Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 5
This is the fifth of a series of posts where I will be sharing the transcripts of George Ortega’s show which he has so generously made available on his website.
I will share both the link and copy the text as well. This is convenient for those who subscribe to my blog by email. You can read without visiting the site, but I highly encourage you to visit the link and see what else George has on his website.
Episode 5. We Do Not “Experience” Free Will
Before we consider that we don’t actually “experience” a free will, let’s go over I’m doing this show. The myth, or illusion, that we have the ability to choose our thoughts and feelings, and decide what we want, appears to have been prevalent at least from the beginning of civilization.
We tend to hold each other and ourselves responsible for what we do. When we do that, it causes harm. When we assume or attribute responsibility, we often conclude that if we’ve done something wrong, we deserve to be punished. So, we punish each other and ourselves. When we do wrong, we often feel the pain of guilt.
Aside from that, considering all of the evidence that demonstrates that we don’t have a free will, for our whole entire civilization to be structured on the premise that we do is bewildering. I believe and predict that we can create a more compassionate, more understanding, and better world through transcending this illusion.
The most fundamental reason people say they have a free will seems to be that they claim to experience every thought that they make as being up to them. As we’ll see, that is not actually the case. Before we get into that, I want to briefly define what people generally mean when they say they have a free will. Free will is generally accepted to mean that we can decide whatever we want regardless of our basic character, our personality, our unconscious, what we’ve learned or haven’t learned, our genetic makeup, and so many other things that actually combine to compel our every thought action and feeling.
The reality is that we human beings have causal wills. We have a will, in the sense that we make decisions, but all of these decisions are caused by factors outside of our control. Causality means that things happen according to the principle of cause and effect. It means that everything that happens, including our every thought, feeing and action, has a cause. And that cause has a cause, because everything must have a cause. Things do not happen in the universe that are not caused. The universe is causal, so our human will must be causal.
Consider that we “experience” the world as flat. We do not experience our world as an orb, which it is. That a flat world is an illusion we’ve understood at least since the time of Columbus in 1492. But that illusion doesn’t make much of a difference, unless we want to travel around the globe, or to the Moon and back. That kind of illusion does not impact our everyday life, but the illusion of free will impacts it profoundly.
When people say they experience a free will, what they really mean is that they experience a will. Let’s distinguish between the two. The will is synonymous with volition, or the act of choosing or deciding. In a certain sense, we decide all of the time. I decided to write this book. You’ve decided to read it. But that is not what people claim. People claim that these decisions are free from the influence of the causal past, and how their parents raised them, and their desires, etc. For example, if a person is given a choice between an apple and a corn muffin, their choice is going to be determined to a great extent by which they prefer; which tastes better to them. But, we don’t get to choose our taste. There are many ways of describing the different factors that make free will impossible. Taste, or our preferences for different foods, is one.
When people say that they experience a free will, what they really mean is that they are experiencing that they do have a will. I want to explore how people came to make this kind of mistake in their evaluation of human will. At 7:15 in a letter to the Romans dated about 58 A.D., Saint Paul writes, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t.” I do what I don’t want to – what I hate.” St. Paul is actually describing what this show is about. If we had a free will, then every act would be completely up to us. Every moral decision would be completely up to us. If St. Paul had a free will, and wanted to be completely good, never transgressing his morality, he could. He realizes he can’t, and brings up the issue of human will in Christianity.
It’s not until about 580 A.D. when St Augustine is grappling with the question of evil and punishment that he must have thought to himself “Wait a minute. If God is all-good, then we can’t blame God.” St. Augustine wrote a book called De Libero Arbitrio, which is Latin for “On Free Will.” He apparently coined the term free will. So, if we do something wrong, it must be our fault. This is interesting, because I was doing some research on good and evil within the Judeo-Christian context, and in Isaiah 45:7, God is quoted as saying “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
Before Augustine, people certainly did hold each other responsible, so they did seem to attribute free will to each other, but there was no term or doctrine describing this perspective. Again, Leucippus in the 5th century B.C. wrote the first statement on causality, the logical extension of which makes free will impossible. He wrote, “Nothing happens at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.” If everything happens for a reason, that of course makes free will impossible.
