Is free will an illusion? Do we have free will to choose our future life experience, or are our lives predetermined in some way? We seem to have the free will to perform trivial tasks like cross the street or not, to buy a coffee here or over there, to pay for our ticket now or wait for a better deal. But, when it comes to significant life events, perhaps it’s not so cut and dry. Despite our best intentions, stuff happens. So many elements, ideas, experiences, occurrences and micro-events seem to influence the direction of our lives, so much so that we can never say for sure what makes our lives turn out as they do. Despite forever pondering the question of free will, the answer seems elusive. However, it doesn’t stop us asking, and in this week’s article, I’m asking. So, are we fooled by the illusion of free will? Are we destined to live out life beyond the range of our influence, or can we sculpt life according to our desires?
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What is this biological, psychological thing that I think I am? Am I really in control or is this idea a figment of my colourful imagination, a construct of an outward facing personality that needs to feel in control of what it sees as a hostile world? Does this I that I think I am have free will to choose its direction, or is the environment, or perhaps something else the director and overseer of my life? Do I make my life or does my life make me?
A couple of years ago, if I had considered these questions, I would have answered firmly, yes; I am in control. I get to decide what I do from moment to moment therefore I have free will. I can raise my arm or not. I can smoke cigarettes or give them up (I did give them up – eventually). I can decide to train today or not, I can design my life as I wish. Or at least I liked to believe I could, even though results didn't always reflect that belief. Either way, I felt that I was responsible, a free agent in charge of conditions. The notion that external forces determined my life was incompatible with my world view.
But something gnawed at me.
On examining this long-standing question further, and through particular life experiences, it has become clear that I ultimately don't and can't direct my life to the predominant, and ultimately superficial ends that sometimes dominate my thoughts.
A man may be a pessimistic determinist before lunch and an optimistic believer in the will's freedom after itAldous Huxley | Author
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Planning For A Future That Never Arrives
Everyday events seem to be under my control. For example; I can decide that I want to see a band, meet friends and have a few pints, and in that way broadly determine my Sunday afternoon. But next week, next month, next year and so on, I cannot dictate. I cannot dictate the day that I die or how that eventuality will play out, although I do accept that I seem to have a certain degree of influence over it. In the space between my birth and death, I can influence my general health by making good food and exercise choices, for example. But that too appears of little consequence given the nature of this lottery we often regard life to be.
There seem to be far too many moving parts, most of which I am not aware, influencing the direction of my actions and life experience. My degree of control seems limited. When I make plans for holidays, socialising and so on, there seems to be ease, a naturalness. There's no forcing myself to do what I need to do. Other times, for other larger “goals” there seems to be a different feeling. Writing this article, for example, is difficult but there's a feeling that it must be done nonetheless. So I do what I need to do, and although not always as efficiently as I'd like, it still gets done. Am I making that decision to do the work or is it being made for me?
I can't tell.
Schopenhauer 1 said; I can do what I will to do, but I cannot determine my will. Now, that seems a little complicated, but I guess what he was saying here is that we can never get to the root of the thing. I can make a decision, but I cannot decide to decide, or decide to decide to decide. No matter how hard I try, I can never lift myself up by my own shirt collars. Nonetheless, the feeling around planning for big-ticket goals seems to be different from everyday events.
A Misunderstanding of Free Will & Determinism
In certain respects, it feels that the illusion of free will is real. It seems that the notion that I can plan my way to a successful and fruitful life is naive. Besides, what is success, and how successful could I feel if it all went according to plan? It would be a little boring if life always turned out according to my exact intent, wouldn't it? Besides, if my every intent, no matter how fleeting came true, many people would probably be lying dead in dark holes and I'd be on the run!
I believe we have a distinct misunderstanding of how free will and deterministic forces interact in the production of experience. The predominant rhetoric around the pursuit of goals appears to suggest that we must force ourselves to make change happen. The message suggests that nothing significant will happen on its own – we must make it happen. But Purposeful Accident says different.
Purposeful Accident says we should, first and foremost, do our daily work for its inherent enjoyment. we must relax into the work and let it happen, rather than attempt to bend and force conditions to comply with any preconceived idea. In this engaged and enthused mode of thought and action, of purposeful but unattached intention, both individual free will and determinate forces can work together to bring about favourable results.
Contrary to this idea that I must make life happen, I have found that the more I plan, the less I get the results I think I want. Planning feels like forcing rather than going with the flow, so these days I mostly take things as they come. This is not to assume a defeatist or fatalist position 2. Instead, it's an acceptance that this thing that goes on all around me is far too complex and nuanced for me to control.
If I could design my life down to the end degree, that wouldn't be a life worth living. The enjoyment of life, at least for me, is the element of not knowing. I know there will be experiences that I will enjoy and there will be those that negatively impact me. But in the same way I cannot decide when to beat my heart and grow my hair, my future life experiences I cannot determine in advance no matter to what degree I believe I am free to choose.
