The simplest proof that free will is an illusion that you’ll ever see

Do you have reasons for making the choices that you make?

If you do, then you don’t have “free will”. There is a causal link between the thing you want to do and the reason you want to do it. It doesn’t matter if the reason is good or bad, sensible or irrational. Your decision could be based on a long drawn-out thought process, or a gut feeling. Regardless, that thought process (or feeling) caused your final decision to be what it was.  Therefore your action was determined. Of course your will was involved: you say, “I did it because I wanted to!” But all that means is that your behavior was caused by your will… and there are reasons that your “will” is what it is. There are reasons you want what you want. There is nothing “free” about it. Therefore, it does not represent free will.

“Sometimes I just pick randomly!” you might say. Now, some people might reply with a long drawn-out argument about behavior being driven by unconscious processes, and so on. But there’s no need to make things that complicated. Even if you do pick randomly, that it still not free will: randomness is not “will”. If a radioactive particle has a 50% chance of emitting a beta particle in the next minute, that doesn’t mean it is choosing whether to emit the particle or not. Pure randomness is not willful, and therefore cannot represent free will.

“But I could have chosen differently!” you might say. But if you had chosen differently, you would have had a reason to choose differently, right? For example, perhaps you decided to go to the doctor, but you imagine you could have been lazy and skipped it. Well, then your laziness would have caused you to not go; and the fact that did go means that laziness was not the predominant force in determining your decision. The fact that you can imagine a universe being different isn’t evidence of any kind of “freedom” in this universe. It only means that you have an imagination.

 


 

This argument against free will skips all of the usual crap in these metaphysical arguments, about physics or neuroscience or quantum mechanics or computability or whatever. All of that, in the end, is besides the point. This is an argument from the perspective of psychology: introspect, and examine your choices.

If you can ascribe reasons to the things that you do, then you are drawing that line of determination from variable A to variable B: one thing causes another. This is how scientists analyze things, but you don’t have to be a scientist to do it. You just ask: “How did I feel, what did I think, and what were the factors that went into deciding what I decided?”

Scientists can do this in a great deal of detail. Rigorous theories of behavior usually ascribe our feelings and actions to a complex web of interacting causes, at any number of different levels: social causes, psychological causes and neurophysiological causes all can interact with one another. I’ve written about the fact that our feelings and motivations can be understood as having causes on all of these different levels at once.

But whether the reason is simple, or a complex dynamic interacting web of factors, in the end there is a reason you wanted the thing you wanted, and a reason you made the choice that you made. And once you identify the reason, you have eliminated “free will” from the equation: you have figured out, instead, that there is a cause, or a thing (or set of things) that determined your choice.

Your only other option is to say, “There was no reason!” which means that you behaved randomly. Randomness is also not “free will”.

Q.E.D.

 

It’s a dramatically simple proof that “free will” is impossible, huh? It shows that the only reason we even have an illusion of free will is that we aren’t conscious of the causes behind the decisions we make. It’s a compelling illusion, to be sure. But an illusion, just the same.

Do you think I’m wrong? Tell me what I missed.

Either you have a reason for the things you do (be it a simple explanation or a complex nuanced theory)…. or you do things randomly.

What is the third option?

A web of causes



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  1. Steve R says:

    That is a very interesting summary. Is the ‘ input, attention and energy’ the free will part of the agent ?

  2. Three impossible freedoms are often confused with free will: freedom from causation, freedom from oneself, and freedom from reality.

    Since these are impossible, the “free” in free will can never rationally imply any one of them.

    To be meaningful, the word “free” need only reference a single constraint. In the case of “free will”, the constraint would be someone else forcing you to choose or act against your own will.

    When your will is subordinate or subjugated or coerced, then it is not free. Remove those constraints and you have what everyone normally understands by the term “free will”.

    For example, the Boston Marathon bomber hijacked a car and forced the driver to aid in his escape. Because the driver was not acting of his own free will, he was not guilty of aiding in the crime.

    Note that there is no “freedom from causation” implied in this example. Nor would you find it in any other ordinary example.

    Ordinary free will requires a deterministic universe. Without reliable cause and effect, you can’t do anything. And that’s hardly what we’d call freedom.

  3. Mr Bones says:

    What should we actually expect to see differently about the world, now that you’ve proven free will doesn’t exist?

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Haha what a great question! I’m not certain that there IS a “practical” consequence, but to me there is an important conceptual / philosophical consequence for the way we look at the world and how we understand its function.

      For me, not believing in free will is just a component of my overall worldview. I believe that our process of living in the world and experiencing the world is an act of description and creating stories. I believe that there are always multiple ways of describing anything in the universe, all of them “correct” in the sense that they are functional descriptions for certain contexts. I believe that all science — whether you are creating a theory of atomic movement or a theory of social-emotional regulation — is a system for uncovering causes. And I am radically “anti-mysticism”, in the sense that I believe that any experience CAN be examined and analyzed from the scientific perspective (even though I fully admit that current scientific theory hasn’t “explained everything” and probably never will, because it is always an evolving process).

