Free will as illusion

I’ve long thought that free will is an illusion and belief is involuntary (making it irrational, if not impossible, for skeptics or believers to feel smug about their states of mind).

I know it’s unpopular, but I actually do think we are nothing but automatons. When I read The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick in the 1990s, I was not astonished. I’d already come to the conclusion that I was really just a hunk of meat. Even consciousness is an illusion. It’s true that we experience something, but there is no noncorporeal soul quickening our bodies, it’s just electrical currents and chemical messengers coursing through our meatiness. 

So, can a hunk of meat have free will? I think free will is just like consciousness. We feel like it exists–we feel like we are in control of what we think, believe, and decide–but in actuality it is nothing more than an illusion, and a useful illusion at that.

This article from Wired seems to confirm my hunches:

You may think you decided to read this story — but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it.

In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people’s decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them.

The decision studied — whether to hit a button with one’s left or right hand — may not be representative of complicated choices that are more integrally tied to our sense of self-direction. Regardless, the findings raise profound questions about the nature of self and autonomy: How free is our will? Is conscious choice just an illusion?

But since I have no control over what I think, believe, or decide, so what? Does it make a difference if I am a fundamentalist Christian or a militant atheist? If I am not the master of my mental domain, can I be proud of escaping my superstitious past and becoming a skeptic?

This view of life, for me, leads to humility. A trait I often lack. It also leads to mystery and magic. What could be more magical than an animated hunk of meat feeling love and doubt, joy and fear, anger and lust? The lack of free will levels the playing field and makes all humans equal. Somehow knowing that I am just a hunk of meat–not a spirit, soul, and body–leads me to a few of the things I was searching for, but never found, in Christianity. Wonders never cease.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Well a lack of free will (which I find great sympathy in) also means a lack of responsibility, becaue it doesn’t make any sense to hold someone responsible for something that they could not have done otherwise. So morality, ethics, responsibility goes out the window in a meaningful sense (because we will be determined to still punish people and such because of our meaty construction).

    I think the most plausible explanations of free will (emergence), is still insufficient to escape the problem… but I think that before we decide to give up something that is so very important (at least I think morality is really important) we should be skeptical of hard determinsim.

    Its sort of like hedging your bets here… It just wouldn’t be prudent of us to give up on morality,and then it turns out that we were wrong about hard determinism.

    Besides, we all live our lives as if we are free, so might as well think about the responsibility consequences.

  2. That’s why I said it’s a useful illusion. Obviously (I hope) I still take responsibility for my actions. But I really don’t think that I ultimately have any control over my decision making process.

  3. Isn’t this a lot like the nature-versus-nurture debate? It doesn’t have to be one or the other exclusively. Just as our personalities are formed by a combination of nature and nurture, so do our actions come out of both will and factors beyond our control.
    The real question is how much of each – nature and nurture, free will and determinism. Given the wide variety of choices and behaviour, I’m inclined to think will is a pretty powerful factor. Otherwise, I would expect a considerably smaller range in behaviour, like we see in other animals.

  4. no its not a matter of degrees… Assuming that free will exists, that doesn’t mean that all of our actions are undetermined, clearly some acts are determined. If someone pushes me, I’ll fall over.

    But the determinist argument suggests that there is no possible way for us to be free. So if you believe free will has some influence on your acts, you can’t be a determinist.

    I alluded to the theory of emergence in my last comment, I think that is the most plausible theory of free will, but I don’t think it goes far enough in explaining how essentially uncaused directed events can occur (which is what a freely chosen act is). Emergence is kinda like the concept of synergy. You take a lot of disperate elements and combine them together, and you get a result that is more than the sum of its parts. Properties emerge that does not exist from the individual constituents. For example salt is made up of an explosive metal and a poisonous gas, but together they lose certain qualities, and gain new qualities… tastiness!

  5. I just looked up emergence theory on the series of tubes. Interesting. I think you’re onto something here, philosophile.

  6. Given that I am a self-aware entity capable of making choices, and assuming for the sake of argument that you are the same, it is not clear to me how you can make the claim that conciousness is an illusion. I’m not sure what expectations you would have of conciousness for any test other than self-awareness to reveal whether it is real or illusory. I can’t think of any way of denying conciousness in the face of the evidence of self-awareness that isn’t perversely metaphysical.