A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he willsArthur Schopenhauer | Philosopher
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Neuroscience & The Illusion of Free Will
Neuroscience has brought our understanding of human functioning to an enhanced level of understanding in modern times. Resulting from the findings of neuroscience, some philosophers and scientists suggest that we are fooled by the illusion of free will, that we are not free to choose because our actions are the result of neuronal processes inside the brain. In his essay titled; Is Free Will An Illusion?, 3 John R. Meyer says that if our conscious will is illusory or simply an epiphenomenon, the arguments against free will are, in fact, found to be erroneous. He states that a great deal of scientific evidence suggests that, despite difficulties in explaining free will, we, on the contrary, do not unconsciously cause our actions.
Reductionists are inclined to suggest that you and I are merely a series of processes, an elaborate and mindless accident in a universe of accidents. They say that everything in the universe is ultimately knowable and although we don't know exactly how everything came into being, it's just a matter of time. The universe, to them, and everything in it is a binary system. They contend that consciousness is a neuronal state that is reflected in alertness, with any temporal gap in decision-making processes reflecting deep brain molecular activity. Meyer says; Our experience suggests that our states of mind are not completely determined by neural events. Indeed, material determinism fails to acknowledge the numinous qualities of the mind and thus threatens to change what it means to be human.
Perhaps most interesting about Meyer's essay, is his reference to quantum physics. He discusses what proponents of quantum physical theory propose may be at play at the subatomic level in living organisms – a randomness and probability that allows for the presence of free will in human beings.
[Consciousness] …can hardly be reproduced and do not belong to the category of mechanical things that science can easily investigateChristophe le Mouël | Theoretical Physicist
Benjamin Libet, in his article for the Journal of Consciousness 1999 4 asked the question; Are freely voluntary acts subject to macrodeterministic laws or can they appear without such constraints, non-determined by natural laws and ‘truly free’? He suggests that under the apparent deterministic laws of physical reality, human beings would be reduced to sophisticated automatons with conscious feelings and intentions tacked on as epiphenomena with no causal power and wonders if there is not some aspect of consciousness that acts independently of physical laws.
Libet's experiments have shown that freely voluntary acts are preceded by a specific electrical change in brain states which he terms; “readiness potential” (RP). This electrical change begins 550 ms before the act. Subjects became aware of their intention to act 350–400 ms after RP starts, but 200 ms. before the motor act. He found therefore that the volitional process is initiated unconsciously. But conscious decisions can still control the outcome; it can veto the act. He suggests therefore, free will is not excluded. Libet says, his findings constrain our ideas on how free will operates; it would not initiate a voluntary act but it could control the performance of the act. He also says the experimental findings affect our position on guilt and responsibility.
Christophe le Mouël in his article examing some of the dominant philosophical and psychological findings on free will titled, Self and The Paradox of Free Will 5 says, the psyche is not just a structure. He continues;
It seems to me that each one of us is constantly asked to make this choice, even though at times it takes a more dramatic turn. These unspoken decisions are highly individual and determine who we are. They can hardly be reproduced and do not belong to the category of mechanical things that science can easily investigate.
I am inclined to agree with him.
Riding A Wave
When I was around 16 or so, I attended a local technical college where I learned the basics of electrical science. In one class, the lecturer demonstrated the nature of the frequency of the current waveform on an oscilloscope. He connected the screen to an electrical circuit with a frequency converter. As he varied the frequency, we could see that the general shape of the electrical waveform remained the same although its peaks and troughs varied in height and length. There was a rise and a fall of the wave from zero to peak positive, then back to zero and through its negative half cycle. As the frequency altered in the circuit, the incandescent lamp flickered on and off at corresponding rates, then remained stable, then turned off completely.
As I have contemplated that experiment over the years, it seems to me that life is just like that. In fact, it may just be that only more complex, more subtle. There are ons and there are offs, there are ups and there are downs, there is foreground and background. Instead of one frequency converter altering the pace, height and length of the wave of conscious experience, there is an infinite number arranged perhaps in fractals, combining in accordance with resonance to produce the lives we live. We don't have control over all of these inputs so maybe it's best to just ride the wave.
The Illusion of Free Will & The Surface Level Personality
The differentiation I form between what I call me, my surface-level personality, and the broader me, of which I often have little present moment awareness, is key to understanding what the true nature of free will is. The typical frame of mind of most human beings is that we are somebody, that we are relevant, important and real even if that somebody we perceive ourselves to be is self-destructive and lacking self-worth. In other words, I might regard myself as a big-shot businessman, have a big bank account and an inflated idea of myself, or I may be a reclusive with an eating disorder, anxious and afraid to leave my house. Either way, I believe myself to be this personality.
