Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 8
This is the eighth 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 8. Asking When a Child Gains it Illuminates the Incoherence of the Concept “Free Will”
Asking when a child gains it illuminates the incoherence of the concept of free will. Before we go into this, I just want to briefly review why this matter of human will — this question of whether it is causal or free — is important. Naturally, our show’s perspective is that all evidence, bar none, indicates that our wills are causal, and that free will is an illusion.
This question is important because much of our behavior depends upon how we view our human nature. In other words, when we act under the illusion that we have a free will, we treat ourselves and each other differently – basically more unkindly and less compassionately – than when we understand that everything we do is compelled, and that nothing is really “up to us.”
Often people will confuse the term “free will” with the term “will.” When people say that they have a free will, they are actually saying that they have a will. We make decisions all of the time. These decisions are based on reasons, or causes. The notion that we can make decisions that are not based on a reason is incoherent. How can we make a decision not based on some reason? We can’t, and this is true whether or not the reason is unconscious.
If we were to make a decision, and it was actually possible that there was no reason for it, obviously the decision could not have been freely made. If there is a reason for it, this brings the principle of causality into play. If there’s a reason for the decision, there is a reason for the reason, and a reason for that reason.
This cause and effect chain of reasons –reasons always go back in time, and the reason will always precede the effect, or decision. If you follow that chain of causation back, it extends to before the person making the decision was born, before the planet was created, and presumably before the Big Bang.
Causality is the fundamental explanation for why our wills are not free. Again, when people say that they have a free will, what they are saying is that “I can choose whatever I want. What I do is completely up to me. It is not up to anything else.” What we actually have is a causal will. Our decisions are not really up to us. They are up to many factors that are not in our control at all.
One of the ways that we define free will goes as follows. If we have a free will, then that means we’re essentially responsible for our acts – we’re fundamentally responsible. It’s not that we simply hold ourselves responsible, but that we actually are responsible. If we have a causal will, that means that we may hold ourselves responsible to preserve our civilization and to have a certain degree of order, but that attribution is just a convention. Perhaps because we don’t know any better, or for some other reason, but the fundamental reality is that we’re not responsible. The universe, or God, may be responsible for our actions, but the prospect emerges that S/He doesn’t have a free will, but that’s beyond the scope of this episode.
If being responsible for our acts is our definition of free will, then we have a problem. We all agree that a one-day-old infant does not have a free will, in the sense of being responsible for his or her actions. You can’t hold a one-day-old responsible for a moral decision – for soiling itself, or peeing on you.
We all agree that a one-day-old infant is not morally accountable, and therefore does not have a free will. Naturally, the reason infants don’t have a free will is that they don’t have the capacity – the experience and brain development – to make a moral decision. So, if a one-day-old doesn’t have a free will, at what point, at what moment, at what age — what would have to happen — for that human being that doesn’t have a free will to suddenly acquire one?
That question is fraught with contradiction and confusion. We might say that a child will develop free will when the child has gained a certain amount of knowledge and experience in the world. Then, all of the sudden, the child would go from being a human being that is not essentially responsible to a human being that is essentially responsible. But, if that’s the case, would that mean that a child who has acquired much more knowledge than another child would have more free will than the more ignorant child?
That would mean that some people have more free will than others, and a person who is almost completely ignorant would have almost no free will. Someone might say that an infant doesn’t have much intellectual maturity, or its rational thought processes haven’t developed much yet. Well, when might that happen? At what age? That would, of course, means that one child would develop a free will before another child. Asking those questions invites many confusions. What about a person who is brain damaged? It would be presumed that they don’t have a free will. What about the mentally and emotionally challenged?
The intriguing part of this question relates to the exact moment that a child would go from not having a free will to having one. Again, this relates to causality because it’s not just about a child’s intellectual development, amount of experience, maturity, etc. Those aren’t the only things that prevent a child from having a free will. The other inescapable prohibition is that the one-day-old child, like a five-year-old, or a ten-year-old, or an adult, lives in a physical universe that is completely governed by causality. In science, we understand that change is the fundamental process in the universe. Change means that a particle, or molecule, is at one place at one moment, and in another place the very next moment. The universe is not static. It changes, and the fundamental process explaining this change is causality. Things cause things to change, and everything has a cause. Without causality, there would be no change.
If we agree that a one-day-old infant doesn’t have a free will, and we want to assert that at a certain age – two, five, ten, whatever – the infant suddenly acquires one, we would have to explain how that infant suddenly develops the ability to circumvent this fundamental law of nature that is cause and effect. It’s simply impossible for an infant, or a child, or and adult, or anything at all – alive or not – to overcome the causal nature of the universe.
Those of us who may not accept causality as the fundamental process that everything in the universe is governed by may wish to consider the alternative. If things were not caused, they would be random. Randomness has various definitions. You can put your hand in a bowl of ping-pong balls, and pick one out randomly, but that is just a manner of speech. You are acting without the deliberate intention to pick out a specific ball, but the whole process of is nevertheless causal.
