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Two reasons why I don't believe in free will - Journal of Interest
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04 Sep

Two reasons why I don’t believe in free will

Free will

I suppose that a post on free will has been a long time coming so I felt perhaps I ought to get round to finally writing it.  In this essay I want to make two points: 1., that claims of free will are faith-based, being made without the burden of proof we would normally require, and 2., that choices seemingly invoking free will are in fact a product of competing desires.

I’ll begin by saying it: I don’t believe in free will.  I used to – in fact I used to think it was one of the most self-evident things in the world – but a few years ago when I examined the situation, I came to the conclusion that I hold now: There appears to be no acceptable evidence to support a belief in it.  None at all.

I should also clarify exactly what I mean by free will – I mean it in the basic sense that people generally take on assumption, i.e., that we are generally free to legitimately choose how to act.  I should point out that I don’t mean the compatibilist conception of it, which is too narrow – the kind of free will advocated by compatibilism1 seems not to really be free will, but an admission that if a decision was made, then it must have been made by someone or something, i.e., an agent capable of making decisions. If you chose to put the kettle on, then you chose to put the kettle on and that is that.  You did not ‘have’ to put the kettle on, but you did it anyway, and therefore you were ‘free’ to do so. This is not the kind of free will I would like to talk about, because it does not address the question of whether there were any less examinable constraints in place – only that there were no constraints placed on you that are not fundamentally a part of you.  I am also interested in the constraints that are a part of you.

The freedom referred to by compatibilists is one of being free from influences of the kind that might be mentioned in a court case.  For example, why did you shoot that man?  If he pulled a gun on you first, then your choices were constrained; if he didn’t, then you may be considered to be have been unconstrained.  The constraints are external to you, although they may not be physically external.  Consider for example if someone had drugged you and that had influenced your decision.  The effect of the drugs would be physiologically a part of you, but it was not your ‘fault’ that your decision-making had become impaired due to having been drugged – the drugs are not a part of the normal you.

If, however, you happened to be of a disposition to enjoy shooting people, and you chose to shoot the man because you happened to enjoy such things, unlike the instance in which you had been drugged, you would be considered to have made a free choice.  Just because the decision does or doesn’t happen to be made when a person is in their ‘normal’ state does not mean it was a free decision however – at least not in the sense that we generally think of it.  If free will means anything, it seems to me that it means the ability to have decided to do something differently.  It means that the influence of the past or of randomness does not wholly determine what decisions you make – that you (as in the ‘real’, unaltered you) are able to exert some control over your own mind and actions.  If the shooter genuinely enjoyed killing, then his choices are constrained in a way that normal people’s aren’t: He would have had to fight an urge of arbitrary strength simply to avoid killing people.

Considering the kettle again, it seems to be the most unconstrained case in the world.  You are completely free to put the kettle on, make coffee or tea, or make squash instead, or to do something wholly different such as sit down to watch television.  However, upon examination, we are in fact able to identify constraints present: Perhaps you are thirsty, perhaps you have a habit of putting the kettle on at this time, or perhaps you did not even consider it and have been acting on autopilot.  If you have the intention to make coffee to drink, then you almost certainly like coffee.  You did not choose to like coffee.  You did not choose for the thought to drink coffee to occur to you, and you did not choose to desire coffee at that moment – you simply noticed your desire for coffee and acted on it.

If you put the kettle on to make coffee, it was because you wanted to drink coffee.  In other words, it was caused by your desire for coffee.  You did not choose to want to drink coffee, but simply acted on it.  If you desired something else, you would have acted differently (that is, so long as you remained free from other constraints, for example by having ready access to what it happens to be you want).  This applies to all the decisions we make – I might walk the dog because I have a desire to avoid feeling guilty if I am lazy and neglect him; I might watch a film because it happens to interest me or I feel that I should.  Even things that we don’t really want to do, we might do because we perceive it to nevertheless be in our best interests, which we desire to act in accordance with. For example, I work not because I desire to per se, but because I desire to avoid the consequences if I don’t.  If I perform some selfless act, it is because I desire to perform it regardless of whether it benefits me or not.

As we can see, even when we are completely free of external constraints, we still have many internal ones to deal with.  It is not enough to say that a person did not have external constraints at work on him, and that therefore his decisions have been truly free.  Indeed, without any internal constraints, what would be responsible for his decisions?  What would ‘free choice’ legitimately constitute?  If we had no desires, we would not know which option to pick when given a choice – it wouldn’t matter to us, because we would desire neither one of them.