In the surface-personality-led state of mind, as I examine the question of free will, I cannot bear the idea that I am not in control, at least to some trivial extent. Even if I am considered dysfunctional, I still can make choices even though I may realise my behaviour is damaging to me, such as that we see in an addict. In many respects, the playing out of the apparently self-destructive lifestyle of the dysfunctional person is the only self-perceived means of control they can exercise over their existence. All that being said, problems arise and are exacerbated by our efforts to make change happen, or not.
What you do, is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call here and now. The real you is not a puppet which life pushes around – the real deep down you, IS the whole universe.Alan Watts | Philosopher
Upon examination, it seems that the separate personality that I think I am is an illusion, a psychological construct designed by the unidentifiable self to aid interaction of the physical being in its physical environment. In reality, I am not separate from everything else. Therefore, genuine free will, the feeling of being in control, is the sense of being at one with our right now experience no matter what the conditions. Similarly, the deterministic view, the idea that I am a puppet buffered around in a world I didn't choose, reflects a personal psychology again, out of synch with our here-and-now reality. The truth of our experience lies instead perhaps, between these two dichotomous modes of thought.
In both frames of mind, there is a momentum of thought and its corresponding emotional state – a feeling of being in or out of synch with reality. We may find ourselves in negative momentum, experiencing life events that on the surface we say we didn't choose, but in truth, we did choose, we did want. Want, or wanting, being the absence of something; a need which we must fill or must be filled. The idea here is that even though we are not consciously aware of our wants and desires, they will eventually play out in our experience. In Freudian terms, it is the unconscious aspects of the self that determine experience. However, psychoanalysis does offer a way out of this bind. Through language, by way of dialogue, we can expose the deterministic influences of the unconscious and take back control.
In Buddhist terms, the playing out of conscious and unconscious aspects of the self is known as Karma, meaning, it is your doing. You did it. But when we perceive ourselves as separate from everything else, alone and isolated, responsible on a very superficial level, we can't accept that. When the surface personality leads our thought, then we are apt to defend ourselves, or indeed submit to a deterministic and aggressive universe. Likewise, where the personality believes it is in control or should be in control, and things don't go according to plan, we feel we've lost it, we're not up to scratch. Either way, we're in for a fight either with ourselves or with the world. Ultimately it's the same thing.
Some Final Thoughts on Free Will
Einstein said that time is an illusion. At a societal level, we do not accept this. We believe our lives are linear and the phenomenon of cause and effect are real; if I do this, then that happens. In this frame of mind, the discussion around free will and determinism has relevance. In the idea that life is only now, that the universe we perceive exists only in the present moment, any argument for free will or determinism evaporates.
However, from my individual experience, I really don't know what's going on. My best guess is that I am here, I am something rather than nothing, and I seem to have influence over certain things but not over others. I am certain I do not live in a time based linear reality where some other dogmatic entity is pushing the buttons; rather the buttons are pushing themselves. There seems to be a gestalt aspect to life and it always seeks balance within the broader framework of who I am. There is momentum in things and I seem to be riding that momentum. When I try to fight it or bend it by force or coercion into what it is not, then things don't tend to work out very well.
So my only choice is to get on with it.
Time is an illusionAlbert Einstein | Physicist
In the meantime, circumstances might make me cry or laugh, either way, it doesn't stick around very long. It's always changing. Change is the only thing I know is real, and I cannot stop that or slow it down. Instead, I have to flow with it. In all of this change, the I that I refer myself to be seems shallow, a conscious perceptive entity designed to relay to a deeper me physical conditions, and in response, deliver a reaction. This process is cyclical and pulsative and it goes around and around for as long as I am here. It cycles up, and it cycles down, and it seems to have a boundary.
This boundary becomes breached at times I call significant life events and after the trauma or exultation of these events subsides, I appear to be slightly different. It seems to have gaps too, lulls between good and bad where it seems nothing is happening, then all of a sudden something I didn't plan shows up. That's where the joy and the pain are.
The free will versus determinism argument is an argument over who is in control and this moves out from a hierarchical, somewhere-there's-a-big-boss view of existence. What I have found runs contrary to this idea. I have found that life is self-sustaining, self-supporting and always in growth despite our best effort to effect change.
This is the nature of the wave.
- Arthur Schopenhauer (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). (2019). Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 1 July 2019, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schopenhauer
- Fatalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). (2019). Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 4 July 2019, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fatalism
- Meyer, J. R. (2011). Is Free Will an Illusion?. Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics, 27(2).
- Libet, B. (1999). Do we have free will?. Journal of consciousness studies, 6(8-9), 47-57.
- le Mouël, C. (2014). Self and the paradox of free will. Psychological Perspectives, 57(1), 25-49.
Richard Fischbeck says