Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 12

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.


  1. I dropped by the site long enough to pick up this quote: “When we say we have a free will, what we’re saying is that our will is free of causality.”

    That is NOT what anyone is saying when they use the term “free will”. So it is a straw man argument to suggest that is what free will is about.

    The word “free” in free will only means that you are acting as you choose, without the coercion of someone else. If you steal a car because you want it for yourself, then you’ve acted upon your own free will. But if someone puts a gun to your head and makes you steal the car “against your will”, then it is the will of the guy with the gun that is causing the theft.

    A less dramatic example would be a mother insisting her child wear his bulky coat when he goes out to play on a cold day. He doesn’t want it to interfere with his play, but wears it against his will, because otherwise he won’t be allowed to go out at all. When he is older, and trusted to decide for himself, then he may wear a coat or not. Either way his actions will be decided by his own free will.

    The idea that the concept of free will began with Augustine is ridiculous. According to Wikipedia, Augustine was born in 340 AD. But Aristotle discussed the difference between willing and unwilling actions 500 years before that. And we may presume that the concept itself, like most concepts, pre-dated written history.

    I would make one simple request. Please apply critical thinking and a reasonable degree of skepticism before blindly following charismatic leaders off the cliff, and finding yourselves stuck in the equivalent of a religious cult.



    1. “A less dramatic example would be a mother insisting her child wear his bulky coat when he goes out to play on a cold day. He doesn’t want it to interfere with his play, but wears it against his will, because otherwise he won’t be allowed to go out at all. When he is older, and trusted to decide for himself, then he may wear a coat or not. Either way his actions will be decided by his own free will. ”

      In my case, I would say that when that child is grown, his decision to wear a coat or not is not of his free will. Rather it is determined entirely by how cold the weather is and if he feels that he needs the coat to stay warm. Therefore it makes no difference if he is coerced by his mother or the weather. Both external agents are out of his control.



      1. “In my case, I would say that when that child is grown, his decision to wear a coat or not is not of his free will. Rather it is determined entirely by how cold the weather is and if he feels that he needs the coat to stay warm. Therefore it makes no difference if he is coerced by his mother or the weather. Both external agents are out of his control.”

        Except that “if he feels that he needs the coat” is internal, and totally up to him. This morning, for example, it was cold and I helped my mother (age 94) get her coat zipped, but went out in a short sleeve shirt myself. It was cold, but I figured I only needed to tolerate the cold between the house and the car, and the car and her church. So I decided not to bother with the coat. What you have left out is that one of the agents of causation was me.

        And what “me” represents is a biological organism with a nervous system capable of considering causative factors, assigning them weighted values, and choosing the one that I thought was best for the current circumstances, based upon what I had learned so far. — If I had failed to do that, and had instead left it up to all of the other causative factors to act by themselves, then no choice or anything else requiring me to be and act would have happened.

        No alternative that involves me can become inevitable without my deciding to make it so.


      2. I am not sure I can see a line between what is internal or external. I don’t see people as internal agents which are completely irrelevant to all the things which made them the way they are.


      3. Internal would be memories of experiences that leave a positive or negative feeling which may affect how you weight the values of the options. They may also be subconscious as well as conscious calculations. Also internal would be your current state of feelings, as in, I’m really hungry now so I need to flip a coin to decide this quickly. Also internal would be standards and expectations of society that you have internalized and which may have weak or strong influences upon your choices and options.


      4. That makes sense. The internal would be the things that even though they were caused by external forces, stick with us long after the original cause is gone. It is for this reason that we can have any concept of a will at all. I would never call it a free will because of the confusion it causes but it lets us distinguish between us being willing and unwilling to do something.


    2. “The word “free” in free will only means that you are acting as you choose, without the coercion of someone else. If you steal a car because you want it for yourself, then you’ve acted upon your own free will. But if someone puts a gun to your head and makes you steal the car “against your will”, then it is the will of the guy with the gun that is causing the theft.” – Marvin Edwards

      The reason that I disagree with your definition is because I believe that the person who covets the car enough to steal it is as equally compelled as someone who is held at gunpoint. Similarly, the guy holding the gun must have been caused to do so for some reason(why he didn’t just steal the car himself is another question I have).

      However we need not entertain a belief in free will when trying to stop people from stealing cars. People don’t want others stealing their cars and therefore they try to keep them from doing so. The way I see it, if people had a free will, they could simply choose to not want to steal cars. Similarly, we could choose to feel happy whether someone steals our car or not.