So, we have St. Augustine saying that what we do is completely up to us, because God granted us a free will. When you think about it from a theological standpoint, there is a contradiction. On the one hand, the standard teaching is that God is all-powerful, and that nothing happens without God wanting it to happen. On the other hand, we have the idea that God is ceding his power by granting human beings a free will. The logic there is clearly inconsistent.
The concept of an all-powerful God is also somewhat incoherent. There is a question that illuminates this logical conflict — If God is all-powerful, can S/He create a boulder so large that even S/He can’t lift it? If you think about that, you will very quickly realize that the idea of an all-powerful God is incoherent. You might ask yourself, “Can God cease to exist? Can S/He just stop being God?” I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. St. Augustine came up with his personal solution to blaming God for the evil in this world. This is curious also because we’re taught in Judaism, and Christianity and other religions that when things go well, we should thank God. If something goes right, it is God’s doing, and we should feel grateful. But, when things go wrong, it’s our fault. The inconsistency here could not be clearer.
The basic Judeo-Christian-Islamic teaching is that holding certain doctrines and beliefs will vastly improve your likelihood of spending the rest of eternity in Heaven than holding opposing doctrines and beliefs.
For example, if you don’t believe that there is a God, that disbelief would put you at risk of eternal damnation. According to some, your not believing in free will would also put you at risk. This probably explains much of why people say to themselves “of course I experience free will.” Anyone who really delves into the question would more likely than not finally realize otherwise. It may be because of this religious insistence on holding certain beliefs and rejecting others that we haven’t explored the matter of human will as comprehensively as we could.
Let’s explore in a bit more detail why free will is not what we experience when we make decisions. After this taping, I plan to take a break before doing another taping this afternoon. Let’s say I choose to go to the nearby White Plains Library to browse through some art books. I could also choose to go to the nearby Galleria Mall and have a cup of coffee, but let’s say I opt for the library. If I were to claim that that was a free choice, I would be claiming that I made that choice regardless of, for example, the strongest motivation acting upon me at that given time.
Part of me would like to go to the Galleria for a cup of coffee, and just hang out with people there. Part of me would like to browse through art books. I’ve been going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City recently – the amazing Egyptian collection – which may explain why this is so. My decision is not free of that. I am faced with two competing motivations – go to the mall or to the Library. So, what is going to happen? The stronger of those two motives is going to win out.
I’ve actually already made the decision, but between now and then I could change my mind. I could at the last minute say “well, I would really rather be around people, and there are probably not many people at the library.” I could end up going to the mall for coffee. But if I were to do that, it would be because I would be feeling that prospect as the stronger of the two motives.
We don’t really experience a free will. We experience a will. I experience the will, the decision, the volition, to go to either the library or the mall, but it’s not free of factors that compel it. Why might I have the motivation to go to the library and browse through books? Years ago, in college, I was an art major, and I have an appreciation of art. But we don’t get to choose what we appreciate, or desire to do. For example, one being good at mathematics, or art, or music, or whatever, is not something we get to freely choose.
We come into this world with a certain personality, and our personalities are, in fact, about fifty percent genetic. Naturally, if our personality is half due to our heredity, and our genes are certainly not something we can freely control, and the other half of our personality is due to environmental factors like how we were raised, and where we were raised, and the kinds of unique experiences we’ve had in our lives, it’s easy to understand that our human will is not free of those compulsions.
When we make a decision, we’re not “experiencing” that our decision was free of all of that stuff. We’re just experiencing a decision. If we took the time to ask ourselves, “Why did I decide this? What motivated me? What compelled me to decide this as opposed to that?” then we would realize that the decision was not free from these various factors. To say that we experience free will is to say that we experience a will that is free of even causality, or this process of cause and effect that governs everything.