Over the years that I have held this view, not once have I ever come across a decision that cannot upon reflection be distilled into a competition of desires, and I have never once found the freedom to avoid doing whatever it is I happened to desire.  In fact,  whatever decision I make can be taken as a statement of what my desire really is.  Making a decision seems really to be about identifying what it is I desire most and weighing the risks.  Of course, my decisions could still be influenced by random factors or be completely mistaken, but my intentions are always in-line with my desires.  Given, then, that I do not choose what it is that I desire,2 there appears to be no domain for free will to operate in.

This is not the only observation I would make.  What convinced me when originally considering free will was the idea that free will exists contrary to other beliefs we hold about the universe.  From a scientific stand point, the universe operates deterministically at a macro level and indeterministically at a quantum level.  We believe that the universe operates according to laws, and through science we attempt to gain an understanding of those laws.  These laws are (ignoring quantum indeterminacy3 for the moment) predictable – they act the same every time.  If I hold a ball out in my hand and let go, it will fall to the ground.  We know this – or, at least we are confident enough with these laws to put our lives on the line every time we board a plane.  If we know the laws of a system, and we know the current configuration of that system, we can predict what will happen.

This is in stark contrast to our belief in free will – that is, that everything in the universe operates deterministically, except for the human brain (and the random behaviour of fundamental particles, which are everywhere).  The human brain is the exception – the magic box that we appear to believe circumvents those laws.  The human brain, or so we believe, does not operate deterministically, because if we have the free will to make decisions moment to moment, they cannot be predicted with certainty beforehand.  Now, I don’t claim that the brain is deterministic (because of the aforementioned quantum indeterminacy), but it is still wholly governed by physical laws, whether deterministic or indeterministic in nature.  This means that its behaviour is either predictable or random – there is no room for free will.4

Given that we believe the universe operates according to laws, we must accept that the brain does so too, or else have evidence to satisfy the burden of proof if we were to claim otherwise.  There is, as it seems, no evidence at all that we do not act utterly at the mercy of physical laws, acting in their usual manner on the matter in our brains in the same way as they would on a machine.  There is no controlling the laws and, provided that our behaviour has a physiological basis,5 no controlling our behaviour, which is a product of those laws.  Occam’s razor6 demands that we take the simplest explanation – that there is no extra, additional hocus pocery that will turn up to validate our pre-evidential assumptions.  We should assume that we do not have free will, until such a time as there becomes some reasonable justification for it.

Without evidence for a position of free will, we’re left to ask why we believe in it so strongly.  The answer, I suppose, is that we are biased towards it.  There is a pervasive illusion in which we feel that we are operating as free agents, and that others are doing likewise.  Perhaps a belief in free will held an evolutionary role or was a by-product of some other useful feature of ours.7 Maybe it helped social cohesion by allowing people to believe people were responsible for their own actions, thereby encouraging rewards and punishments.  Or, perhaps we are simply conditioned into believing free will from the way people treat us as children – I have no idea.  It is not a strong illusion however,8 being dispelled through careful examination and a reflection of thoughts like the ones posed by this article.

I’m reminded of a quote from Bertrand Russell that, since I can’t find the exact wording, I’ll paraphrase: The world would be a better place if people believed only things for which there was evidence. In this case, we would undoubtedly adopt a more compassionate outlook if a rejection of free will became more widespread.  Our justice system would change completely – we would not punish people for the sake of revenge or providing ‘just deserts’.9  A world that didn’t believe in free will would feel empathetic towards people who made cruel decisions, quietly thinking, “I’m so grateful I’m not them.”  We would likely become more humble, taking less credit for our achievements, and wishing our rewards be spread more equitably amongst those who were not lucky enough to have the traits that might have led them to success.  And, of course, it would be a rare thing indeed that the proliferation of truth and the challenging of assumptions would not prove beneficial for its own sake.

  1. Compatibilism is a philosophy that attempts to reconcile physical determinism with free will by advocating that they are not mutually exclusive concepts. 

  2. If you doubt this, try to dislike something you like, change your favourite food or alter your sexual orientation. 

  3. Quantum indeterminacy refers to the unpredictability of fundamental particles’ behaviour. 

  4. I have seen people point to quantum randomness as the hiding-place for free will, but it isn’t so: Quantum randomness is just that – random.  If my behaviour is decided by a roll of the dice, then it’s not free will – it would be more apt to call it random-will. 

  5. Dualism – the view that mind and matter are separate – is still somewhat prevalent, but again there is no evidence for it.  The history of psychology has been one of finding one bias after another of ways in which our behaviour is constrained by things that we did not realise were constraining it, and neuropsychology is at last making steps towards finding the physiological roots of psychological phenomena. 

  6. Occam’s razor is a reasoning device that states that, given competing hypotheses, the one that requires fewer assumptions is more likely to be true. William of Ockham, whom it is named after, would likely be disappointed of its common use in negating theological claims, having been a friar in his time. 

