We are prisoners in our own minds. Science hasn't been kind to free will. All the evidence points to our brains being machines governed by the laws of nature and we're just along for the ride. Despite this, the illusion of free will is very strong...and probably necessary

We are prisoners in our own minds. Science hasn't been kind to free will. All the evidence points to our brains being machines governed by the laws of nature and we're just along for the ride. Despite this, the illusion of free will is very strong...and probably necessary

There’s No Free Will – But why the Resistance?

It’s increasingly clear that “free will” as traditionally understood is an illusion. There are conflicting definitions of what free will means but for most, it’s in the context of freedom from natural laws. In other words the popular notion of exercising free will is that our choices are not impacted in any way by science – at least when we deliberately set out to make them. That our conscious choices are “first movers”. That we have the power to select A or B in a way that is totally determined by “us” and us alone. After all, that’s where the “free” comes from right? As in not bound.

So far, the science hasn’t been encouraging for free will. Our thoughts are generated by the brain which is a physical machine obeying the laws of nature and physics. It follows that our thoughts also obey the laws of nature. There’s no “place” for true free will as far as we know. It seems however, that there’s been a lot of resistance to this idea. I’ve had long arguments with people who continue to cling to the notion of free will against all available evidence. The puzzling aspect is not just the arguments themselves, but the underlying tone of hostility which should be missing in a purely academic argument. Here are some of the arguments put forward by the proponents of free will.

Quantum Mechanics

This is easily the biggest weapon in the arsenal of the free advocates. It seems to be particularly attractive because quantum mechanics defies “common sense” and most importantly, is non deterministic. The idea broadly goes that nature itself isn’t fully determined, so it’s possible for the brain and consequently thoughts to be non determined as well. That since quantum mechanics is unpredictable, this allows for an outlet for free will to emerge. This is a wrong tack for several reasons.

First, we have no reason to believe that quantum effects play a role in brain functions. To the best of our knowledge, the brain acts in a completely classical manner and no quantum effects have been observed in any manner so far. Processes like synaptic chemical transmissions appear to follow the same boring laws of traditional physics. Our brains are simply too slow and hot for quantum effects to play a significant role.

Second, even if quantum mechanics had anything to do with brain processes (and this is a huge IF), it doesn’t bode well for free will either. Quantum effects are inherently probabilistically random – which means there are hard statistical limits on the possible outcomes of a particular quantum process. There’s no escaping that randomness is not what we associate with free will at all. We think of free will in terms of having control over our choices. Not free will being random!

Randomness is as destructive to free will as determinism. Quantum mechanics is an extremely poor cover for free will to hide behind. Perhaps even worse than regular determinism!

Science can’t answer everything

The argument goes like this “There are many things science can’t answer such as consciousness. So don’t pretend as if science disproves the existence of free will”.

The objection that science can’t answer everything is like complaining that your car requires a power source to operate, but then offering the flying carpet as the alternative means of transportation.

This is true. Science hasn’t disproved the existence of free will. But neither has it disproved the existence of Santa Claus, fairies, leprechauns, unicorns, and the bogeyman. Pointing to the current limits of science and then using that as an argument brings to mind this comment on Google+ (it’s private so I can’t share the link) on the right:

The fact is that postulating the existence of free will as commonly understood requires a lot more explaining. Is there a “soul” making the choice? Is it independent of the brain? If so, where does it “sit”? How is it created/destroyed? How does one detect it etc . Whereas the no-freewill camp doesn’t need to provide any additional explanation. Our brains and thoughts are determined by the laws of nature, end of story. In other words, free will introduces additional unnecessary variables to explain the same phenomena and is therefore an untenable scientific theory.

Unpredictability

Yet another approach says that human reactions are inherently unpredictable and this proves the existence of free will. But there are millions of unpredictable systems in nature – like the weather for example! No one has yet said that the weather has free will. It’s pretty much accepted that the weather is governed by natural laws even though we don’t (and may never) have the computational power to predict it.

The outcome of a quantum event like a decaying radioactive nucleus is also unpredictable. Inherently unpredictable in fact! Yet, no one says that the decaying nucleus has free will. The notion of free will is freedom from natural laws neither random, not probabilistic, nor deterministic. Being unpredictable means nothing and does not make any progress towards proving the existence of free will.

Morals

This is not really an argument, but an exposition on the consequences of having no free will. People worry that without free will how can justice be done? How can you find a person guilty if they had no choice in their actions, or their actions were randomly determined by the laws of nature? It says free will can’t exist because otherwise our carefully constructed social systems are meaningless.

But that’s the bitter truth we have to swallow. It matters not what the consequences of the truth are. If it’s any consolation, our society and the set of laws is based on the illusion of free will. We might not actually possess it, but we have to carry on pretending as if we do. And this is an illusion easily enforced by our ego and our consciousness. I might intellectually realize I have no free will, but I don’t feel it. This is a good thing. It’s impossible to function properly without that illusion.

But it is an illusion.

While it’s true that science doesn’t know everything and one day we might find the existence of true free will, the fact remains that the current state of science renders it completely untenable. Now nothing is stopping us from believing something unsupported by science. A person is perfectly at liberty to believe in the existence of fairies or Zeus. But most of us don’t lend credence to theories unsupported by science. So why these double standards when it comes to free will? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and it seems to me that the claim that free will exists is an extraordinary one. And we have no evidence of it – let alone extraordinary evidence.

I can only conclude that there’s some other underlying emotional reason blocking people from dispassionately junking the idea of free will. Of course, any notion of religion and punishment/reward goes for a toss if you assume that people are “just” machines – deterministic or random. So there’s probably a vested interested in protecting that belief system. Also, I suppose it’s a bit of a blow to one’s ego to think that we’re not really in control of ourselves. The notion of free will is so important to our everyday life that junking the idea isn’t easy for most people when it conflicts when strongly held world views.

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Comments

  1. Bhagwad – I really enjoyed reading your article ! I am also of the firm belief that free will is an “illusion” as you have said. The one thing I struggle with is that even though I believe that there is no free will I tend to “worry” and “stress” a lot about what is going to happen in my future. If there is no “free will” then why do I “worry” so much about the future ? Please advise

    Reply

    • In reply to Venkata

      Unfortunately, the knowledge of no free will doesn’t help at all. If you want to take it to the logical conclusion, then you have no free will in whether you worry or not! On a physical and metaphysical level, it’s true that we have no free will. But we live our lives pretending as if we do :)

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      • In reply to bhagwad

        Great answer Bhagwad ! You’re right ! I have no free will when it comes to worrying or not :) Maybe the end of worry will come when science can help us “see” what our future is going to be, then if we know in advance what is in store for us the worry will cease to exist. Do you think a day will come someday when scientists will be able to “predict” human behavior the way they attemp to predict weather today ?

        Reply

      • In reply to Venkata

        Yes, I think that day will come. However, we must not be told of the predictions. Otherwise that will add more variables and change the future!

        Reply

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