, you would be very different because you had a genetic scaffolding far different to what Manson began life with.  

But, if we swapped you and Manson in his crib, and we gave you the exact genetic make-up that Manson was born with, you would be powerless to grow up being anything other than exactly what Charles Manson became, in fact, you would be Charles Manson.

As abhorrent as we might find a person’s behavior, if I traded place with Manson atom for atom, I would be him, completely, with all his faults and actions. There’s no extra part of me that could resist the impulse to victimize innocent people.

Even if you’re someone who believes that you have an immortal soul, there is still no place to stand to take credit for the soul you have. How does one take credit for the fact that they don’t have the soul of a psychopath?

Nobody picks their parents or the society in which they’re born, no body picks the genetic make-up they are given. And no one chooses the things that happen to them which shape the development of their nervous system. You are no more responsible for the microstructure of your brain at this moment, than you are for your height.

Even the most terrifying people are in some sense just very unlucky to be who they are.


If we don’t have free will, as I have argued, what do we have then?

Well, there’s luck, good and bad and what we make of this luck. Except that’s not really true, because what you make of your luck is by no free will of your own, it’s just more luck.

You didn’t pick your parents, you didn’t pick the society into which you were born, there’s not a cell in your body or brain that you created. And there is no assistance or influence coming from the outside world that you brought into being, and yet everything you think and do arises from this ocean of prior causes.

So, what you do with your luck and the tools you use to assist you with this (including the effort and discipline you manage to summon in each moment) is just more in the way of luck.

Most people resist this idea, seemingly at any intellectual cost, but this single insight is the antidote to arrogance and hatred and a profound basis for understanding and compassion for those who are less lucky than you are.

Crime and Punishment

Some murderers are in some sense unlucky to be who they are. So while we may fear people who could do us harm, the concept of hating someone seems misplaced. It’s like hating a shark because it tried to eat you.

Knowing that people have no free-will reduces hatred in the world and creates more compassion for people. People who do terrible things are just unlucky to have been born with the brain of a psychopath or with minds wired in such a way as to cause them to do bad things or fail to prevent them doing bad things.

This matters because the justice system seeks to punish them when they were not capable of doing otherwise. This is not to say that some dangerous people don’t belong behind bars, of course they do, just the same as shark nets are a good idea. But feeling the need to punish people could be replaced with some empathy and striving to rehabilitate those who can be reformed.  

Incarceration or the threat thereof is a good thing because people change their behaviour with the threat of consequences to their actions. This still doesn’t allow space for free will though. A shark will still recoil at the prospect of receiving an electric shock when it goes near an electrode. It’s still just cause and effect.  

 In Conclusion

If we can begin to understand that free will is an illusion, it has the capacity to change our minds about moral goodness and what we feel is a just society. The question of free will touches nearly everything people care about.

Religion, public policy, politics, crime and punishment, feelings of personal accomplishment and emotions like guilt, pride and regret.

So much of human life seems to be dependent on our viewing one another as conscious agents capable of free choice but knowing this is an illusion can be liberating and help us feel less contempt for others who piss us off.

Thanks for reading..

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