      The most accurate source for the kind of free will I am talking about is at:


      Specifically, look at the one that says:

      “freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention”



      1. Well, if we’re going to unholster our dictionaries, then you’ll need to look up your use of “coercion”. In my Short Oxford, it says, “1 Constraint, restraint, compulsion; the controlling of a voluntary agent or action by force.” Note that “coercion” is meaningless unless “voluntary agent” is meaningful.

        And if you look up “agent” you’ll find “1 A person who or thing which produces an effect; (the cause of) a natural force or effect on matter.”

        Which brings us to “voluntary” where things get interesting, “2 Of an action: performed or done of one’s own FREE WILL,” [caps mine], “impulse, or choice; not constrained, prompted, or suggested by another. Also more widely, left to choice, not required or imposed, optional.”

        And I believe their definition of “free will” is consistent with mine: “2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.”

        For example, suppose we were to interrupt the thief the first time that he is considering whether to steal a car. We ask him “Is it necessary that you steal the car?” And he replies, “No, it is not necessary, but I do really want that car.” So we ask him, “Are you forced by your fate to steal the car?” And again he answers, “Well, no. I just really like that car and I want it for myself.”

        One final question, “Do you realize I’m standing here with a cell phone in my hand and will call the police?” He responds, “Oh. Well, I don’t want this car that bad.” and leaves quickly.

        It is irrational to arbitrarily exclude the main relevant cause of the theft, which is the deliberation process the thief goes through before deciding to steal. And it is this deliberation process that chooses the action, and the choice becomes the will of the agent, and if allowed to freely act upon that will, the agent becomes the final, responsible cause of what becomes inevitable.

        I appreciate your suggestion that one way to end car theft would be lock that no thief could overcome, but which the car owner would still find convenient to use.

        But now you’ve added the criminal justice system to all of the things you must dispose of if you dispose of “free will”. The argument that disposes of “free will” also disposes of “will” and disposes of “person”. And that’s an awful lot of destruction of meaning simply to get one up on the friar.


      2. The myth is that we need to dispose of our notion of will in order to understand our lack of freedom we falsely relate to it. Many people fear that all chaos will happen once people know that everything they do has causes that started before their conception.

        I am enjoying discussing this topic with you because I rarely get something other than bible verses quoted at me. As it so happens, I think that a lot of reform needs to happen in terms of having a basis for morality that most of us agree on.


      3. “In no way do I mean that any mental process is an illusion. Rather it is the mistaken conclusion that what we do is not caused by all the things that shape us. That would require us to be the first cause of our thoughts.”

        I don’t believe there was any “first cause” of anything. What I like to call “stuff-in-motion” is eternal. By stuff, I mean everything from the smallest to the largest physical particle. By motion I mean both motion and transformation from one form of stuff into another. For example, the Big Bang transformed a highly condensed ball of stuff into a universe. And heat applied to atoms of hydrogen and oxygen in a confined space transforms into water. And, given infinity, I like to imagine there are many Big Bangs popping up all over the place throughout eternity.

        “The myth is that we need to dispose of our notion of will in order to understand our lack of freedom we falsely relate to it.”

        There is nothing false about freedom when it is correctly defined. Obviously, nothing can be free of cause and effect. Therefore any definition that requires anything to be free of cause and effect cannot be the correct definition.

        “Many people fear that all chaos will happen once people know that everything they do has causes that started before their conception.”

        Not all causes are relevant or meaningful. Usually we are only concerned with causes relevant to the specific effect we wish to predict or modify or avoid to prevent harm. In theory, one could trace the decision to steal the car back to the big bang (or further if you agree with me that there was more than one). But that information is useless, irrelevant, and unknowable in practice.

        And when someone is deliberating which option to choose, the fact that his choice is inevitable is totally useless (and annoying), because he cannot know or confirm what that choice will be until after he has personally completed his deliberation and made the choice for himself.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I agree with you that not all of the causes are directly relevant to what we are considering at the time.

        However, knowing that all decisions are caused is the main point of understanding determinism. Many people do not yet understand that.

        And I agree with you about the lack of a first cause. The universe being eternal leads to many other interesting thoughts.


      5. “However, knowing that all decisions are caused is the main point of understanding determinism. Many people do not yet understand that.”

        I disagree for several reasons:

        (1) Everybody knows that decisions involve reasons, motives, and/or feelings. And that is useful knowledge, because we can explore those reasons, motives, and feelings to understand the decision, especially if we want to consider a different alternative.

        (2) The fact that our decision is inevitable is totally useless to the decider. He still has to go through the same deliberative process to find out what that inevitable decision will be.

