Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 9
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 9. Overcoming Our Reluctance to Overcome the Illusion of Free Will
Let’s work on overcoming our reluctance to overcome the illusion of free will. Often, we’ll understand the logic and reason of why we don’t have a free will, but we enjoy having a free will. It’s something we’re preconditioned to like; it is not our choice. We’re hedonic creatures, and we’re programmed to believe and cherish the notion that we have a free will. Before we get into this, let’s briefly go over the purpose of this show, and a definition of free will and it’s alternative, the reality of our predetermined, and unconscious, will. The reason this show is important is that the illusion of free will causes a lot of unnecessary harm.
Consider that a two-year-old does something wrong. We don’t ascribe free will to that two-year-old, and because of that, we will treat him or her with understanding. We’ll say to ourselves, “a two-year-old could not have helped him or herself.” But when it comes to older children and adults, we say, “You did this of your own free will, and you deserve to be punished. You’re bad. You’re evil.” We also do this to ourselves. When we do something wrong, we say “oh, I did something wrong. I am guilty. It’s right for me to suffer this guilt of having done something wrong.” Attributing free will to others and to ourselves causes a great deal of unnecessary blame, guilt, and aggression.
Before I go further, I wouldn’t recommend that we do without a kind of pseudo-personal morality. In other words, not having a free will doesn’t give us license to do whatever we want. We could create a much better world by transcending this very pervasive illusion of free will.
What people mean when they say they have a free will is that nothing that they are not in control of is compelling them to decide what they decide. Control is the key. They say, “I’m in complete control of what I decide and don’t decide. Now consider that our unconscious, by definition, is not under our conscious control (at least in real-time). We’re not even aware of it, and it’s always awake. The unconscious is what makes our heart beat, and it controls our other bodily functions. It’s where we store our memories and our thought processing. Basically, we can’t make any decision without the unconscious being involved. Naturally, if our unconscious is not in our control, you can see how free will is impossible.
We have a causal will. We have a will that is subject to causality. Whatever decision we make has a cause, and that cause has a cause, and that cause has a cause, etc. These causes go back in time, and this causal regression leads to before we were born, and before the Earth and Sun were created. It’s easy to see how, through this cause and effect process, events in the past ultimately led to what can be described as the movie we’re all acting out. It is so mind-boggling that nature, or God, has predetermined that we have this illusion of free will. It is so completely opposite to the way things are, and for this reason alone, I think it would be in humanity’s best interest to finally understand the true causal and unconscious nature of our human will.
Let’s talk about how we can overcome our reluctance to overcome our illusion of free will. Free will is actually more of a delusion. Some people understand logically and rationally that free will is impossible. They understand that we have an unconscious that makes free will impossible. They understand that causality makes free will impossible. They understand that even if things were random, in the strongest sense meaning uncaused, and things could actually happen that were not caused, that would also make free will impossible. If our decisions aren’t caused, then they certainly cannot be caused by our free will. A lot of people understand this, but they still are compelled by fate to believe in free will. They cannot let the illusion go.
The point here is that when an illusion gets where you know that it’s an illusion, but you still believe it, it’s no longer an illusion. At that point it has become a delusion. So, basically, our whole humanity is completely deluded regarding the very nature of our human will. I want to explain what I mean by the word “delusion.” Consider the well-known visual illusion depicting a horizontal line with inward-pointing arrows at each end above a horizontal line with outward-pointing arrows at each end.
If you were to ask yourself which line is longer, it seems like the one on top is the longer of the two. That’s the illusion. If you then measure the two lines with a ruler, and you determine that the two lines are, in fact, equal in length, and you still contend that the top line is longer than the bottom one, that’s where your illusion has become a delusion.
Most people have never thought about any of this. There is a term free will, and people just assume it’s true. Few people have explored human will enough to understand how and why free will is impossible. Why do we continue to believe in free will? Some of us say to ourselves, “If I were a robot, or an actor, life would have no meaning. We couldn’t take credit for anything.”
We generally tend to be religious. We tend to believe in God, or a higher power. Part of us doesn’t want to see ourselves as robots, or puppets – completely programmed beings, and everything being a movie. Another way to look at this, however, is that God’s will is manifested through us. Some of us believe that God exists outside of space and time – outside of the universe. But that doesn’t make sense. One of the definitions of God is that he is omnipresent, or everywhere. So, a clearer understanding of God is that S/He is everything, and we’re a part of God.
