This is the eighteenth 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 18. Why Humans Cannot Circumvent Natural Law to Gain a Free Will
For this book’s final episode, let’s talk about why human beings cannot circumvent natural law to gain a free will. The term free will means that human beings would be free to choose anything we want, and all of our choices and decisions – the feelings we feel, the acts we do – would be completely up to us, and they would be completely independent of anything that is not in our control. There are two simple ways to understand why free will is not possible.
The first is the fact that nothing happens that is uncaused. There is a cause for everything. Nothing happens at random. That means that when we make a decision, there is a cause for that decision, and there is a cause for that cause, because everything has to have a cause. There is therefore also a cause for the cause of the cause of our decision. We then have a causal chain regressing back into the past.
The key thing to remember is that the cause will always precede the decision – the event, or whatever it causes. The causes always goes further back in time, cause by cause by cause, which means we’re going back moment by moment by moment. This chain of causality doesn’t end within our lifetime. It goes back to before we were born, and before the planet was created.
That is one way to understand why the notion that we have a free will is impossible. The second way is the idea that we have a part of our mind that we refer to as our unconscious that is the storehouse of all of our memories – all of the words we use when we talk, and all the concepts that we consider when we’re making a decision, all of the data. Another part of the unconscious processes the data, and makes our decisions.
Whenever we make a decision, like choosing something over something else, all of the processing for this decision must occur at the level of the unconscious. We are not aware of this processing. Because all of the data we consider in order to decide, and how we weigh these considerations, happens in our unconscious, obviously our decision can’t be the result of a free will. In order to have a free will, we would have to have a conscious will. The unconscious is something we are not aware of, and if we’re not aware of it, we can’t be in control of it.
Our whole civilization is all based on the erroneous premise and illusion that we have a free will. It creates great havoc in our personal lives, and throughout the world. When we’re with someone, and they do something we perceive as wrong, we’ll tend to blame them. We’ll tend to feel that they should be punished. The illusion of free will creates unnecessary negative feelings.
When we do something wrong, we often feel the pain of guilt. Naturally, overcoming the illusion of free will would not mean that we are also abandoning morality. I’ve worked with this causal will perspective for decades, and my understanding is that regardless of whether fate, or God, or whatever, makes me do what I do, there tend to be consequences. When I do something that is good, God, or nature, or fate, tends to reward me. When I do something that is wrong, God, or nature, or fate, tends to punish me.
As long as we keep that perspective, we can see the wisdom and utility of our overcoming the illusion of free will so that we can see ourselves, and treat ourselves, as innocent. A good way to explain this is through a young child, like a toddler. When they do something wrong, we don’t ascribe a free will to them. We don’t blame them. We say to ourselves that they could not have done any better. They did not know any better. By transcending the illusion of free will, we can apply this same kind of compassionate and intelligent understanding toward each other and ourselves. We’d create a brand new world through that transcendence.
Some philosophers concede that everything has a cause; they concede that nature is causal. These philosophers concede that nature, particles, matter – everything — has a cause, but they believe that we human beings are different.
They say that it is because we are different that we have a free will, but when we explore that contention, we find that it’s wrong on two counts. Firstly, by all appearances, we are matter. We are physical, and we’re bound by the physical laws. Even if we were to claim that our decisions were not “physical,” and that they were, in fact, “spiritual,” we must understand that every decision we make is made at a moment in time.
We can’t escape this fundamental understanding that whether the decision is defined as physical or spiritual, the decision is made at a precise moment in time. Thus, because our decision resides within time, it is subject to the physical laws.
We no longer understand time as an entity separate from space. It’s best understood as space-time. This is one of the results of Einstein’s special relativity. Time cannot exist without space. Space cannot exist without time. If the universe is made of space-time – particles, energy, matter, mass-energy interacting in space-time, — and you have a spiritual decision occurring in time, such a decision must be completely determined by the causal laws.
Some philosophers contend that we human beings are special, and can circumvent natural law to have a free will. This contention asserts that causality doesn’t apply to us, and that we can make a decision of our own free will. But what does that mean? Does that mean that our decision is made without a cause? Think about this. By definition, randomness means without order or purpose. Its strongest meaning is that something is actually uncaused. If a decision is made without a cause, then it must be random. If a decision is random, certainly we can’t take credit for it, or assign it to a free will.
