Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 12
This is the twelfth 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 12. Why the Concept of Free Will is Incoherent
Let’s talk about why the concept of free will is actually incoherent, in that it is logically and internally inconsistent – it just doesn’t make sense as a rational construct.
Our world is virtually completely deluded about the fundamental nature of our human will. We’re completely deluded about who we are as individuals, and as a humanity. This has been the case for several thousand years. We’ve structured our entire civilization – our criminal justice system, our socio-economic system, our interpersonal relations, and our relation to ourselves — on an illusion. For us to be guided by the truth of who we are, and the truth of why we do what we do, has to be a wiser, and better, way of conducting ourselves in our world than by living under the illusion that we have a free will.
When we say we have a free will, we generally mean that what we do, and think, and say, and feel is completely up to us. In other words, nothing that is not in our control is either making these decisions for us, or taking part in the decisions. When you look at it logically, you quickly realize that such a free will is impossible. We have an unconscious that is the storehouse for all of the words we draw on when we think things, and say things, and make decisions. Obviously, we can’t have a will that is free from that unconscious. The unconscious must be part of every decision because it contains what we base our decisions on.
If our unconscious is not something we’re in control of — because by definition it is unconscious — that very clearly demonstrates why we don’t have a free will. There are other ways to demonstrate this, but for now let’s focus on why the very concept of free will is simply incoherent.
To have a free will would mean that our decisions would be completely free of anything. For example, how could our decisions be free of our memories – of what we’ve done in the past? When we make a decision, whatever the decision is, we have to base it on something. Sometimes we’ll say that we can make a completely intuitive decision that we don’t at all think about. We just make it. But, when we make a decision like that, there is a reason for it. It’s happening at the level of the unconscious.
Let’s explore this. Let’s say there was such a thing as reasonless intuition. You want to make a decision that is not based on anything. That decision could not be a freely willed, according to what we mean when we assert that we have a free will. When we say we have a free will, we mean that it’s something we can take pride in, and for which we will hold ourselves and other people accountable.
Let’s consider morality. We are, ironically, hard-wired to seek to do good. We have a moral imperative, and that is one reason we don’t have a free will. But, if our moral decisions were not based on moral lessons we must obviously have learned, how can we reasonably say that these decisions are ours completely?
The concept of free will is something that evades and ignores, and chooses not to consider, the very fundamental process in nature. When we say we have a free will, what we’re saying is that our will is free of causality. To say we have a free will is to say that what we decide is free of a cause. Since every cause has a cause, the cause of our decision would have a cause, and suddenly we find we have a causal chain stretching back to before we were born. That’s why the concept of free will is incoherent. You can’t have things that happen without a cause.
For the sake of discussion and exploration, let’s say that something can actually happen without having been caused. If that something was not caused, there is only one other option. The decision must be random, or indeterministic. It has no cause at all; it just happens. If our decisions are just happening for no cause, or reason, that is not what we mean when we say that our decisions are freely willed.
When we claim that we have a free will, we are claiming that we can take pride in, and are truly accountable for, our decisions. If our decisions are uncaused – if they are just random – they are not up to us. By strongest definition, randomness means that something is not up to anything. The reality, however, is that everything must have a cause.
How did we come up with this concept of free will? In the West, we didn’t always have it as a clearly defined construct. The term “free will” is actually Christian, although the concept has its counterparts in other non-Christian parts of the world. In Romans 7:15, the apostle Paul writes that he wants to do what is right and good, but he finds that he sometimes can’t. This is the first statement in Christianity that questions the notion of a free will. Paul is asking — wait a minute — if I want to obey God’s laws and be moral, and I find that I can’t, what’s going on?
It’s not until about 380 A.D., when Saint Augustine of Hippo begins to grapple with the question of who’s responsible for the evil we do that Christianity adopts the doctrine that if God is defined as all-good, then the evil we humans do must be up to us, and not God. Augustine actually wrote a book back then titled De Libero Arbitrio, which translate as On Free Will. He coined the term free will to explain how any evil in the world would have to be up to human beings, and could not possibly be God’s doing. That’s how the idea of free will in Christianity came to be. It was an explanation for the existence of evil in the world. If God is all-good, then all evil must be our fault. But the belief in free will is also a point of contention in Christianity because there is a phrase in Isaiah 45:7 where God says, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. Augustine was apparently discounting, or ignoring, that particular passage.
As incoherent and illogical as the concept of free will is, its origin within Christianity may explain why it hasn’t been successfully challenged until now. Many Christians believe that when we die we may go to a place of eternal suffering and damnation. According to Christianity and some other religions, what we believe may determine where we go in the afterlife. Naturally, when people are faced with the contradiction of decisions free of the past, and memories, and how we were raised – things that we cannot control – many of them choose not to explore this problem because of their fear of spending the rest of eternity in hell.
