Free Will: Initial Thoughts.

I have been reading many books on free will in the past year. If you haven’t spent much time thinking about it seems strange that someone would even bother writing a book on free will.

Free will appears to be something that everyone has. Sure, sometimes we lose it due to coercion or some type of illness. What’s more to know?

That was my grasp of free will one year ago. Now I realize that this is actually a very complex subject matter. This is something that has serious real-world repercussions.

Most of our core understandings of society and the world stem from the belief that free will exists. It especially affects fundamental ideas of morality and justice.

My initial conclusion after a year of study is that free will is an illusion and that none of us have any free will. This sounds strange, especially compared to our day-to-day experience, but I will explain later on.

There are still many aspects that I am thinking through. There is especially one key problem that I have not yet been able to solve. It is quite obvious that making decisions matters, and making good decisions matters even more. Yet, I cannot quite square this obvious fact with the idea that we have no free will.

The real question that I am asking:

If we have no free will, why bother getting out of bed in the morning?

I don’t have an answer for this, but I also know that I do bother getting out of bed each morning and getting on with life. Only for the simple reason that if you spend enough time doing nothing while staying in bed, that becomes the difficult thing to do.

I’m not sure.

Anyway, this is something that I want to be able to understand in the future. For now, let’s tackle the reason why we do not have free will.

I am not going to bother to define what free will is in this essay, but I’ll handle that in a future essay. This is partly due to intellectual laziness, and partly because it is more interesting for you. Take your feeling that you have the ability to make free and informed choices. What is this? How can this fundamental feeling be fake?

The reason why we cannot have free will is that all events can happen in one of two ways:

  1. Events happen because of prior causes. This means that a previous event is making this current event happen. If we had the ability to wind back time, things would always happen the same way.
  2. Events happen randomly. Quantum mechanics shows this to be true. There are measurements of certain quantum particles that have fundamentally unpredictable results. We can never predict the outcome! One variation is that events may happen a certain percentage of the time based on prior causes. So if we were to wind back time, we could expect a certain event to happen, but we could not be 100% sure that it would happen.

There’s a lot more to both of the above points, but those are the two main options. Neither is compatible with free will as we understand it.

If everything is happening due to a prior cause, then your existence and state of mind are also included in this. After all, your thoughts are chemical reactions and states in your brain. All these states in your brain had prior causes that changed your thoughts. This leads back all the way to your birth and even before that, to the start of the universe! So, there is no way for you to have acted differently than you are doing right now.

Imagine we were to wind back time to an important choice in your life. Where to go to school, who to marry, which crimes to commit. You would have always taken the same choice given the exact state of the universe. It is very much like replaying a piece of recorded music, it is always going to play the same way.

This has some quite absurd implications. If a person dies due to a rock falling on their head, or gets eaten by a bear, we take one set of actions. We take very different actions than if a human being kills another person.

We don’t blame the rock or the bear and think that they should have done otherwise. We may take future prevention actions like shooting the bear or putting warning signs about the rock. But, we do not need to hold the rock or the bear morally responsible in any way. Rocks follow the rules of gravity, and bears follow their evolutionary instincts. They couldn’t have done otherwise.

And so, if we deny that free will exists, then we get into difficult terrain. Morality appears to break down. The idea of holding an individual accountable for their actions seems strange. If that person could not have made any other choice, then are they responsible? Does it make sense to hold them accountable for killing another human being?

In fact, does lacking free will make us any different than a rock? Are we a collection of atoms interacting with each other and that’s it? Is consciousness is a strange illusion — a very convincing one?

This differs so much from our daily experience. It feels like it has to be wrong, and yet it appears that this could well be true.

The world is strange.

If everything is happening randomly, then where is the free will in this? If we don’t know what will be the next thought that will pop into our head, then how can we have free will? If we are just reacting to whatever thought came into our mind, then it doesn’t seem that we have much control.

And this is the high-level argument with regards to us having free will. We should consider our conscious selves more like a passenger observing our thoughts, instead of identifying with the thoughts themselves.

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