  7. Oh dear, such a big can of worms.

    I found reading some books by Daniel Dennett and others to helpful in framing these sorts of questions in my own head, but it has been a few years so I won’t claim to be correct in my facts.

    Basically, there is strong evidence in neuroscience research to argue that various parts of your brain begin to iniatiate an action (say raising your hand) before the “self” part of the brain “decides” to claim responsibility for the action. So the conscious brain lags behind the actions of the lower brain and body and claims executive power by interpretting events in its favor.

    Now, the interesting bit if I didn’t completely botch the reading is that impulses pre-date the conscious brain, but the conscious brain can act to inhibit an impulse once it spots it. A simple reading of that might suggest that free will is merely an executive veto on impulses sent up from the neural “congress” as it were.

    However, you then have to ask if the “self” bit is determined or free to act (or veto). I’d suggested that once you get into that territory notions of self become this whole big mess of memes (which offers us a rather odd sort of dualism). Now, since memes ought to follow their own laws of natural selection, it would be hard to argue that a conscious self based on a memetic structure could be an independent actor.

    So, no morality? First off, there are strains of Calvinist Christianity that believe the God elects those to be saved and those to damned. God chooses those who will sin, how they will sin, and what punishments await for them in the pit. That being the case, surely morality is not necessarily negated by a lack of free will though it might shape our application of justice.

    If you presume that we aren’t just meat or hardware, that we have a memetic or software bit that can inhibit impulses, then why shouldn’t society decide that certain members are running faulty programs that cause harm to others and enact a legal structure to mitigate the problems.

    Besides, whether you decide that we have free will or are determined, does that fundamentally change what one might regard as proper social behavior? If I stabbed you, would you care whether I had an independent soul animating my body or whether signals from my limbic systems made me pull a blade? I suspect you would just want me to stop and call an ambulance. You’d want me to be moral whether or not “I” was actually in control.

    So it might not change moral norms, but it would have interesting implications for jurisprudence. What if some day soon we could stick someone under a functional MRI and determine whether someone acted on the spur of the moment or with malice of forethought and furthermore how likely they were to do it again? What if you stuck someone back under te fMRI (or something even better) during their parole hearing to determine whether or not they have truly been rehabilitated? Do free will and traditional notions of justice go out the window? Do we replace them with social harmony and a tangible definition of rehabilitation in which criminals aren’t defined by past acts, but by future propensities? And would it be a good thing? Beats me, but what if?

  8. I knew I had read about Libet’s research before but couldn’t put my finger on it until I got to my office…
    The standard response from people who believe in free will is that what we see on the brain scans is in fact their intention, but obviously there is going to be some time delay between having a conscious intention, and thinking about your conscious intention. Clearly you need to have your intention existing first, before you can think about that intention, which is what the report about the intention is.

    aiabx: I think dd is saying that there is no consciousness if consciousness is something apart from brain states. But I hate putting words into people’s mouths.

  9. but obviously there is going to be some time delay between having a conscious intention, and thinking about your conscious intention

    Then it’s an UNconscious intention. It’s not conscious until you think about it!

  10. “I’d already come to the conclusion that I was really just a hunk of meat.”

    Somewhat tangential, but have you read “They’re made out of meat”, by Terry Bisson?

    Personally, I consider “free will” to be a meaningless concept… or at best an ill-defined one. To me, “free will” intuitively means something like: “to an outside observer, the macro-level behavior of humans and other ‘conscious’ beings appears to follow rules, but these rules are unpredictable and subject to change.” I’m not sure myself whether this is the same thing as saying “free will is an illusion”.

    This is one philosophical argument where something like Pascal’s Wager is actually legitimate: if you think you have free will but don’t, your belief in free will doesn’t matter, since you were pre-determined to believe in free will anyways and you literally can’t help it. OTOH, if you don’t believe in free will but free will *does* in fact exist, all of your reasoning and decisions are based on faulty assumptions. So from a game-theoretic (?) standpoint, belief in free will is the only rational choice.

