Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 11
This is the eleventh 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 11. The Absurdity of Varying Degrees of Free Will
Let’s consider the absurdity of the claim that we humans have varying degrees of free will. Some philosophers and psychologists assert that while we may not have a completely free will, we have a free will in certain respects. We’ll be exploring that assertion.
Before we do that, I want to go through a brief description of what we generally mean when we say we have a free will. In essence, what we mean by free will is that our decisions are completely up to us. Nothing that we cannot control is compelling our decisions. Nothing that is not under our control would be either taking part in our decisions, or making them completely for us. Right from the start, we can understand that because we have an unconscious that is always awake and active, free will is impossible. If the unconscious is taking part in a decision, that decision is not free from its participation. Again, if the unconscious is making the decision completely — which is the most accurate description for how all of our decisions are made — that decision cannot have been freely willed.
Civilization has had this illusion of free will as its premise for our whole legal system, our whole political system, our whole socio-economic system, and our whole system of relating to each other personally. This irrational conclusion leads to unnecessary harm, problems, and confusion. By overcoming the illusion of free will, we can create a much more intelligent, compassionate, and understanding world.
Some philosophers and scientists understand why we can’t have a completely free will. For example, they understand that fifty percent of our personality is genetic. But, they will assert that we have a certain amount of free will; a partially free will. There are two types of partial free will that they wrongly conclude. The first is the idea that while not all of our decisions are up to us, some of them are. The second type of partial free will they claim we have is that when we make a decision, that decision is partly up to us. They claim that it may be partly up to other factors, but it is also partly up to us.
Let’s examine these two claims in detail to see whether or not they make sense, or have any evidence to support them. Let’s begin with the first one that not all of our decisions are freely made, but some of them are. Here’s where the unconscious comes in. We’ve talked about this before, and it’s the answer to why even a partially free will is not possible. Our unconscious is always active. There is a part of our unconscious that controls our bodily actions like breathing, circulation, and all of the organs inside of us. Part of our unconscious is constantly awake controlling all of that biology. Because our unconscious is also awake while we are sleeping, it is actually more a part of our experience than is our consciousness, which is active only while we’re awake.
As far back as Freud and the hypnotists, we have empirically understood that there is an unconscious. We have understood that this unconscious is really responsible for a lot of the decisions – in truth, all of them — we generally attribute to our conscious will. In neuroscience and psychology today, researchers are demonstrating this with more and more hard evidence. Before this, a researcher would hypnotize a person, and give them a post hypnotic suggestion. When the person was no longer under hypnosis, s/he would perform the post-hypnotic suggestion.
The way researchers determined that the post-hypnotic action was done by the unconscious, rather than by the person’s conscious will, was to ask the person “why did you do that?” The person would then confabulate some kind of reason, but the reason would not reveal the understanding that the reason they did what they did was because of the post-hypnotic suggestion while under hypnosis. Other experiments reveal our unconscious will through priming. Subjects in an experiment are given words that will cause their unconscious mind to focus on a certain kind of behavior, and they are evaluated, or they perform a task while primed with those words. It turns out that the priming is responsible for what they do or don’t do.
When we say what we say, or decide what we decide, we have to rely on memories. We can’t make a decision with no data upon which to draw on. We can’t say anything without there being a collection of words in our unconscious memory bank from which to draw for our sentences and paragraphs, etc. Remember, the term free will means that we would be able to make our decisions completely free of anything that is not in our control. Think about it. We have an unconscious that is the storehouse of all of our memories – all of the words that we know, our reasoning processes, and our morality. Because this unconscious is something that we’re not, by definition, even aware of, we’re obviously not in control of it. There is no way for us to, in real time, control our unconscious.
So, to make every decision we make, we have to draw on an unconscious part of us that we can’t control. The words that I’m saying right now are just coming out of me. My unconscious is leading me to say what I say. My conscious mind then becomes aware of what I’m saying, and, to the extent I’ve been conditioned to believe in free will, wrongly concludes that it made the decision. Whether we see the unconscious as controlling the very decision itself, as many experiments in hypnosis have demonstrated, or as taking part in the decision, we can’t, therefore, have a free will.
Especially since Freud, we’ve come to understand that we have a part of us that is unconscious and is not, therefore, in our control. That seems a very easy way for us to understand the logic of why we don’t have a free will. But, the fundamental reason we don’t have a free will is the law of cause and effect. Everything that happens has a cause. Nothing can happen without a cause. This has been known since Leucippus, who at about 500 B.C., wrote, “Nothing happens at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.”
If everything has to have a cause, this means that every one of our decisions has to have a cause. It doesn’t stop there because if everything has a cause, then the cause of every one of our decisions must have a cause, and the cause of that cause must have a cause. You then get a chain of cause and effect that spans back to before we were born. Things that are happening before we were born, and before the planet was created, determine what’s happening at this exact moment, and what will happen in the future.
How does all this apply to the claim that some of our decisions are freely made? To answer a question with a question, how could it be that some of our decisions are subject to this law of causality, and others aren’t? That’s why I say that the notion of varying degrees of free will is absurd, incoherent, and logically inconsistent.
Now let’s explore the second claim, that part of every decision we make is in our control, and thus, freely willed. Imagine yourself writing a report, raking leaves, doing dishes, or whatever you’re doing. There is something – in this case, your unconscious – that insists on both taking part in your decision, and in the actual doing. If that is the case, you can’t rightfully say that either the decision to do something, or the doing of it, is the result of a free will. Something that you can’t control is insisting on participating.
