Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 6

Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 6

This is the sixth 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 6. How the Hedonic Imperative Makes Free Will Impossible

Let’s explore how the hedonic imperative makes free will impossible, but before we do that, let’s briefly review the basic purpose of the show, and review our definition of free will. We’ve had this illusion of free will for millennia, and the hope is that by overcoming it, we can create a better world – a world that is more understanding and intelligent. If we believe we have a free will, when other people do things that are wrong, we’ll blame them and conclude that they deserve to be punished. When we do things wrong, we’ll feel the pain of guilt. Naturally, understanding that we don’t have a free will doesn’t give us license to do whatever we want to do simply because we’re not ultimately we’re not responsible for what we do. We need to hold ourselves accountable in a sense, but if we do it from a causal will, rather than a free will, perspective we create a kinder and fairer world.

When people say that they have a free will, they mean that they can choose whatever they want, and that nothing outside of their control is compelling their choice. Their choice is completely up to them. In the area of morality, where the issue of human will is extremely important, if someone does something right, for example, feel that because it was their doing completely, they not just practically, but fundamentally, deserve the credit.

The term free will means that when we do something right or wrong, it is completely up to us. With moral decisions, the problem is that if we do something wrong, and we don’t recognize that we were completely compelled to do it, we often punish ourselves. We would say to ourselves “I deserve to feel pain for my wrongdoing.” Much of this show is about transcending the illusion of free will so we are kinder toward ourselves and others. A proper understanding of reality will presumably lead to a kinder world.

The reality, of course, is that we don’t have a free will; we have a causal will. What causes our decisions and moral actions can generally be described as the past. What happened in the past causes what happens in the present, and what happens in the present causes what happens in the future. This basic principle of causality governs the entire universe. Naturally, it must govern our human will.

This question of human will has been debated since the time of the Greeks, and in all of that time there has never been any convincing evidence that we have a free will. Some people claim, “of course we have a free will. We experience ourselves as having a free will.” The reality is that we don’t really experience having a free will; we experience having a will. We don’t experience having a will that is free of the past — free of how we were raised, what we learned, what we didn’t learn, our genetic makeup, our personality, and our unconscious. These factors come together to actually decide for us what we do.

One of these factors is what I’ve coined the Hedonic Imperative. Actually, it’s like Freud’s Pleasure Principle and experiences the basic principle in science that we as human beings are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s what we do. Through every moment of our lives, we’re making decisions based on the prediction that our decision is going to result in the greatest pleasure to us, immediately or in the future, or is going to minimize any kind of pain we might feel. We’re completely programmed in this way.

We are like a computer that must do exactly what it is programmed to do. We have no choice but to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Naturally, if every decision that we make is based on this hedonic imperative – this hard-wired compulsion and programming to do and think and feel what we predict is going to result in the greatest pleasure or the least pain – then how could that decision be free? How could that decision be up to us?

If a robot is programmed to make a left turn every time it runs into a wall or some kind of obstacle, then you certainly would not say that that robot has a free will. It is doing what is has been programmed to do. It can’t do otherwise. We human beings are genetically and biologically programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Some people might raise the objection that there are times when we could do what is most pleasant, but we choose to do what will create more pain for us. This is true, but in those cases we obey a conscience that needs to do what we consider right. I’m recording this show while the Libyan revolution is taking place. There are many Libyan citizens that are going out into the street risking, or losing, their lives for the greater good of Libya. The pain that they would feel by not fighting for this democracy and freedom from Gaddafi as a cruel dictator would apparently be greater than the pain of risking getting injured or killed. That is what our conscience is about.

There are other examples of this. Sometimes as parents, we will sacrifice and work very hard. Mothers have to constantly attend to their infants. Their conscience won’t allow them to just simply do what they want, and seek their own pleasure at the expense of the health and well-being of their children. If necessary, they will choose to undergo the pain of being very attentive to the child, sacrificing their own pleasure for the sake of the child. This sacrifice is a satisfaction of the demands of their conscience. The hedonic imperative isn’t the only hard-wired reason why free will is impossible. We also have a moral imperative, which is actually quite related to the hedonic imperative in the sense that we’re hard-wired to always do what we consider to be right, and what is right generally leads to the greatest pleasure.

Of course some people may know that what they are doing is wrong, and may decide to do it anyway. But when you think about it, in their mind, at the time that they do that wrong, they are justifying their decision. Consider an employee who steals from a company. That employee is saying “I know I’m doing something that others and I may generally consider wrong,” but another part is saying “well, this company has been stealing from its employees and hurting those employees in various ways,” There is always a justification — right or wrong.

There are many ways of understanding why free will is impossible, and why we simply don’t have a free will. Cause and effect and the fact that we have an unconscious that is always awake and taking part in our decisions are prime examples. There have been experiments where subjects have been primed – have been led through a certain exercise that influences them to think in a certain way – and they are observed as they make a decision. They are then asked why they made that decision. They will give an answer, but that answer will generally not have anything to do with the priming that has taken place. In other words, they are just guessing at why they did what they did, and they are guessing wrongly. They are not conscious of how the priming they underwent actually compelled their behavior.