  11. This is an interesting blog topic about free will. I have heard that human beings don’t have free will before, but I had heard it from certain types of religious folks that said we had no free will because everything was predestined by god. They claimed that humans were inherently incapable of making their own decisions (as in god had to do it for them.) I found the concept extremely distasteful at the time; now I wonder if they had atleast one part right- that there is no free will. It could be possible, but if so would that make such things such as fate real?

    I have never liked being told that it was my fate to do anything. I always thought I had control over my future. If we believed that we have not control, it seems like it would be easy to fall into Fatalism (That free will does not exist, meaning therefore that history has progressed in the only manner possible) and defeatism, things I usually dismiss as silly at best. If we had no free will than it makes fate real, and if fate was real we would have to surrender all control and responsibility… not an attractive concept in my opinion.

  12. I hate to be that guy in the discussion that just posts a link, but when I read your topic this immediately popped into my head. This guy is an atheist who makes excellent videos on youtube and the video I am referring to is the one called Free Will Doesn’t Matter. I figure, why try to explain myself, what someone else has done better. So here is the link.

  13. You are right, of course. I do not like it as a concept, but that means nothing. I will watch the follow-up studies on the topic closely. As I interpreted it, it simply indicated that the subjects made their decisions before they noticed that they had done so, but that the decision ultimately was still theirs to make. A delay in recognition more than a lack of ability to choose is how I saw it. Next time I am near the library I will stop by to read the study in the journal it was published in, though.

  14. And I’m not certain anyway. It just seems that way to me. In the end, it could just be an esoteric topic that doesn’t really make any difference in our everyday lives.

  15. This is a subject that has been debated for centuries by thinkers and scientists, all of them much smarter than yours truly…

    In the end I think ‘proving’ that humans have free will is like proving (or disproving) the existence of a Deity. It can’t be done. So we just choose one side, and come up with arguments pro and/or against.

    In my humble view both free will and determinism can co-exist. Quantum mechanics have demonstrated that not all effects have a cause, and in fact, if you’re atheist, the biggest effect of them all, the Universe, doesn’t have a cause either. If events can defy the ‘law’ of causality, why not humans? This provides the elbow room for free will.

    I think ultimately, to be human, is to be able to choose.

  16. Freewill, consciousness, music…

    Every audible sound, no matter how complex, is actually just a combination of pure tones of various frequencies and amplitudes. If every musical note can be broken down into pure tones, it’s obvious that the music itself is only an illusion.

    Some fools would have us believe that music does exist, as an emergent phenomenon. But as skeptics, we need to stop fooling ourselves. Throw away your iPod today.

  17. True, we may be talking about unconscious desires… but unconscious desires don’t play a huge role in our conscious desires.

    If they do play a huge role, we can never know that they play a huge role. MRI scans can only tell us the brain has activity going on… that doesn’t tell us what that activity is about.

    Mark: If God chose certain people to be saved and some to be damned, then God is just an asshole who is judging us based on how he created us, not of our own virtues. Thats a nonsensical notion of morality. God, I would assume, would have reasons for making things good or bad, not just willy-nilly deciding murder was wrong and that this person or that person was damned. Divine omniscience is a serious problem for theists who believe in free will.

  18. I’m not educated enough about this particular topic to weigh in on it specifically, and I will readily admit to being enough enamored with my illusion of free will that I don’t feel a strong desire to attack it. I have enough to think about at this point in my life without having to mess with my head any more than necessary. ;)

    However, I did want to respond to philosophile’s comment:

    If God chose certain people to be saved and some to be damned, then God is just an asshole who is judging us based on how he created us, not of our own virtues. … Divine omniscience is a serious problem for theists who believe in free will.

    This problem is at the heart of my departure from faith, and it is by far the largest thing keeping me from going back to the religious mindset.

  19. Before Galileo turned his telescope at the night sky and discover imperfections in the heavens, philosophers could debate the nature of the spheres. Increasing with neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and neurology, science is turning its telescopes on our brains and finding imperfections in our notions of self. Just because this Gordian knot hasn’t given way to philosophy and theology doesn’t mean the knife of science ain’t sharp enough to start cutting it apart.