  7. It is a good place to note that those who take the feeling of having free will as evidence for its existence rarely explain why it would be natural for us to feel we had it even if we did. It would have to be evolutionarily advantageous in some way (or an implication of another evolutionary advantageous trait), and, if it were evolutionarily advantageous to feel we had it, then it is not explained why this should be connected to the truth-value of the claim that we do in fact have it. In other words, if it was both advantageous and viable to feel we had it, the feeling that we had it would appear regardless of whether we genuinely did or not. 

  8. Sam Harris made the interesting observation that, “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” I take this to mean that we fool ourselves into believing we are subject to an illusion in the first place.  The quote is taken from Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape

  9. We would not, for instance, behave like Basil Fawlty whipping his car when it broke down. 

6 thoughts on “Two reasons why I don’t believe in free will

  1. Pingback: Why we like things | Journal of Interest

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  3. Im starting to realize that people who think they have no free will do so because they are either pathologically biased or just incoherent thinkers.

    The statement itself is self refuting. You dont have a choice to believe it so why do think you can convince someone else’s particles to randomly collide into the incoherence you possess?

    2nd, they dont even understand that you couldn’t even talk without freewill. You choose the words, their innoation, percussion, melody, emphasis, pauses, and a hundred other choices every minute. Why these people think choice is just what color socks show the philosophical thought of a 3rd grader. Thought itself is not possible without the ability to rearranged topics, objects, and memories into ideas.
    So stop. This is the arena of the profoundly stubborn atheist. It doesn’t need to make sense as long as naturalism wins the day.

    • Hey Jack, thanks for your input. You’re right that I don’t believe people have a choice to believe things, but that does not make people immune from persuasion and I see no clear reason to think that it should.

      For your second point, you’re right of course that we make decisions all the time whilst interacting with the world; my contention is that what we choose is constrained by cause and effect. We can rearrange topics, objects and memories into ideas as you say, but I haven’t yet come across a compelling reason to think that we are doing this freely.

  4. I don’t believe entirely in Free Will myself but for different reasons. There have been several times that I have had what I call “psychic dreams” where the event happened although I didn’t understand what exactly would transpire until after it happened. I dreamed of the space shuttle exploding after entry into our atmosphere. I wrote in my journal that a “futuristic airplane crashed into pieces as people watched and were completely grief struck”. I didn’t even know the shuttle was scheduled. In another dream I seen dozens of people standing on the water in the river and wondered how people could stand on water when I then realized that they were standing on an airplane wing and I seen the captain and suddenly there were helicopters and government officials everywhere. They told me not to tell anybody. That was days before the plane landing on the Hudson River. How could I perceive these things before they actually happen in reality if they weren’t already “scheduled” to happen or perhaps they already happened in time and now we are living them out. I also had visions about deaths in the family that have happened later and used to “read cards” where events laid out would later unfold. (I don’t do that anymore.) There were a few happy events too such as meeting my dog Sammy.

    As much as I would like to believe in Free Will, there are many times where I don’t even feel like I’m being myself and actually feel as if the decision I’m making about certain things weren’t really my own and trying to change it feels like pushing a boulder up a hill. Another example is when I was trying to sell my house and any time there was somebody seriously interested coming for a look, a tree would fall across the private drive just before their arrival (three times) or a freakish creek like flood went flowing down the exterior steps but only did so the hour they came. They got back into their car and left. That only happened one other time in 15 years and it was during a hurricane. I can’t sell my house just because it is my “Will” to sell my house and many people can’t recover from illness just because it is their “will” to recover from an illness. I read a study conducted by neurologists that showed that peoples brains lit up moments before they were asked to lift their arm as if their brain already knew what was coming. Hmmmm.

    Thank you for a thought provoking article!

    • Hey Becky, thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed comment. I’m familiar with similar experiments – under controlled circumstances, scientists can predict ‘free’ decisions before the actor becomes aware that they’ve already decided. I think it shows that if free will does exist, it is more constrained than our intuitions lead us to believe, and therefore we should be very cautious in trusting our intuitions to give us insights into free will’s nature.

      Regarding your dreams: prior to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis and the advent of psychology, dreams were widely believed to be prophetic in nature. I think it’s natural to believe that one’s dreams are causally connected to the outer world, however I personally believe it’s a mistake to attribute this kind of significance to them. In the absence of someone able to make specific, reliable predictions, there seems no way to differentiate it from other apparent phenomena, such as someone calling you whilst you’re thinking about them. When it happens, it feels very significant, but when it doesn’t, you hardly notice. If you’re interested in investigating this subject to see if it applies to your case, you might be interested in cold reading.

      In any case, I hope you find the answers you’re looking for. Have a great day. :)

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