In that sense, we are instruments of God. That’s a good way of seeing this that many people can relate to within a religious context. We’re vehicles for God’s will. When we see it from that perspective, it restores our nobility. We’re not mere robots or puppets. We are the physical manifestation of God’s will. God expresses Her/Himself through us. That way of seeing ourselves should be a lot more palatable to many people. It should make understanding that we don’t have a free will easier to accept.
There’s another reason many of us are afraid to believe that we human beings do not have a free will. They believe that if we understand, acknowledge, and accept that we don’t have a free will, and if we act according to that understanding, and there would be no true personal morality, we could not be held accountable for anything. We could not take credit for the good we do, and we could not blame each other or ourselves for the bad we do. It’s an understandable fear. Some of us are afraid that if everyone comes to understand that we don’t have a free will, we will all do whatever we want, and say, “You can’t blame me. I don’t have a free will.” Incidentally, there is a philosopher named Saul Smilansky who wrote a book titled Free Will and Illusion, and he understands that free will is impossible and that it’s an illusion. But, his perspective is that we shouldn’t
tell people this because if we were all to understand the true nature of our will – that we’re actually instruments of God rather than gods ourselves – we would act with reckless abandon. Not incidentally, from a religious context, if we had a free will, that would also mean that we create our thoughts – that we are the authors of our thoughts. However, our understanding of God is that S/He is the only entity in the universe with the power to create.
Some of us believe that if we relinquish our belief in free will, there will be anarchy. No, because we’re hard wired to act in certain ways. For example, we’re governed by the hedonic principle. Freud explained this as the Pleasure Principle, and there have been other formulations of this principle in biology and the other sciences. The idea is that we human beings are hard-wired and compelled to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Sometimes we’ll undergo a certain amount of pain in order to satisfy our conscience. But, the idea here is that because our basic motivation in life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, we’re not going to let people just get away with claiming “Well, I don’t have a free will so I can do whatever I want.” We’re not going to let ourselves get away with that either.
When we attribute free will to ourselves and each other, and we do things wrong, we accuse and blame. “That person is bad; he’s evil.” We do this to ourselves, and we do this to our friends. When we do this geo-politically, it can result in wars. As we overcome this free will-dependent attribution, we can at least be more understanding. We can say “alright, this person did something wrong. We can’t allow him or her to continue doing it because it’s hurtful to us all, and we have to take steps to prevent it.” By not acting according to the illusion of free will, the steps we would take, however, would likely be far more compassionate and understanding. The person who does the wrong is not going to feel like they are an evil person. When we do wrong, we’re not going to feel like we’re bad. Our overcoming the illusion of free will would likely create a much kinder, and far more intelligent, world.
When we acknowledge that there is no personal morality, and things go wrong, what do we do? In religion, when things go well, we’re taught to be grateful because it’s God’s will that caused them to go well. We thank God. Unfortunately, when things go awry, it’s our fault. As a sideline, it seems an open question whether or not God has a free will. Part of me hopes S/He doesn’t, because if God doesn’t have a free will, we can’t blame God for anything. A very cool thing about not believing in free will is that we can thereby hold ourselves as innocent – as blameless. To be able to hold God as blameless also would also be good.
It may take a few years or decades for people to understand that our wills are not free, accept this truth, and apply this understanding to our personal lives and societally. Interestingly, we already incorporate the understanding that our human will is not truly free. In today’s criminal justice system, if a person is considered to not have known what they were doing at the time of their wrongdoing, we apply what we refer to as the insanity defense. We understand that you can’t justly hold someone responsible for what they did if they did not genuinely, or sufficiently, know what they were doing. This can happen with certain kinds of brain injuries and various illnesses.
With free will exposed as an illusion, our criminal justice system would, over time, become much more compassionate. While we may have to separate some of us who would otherwise go around committing crimes, it would likely be a more compassionate separation. Consider that people often commit crimes against another person because they blame that person for something. They conclude that a certain person did some wrong, and at times desire to get him back. It’s about retribution. If people generally did not believe that other people have a free will, much of that attribution-based crime would be avoided.
Our overcoming the illusion of free will would make life so much more wonderful – and I mean literally wonderful, as in “full of wonder.” Think about it; everything is a movie. What I’m saying right now has been predetermined from before the Earth and Sun were created. It’s not just about our decisions. Everything that happens, everything that moves, every bird that flies, every rock that falls, every planet that moves, is predetermined. To my mind, it’s perplexing, and amazing, and bewildering, but it’s also wonderful. I start each show with a quote from American philosopher, John Searle. He says that if free will is an illusion, that would be a bigger revolution in our thinking than Einstein, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, and Galileo. I think he’s right. Overcoming the illusion of free will would give us an entirely new mindset, and perspective.