We’re now in a world where many of us believe in God, but far fewer of us believe that, for example, the first woman was taken from the rib of the first man, or that our world is less than 6,000 years old, as the Biblical chronology asserts. We’re now living in a world with the Internet, and relatively free exchange of information. We can now easily download from the Internet papers by scientists that demonstrate, for example, that decisions we believe we are freely making are actually made by our unconscious. Through the process of priming, researchers can make us behave in certain ways, and make certain decisions, without our even being aware of the experimental manipulation.
Advertisers do this to us all of the time. When you see the same commercial on TV, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They understand that we don’t have a free will, and they condition us to behave in ways they would prefer. This is another reason why this issue of human will is important. Conditioning by marketers is real, and advertisers have refined this science to a scary, Orwellian degree. They really can make large portions of the population behave in various ways, in a way that is also unconscious to those consumers.
If you believe in free will, you will say to yourself “no, advertisers cannot control our buying habits and choice of products because we have a will that can over-ride all of that conditioning.” When you understand that we don’t have a free will, and that what we do, and what we buy or don’t buy, is based on the information we have, and how we acquired it, then you’ll understand why it’s important for us to understand that free will is an illusion. It’s important to understand the forces that mold us, and lead us to do what we do, if we allow them.
The concept of free will, when you think about it, is internally inconsistent. It’s not logical. If you define the will as volition, or that part of our mind or self that makes decisions, and you say that volition is free of things that it can’t control – free of causality, free of our memories, free of how we’re conditioned. This claim just doesn’t make sense. Essentially, the term free will means that we are doing what we’re doing, and saying what we’re saying, and thinking what we’re thinking, completely of our own accord. By logical extension, that belief leads to the conclusion that we do all of what we do for no reason. As soon as you say “I made this decision of my own free will because, for example, it was the right decision, or because I wanted to be a good person, you’ve introduced a cause. You’ve introduced the chain of cause and effect. Once you say you’ve made a decision because of something – because of anything – then you must also acknowledge that that cause has a cause, and that cause has a cause, etc.
A good way to understand cause and effect is to look at the state of the entire universe. Consider everything – which means every particle, every person, every planet, and every galaxy — that exists at this very moment. It has to be the complete result of the state of the universe at the previous moment. The universe evolves from state to state through time. The universe is in a certain state during one moment, and through the process of change, or cause and effect, it evolves to its state at the next moment. It can’t but do that.
If the universe is all there is, the universe is the only explanation for every next moment of the universe. You can only explain the state of the universe at one moment by understanding that the previous moment is the complete cause of it. There is nothing else to cause it. The universe is a singularity. There is only one. If you claim you are making what you consider to be a freely willed decision, and you’re making it at a certain moment in time, but the state of the universe at the previous moment is completely determining the state of the universe at the moment you make your decision, then that previous state is obviously determining your decision.
The moment-by-moment states of the universe form a chain of cause and effect that stretches back in time to before our planet was created, and before the Sun was created, and presumably, to the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. By understanding that our universe evolves in a moment-by-moment fashion, according to its state during each previous moment, you can understand that our human will cannot possibly be free from that causal progression.
Why is this important? Our world right now is facing a very challenging era that will likely last decades. Much of what we face is about climate change. There is one international scientific body or institution that is responsible for compiling and analyzing all of the research on global warming and other manifestations of climate change. It’s called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) and this United Nations organization is comprised of over 3,000 scientists from over 100 countries. Their last major report was published in 2007, but if you saw Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, you have some idea of what we’re up against.
The very challenging part of all of this is that back in 2007 when the IPCC published their most recent findings, scientists had concluded that the level of carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere that we must be under by the year 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic, and very likely irreversible, consequences was 450 parts per million, (ppm). A few years later, however, these same scientists realized that their assessment was far too optimistic, and that the actual level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that we need to remain under to remain relatively safe is 350 ppm.
The scary thing about that is that we’re already at 391 ppm, and the carbon dioxide concentration is rising by over 2.7 ppm each year. We face a monumental challenge. As an optimist, I would expect our human race to rise to it, but as a scientist and a thinker, I understand that we will not have a chance of meeting that 350-ppm target unless we profoundly, and dramatically, change the nature of our civilization.
It’s actually more serious. In 2007 when the IPCC made that assessment, they did not consider the effects of the melting of the polar ice caps, or the methane that is currently in the permafrost, and gets converted to carbon dioxide and released into the atmosphere as this frozen layer of ground thaws. There is apparently more carbon dioxide in the permafrost – which covers vast areas in Alaska and Russia among other places – than has already accumulated in our atmosphere.
If we want to address those challenges, we will need to stop competing with each other, and we will need to stop thinking that we deserve so much because we did so many great things. We need to start working together. There is absolutely no way that we can adequately address the threat of climate change unless we work together. For example, if China, India, Brazil and Europe were to do their part, but we in the United States did not do our part, we would not be doing nearly enough. If we in the United States did our part, but those other countries did not do their part, we would not be doing nearly enough. It must be a global effort.
There are other reasons why I think this issue of human will is important, but climate change will remain a supremely important reason for at least the next several decades.
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.