Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 11

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.


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.


  1. (A) Nothing at all exists outside of causality.
    (B) People who have two or more choices, and who are uncertain which is best, go through a mental process of deliberation. They consider their feelings and/or their reasons for choosing one option over another. At the end, they know what they will do. And will freely act upon it unless prevented or coerced into doing something against their will. The meaning of “free will” is this ability to decide for yourself and act upon your decision as opposed to being coerced into an act unwillingly.
    (C) Because both A and B are true, the idea that determinism conflicts with free will must be false.

    The only way you get stuck in a paradox is by distorting the truth. If you claim that free will is not as it is described in (B), but is somehow exempt from causality, you are wrong. If you claim that causality somehow prevents (B) from being true, you are wrong.

    Getting your definitions correct is essential to getting to the truth.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. The definition of free will you are giving me is totally new. When I read the ancient philosophy and theology, the free will they are talking about is one that is free of causality.

      By your redefinition of free will, you are correct, but how can you be sure it is the right definition?



      1. The common usage in secular law is when there is a question whether someone should be held responsible for their actions. There is the difference between harm caused accidentally and harm caused willfully. In the case of an accident, the point of a corrective penalty would be to make the person behave more carefully. In the case of a person deliberately choosing of their own free will to kill someone, the penalty may be more severe, because correction of someone with bad intentions may be more difficult than correction of someone who means well.

        The same might apply to a child who accidentally drops a glass of milk versus one who throws it at his sister deliberately. The parent will be more forgiving in the first case and more severe in the second.

        If someone holds a gun to your head and forces you to participate in a robbery against your will, then you are not held as responsible as if you had chosen to participate in the robbery of your own free will.

        These are examples of common usage of the secular term “free will”. The religious use has the same meaning. You are knowingly choosing to do right or wrong. Or, you are intending to do right but something accidentally goes wrong.

        Now, on the religious question, one may say that God, because he is omnipotent and omniscient, is the responsible cause of all of the harm as well as the benefits that occur within his creation. For example, God might have created us with the will to always choose good over evil. To escape this claim, they theorize that, however badly things turn out, the ability to choose good or evil is a greater benefit. So they speak of God as having given us “the gift” of free will.

        But, there being no supernatural beings, it makes more sense to simply continue to use free will in the secular sense.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am glad you understand that there are no supernatural beings. The average defenders of free will that debate with me about this topic are christian apologists. A lot of them have religious notions that are entirely different from your definition of free will as well as the definitions that I, George Ortega, or Trick Slattery use.


      3. What’s that quote about “if you can keep your head when all around people are losing theirs and blaming it on you … you’ll be a man my son”.

        Fatalism is an irrational version of determinism. I’ve seen people who argue that determinism means that people have no choices at all, but we’re all just helpless robots. (See your own blog title, for example).

        That makes people who are concerned about helping people to make moral choices a little crazy. So they irrationally respond that the will, when choosing, is not coerced by causation into any kind of inevitable choice. So they say things like, “the will is acting independent of causation”.

        So the determinists jump on that and double down on fatalism, claiming there are no free choices at all, and that free will does not even exist. But if the will is not free, then it is also no longer a will, but an instrument of some power beyond the will, and the will, the person, and rationality all disappear down the rabbit hole — mere blips in the causality chain.

        Both positions are extreme and irrational.


      4. To me, the will is a very real concept since it is basically the programming of the machine up to the current time. Since the way people are taught directly influences their future behavior, it is highly relevant to reduce the harm done by brainwashing from certain religious and political groups which lead to violence.

        That is the main reason I started studying the free will debate. I don’t want people to confuse determinism for fatalism because there is a huge difference. I just haven’t been able to effectively communicate it as well as I would like.

        The most important thing is that I understand that my will is not free from prior causes. I am mostly targeting the libertarian free will which is still very much believed by many.


    2. There is also the problem that we do not choose what we are willing to do. Our desires are out of our control. Furthermore, we are all coerced into doing what we don’t want to in many areas of our lives.



