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The Myth of Free Will

The Myth of Free Will



Free Will - do you have it?

Did you answer in the affirmative?
If you did, you're mistaken.  Sorry.

It's quite a claim that I'm making here, as are the implications concerning morality and accountability. But I'll have a go at backing it up.
To my mind, the ages-old debate over Free Will has been made overly complicated, with many of the arguments about it redundant or unnecessary — a fact that has gone largely unnoticed. The term Free Will is in itself problematic, not least because of the numerous disparate notions of what it entails.

Traditionally, debates first ask whether or not Determinism is true and then whether or not Free Will exists. For the uninitiated, Determinism is "the philosophical position that for every event, including human action,  exist conditions that could cause no other event." It's pure cause and effect, in much the same way that when the cue ball on a snooker table is struck, from the moment it begins accelerating, there is only one formation in which the balls can come to rest. Were the same shot to be played with every single variable (ball mass, cue speed, cue angle etc) exactly the same, then the same ball formation would happen every time. Indeed, it is precisely due to determinism that top snooker players are so good, as they can factor in all these variables to sink shot after shot.

So, then...

If Determinism is true, and every event has a cause, then there is no freedom.
If Determinism is not true, and events are uncaused, then they are random.
Whichever way you cut it, there's no freedom.

But even the term 'Free Will' is a red herring. It's an oxymoron, as a caused act is not free and an uncaused act is not willed.

Free: not affected or restricted by a given condition or circumstance.
Will: the mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action.
Random: having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective.

Free Will, if it existed, would be more correctly be called Random Will, where one's choices were not affected or restricted by a given condition or circumstance. And even if Free Will, in the traditional, loosely defined sense were shown to exist (in the universe, that is, not just with us pesky humans), the debate on whether or not we have it can be settled by simply looking at how our brains work.

But first we must clear up the confusion.

If we can agree that a reasonable notion of Free Will concerns whether or not we can exercise control over our actions and decisions, then this is simply a matter of Will. It should be noted that, by definition, Will has to be a conscious experience, as one cannot unconsciously will anything. So, then, can we Will? No. We only 'think' we do. Will is an illusion, as our conscious experience of choosing occurs only after unconscious, unwilled, processes have output what we subsequently experience as a decision.

More succinctly: Will is an illusion as we do not choose our thoughts.

Proof of this lies in seminal experiments in the 1980s, which took a look at how the brain's decision-making machinery works.

Benjamin Libet asked subjects to choose a random moment to flick their wrists, while he measured the associated activity in their brains in particular, the build-up of an electrical signal called the readiness
potential. Although it was well known that the readiness potential preceded the physical action, Libet asked whether the readiness potential corresponded to the felt intention to move. Somewhat counter-intuitively, he found the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision to flick the wrist began approximately half-a-second before the subject consciously felt they had decided to move. The findings suggest that decisions are first being made on an unconscious level and only afterwards are translated into an apparently conscious decision, and that the subject's belief it occurred through their will was due only to the retrospective perspective on the event. Subsequent studies have confirmed this, with only the value of delay varying, depending on attention.

Still not convinced? 

Well, here's an experiment to try for yourself.

The next time you are talking, when you've finished the sentence, ask yourself if the words that spilled from your lips were due to an act of volition? I'll wager that the words just flowed out all by themselves. You didn't even have to think about them. Literally. Being able to talk is such a given, something that most folks would say they had control over, but I think it brilliantly underscores how unconscious processes are in fact responsible for what we say (and do, for that matter).

The next time a friend is talking, count the number of words they have said and ask them this: That last sentence, did you pre-script it beforehand, choosing the words, word order, grammar and syntax etc prior to uttering it, or did the words just come out by themselves, without any conscious effort and still somehow managed to represent what you would have said had you been able to script the sentence beforehand? Also, try listening to yourself talking and wondering 'where are these words coming from?'