      So for me, being a determinist is just an element of that overall way of thinking about the world. And I’ve been living with that world-view for many years. I don’t think it has a “practical” impact…. except maybe in the sense that I believe that the science of psychology is possible. (If you really believe in “free will”, then — according to the same arguments I put forth in this article — you must also believe that science of the mind is NOT possible).

      • There is no conflict between ordinary determinism and ordinary free will.

        Every decision we make of our own free will is also inevitable. The fact of autonomy and the fact of inevitability are simultaneously present in every choice we make.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          I agree completely with this, as well as your previous comment, in terms of the “ordinary understanding” of free will. Most of the “arguments” about free will are based on the feeling/hypothesis that people have that they “could have” done something differently, even though that kind of lack of causal specificity is 1) not something we have any evidence for and 2) not something that is necessitated simply by people having the “feeling” of it.

          Sometimes I feel like these arguments come down to a semantic issue: if you understand “free will” as something that is not inconsistent with causally determined behavior, then I can say “of course I believe in free will”. On the other hand, if you insist “free will means my ultimate behavior does not have causal constraints” then the idea is ludicrous. It really is evidence that every time someone asks “Do you believe in free will” the only appropriate answer is “please define what you mean by that.” 🙂

          • I wrote a post called “Yes, I Could Have Done Otherwise”, explaining that those words may have a rational meaning that does not challenge causal inevitability at all.

            It’s just the language we use when reviewing a previous choice that didn’t turn out as well as we thought. Assuming we had at least two possibilities at the time, if someone were to ask, “Could you have done otherwise?” the answer would naturally be “Yes, I was given two choices, and I could have chosen the other one.”

            What they’re really saying is that they were offered two possibilities, and, before they had made their choice, both possibilities remained viable. (Even though only one was inevitable).

          • Greg Stevens says:

            “What they’re really saying is that they were offered two possibilities, and, before they had made their choice, both possibilities remained viable. (Even though only one was inevitable).”

            This is a very generous interpretation, and probably psychologically correct. However, the only caveat I’d want to add is that many people are not conscious of the fact that this is what they mean.

            In other words: if they were to dig deep into an analysis of where their feelings come from, I believe that you are correct in the way you’re describing what it “means” when someone says they could have done otherwise. Nonetheless, I think most people — on the surface, conscious level — maintain some kind of belief that is along the lines of “if everything else were exactly the same up to the point where I made choice A, there exists some alternative universe in which I chose B instead”. That is a false belief, and it doesn’t stand up under more in-depth analysis …. but nonetheless, I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is what many people think they believe when they talk about will being “free”.

          • I’m pretty sure most people do not think in terms of “alternate universes” when describing what they can and cannot do.

            I do think that if there is any interpretation that makes sense, that it should be chosen over an interpretation that makes the speaker look senseless. As you suggest, it is a generosity, but one which we might hope would be extended to our own words as well.

          • Greg Stevens says:

            “I’m pretty sure most people do not think in terms of “alternate universes” when describing what they can and cannot do…”

            Hmm….. I’m not so certain of that. But here we get a bit into the linguistic weeds, I suppose. What, precisely, does a person mean when he says “I went to the party, but I could have done otherwise“? Are they not imagining a sequence of events that is identical to the universe of our experience up to a particular point, but that then diverges from that point forward? And isn’t that what is generally meant (at least colloquially, if not in the quantum-mechanical “many worlds” sense) by alternate universes? 🙂

            Whether they would frame it as an “alternate universes” type of scenario is another matter, but to me the idea seems implicit.

            Now, I know that this isn’t the only way to frame such issues. I’m actually reading “Freedom Evolves” by Dennett right now, and he argues passionately that we can define “choice” in a way that is both deterministic and does not require us to think in terms of “alternative universes”. I haven’t gotten to the end of that chapter yet, though…. I’ll let you know how it turns out. 😉

          • When a person says, “I could have …” or “I should have …”, they are mentally revisiting a prior decision to consider what they might have done differently. This is a pretty common experience that most of us have had many times.

            If the decision had some bad result that we hadn’t expected when we made it, then we want to see what we might have done differently, so that we don’t make the same mistake nexttime.

            The “alternate universe” is nothing more than our own imagination. We imagine how things might have turned out differently, for example, hangover avoided and homework completed if we had chosen not to go to that party.

            In this context we are free to consider different decisions and how those decisions might have turned out.

            Why? Because this is how we learn from our experience. And it is how we prepare our minds to make a better decision next time. That’s the point of considering what “I could have done otherwise”. And that is all that we ordinarily mean.

            Technically, there is a point of uncertainty at the beginning of every deliberate decision. At this point we can honestly say, “I could choose A or I could choose B, but I don’t know yet which one I will choose.”