If things were not causal, how could they come to be? If a child’s, or our own, decision, is not caused – if anything in the universe is not caused – how could it have happened? Nothing happens that isn’t caused. That’s the salient understanding here. When you understand that everything has to have been caused, including the causes of causes, then
you understand how it would be impossible for a child to go from not having a free will at one day old to suddenly having one at the age of five or ten. It would be as if acquiring more intelligence, or maturity, or knowledge, would somehow allow the child to circumvent this basic law of nature – the law of causality.
This truth that human will is causal and unconscious rather than free represents a leap in the evolution of the human mind. Perplexingly, we have been predetermined by the past that controls everything to believe that we have a free will – to get wrong the most fundamental characteristic of human will. We didn’t, of our own accord, decide to get it wrong, just like we didn’t decide to get that the Earth is an orb rather than flat wrong, or that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than visa-versa wrong. For millennia, we’ve been predetermined to hold this free will illusion.
Imagine what it would mean for our world – not just some philosophers, psychologists, and physicists – to understand the causal nature of human will. I would guess most physicists understand that free will is impossible because they understand that the physical laws of nature control everything. Sometimes people will assert that physics relates to the physical world, but that thoughts, and feelings, and decisions are actually spiritual, and operate outside of physical law. They do not. In physical reality, or nature, there is such a thing as time. As Einstein demonstrated, it’s more accurately described as “space-time,” because time and space are actually one entity. Space requires time, and time requires space. You can’t have one without the other.
Let’s define spirituality as that which we can’t detect or measure physically. Now consider that every decision we make, however spiritual it might be, would have to take place within a specific moment in time. Think about that. If the decision is being made within a certain particular moment, it is clearly within time. Thus, the spiritual nature of a decision does not allow it to circumvent time. So, another way to understand why our decisions are not freely willed is to consider that a spiritual decision cannot reside outside of the laws of nature, or outside of space-time.
The most fundamental way of understanding why free will is impossible, and why cause and effect govern everything, is to consider the universe in its entirety. When I say the entire universe, I mean regardless of whether the universe is finite or infinite. The universe at one moment in time completely determines the universe at the next moment in time. The state of the universe at that next moment in time will then completely determine the state of the universe at the subsequent moment. Naturally, this chain of cause and effect that involves the entire universe also goes back into the past. This moment in time is the complete result of the previous moment, and the previous moment in time was the complete result of the immediately preceding moment. That chain of causality stretches back in time at least to the Big Bang.
If a decision that we describe as spiritual is taking place within a precise moment in time in the universe, it can’t escape causality. The decision occurs within a universe defined as everything there is, spiritual or whatever. If it is occupying a specific place in the universal timeline, the decision is determined by the causality inherent in that timeline. The decision cannot escape causality.
This is huge. John Searle’s statement at the beginning of each episode to the effect that demonstrating free will to be an illusion would be “a bigger revolution in our thinking than Einstein, or Copernicus, or Newton, or Galileo, or Darwin” is true. We undergo evolution in the sense of our physical bodies evolving. People are getting taller. We’re losing our hair. Our brains are getting bigger. Some changes happen over the course of over a million years, but there are some changes that occur within decades. There is also an evolution of our mind. We are becoming more intelligent as a species. To move from our mistakenly perceiving the fundamental nature of our human will as free of causality– free of reasons, free of any and all factors not in our control — to the accurate understanding that our wills are causal, and that reality is essentially like a movie, is truly revolutionary.
We generally understand that the universe is causal. Some people may claim that particle behavior at the quantum level is random, in the strongest sense, but they are thereby claiming that such particle behavior is uncaused. That is an absurd conclusion. It is not founded on reason. It is not founded on evidence. How could something that has happened not have been caused? At the quantum level, it is impossible to measure simultaneously the position and momentum of a particle. It is therefore impossible to use Classical, or Newtonian, physics to accurately predict the behavior of quantum phenomena. So, at the quantum level, physicists rely on probabilities. Instead of measuring the movement of one particle, they measure the movement of groups of particles. They thereby predict a single particle’s behavior through probabilities derived from the movement of those groups, as opposed to through the exact, direct measurement of that particle.
We may not know the factors that contribute to a particle’s being in one place at one moment, and then all of the sudden
being in another place at the next moment. But such ignorance of the agents impinging upon the particle in no way leads to the rational, scientific conclusion that the particle’s behavior has not been caused. Again, the prospect of a particle’s behavior being uncaused is incoherent. How could something not be caused?
Transitioning from the illusion of free will is a huge step in the evolution of humankind. It can generate profound changes in our civilization. Right now, everything from our criminal justice system to how we raise kids, to how we reward what we do related to economic activity, is all based on the mistaken premise that human beings have a free will. When you consider that this illusion of free will leads to people blaming each other and themselves, you can understand why there is so much conflict and so many wars in this world.
If we’re mistakenly blaming others and ourselves for stuff that we have absolutely no control over, and then acting on that blame, it’s going to create a much more aggressive and hostile world than if we were to overcome this free will illusion, and understand that everything we do is completely compelled.
In summary, if we ask ourselves how a one-day-old child, whom we all understand does not have a free will, could somehow circumvent the laws of nature, we can understand why free will is 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.