All you have to do is acknowledge to yourself that if you made a decision, there was a cause for that decision — there may be one or several, depending on how you are defining cause. Okay, every event has a cause. We know this from science and experience. We know that nothing happens that is not caused. If there is a cause for our decision, then there is a cause for that cause, and there is a cause for that cause, and a cause for that cause. We sometimes refer to causality as cause and effect – the chain of cause and effect. So, if we took the time to investigate the reasons or causes for the decisions we make, we would see that they are subject to this chain of cause and effect.
It is important to recognize that a cause can never come after an event, so each cause must always precede its effect. If you have a chain of causes going further and further back into the past, ultimately it is going to stretch back to before we were born. That alone tells you that our decisions are not free. We might want to explore the reasons for our decisions. I decided to go to the library because I’ve been going to the Met, and have been amazed by the Egyptian exhibit there. But why did that exhibit amaze me? It might be because I have some experience in art. Was that experience free from causality, or reasons? No.
Keep in mind that we’re actually just guessing about all of these causes. We’re trying to figure out why we did what we did, and we may or may not correctly identify its true cause or causes. But that there always is a cause is certain. Sometimes we’ll get to the point where we must admit that we don’t know why we feel a certain way. For example, I don’t know why I’m so awed by Egyptian art, and find it so beautiful. If we don’t know what causes us to make the decisions we make, certainly we are not experiencing those decisions as having been freely made.
By this reasoning, we can understand that 1) we don’t have a free will and 2) we don’t even experience our will as free. This idea that we so obviously “experience” free will, upon even a cursory exploration, turns out to be false. We don’t experience free will, we experience will, and there is a world of difference between the two.
Why is this so important? Someone might say that it’s fine that we don’t have a free will, but wonder how knowing that changes anything. Think about it. If we don’t have a free will, every single decision we make is compelled by causes that we’re not in control of. Everything that any of us thinks and does, and everything that happens – because causality is not limited just to human will; it applies to the entire universe – is completely determined by the causal past.
Some people say that particle behavior at the quantum level is not determined, but that is actually a false interpretation of quantum mechanics. Particle behavior at the quantum level is actually entirely causal. There are certainly some things going on at that scale that we don’t understand. For example, we can’t use the standard causality model of Newtonian, or classical, physics to make predictions at the quantum level, so we rely on probabilities. Nonetheless, the essential nature of matter is causal. The universe is causal. If it wasn’t, and if our wills were not causal, how would that possibly work, and what would that even mean? How could anything happen that is not caused? The concept of randomness, in the strongest sense of things happening without anything causing them to happen, is simply incoherent.
The world is like a movie. Actors are generally given some leeway in interpreting their characters. We are like actors who don’t even get to interpret our roles. It’s amazing, and that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this show. It is so bewilderingly amazing that the universe, via the causal past, has compelled
us to get the second most fundamental aspect of human nature completely wrong. Nature has done this to us before in certain ways, like with the illusion that the world is flat, or that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Another illusion is that our planet is completely still and motionless. The reality, however, is that we’re hurtling around the Sun at over 600,000 miles per hour. Nature, or God, or whatever you want to call the universe or reality, apparently likes to have fun with us in this way. This illusion of free will is a natural illusion that has led us to get the fundamental characteristic of human will completely wrong.
There is more and more evidence coming out that the things we think we decide freely with our conscious mind are actually being decided at the level of our unconscious. This is becoming a hot research topic in psychology and neuroscience. My prediction is that as we understand that our wills are not free, we will be much more understanding toward ourselves and each other when we invariably do wrong. We will not blame each other and ourselves when things go wrong.
Every episode of George’s show is also available on youtube at:
Additionally, I have a playlist specifically of the shows George and I both take part in.