    Should we be happy about the notion that we don’t have free will? that it may all be fate? Of course not. We are for the most part raised in a society where the ideas or memes of freedom, choice, and decision have supplanted notions of fate and destiny. However, there have been times and places where I’d expect our claims of choice would be laughed at.

    As for retreating to quantum physics to find free will, it is a tactic that psychics and others use to explain their unfounded claims. So sadly, I’m dubious of the likelihood that quantum free will will pan out.

    Finally, between what I’ve learned psychology and magic, it seems clear that we as a species are incredibly bad at self-assessment when it comes to whats between our ears. For example, using a pendulum to get answers – a true psychic event or ideomotor response? When you get practiced at it, it can be somewhat spooky that the pendulum appears to move on its own. I’ve certainly had the experience of trying it out on someone and once they get in the groove, I’d ask them a question that they didn’t want to answer. Their hand holding the pendulum would begin answering while their conscious mind processed it and then their other hand would swing around to stop the pendulum. Anecdotal evidence – you bet. Take it for what its worth, but if you read more about mentalism, it can shift one’s ideas about the sanctity of human thought.

    Bad God, bad. Get off the omniscient, omnipotent, all loving furniture. You bet it causes probablems. But as God said to Job “Ask me again and you get the boils back.” I’ll base my theology on what the science shows me, thank you very much.

  20. On Quantum physics explaining free will, I don’t think it is possible, like what Mark said.
    Quantum physics >AT BESTdirected< event, I choose to raise my arm or respond to a blog. Uncaused events would be random, like an arm spasm or something. Arm spasms arn’t something that we’re in control of, an indeterminate events with no cause are not anything we have control over either….

    But I have a sneaking suspicion that Quantum physics is making a mistake here, and attributing no cause to events that they just haven’t found the cause for.

  21. blah… I gotta stop useing those arrows for emphasis…
    Quantum Physics at best proves that indeterminism is true. But it doesn’t show that we have Free Will. Free will is a directed event.

  22. I, too, have found Dennet’s commentary on this topic in Freedom Evolves to be very useful, and I think the two biggest elements to draw from it are A) the kind of free will we almost certainly don’t have isn’t really the kind we were expecting to have and B) the kind that’s left isn’t magical, but does most of the same things.

    So, the kind of free will we can’t find, the transcendent-of-mechanistic forces, isn’t what anyone really expected to find since Newton-when we picture traveling back in time, we imagine that unless we intervene, things will unfold as they did before-that in the most cosmic of senses, yes, everything is on rails. Similarly, everyone but the most ardent of Scientologists would agree that a man falling down an elevator shaft has no real substantiative physical choices-free will is ultimately subservient to physics, just like everything else. But just as physics is the ultimate arbiter of genetics, but isn’t especially useful in the science, I’m not sure that the most cosmic possible interpretation is relevant or useful.

    By the same token, the magic dice-rolling that seems to be invoked in “quantum consciousness” doesn’t really fit the bill either-a mind that makes all of its choices with coin flips in no more useful (or what we conceive of) than one that makes no choices at all.

    So what do we think of, and do we have it? If we think of simple organisms, they may not have “choice,” but they still can behave in ways contrary to proximate physical forces, (like when something swims upstream,) based on non-proximate information (pain from the last time they went over the waterfall, food at the head of the stream.) The evolution of more complex organisms seems to point in this direction-more complex minds have more tools and more processing of causes and consequences further from themselves in time and space. That sounds, to all intents and purposes, like a “freer” will.

    At the same time, the law often judges coercion by “meaningful choice,” determining whether a person was furnished with enough information to make a choice that averted harm. Here we return to the man in the elevator shaft-the environment places both restrictions and opportunities for free will.

    So, do we have a magical anti-gravity free will, able to zip to any possible choice in Vast Choice Space without regard to anything? No, and its not clear that would be something especially useful to have. Instead he have a helicopter-it might take time to get places, need gas, and can’t fly at high altitudes, but it does almost all the same stuff, despite the fact its made out of purely physics-hampered components. It doesn’t “defy gravity,” but it does something pretty close. We don’t have infinite will, but we have enough that thinking about choice, freedom, liberty, responsibility, and will are all useful shorthand.

