Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.
Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.
Our sense of free will results from a failure to appreciate this: we do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose.
Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower… are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.
It is generally argued that our experience of free will presents a compelling mystery: on the one hand, we can’t make sense of it in scientific terms; on the other, we feel that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions.
🔖 The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions.
First, that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past.
- Before you are aware of what you will do next — a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please — your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it.
- Neuroscientists view the brain as a quantum computer. And even if it were, quantum indeterminacy does nothing to make the concept of free will scientifically intelligible.
- What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery — one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature. To declare my “freedom” is tantamount to saying, “I don’t know why I did it, but it’s the sort of thing I tend to do, and I don’t mind doing it.”
Second, that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.
- The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness — rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.
- You are not in control of your mind — because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.
- Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior — but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter — and there are paths toward making wiser ones — but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do — for instance, after going back and forth between two options — I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness.
📍 Inheritance — a game of luck
You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime — by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?
The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character. Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.
Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky’s shoes on July 23, 2007 — that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state — I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive.
Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, physically healthy, and not bankrupted in middle age by the illness of a spouse.
The problem for compatibilism runs deeper, however — for where is the freedom in wanting what one wants without any internal conflict whatsoever? Where is the freedom in being perfectly satisfied with your thoughts, intentions, and subsequent actions when they are the product of prior events that you had absolutely no hand in creating?
If determinism is true, the future is set — and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior. And to the extent that the law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism — quantum or otherwise — we can take no credit for what happens. There is no combination of these truths that seems compatible with the popular notion of free will.
📍 Some conditions seem to get a pass
Despite our attachment to the notion of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity — and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics.
Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems.
Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin — which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next. And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us.