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Free will is a concept that has been debated for centuries. Philosophers, scientists, and theologians have all tried to answer the question whether humans do have free will or not. While some argue that we have the power to make choices independent of prior causes, others contend that everything that happens in the universe, including human actions and decisions, is determined by prior causes, making free will an illusion.
In this post, I will explain why I agree to the latter - free will is an illusion - and what I think is an appropriate reaction/response to this idea (paradoxically, even when we have no choice).
First and foremost, let’s start by defining what we mean by “free will”.
What is Free Will?
Let’s consider the definition of free will from Britannica:
Free will, in philosophy and science, is the capacity of humans to make decisions or perform actions independently of any prior event or state of the universe.
Naturally, this definition implicates that we can make choices without any natural, social, or divine restraints. In other words, we can choose to do something without any external factors influencing our decision. Only the internal factors (thoughts) of the individual are responsible for the decision.
You might argue that this definition is not very appropriate, because we are always impacted by external things (we can’t ignore our senses), and perhaps we should define free will with more practical terms, for instance, as “the ability to choose between a limited set of options, even when such limits were imposed by external factors”. Since we have no control over those, we should not take them into account for our definition. For example, you can choose what to eat for lunch. While the options available to you are limited by the kind of food available next to you (external factors), you can still choose between them (internal factor), and therefore you regard yourself as a free agent.
If you don’t agree with this practical definition, free will is already impossible for you. As mentioned, we can’t get rid of external factors, and therefore they will always influence what happens next.
Now, if you agree that even when we are limited by external factors, the fact that we can still choose between them makes us free, then let’s proceed. There’s a big logical problem with that.
Can you want to want something?
The following can be a little confusing if it’s your first time in contact with this argument. Read it slowly and carefully.
Let’s consider the act of choosing a juice to drink. Say you will choose lemon instead of orange. Why? Because you like it more, or it’s better for your organism or whatever - at the end, it’s because you want it. We can then conclude you want lemon more than orange.
Now, is that something you can control? Could you have wanted the orange juice instead? Or at least, could you have diminished your want for lemon juice, until you would have ended up picking orange?
The first problem is, for that to happen, you would have to want to want otherwise. Since we’re talking about changing the original want, an infinite loop is born: you would have to want to want otherwise, and for that you would have to want to want to want…
“A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.” - Arthur Schopenhauer
The second problem is, even if say you could want to want otherwise, that would still be a want. This simply means that the want to go contrary to what you think you want is bigger than your than such want. Where’s your control in it? It’s as if the want to go contrary to your want is still the lemon (original want), even when you’re now picking orange.
We can conclude, at least, that it’s not possible to defend free will with language. Words can’t explain how it would be possible to want to want something. If you are still not convinced, there’s one more argument that will help you kiss goodbye to free will.
Determinism is the philosophical theory that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. In other words, everything that happens in the universe, including human actions and decisions, is determined by prior causes and nothing could have happened differently. If you take the proposition P -> Q (P then Q) as true, then you are already a determinist. For example, P = nothing, Q = the universe. This is absolute, nothing existed, until it did. Since Q is unavoidable, so is what comes next. And next. And next. All the way to the present, every single event in the universe (cause and effect). There’s no conditionals in the middle of the chain, leaving no room for free will. Counter arguments to determinism are on the weak side: the best one can propose is some quantum weirdness in the brain that makes things actually random, but still, if it’s random, where’s your control?
Moreover, if you believe in an omnipotent God, one that has the ability to know the future, you are already a determinist. If you try to argue that God sees all the possible futures, but the decisions that will be made are up to us and that is what will cause one of those possible futures to become true, you are implying that God doesn’t know the actual future. Saying God knows all the possibilities is different from saying God knows the actual future. If God knows the actual future, then it’s because it was already determined. If not, then God is not omnipotent.
The Illusion of Free Will
Despite the fact that we can’t control our wants, we still feel like we do have free will. This is the illusion of free will imposed by nature. To our minds, “we can do whatever we want” is more relevant than “exactly choose what we want”. The illusion is so strong that it’s no surprise people confidently say they are free. Most don’t even stop to consider the impact caused by factors such as genetics and environment in our reasoning, let alone the ideas presented in this post. Perhaps that’s because the range of options available to us is so large that we can’t even suspect that we are not free. It’s like we are a fish in the ocean, there’s just so much water around us (the collection of possibilities) that we can’t even imagine there’s a sky above us.
What to do?
Now that we know free will is an illusion, what should we do? Should we stop trying to make things happen? Should we stop trying to improve ourselves? Should we just stop caring about everything?
In my opinion, the appropriate answer is “nothing”. Basically, ignore everything that you just read. Embrace the illusion. Change nothing.
Why? Because in the case everything said here is not true, free will somehow magically exists and scientists or AI discover the secrets behind conciousness and how the brain works, you will not impact yours and others' lives in any way by changing how you live your life now. Of course, it’s reasonable to embrace the illusion since we are wired to do so (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpU_e3jh_FY), maintaining a sense of agency is vital for our well-being and the well-being of those around us.
But maybe, maybe, with the evolution of AI and brain-computer interfaces, transhumanism will be a thing in the future and this illusion will be broken. But to be honest, if that ever happens, humanity will probably not even have to think about it.
Well, that’s it for today, have fun and stay safe! And remember, you have no choice 😉😉.