    Maybe a mind creates its own little reserve of choice the same way an organism creates a local upswing in entropy-it doesn’t violate thermodynamics, but it gathers and organizes enough energy to go uphill sometimes. Maybe a mind stores up enough non-proximate information, and subjects to enough chaotic calculation, that it acts as a local upswing in “choice” in a mechanistic universe.

    And maybe I should stop typing now.

  23. Sorry I didn’t see this post earlier, I was busy not doing my taxes.

    But my take: Meh.

    Either “consciousness” is more dispersed through the brain than previously believed or I doubt reductionist testing is going to reveal much about “free will” in any gross sense.

    Which will I say? I don’t know!

  24. Pandagon has a post on this topic today:

    In the past, I’ve tripped over the fact that it really upsets people to suggest that free will is an illusion, even though it’s hard for me to see how you could arrive at any other conclusion. The problem of free will is this: If you could make two absolutely identical people, with the exact same experiences and thoughts and lives, and give them a choice—any choice at all, from abortion or not to chocolate or vanilla—would they choose differently from each other? The only way I can see that being possible is if the choices presented were of equal value to the person, and then the different choices would be more a matter of chance than will.

  25. Hm.

    I really think this is an example of reading far too much into what is only very basic testing (likely designed to reveal something physiological and specific), and probably not at all revealing as to whether or not humans have “free will,” which, I’ll point out, nobody here has done a stellar job of defining.

    And you need that. In order to devise a real test that will give concrete answers (about anything), all terms need to be thoroughly defined upfront.

    And not in any philosophical sense, where debate can rage on for centuries, but a testable sense, which can sort illusion of free will (however it’s defined) from reality.

    Pandagon seems to suggest that chance doesn’t influence will (which is further splitting the term, I’ll note: “The only way I can see that being possible is if the choices presented were of equal value to the person, and then the different choices would be more a matter of chance than will.“), but I see no reason to accept that at face value. Why does Pandagon see it that way?

    Also: much of science itself is derived from theological sources. For instance, where does Occam’s Razor come from? Who was William of Ockham?

    Just because an idea is derived from a religious thinker, writing on religious matters, it has less value than something not really mentioned (value being a comparative term, and none having been submitted)? Really?

    One might say that determinism is the outgrowth of theologic discussion on free will, just as parsimony is the outgrowth of “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

    I see the question is sort of being treated like a slam dunk, but it’s not. So far, I see little compelling evidence to consider “free will” (whatever that is) refuted.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t have an investment either way. I have no dog in this refrigerator, no cat in this box, no ferret in this bag of holding. If I maintain an illusion of free will, then I was meant to say that. If not, then I choose to believe otherwise.

    External implications aside, what’s the difference? If you think there is one, how can you tell?

  26. Scotte –

    Four definitions of free will – take your pick.

    1 – Unpredictability. If an outside observer were capable of assessing all variables and fully analyzing a person’s decision tree, but remain unable to predict a person’s actions and reactions then you could argue for free will. However, randomness of thought and action seems a rather pallid form of free will.

    2 – Conscious choice. With Libet’s and others’ experiments indicating that impulses preceded conscious “choice” then this version of free will seem implausible. If the big I-ego part of the brain doesn’t get to decide, then can we call it free will?

    3 – Conscious veto. The conscious mind is perhaps able to veto impulses. This is perhaps a plausible notion of free will, but then you have to decide whether consciousness is a brain function or memetic construct or some emergent, different property that isn’t subject to analysis. I tend towards memetic construct as art and literature gives evidence for an evolving understanding of self, but that’s just me.

    4 – Existential free will. We believe in free will, we act like we have free will, therefore we have free will. We believe we can fly, we act like we can fly, we are hospitalized with every bone in our body broken. Believing doesn’t make it so, particularly in a room full of skeptics.

    External implications aside? Those are some pretty big implications, but okay.

    Internal implications – self-acceptance, freedom from guilt, compassion for others. Accepting that we may have little or no control over our thoughts and actions can free you from guilt over this, that, and the other and allow you greater compassion for the foibles of others. So yes, I think people would be happier more accepting if they believed they and others were a bit more determined and less free.