Let’s consider decisions relative to morality. Morality is a key concept in this question of human will. To understand that we don’t have a free will is to understand that, essentially and most fundamentally, we’re not morally responsible. We might want to blame, or hold accountable, the universe for whatever it compels us to do. But since we’re agents, or instruments, of the past, and since our decisions are not up to us, we are not fundamentally personally morally responsible.
From that perspective, if we could make a “freely willed decision,” and our decision had no causal past, this would mean that the decision would also have no moral reason. From that understanding, we can see that such a concept of a free will is simply incoherent.
There is no evidence for the contention that we human beings can somehow circumvent natural law. I’ll explain this in terms of quantum mechanics, and the physical nature of reality. Back in the mid 1920s, Warner Heisenberg published a paper showing that at the quantum level, our knowledge of particle behavior is “uncertain.” In other words, in classical mechanics – the mechanics of Isaac Newton, and the mechanics physicists relied on to make predictions before quantum physics – we could simultaneously measure the position and momentum of an object accurately enough to make a successful prediction.
Let’s imagine we fire a photon at another particle to measure its position and momentum. The problem here is that the act of firing the photon at the target particle interferes with the trajectory, or the momentum, of that particle. Hence, physicists cannot simultaneously achieve an accurate measure of the particle’s position and momentum. At the macro level of an everyday object like a grapefruit, the difference between a measuring particle like a photon and the grapefruit is so great that the photon would not, for practical purposes, interfere with the measuring process.
Some philosophers claim that this Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle demonstrates that matter, at its most fundamental level, is random. Again, there is no logic behind this assertion. The term randomness is incoherent because randomness means that things happen without causes. Try to imagine anything happening without a cause. What would that even mean?
Our science all points to the very strong conclusion that everything is caused, that everything has a causal past. Because of that, free will is impossible. If I make a decision right now, and there is a cause for that decision, and there’s a cause for that cause, and a cause for that cause, again we can see how that chain will go back to before I was born, and to before the Planet was created.
One of the factors that lead to claims that we human beings can somehow circumvent natural law to gain a free will is that life would have no meaning without a free will. They say “If we’re instruments of God, and if we’re not the authors of our acts, and if we’re just the actors, and we don’t get the opportunity to even interpret our roles, then what’s the point of anything?”
This concern has some cogency, but, it’s somewhat like asking “What’s the point of our life at all, since we’re here only about eighty years with an eternity on either side of us?” I tend to believe in an afterlife, because I try to have beliefs that increase happiness and diminish unhappiness. Existing seems, for whatever reason, like a more pleasant belief than not existing.
We may not have a free will, but we still experience life. We human beings don’t decide; we experience. What I’m saying right now, what we do, and our emotions, are all real. Meaning in life has to do to a great extent with emotion. We’re hedonic creatures. We seek pleasure. We avoid pain. Meaning is valuable because it is a pleasant experience. It makes us feel good to value things, and give them meaning.
But life can have sufficient meaning without our falsely Believing that we are the authors of our thoughts. Let’s say we attribute our thoughts to a deity or god. Let’s say God is responsible for our thoughts. We could also say this scientifically – that it is the causal past or our unconscious that is responsible. If we attribute all of this to God, we could ask ourselves “Whom would we want deciding what we do, we with our limited experience and knowledge, or a God who presumably knows everything?”
This is admittedly confusing because if we had a free will, who among us would choose to not feel happy all of the time – to not feel blissful all of the time? Who among us, if we had a free will, would choose to feel negative feelings? Who among us would choose to do things that are wrong – to make mistakes? From that perspective, if we had a free will, we would be in paradise. It’s because we don’t have a free will that we’re not there yet. That’s not to say that we can’t eventually live within a paradise, understanding fully that our world and human will are causal. We can glean great meaning from life while understanding that free will is, in fact, an illusion.
We’re obviously fated to succeed at some tasks and fail at others, but it’s all predetermined. You have to ask yourself “why in the world would fate cause us to fail at anything,” because who likes to fail? Also, fate creates us as beings that find displeasure from failure, but, nonetheless, compels us to fail sometimes, and feel the sting of such failure. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s kind of like asking why there’s pain in the universe. Without pain, the universe would be completely blissful. So, the answer is, “Who knows?” Who knows why things are like that, but they absolutely have to be like that because we don’t have a free will.
It’s curious and interesting that we’ve been fated to believe that we’re the authors of our thoughts, when the exact opposite is the case. Now, for whatever reason, fate has determined that it is time for us to understand the true nature of our human will. By that, hopefully we’ll be fated to create a much better world as a result.
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.