The unconscious never sleeps. To the extent that it is not making the decision completely (it actually is, as we’re just beginning to demonstrate in neuroscience and psychology) the unconscious is certainly taking part. If we have to draw on our unconscious for the concepts — the building blocks, the words, the memories — upon which we’re going to make our decision, then obviously that unconscious is going to, at the very least, take part in every decision we make.
You may want to conclude that part of our decisions is up to us, and part of them is up to something else. However, the part of any decision that was up to us would have causes. It couldn’t escape that law of causality that governs everything. If we claim that part of our decisions was up to us, we confront the following kinds of questions. What was the reason for that decision? Why did we make that decision? What caused us to have that reason?
It’s not that we can always know completely what the causes are, especially once you go back three or four steps in this chain of cause and effect. We’re usually just guessing at what the causes are. We start out with the fact that everything must have a cause because things can’t happen uncaused. Think about what it would mean if some of our decisions were uncaused, and not subject to this law of causality that governs everything. Clearly, if a decision of ours is not caused – if it is random or indeterminate – it can’t have been the result of a free will.
When we say free will, what we mean is that our decisions are be up to us, and we can take pride in, and feel accountable for, them. A free will decision is presumably one for which there would be our own autonomous reasons. Asserting that we have a free will is akin to asserting that our will is free of causality, free of any kind of reason, and free of the self. It’s easy to see how the term “free will” is incoherent, and doesn’t really make sense.
Whether philosophers, psychologists and other thinkers make the assertion that some of our decisions are freely willed, or that some parts of our decisions are freely willed, because we have an unconscious, and because our world works according to cause and effect, these assertions are simply mistaken.
Let’s say we understand and accept this inescapable truth that free will is impossible. What does that mean to our world? Many of us genuinely understand the science and logic of the conclusion that free will is impossible. But, we’re sometimes reluctant to accept it, in part because we’re all, very ironically, conditioned by the causal past to believe we have a free will, and to take pride in this notion. We’ve been conditioned to not want to relinquish this belief so easily.
Some of us are reluctant to live our lives and restructure our civilization according to the truth of our causal and unconscious human will. We believe that if we all understood that free will is an illusion, and everything is truly fated – that we’re instruments of God, doing the will of God, or more secularly, that we’re robots, or computers, doing exactly what we’re programmed to do – civilization would collapse because many of us would say to ourselves, “if I’m not morally responsible for anything, then I can do anything, and can’t justly be held accountable.”
That’s really not something we need to fear because one of the ways nature has conditioned us is that we are hedonic creatures. We seek pleasure and avoid pain. That is an imperative that, incidentally, controls every decision we make. A second imperative we’re hard-wired for is that, at the time we’re doing anything, we consider it to be the most moral of our available choices. In hindsight, or to others, it may clearly seem wrong. Our moral imperative always compels us to do the greater of two or more goods, or the lesser of two or more evils.
We as individuals and we as a planet – would not allow anarchy to reign just because we understand that we humans do not have a free will. For example, let’s consider that everyone in our family and everyone we know completely understood that free will is an illusion. Everything is a movie and we’re all programmed. We’ve obviously been programmed to occasionally upset or hurt one another – to say or do things that are offensive, or aggressive, or threatening, to each other. If we really had a free will, we’d all be perfect angels, and we wouldn’t be aggressing against anyone. But to the extent that reality, or fate, or God, compels us to see free will as an illusion, and understand that everything is actually predetermined, we wouldn’t spend our time blaming each other. We would begin to explore why fate is doing this to us, understanding that our blaming or aggression is really an offense by fate against both the blamer and the blamed.
Under the notion of free will, we are all competing with each other, and against each other as adversaries. But when we understand that free will is an illusion – that everything is fated – then all of the sudden our friends and we are on the same side. We’re no longer competitors; we’re cooperators in trying to find an answer to why fate is disturbing our relations. If you want to look at this from a theological standpoint, there’s the idea of Satan, who is responsible for messing things up on the planet. From this perspective, the notion that we humans have a free will is probably one of his prime strategies for advancing his agenda. If Satan has everyone at each other, accusing ourselves and each other for things that we’re not responsible, then we’re not going to be as focused as we would otherwise be on solving the issue at hand in the best, and most intelligent, way.
Think for a minute about how amazing it is that our civilization – humankind – is so completely confused about likely the second most fundamental aspect of being a human being, (the first aspect being that we exist). This second aspect is the matter of why we do what we do. Who is all of that that up to? For us to conclude that it’s up to us rather than the causal past, or God, or all of these influences that come together completely independent of our control, is bewildering.
To the extent that we see free will as an illusion, I would hope that we can create a much more intelligent world. Consider how much harm our world is subject to because we blame each other and ourselves, and how profoundly our world could change through our understanding the true nature of reality and human will. It would be major. It would arguably be the biggest change ever in human history. We’ve had democracy, and various religions, but this evolution of our consciousness would be much grander and influential. It would be change on a scale that humanity has never before experienced.
Life is, and can continue to be, wonderful with our continuing to hold the belief that we have a free will. But to the extent that we understand that everything is really a movie – that what I’m saying right now, and what you’re reading right now, and what you did earlier today, and plan to do tomorrow, and everything we ever do is completely predetermined — that understanding can make our lives so much more wonderful, in the most literal sense meaning full of wonder.
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