            At that point we begin a mental evaluation of our reasons and feelings for choosing A versus choosing B. And at the end of that evaluation we make our choice.

            It is only after we have made our choice that we can know which choice was inevitable since the big bang. The fact of inevitability itself plays no useful role in any decision we make, because it is equally true for every decision we could possibly make.

            When we review a past decision, to learn from it, we go back to that point of uncertainty in our minds. And it once again becomes possible to say, “I could have chosen to do this instead”. Not as some metaphysical claim but simply as an exercise to learn from our mistake.

  4. mirella says:

    I came to ponder over the free will controversy from a different door: from studying mythology – it’s a very old controversy, you know. I was really happy to come across Anthony Cashmore’s book Free Will Is An Illusion – his argument makes lots of sense, many like the ones you have brought up yourself.

    However, society is not in the least ready to deal with this evidence, so it just rejects it. I once spent like a couple of hours discussing over the issue, trying to convince my daughter of the illusion, but she was firm on her position.
    Free will is a very useful concept in many instances, we always tend to find the responsible agent (preferably other than ourselves) behind things, especially those we don’t like. Think only of the justice system; we need to throw responsibility for criminal actions and accordingly, we need to find relief by punishing their authors.

    A. Cashmore argues that there must be a genetic basis for consciousness and the associated belief in free will, achieved as an evolutionary selective advantage: it provides us with the illusion of responsibility, which is beneficial for society, if not for individuals as well.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Orson Scott Card explored this through dialogue among some of the characters in his Science Fiction novels “Speaker for the Dead” and “Xenocide”. My favorite part is a conversation between Valentine Wiggen and Miro, where she is joking around that not only do our genes determine most of our behavior, but they probably cause us to believe in free will as well… in a way, our genes might FORCE us to believe in free will! And she laughs at the irony.

      And Miro gets very angry, and says, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

      And she says, “Well of course I don’t… my genes won’t let me.”

      🙂

      • mirella says:

        Ha ha, smart answer, he deserved that.

        However, nothing is just white or black. I’m thinking of those defining moments when your really get to chose in either/or situations. True, any choice would have a world of determining factors behind, but it IS your choice after all. I see the path of life as a long streak of events, choices and decisions that inevitably would take you at some bifurcation moments. It is at bifurcations that you really get to either follow yor “genetic set-up” or decide to break it. Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project, five years handicapped with Lyme disease, had a chance to receive the visit of an old friend who, what a crazy idea, took him surfing almost by force. The next part of his life WAS his choice: he just decided to stop being a vegetable and, against all odds, grab this lifeline (after it almost drowned him) – now we have a whole new science partly because of him.
        Arol Ranston in 157 Hours, his arm trapped by a fallen rock in a crevasse gets to choose between drifting off to the sleep of death and cutting off his arm to free himself and keep on living.

        The way I see it is that, at a normal level of consciousness, it is our DNA that’s in control; but after a certain lengths of accumulated life experience we get to make a choice, or, rather, we are being forced to make one, “take it or leave it”: shall we keep living “by default”, according to factory settings, or have we become strong enough,mature enough, to make the shift – move up to the next level of consciousness, which some call conscious living, as opposed to unconscious, group-level of cosnciousness. From here our crave for superhero stories.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          I completely understand (and agree with) the kinds of processes you are describing here — pivotal choice points, times when we struggle to overcome our more “automatic” or reflexive responses, times when we go against the grain or against our instincts, and so on. I think these are important things to examine and understand in the study of human behavior.

          But — just to reiterate! — this doesn’t actually pertain to the question of “free will” as it is classically understood. To me, these questions have to do with the fact that our ever behavior is, in fact, impacted by a vast and complex network of multiple factors that are constantly “battling it out”… and sometimes one set of factors drives behavior, and at other times other factors take over. This isn’t a matter of some magical “will” deciding between the two….. it’s just the way different parameters of the complex equation play out.

          When I was getting my Ph.D., my research involved looking at the interaction between “automatic processes” and “controlled processes”. Automatic processes can be both innate reflexes (genetically inborn) or strongly learned habits (things repeated so often you can do them without thinking). Controlled processes are stuff that you do because you have particular goals in mind: they take conscious attention, and often conscious activies that you need to plan out and pay attention to. Automatic processes are faster and easier, but are limited. Controlled processes allow you to do things you’ve NEVER done before…. but they take up a lot of mental “processing power”.

          There is a lot of study that goes into what it takes to force your mind to follow the deliberate “controlled path” to go against your “automatic” tendencies. But in the end, these are still neurological processes: two separate modules in the nervous system, with different activity levels, that inhibit each other, and depending on very complex factors of how much input and attention and energy these modules of the nervous system are getting, your final behavior will end up being whatever it is.

          You see? Even the whole “breaking free of programming” is something that one can come up with explanatory scientific theories about. That very process has its own network of causes and explanations. 🙂

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