    Okay. I can’t leave the external implications alone. From a legal standpoint, free will justifies punishment of lawbreakers; determinism demands rehabilitation to change the formula that led to bad behaviour. Furthermore, with definition 3 of free will, it seems reasonable then to define crimes of passion versus premeditated crimes by the likelihood that the conscious mind could inhibit impulses.

    So care to add a definition? Cheers.

  27. One, I’d say, fails general criteria. While it might lead to an actual experiment (which is good), the definition doesn’t offer anything useful (which is less good, since I don’t see any reason to believe free will is 1:1 with randomness–though it certainly might be a factor).

    “2 – Conscious choice.  With Libet’s and others’ experiments indicating that impulses preceded conscious “choice” then this version of free will seem implausible.  If the big I-ego part of the brain doesn’t get to decide, then can we call it free will?”

    Two seems of limited utility: is there any reason to accept that consciousness is necessarily so discrete? Even if consciousness is by definition tied exclusively to mapped regions of the brain which can be seen to light up when a subject responds to questions designed to provoke conscious responses, I don’t think that necessarily covers the true potential range of “consciousness” — and it does seem to me that this needs to be addressed.

    And if it’s not brightly lined, but gradients of grey into gray, does it make sense to eliminate or exclude artifacts of unconscious effects, which may even themselves be informed by conscious thought/experience?

    So has anyone here read the actual paper the Wired article is based on, to find out what the research says directly? (If so, could I induce you to send me a PDF?)

    Three I like the best, I confess, and not just because you used the word “emergence” (which is just… so very lickable). I think we can dispense (for the purposes of experiment) of memetics, since that probably has more to do with an ongoing growth of consciousness (assuming I actually understand it here) than I’m comfortable assessing. I think a combination of 2+3 is the best bet, since choice and veto are easily seen in decision making, and it seems like there should be a way to keep track of them.

    Needs additional work, though.

    “4 – Existential free will.”

    No. If we believe we can fly and act like we believe, we can hire an engineer to design a contraption that enables us to fly. Not that this excludes the possibility of a bloody death or a trip to the hospital or that believing in and of itself makes it so, but often, there is a larger process that begins with “belief” (I think even in existentialism, there’s a glib response to a belief, and then there’s an appropriate response to a belief–especially if it leads to something useful). So number four isn’t so much a definition that will lead to an experiment, as a statement on where we’re headed here (though useful enough).

    “External implications aside? Those are some pretty big implications, but okay.”

    In terms of coming up with a reason to accept or reject either position, the implications are immaterial. (I’m aware of them, but they just don’t matter in the context of my comment.)

    “Four definitions of free will – take your pick”

    Well, let’s ask someone who actually matters (since, really, I don’t). Writerdd? Do any of these satisfy? Would you say any progress being made here?

  28. “Somehow knowing that I am just a hunk of meat–not a spirit, soul, and body–leads me to a few of the things I was searching for, but never found, in Christianity. Wonders never cease.”

    You are almost at the point Zen Buddhists reach after several years of meditation.

    The first step, so to speak.

    Beyond everything (the body, the ego, illusions, religion and science) lies your true nature.

    The scientists are getting close to this, it’s tantalising them like trying to recall a memory (Btw, try and explain – pin down – memory and imagination using human language – can’t be done) .

  29. I guess my real point was more that no one has managed to provide a definition of free will that makes its presence or absence, in a universe without an omnipotent god, that makes any difference. A world in which the atoms that make up your brain behave as physics dictate they should is still a world in which choice, consequence, consent, responsibility, hope, fear, guilt and the rest still function and matter.

    The discussion is usually framed as though Free Will (as some kind of cosmic unlimited choice) and Fate (coupled with fatalism, nihilism, and great chains of being/Confucian orders/Greek drama,) when in fact, a deterministic universe is still one where it pays to strive against your circumstances, punish wrongdoers, and everything else involved in the generation and judgment of choice.

    I think describing free will as an “illusion” is really the core of the problem-it suggests that there is no point to trying to make good choices.

    I guess I think of free will like centrifugal force-it may technically be an illusory phenomenon in the most rigorous analysis, but if you solve the equations in the right frame, it shows up all the same.

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