Leaving all other factors aside, the hedonic imperative completely describes why free will is impossible. Again, if we’re programmed to always seek pleasure, we must do that.

We have no other choice. I’m a vegan. I can’t conscience how cruelly we treat farm animals. If I we’re given a choice between an apple and a pizza, my conscience would lead me to not eat the pizza because it contains cheese. Part of me might prefer a pizza because it might taste better to me than the apple. But, I derive more pleasure from satisfying my conscience than from satisfying my taste for food. Sometimes we are faced with competing pleasures. It’s not just that we are always compelled to seek pleasure; we’re also compelled to seek the most pleasant of various available options.

If we had a free will, everybody on the planet would be blissed out every moment of every day. A free will, by definition, means that we can think whatever we want regardless of what is happening, what has happened, and what will happen. It means that, regardless of anything and everything, our decisions and our feelings are completely up to us. The doctrine of free will teaches that what we think, feel, say, and do is completely up to us.

We’re hardwired to seek pleasure, but many times we are not successful at acquiring that pleasure. If we had a free will, who among us wouldn’t choose to think completely blissful thoughts all of the time, and to feel completely blissful feelings all of the time? It is so clear and obvious that this is what we would do. If we had a free will, like St. Paul expressed in his letter to the Romans, we would do good and be good always. Whenever we are confronted with a moral decision, we would never yield to temptation. We would never yield to emotions that might be driving us to make the wrong, or immoral, decision. The hedonic and moral imperatives are a good way to understand why free will is impossible.

There are other imperatives – other kinds of programming that we are hard-wired for. We have a reason imperative. It works alongside the hedonic imperative to help us make the most reasonable of two or more options. It gives us pleasure to be reasonable. If we’re trying to transfer a liquid from a container to either of two other containers, and one of the containers is clearly not large enough to hold the liquid, we’re naturally not going to choose that container. It wouldn’t make sense, and would oppose our logic and reasoning. We usually do what we consider to be the most reasonable of available options.

Sometimes, however, we do what is clearly unreasonable because it is not just reason that compels our decisions. There are so many factors that make free will impossible. Let’s say we are trying to be reasonable about something, but our emotions kick in. We’ve all had experiences when we’re discussing something with someone – someone we may love or care very much about – and we and they are trying to be reasonable. But then emotions like anger and fear come into play, and our reason is over-ridden by these emotions.

We are also programmed to act according to an imperative we know as the survival instinct. We will choose based on our prediction of what is going to lead to our greatest chance of survival. All animals appear to have this instinct. Another imperative is the instinct to procreate. We have a hard-wired drive to reproduce, and propagate our species.

If we’re always seeking pleasure, or goodness, or to be reasonable, then our wills are not free of those imperatives. We must seek pleasure. We must avoid pain. Why is this important? We live in world where our entire civilization is founded on an illusion. In our criminal justice system, we have people who have spent years in jail or prison for things that they had absolutely no choice but to do. There are people in our world who may not want to fund our education system because they feel that we can educate a child as well as we like, but at the time they have to make a decision as an adult, that education will be meaningless because that adult can freely choose whatever they want, regardless of any and all influence from that education. In our every day lives, we have many interactions with other people, and to the extent we don’t understand that they are compelled to do whatever they feel is either the most right, or the most pleasant, or the most reasonable, then we will be more understanding toward them. We’re not going to blame them when they invariably do wrong. We’re not going to say to ourselves “they deserve punishment.”

A good example of this is Libya. Gaddafi has killed over a thousand civilians, mostly unarmed. The general tendency is to hold him responsible, and hate him. Because I understand that Gaddafi does not have a free will, I can’t blame him. At the same time, however, my conscience won’t allow me to, in a certain sense, not hold him responsible. What I say to myself is “God willing, our military or the Libyan People will stop him somehow, or ideally he will step down. But if he doesn’t, we may need to kill him in order to stop him from killing more people. This is a decision I would make not from blame or hate. Hate is generally a vile and unpleasant emotion, and even to the extent we might enjoy hating, we probably hurt ourselves much more than we realize with our hatred.

Abandoning the illusion of free will doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning morality. We can do what we have to do from a more understanding causal perspective. It may be that if we treated criminals with less hatred and more understanding, we might dissuade them from continuing their criminal ways. In police work there is a strategy referred to as “good cop – bad cop” wherein the good officer shows compassion and understanding toward the suspect. Basically, that officer is acting according to a causal rather, than a free will, perspective. We often find that when people are treated in that way, their defenses drop. They think to themselves, “Hey, this person really isn’t blaming me. This person understands my predicament. I can trust him.”

This question of human will is very important to our personal lives and the structure of our society and civilization. I hope you have a better understanding of how the hedonic imperative, or always seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, makes free will impossible.


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.


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