An upshot of all this asks should you be held responsible for anything that you say, as you literally didn't consciously select the words? Also, when you drop a clanger and say 'I didn't mean to say that', you are in fact telling the truth.
Another test. The next time you are asked a question that you have to think about, do you envisage a mental wordcloud possessing all the variables and arguments relative to the question at hand, or do you just go 'Hmmmm...' scratch your chin, look up and to the left in order to give your unconscious mind a few seconds to formulate a reasonable response? I bet you're doing it now! ;)

If now, like me, you believe Free Will is just a myth, don't let it get you down (like you have a choice) since actual proper Free Will, were it to exist, would be absolutely indistinguishable from the Deterministic variety we experience.

But that's a discussion for another Thursday...

Richie B, over and out.



Rich and his gorgeous gals, Kira and Lexa.

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  1. Life appears to be a series of choices and I suppose the idea that our choices are essentially made for us, or at least the outcome of those choices is predetermined, could be a fairly bleak one. Society sets a series of expectations of citizens and yet if a ‘criminal’ has the inevitable prospect of breaking the rules of society we would generally urge him or her to make better choices. And yet it seems your argument is that choice is an illusion. In any case, this post makes me think that we should be more understanding of those whose choices are restricted for social or educational reasons.

    • Greetings from my unconscious, Hen.

      Life may well be considered a series of choices and we make all of these on an unconscious, unwilled, level. But our lives following a pre-determined path and our lives following a deterministic one, are two different things. In the first case, ‘something’ must have made that determination of how the universe would unfold at The Beginning. In the second case, all the events in the universe would merely be predictible (like in the snooker game).

      Criminality, responsibility and punishment are indeed on shaky ground when it comes to determinism.

      However, for any society to exist, there must be rules and one of the foremost is that an individual is deemed responsible for their actions.

      And that’s the kicker. You are deemed responsible, even though you have not actually willed any of your actions. Still, there’s no other way for a society to work.

      Now, although I admit to being an input-output machine, whose brain hardware and software running on it – a mix of nature and nurture – and me via unconscious, unwilled processes, my apparent choices are affected by everything that my mind encounters.

      However, it’s unpredictable, for me at least, to know what the resultant output will be from a certain input. *

      An extreme example: I read of a murderer getting the gas chamber. Now, hopefully, my unconscious mind will take note that losing my life, for whatever reason, is not something I’m in to and murdering is bad, but there’s no guarantee that it won’t say ‘Murdering sounds fun, just mind to not get executed’.

      And, of course, if someone was criminally insane, or acted with diminished responsibility, society treats these miscreants very differently to those deemed sane at the time of the crime and allegedly have proper Free Will.

      Another kicker is that we don’t ask for the brains we are born with and, consequently, the type of person your noodle makes you. It all depends on the physical structure of your brain, the software running on it, how it all interacts and inevitably lots more besides. And I agree that we should be more understanding of those whose choices are restricted for social or educational reasons. For sure, their minds may well not have had the chance to be enriched, formed a moral framework and developed powers of critical reasoning and empathy etc and also because they did not choose their own brains or the output generated.

      *On a side note, you may be interested in Laplace’s Demon. In 1814, he wrote: “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

  2. If i didn’t chose the words i spoke freely and without thought as to my argument……who did?

    • Hi Steve!

      You did!

      Or rather, the unconscious you did.

      But what you consider to be your conscious mind took all the credit.

      Ask yourself if you actually saw those words above in your mind’s eye, having previously and consciously willed them, before you punched them into the keyboard?

      I know that never happens to me, anyway. My fingers just do a merry dance all by themselves and I occasionally look up to see if they’re on the right track.

      And ask yourself some of these to see just how much Will you may have:

      You hear a song on the radio and you don’t like it. Why? Did you choose not to? Or did you just not?

      Do you like chocolate? Whatever the answer, was this a choice, or just due to the way your tastebuds and brain interact?

      You find someone attractive. Do you choose to, or do you just do?

      Language is quite telling too. Folks say ‘that makes me laugh’. Indeed, it made you laugh. You don’t choose to find something funny. To your unconscious mind, it is either amusing or not.

      ‘That makes me sad’. Yeah, things make us unhappy. If we really had actual proper Free Will, who would not choose to be megacheery all the time (like Ceri).