      1. But that’s only partly true. In most cases we do have actual choices. What you may have overlooked is that the mental processes we experience are wholly rooted in the material, deterministic universe. Many living organisms have evolved a nervous system capable not just of supporting sensory input, but also the areas of the brain that store memories, interpret internal and external sensation, imagine alternatives, choose a plan of action, and carry it out.

        And choosing is not just about moral decisions, but also the amount of energy to precisely jump from one river rock to another, without jumping too far or falling short and getting soaked. We learn to cope with our environment through trial and error, which means making some bad decisions as well as good ones. And we store these in memories, sometimes in words, sometimes in pictures, and sometimes unconsciously in our muscles or subconscious associations.

        Many of these decisions are forgotten as they become our habits. Many other decisions may have been made for us by others, that we learned in school or in a church or from our peers.

        But decisions and choosing are real, even when they are inevitable (and all are inevitable, of course).

        Our experience of hearing our own reasoning as we consciously deliberate, and our feeling good or bad due to our unconscious evaluation of this option versus that option, are also real. After all, they are rooted in the real, physical, deterministic universe. Therefore they do really exist.

        Therefore we cannot dismiss the mental processes as some kind of illusion. Thinking is as real as walking. And thinking about more than one option leads to choosing. And that choosing must be happening within our physical minds, because where else could the mind be?

        The process of choosing determines our will. Our will determines our action. And our actions determines what inevitably comes next. And what comes next may be having chocolate rather than vanilla, or it may be raising the temperature of the planet or destroying species.

        But when people hear that they have no free will, or that they are not responsible for anything, it can lead to a sense of fatalism and apathy. And what is worse, to say that we have no free will is a lie. It is us choosing, and us choosing is a product of the physical and deterministic universe — which implies that free will was an inevitable product of that universe.


      2. I think I understand what you are saying. I agree that the process of imagining alternatives and going with the one that seems to lead to the best outcome is a real process. Also, I am glad that you understand determinism. Many people I talk to believe that things are random in the sense of having no cause.

        I don’t want people to ignore the causes that compel them to “choose” one thing rather than another because it causes them to feel really bad for every mistake they make.

        It seems your position is almost identical to mine except that you have some motive for using the term “free will” instead of just “will”. What is the cause of that?


      3. The question of responsibility (where the point of correction resides) depends upon whether one is acting willfully or unwillingly. If someone holds a gun to my head and forces me to open the safe against my will then I am not responsible for the robbery. But if I deliberately open the safe of my own free will, on the promise of a share of the money, then I share responsibility for the crime. “Free will” means “free from coercion” or “free from threat”.

        Being offered a share of the money may or may not cause me to choose to open the safe. It is still up to me. But having a gun to my head is coercion. Under coercion I effectively have no choice in the matter, and I am forced to do something I would never do if I were free to choose or free to follow my own will.

        A corrective penalty targets the mental process of deliberation. If I originally, of my own free will, chose to rob the safe for the money, I also chose to break the law. Prior to consideration of possibly getting caught and penalized, the benefit of the money outweighed the possible harms of breaking the law.

        But if I am caught and jailed, I will have a new experience to consider the next time I face the decision whether to rob the safe, of my own free will. My will is still free, in that I’m out of jail and no one is holding a gun to my head. If the penalty was effective, I’ll chose, of my own free will, not to rob the safe. If the penalty was insufficient, I’ll rob again — and hopefully will get a stiffer, more effective penalty next time.

        If I cannot be corrected, then a protective penalty — life imprisonment — may be required to protect the public from my choices.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. “But if I am caught and jailed, I will have a new experience to consider the next time I face the decision whether to rob the safe, of my own free will. My will is still free, in that I’m out of jail and no one is holding a gun to my head. If the penalty was effective, I’ll chose, of my own free will, not to rob the safe. If the penalty was insufficient, I’ll rob again — and hopefully will get a stiffer, more effective penalty next time. ”

        The question then becomes one of how effective the penalty is for reducing further crimes. This is very important and I am glad you understand that.


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