Why do we need a new mindset? We’ve made a lot of progress in our world. About two hundred years ago, almost everyone on the planet was poor. Today, many of have so much more than we need. We have many blessings. Our world works very well in many ways. But in some ways it doesn’t work at all. For example, climate change will challenge us for decades. It’s probably too late to do all we could have done about it, because the climate-driven effects we’re feeling today were caused twenty or thirty years ago. We face monumental challenges with climate change. If we adopt the understanding that free will is an illusion, we can approach climate change and all of our other major challenges with greater cooperation.
Under the free will perspective, we say “they are doing something wrong. They’re bad. We’re opposed to them, and they’re opposed to us.” When we have that kind of relationship with each other, it’s hard to get things done. It’s hard to reach agreement, because if you’re one of the people doing something wrong, to admit this is akin to admitting that you are a criminal, or just bad. We don’t tend to do that. But, if everyone shared the understanding that we don’t have a free will – that if people do something wrong it is only because they were compelled to so, and it wasn’t truly their choice – we could still say “listen; you need to stop polluting the Earth and warming the climate.” When people don’t, and are not made to, feel responsible for those kinds of egregious actions, then they can more easily assume a certain kind of responsibility.
Another major challenge we have is that until about sixty years ago, our farm animals were treated so much more compassionately than they are treated today. Our cows had pastures to graze on, and our chickens were free to roam the yards. Today, you would not believe the horrible conditions by which these animals are raised. If you go to Google Video and search for “Meet Your Meat,” you can view a 12-minute video narrated by Alec Baldwin, and produced by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (PETA) that shows very graphically just how horribly we treat farm animals. If you watch that video, you will see how chickens are stuffed in cages so small they cannot even fully extend their wings for their entire lives. You will see pigs, who happen to be more
intelligent than dogs, confined in cages so small they cannot even turn around for months at a time. The degree of abuse is unbelievably horrible.
We should stop eating meat simply because we would be healthier, and live longer, if we did. But, we continue to torture these animals because we refuse to even look at what we’re doing. If we were to see our treatment of animals squarely for what it is, we would have to recognize how horribly we’ve been acting, and how cruel and callous that makes every one of us who condone and abet this cruelty by eating meat. That is the only conclusion we could honestly reach.
If we were to view all of this from the understanding that what we’re doing is completely compelled — and in no way up to us – then we could with justification blame the universe, or whatever, for compelling us to commit such cruelty. That perspective would render us innocent, and when we’re no longer holding ourselves responsible for such cruelty, then we will hopefully, through compassion, squarely face the cruelty that is being done through us, and stop torturing those animals.
Our free will-derived sense of responsibility likely prevents us from truly seeing the extent of our cruelty. The sad irony here is that the universe has caused us to torture these animals. God willing, this same universe will hopefully soon make us understand that we don’t have a free will, and compel us to be much more compassionate toward all animals on our planet. To the extent that we overcome the illusion of free will, we will create a brand new world. It would be like a new renaissance, multiplied tenfold.
We’re perpetually at each other. Our coming to understand, and behave according to the understanding, that we don’t have a free will would lead us to sit down with each other, and rationally consider the matters before us. “Why did the universe compel you to do wrong?” we might ask our friend. S/he might respond, “Not so fast; the universe is apparently compelling me to conclude that what I did was not, in fact, wrong.” Basically, the conversation could proceed as a cooperative, rather than blaming, venture, with each of us trying to figure out if a wrong was, in fact, done, and what to do about the matter from a practical standpoint.
Understanding free will as an illusion would also lead to our understanding that the way we treat our children in school, especially when they are young, makes all the difference in the world to their, and our, future. In computers there is a principle called GIGO, which is an acronym for “garbage in, garbage out.” This principle also applies to how we instruct our children. To the extent we understand that what we are basically doing with child-rearing and education is programming our children to behave in certain ways, and not others, we will take more time, and devote more effort, to teaching them how to be happy, and how to be good.
There are many other reasons why overcoming this illusion of free will would create a much more wonderful world by increasing goodness, compassion and understanding. We’ll explore them. Even as we rationally understand the causal and unconscious nature of our human will, it is hard for us to accept this truth about ourselves. So, we will go over all of this a lot. Over time you should ultimately understand why overcoming the illusion of free will would very likely create a much better world.
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.