  3. I agree, Steve! And if Richie didn’t write this post, then who did?!

    • Hey Jeremy!

      I did write it – albeit entirely through unconscious, unwilled processes.
      Remember, my unconscious mind is the ‘real’ me and people know me by the output it generates. Sure, I feel like I’m in control, but I’m well ‘aware’ this is a very convincing illusion.


  4. Fascinating piece, old friend. Great to see that you’ve kept your brain and body in tip-top shape.

    One of my favourite stage directors always commences the rehearsal process with the opening gambit, ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question.’ So, given that you may have already covered this, and it’s gone over my head like a stealth-like ninja, here is my potentially stupid question: At the point that the snooker player approaches the table, and though the set up of the balls has been determined by his opponents previous move, doesn’t the player now stand at a junction, no matter how limited his options are, whereby he is at liberty to play his next shot however he chooses and having given it some degree of thought? Free Will?

    In opposition to what you clearly possess, my friend – a free-flowing, all engines firing, well-exercised hippocampus – I often get in a tangled mess when conversing as I can get hyper-aware of the consequences of what I’m uttering. In my head the words available to me can scroll across my mind like an app offering alternative suggestions. The consequence is that I cherry pick the words I’d like to use, with the limited choice available but nonetheless with a degree of freedom. Of course the resultant effect is not very impressive, sounding as I do like a Spellmaster but the point is that I am exercising my right to choose the words rather than just say the first thing that comes to mind. Free Will?

    We may not choose our thoughts but we choose how we may respond to them.

    Hope you and your beautiful family are well.

    • The snooker player does have a choice. He comes to the table, weighs up his different options based on his previous exeperience, and eventually plays his shot.

      But akin to the snooker ball travelling at a set direction, speed, etc.. and the end result being the same. The point I think Richie is making is: if you were to rewind time and keep all the conditions exactly the same as the player approaches the table – the same thought processes would fire, he will weigh up his options based on the current conditions and his previous exeperience. They same shot would be played over again.

      Every decision you make is what it sounds – a decision, but it is based on your brain (the layout of the balls on the table) receiving information (the moving cue ball), processing it (the balls colliding and moving), and outputting a decision ( the final layout of the balls on the table).

      In a concious decision your brain goes through the motions evaluating different options until you come up with an answer, and it feels like a choice. But you would have made that choice anyway given the same starting conditions.

  5. Dear Richie, you don’t have to believe that free will is just a myth. You have a choice!
    There are some underlying assumptions in the arguments that you make that I think are probably false. (Notice my choice of “probably false” over your very definite “you are mistaken” – which I choose to take simply as deliberate provocation!)
    You quote the standard Wikipedia definition of determinism: ” the philosophical position that for every event, including human action, exist conditions that could cause no other event.”
    But then you say: “If Determinism is true, and every event has a cause, then there is no freedom. If Determinism is not true, and events are uncaused, then they are random.”
    But that is confusing the relationship between determinism and causality. Determinism is not about whether events have a cause; it is about the lack of alternative causes. If determinism is not true (i.e. alternative events are possible), it is not saying that event are uncaused.
    Significant, though, is the sentence that follows the definition in Wikipedia: ” There are many determinisms, depending upon what pre-conditions are considered to be determinative of an event.”. There are many kinds of determinism.
    You also say: “we do not choose our thoughts”. What makes you think that? (See what I did there?) Deep down, our brain functions and generates ideas. We are conscious of those ideas, even though they are language independent, and we have not articulated them in words or action. We evaluate the ideas, and make a choice between them, and formulate the intention to act. That intention is then transformed into utterance or other action.
    Just because “the words just flowed out all by themselves – you didn’t even have to think about them” doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an act volition at a lower level of thought. Just because intention comes before action doesn’t mean that the intention was pre-determined. There is plenty of scope for us to exercise our will before converting the ideas and intentions into action. If indeed there are any “pre-conditions … determinative of an event”, it is surely not our thoughts.
    I choose to believe that I can exercise my own volition, because it matches by experience of life, makes sense of it all, and makes me happy.

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