        (3) The fact that our decisions follow causal chains all the way back to the Big Bang (and beyond) is also pretty useless. The farther you trace down the causal chain, (a) the more indirect and less cogent each cause becomes and (b) each cause will likely have multiple causes such that it soon becomes impractical to trace the multiple branches and their impact. For example, what would you change about the Big Bang to get someone to choose chocolate rather than vanilla yesterday?

        Deterministic inevitability may be a fact, but it is pretty useless except in understanding subatomic stuff-in-motion where the particles and forces are more stable and predictable. I think there has been a lot of research on the transformation of stuff during the first micro-moments of the Big Bang, for instance.


    3. I don’t know where you are located but many people in my country believe that some events are uncaused. That is why they won’t listen to me about important issues like abortion and animal suffering. There are tons of relativists here.



  2. Free Will is No Illusion

    In Dr. Eddy Nahmias’s article on “Willusionism“, he describes how the belief that free will is only an illusion leads to bad moral results.


    He quotes scientists who fuel this belief with statements like these:

    “Free will, as we ordinarily understand it, is an illusion” (Greene and Cohen)
    “…this strong feeling [of free will] is an illusion, just as much as we experience the sun moving through the sky, when in fact it is we who are doing the moving” (John Bargh)
    “It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do…. It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion” (Daniel Wegner)
    “Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons” and “although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that” (Francis Crick)
    And he cites several studies showing that people who hear these claims are likely to “cheat more, help less, and behave more aggressively”. To explain this effect, he suggests that they come to view themselves as having less control of their lives. They feel that “their efforts to deliberate about what would be best to do were inconsequential and that their efforts to do what they think best were insignificant”.

    “Put simply”, he says, “if people are told they have no free will, they might interpret this to mean they lack willpower, and believing that might lead them to exert less willpower to do the more difficult (but more appropriate) thing to do.”

    He thinks the problem might be that the scientist’s statements are “ambiguous” because they fail to specify which “free will”, libertarian or compatibilist, is an illusion.

    I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that scientists who naively say free will is an illusion are simply wrong. They make two critical mistakes.

    First, they assume that deterministic inevitability makes free will impossible. Logically it cannot. If everything, just as it is, was inevitable, then free will, just as it is, must also be inevitable.

    Everyone recognizes the principle of cause and effect. We ask “Why did this happen?” or “Why is that the way it is?” By study and experiment we may discover the causes of most things and events. And if we dig further, we may uncover what caused those causes.

    Determinism carries this a little further. In theory, the causes of a cause could each be traced back through their own causes to the beginning of time. And, in theory, everything that exists today and all of the events and changes happening now will inevitably cause what happens next, from day to day, to the end of time. In summary, everything that happens is “inevitable”, it had to happen as it did due to what happened before.

    Cause and effect apply to mental as well as physical events. All mental functions are, of course, rooted in physical processes within the nervous system. But the responses of an intelligent being are more complex than those of a physical object. For example, you hit a cue ball at a precise angle, so that it hits another ball just right and that one knocks a third ball into the pocket. But what happens when you throw a billiard ball at a person?

    Each individual has their own genetic predispositions and a lifetime of environmental influences in play. And a person’s mood will vary from moment to moment. And if they stop to consider their response before reacting, then that mental process may determine their response, either rationally or irrationally.

    The response, whether rational or irrational, is theoretically inevitable. But only a being with Godlike omniscience of all causes in play and Godlike omnipotence to calculate the outcome, or the guy’s wife, could reliably predict what he will do next.

    While the principle of cause and effect is used everyday to understand the world and each other, the idea of deterministic inevitability is seldom useful or helpful. Usually when we say something was inevitable, we mean there was nothing we could do about it. But deterministic inevitability includes the functioning of intelligent actors making choices for their own reasons and sometimes dramatically altering the course of history. So, our free will is fully functional and active in a deterministic universe.

    From the decider’s subjective viewpoint, deterministic inevitability is useless. A decision begins with an uncertainty (if you knew the outcome you’d skip the process). You have to deliberate, and deliberately choose, before you will know your choice.

    And you can’t simply sit back and wait for “the inevitable” to happen, because it is sitting back waiting on you. And your choice to sit back becomes your choice — not something you’d want to try in a literal “sink or swim” situation.

    The second mistake that naive scientists make is falsely presuming that a scientific explanation of the underlying mechanism makes the thing itself less important than it’s parts, as if explaining something could explain it away.

    Because all mental processes are totally rooted in the underlying neurological system, we can say confidently that the phenomenon is a real aspect of our physical reality. And it plays an essential role in changing ourselves and the real environment we live in.

    As neuroscience studies the brain and how it’s physical functions produce our mental experience, we will continue to learn more about how the brain produces our mind. But let’s hope we don’t naively lose our minds in the process.



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