Train Delays, Horoscopes, and Free Will

I spent my morning as I usually do – trapped on an MBTA train, waiting patiently for the “traffic” to clear up. That’s what the announcer said: “traffic,” as though we weren’t sitting on tracks underground in a closed system that should be relatively predictable seeing as it’s been running for the past hundred years or so.

In my bag, I had two boredom-fighters: one was the newspaper I picked up yesterday but had no time to read, and the other was a book I began yesterday that I was nearly finished. I pulled out the paper and noticed the horoscope – I love reading yesterday’s horoscope, because it gives me that much more perspective on both what I did that day as well as the uselessness of astrology. Yesterday’s horoscope read simply, “Libra: Take control of your life.” I frightened the other passengers by literally laughing out loud, because the book that I had started yesterday and had been thinking about quite a bit was called The Myth of Free Will, a collection of essays edited by Cris Evatt.

Cris was kind enough to mail me her collection quite awhile ago, and I had flipped through it but didn’t get a good, in-depth read of it until yesterday. In short, I really enjoyed it. Great thinkers like Richard Dawkins, V. S. Ramachandran, and Sue Blackmore offer very brief thoughts on what free will is all about, and why it’s an illusion. It’s a subject I never gave much thought, and had you asked me last week whether or not I thought there was such a thing as free will I probably would have said I wasn’t sure. If you asked me today, I’d tell you that free will is more than likely one of the coolest, craziest illusions man experiences.

The essays themselves are ridiculously short and often repetitive, which I would probably cast as a criticism with any other subject. In the case of free will, though, it’s so weird and trippy that I appreciate the straightforward, easy-to-read style as an introduction to the topic. It leaves plenty of room for someone to pause and think, “Oh. Oh!” That will happen a lot, if this is your first foray into the subject.

We’ve talked about free will before on Skepchick: Stacey gave a good overview of the subject nearly two years ago. I admit this is an area where I’ve been intellectually lazy, assuming that the question of free will was philosophical navel-gazing. I was so very wrong, and doubly wrong to only skim the comments that followed that initial essay, not only because they’re very well-written and thought-provoking, but mostly because midway down I’ve just seen this:

ExpatriaNo Gravatar // Jan 29, 2007 at 11:43 am

Blake Stacey,

You write so well and so cogently, I’m always left wondering why you don’t have your own blog for us all to read. Even a weekly update would be worthwhile! I’m certain that I’m not the only one who would love to see it, and since I encounter your comments on Pharyngula and BA as well, I’m sure you’d pull in a cross-section of regular readership from fans of yours at all three places.

Which is not to say that you should stop commenting elsewhere, of course…just that, you know, having one solid place for all of your insight would be a good thing :-P

Considering that Blake now has a very successful SciBlog, and considering that none of us has free will, I do believe this means that Expatria’s comment, which in and of itself was one of many effects created by the Skepchick blog as a whole, was one of an integral series of causes leading to the eventual effect of Blake’s brain creating the blog.

And that’s how lack of free will means that Blake owes us all Cokes.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Why worry about it? If we have free will then we will do what we want to do. If we don’t have free will then we won’t know the difference anyway.

  2. @jrpowell: I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone worry about it. What I’m recommending is that you think about it, because it is fascinating to understand a little better how we humans function in the universe.

  3. Kirk: I CHOOSE to BELIEVE Free… Will… is… an illusion!

    M5: Does not compute. Does Not Compute! DOES NOT COMPUTE! [bzzzzt-zorch]

  4. @Rebecca: But if it turns out we have free will, then I haven’t discovered anything new. If it turns out we don’t have free will then I can’t actually DO anything with that information because I don’t have, you know, free will.

  5. You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

    (You’ve all guessed by now that I’m Neil Peart, right?)

    I am a Hedge

  6. @jrpowell: If the subject doesn’t interest you, that’s fine. However, what you’ve written isn’t at all correct. You can do something with this information. Free will’s existence or lack thereof has a serious impact on how we view the world around us, including how we treat other people. It can change the way we deal with prisoners, for instance. Lack of free will does not mean that knowledge won’t affect your behavior. Just the opposite, in fact: knowing that free will is an illusion can seriously (maybe even positively) change the way you behave.

    Besides, you could just as easily shrug your shoulders at attempts to locate dark matter, since its theoretical existence has no impact on the price of beer.

  7. Hmm. I’m glad to be a cog in the deterministic machine leading to both the existence of Blake‘s blog AND his owing us a Coke.

    Free will is a strange, strange beast, and I’m inclined to agree that it is a persistent and subtle illusion, but nothing more. I just can’t wrap my head around the complexities this creates in terms of criminal justice and morality… I guess we have to act as if there is a reasonable degree of free will, but also be cognizant of the limitations and contradictions inherent in that premise.

  8. @Rebecca: On the DC Metro, every day’s horoscope would be “You will be late and inconvenienced today.” A true, mind-blowing prediction would be if it correctly stated exactly how late you would be to your destination that day.

    OTOH, subjects like this post’s give me a headache.
    The good kind that comes from trying to learn, but a headache nonetheless.

  9. Can consciousness influence or over come chemical reactions determined by the laws of physics when said consciousness is only the result of chemical r eactions. Well of course not. So if we perceive individual autonomy and free will it can only be a result of particular chemical reactions. That being said we have an existence that involves all kinds of choices and what we perceive as decisions. So the effort of the non supernatural and rational thinking philosopher is to reconcile the physics with our perceived reality without getting all tied up in knots or full of mystical quantum bullshit. (As I see it)

    I’m with Rebecca in thinking that that this area of study is fascinating, confusing, challenging and makes human evolution all the more amazing to behold.

  10. My lack of free will means that it was not my choice to be poor.

    Besides, you could just as easily shrug your shoulders at attempts to locate dark matter, since its theoretical existence has no impact on the price of beer.

    Unless you find an astrophysicist who’s willing to bet a beer on the question of what dark matter is composed of.

  11. If I come up with and execute any one of my 7 new ways to shave and paint my cat to look like a different David Bowie video, am I still buying into the illusory effects of free will, or am I going to have one fantastic christmas parade after all?

  12. @Rebecca – “knowing that free will is an illusion can seriously (maybe even positively) change the way you behave.”

    Yes, it may change the way I behave, but it won’t matter because without free will there really is no ME. I would just be a meat bag with the illusion of free will. To say it a little differently, I can’t do anything with the information that I don’t have free will because if true, I won’t have any free will – I will just respond with whatever response is dictated by my environmental inputs. The information may change my behavior, but a world of no free will is existentially nihilist.

    Dark matter is a false analogy since its existence one way or the other doesn’t negate me. I love finding out about the universe we live in.

  13. I think the main reason why free will is seen as an illusion is that most people’s conception of free will is incoherent. Unless the human brain can defy the laws of causality its activity must be caused by something else. Perhaps its just my economist training, but I don’t see this fact as problematic for free will.

    The theoretical model economists use to describe consumer choice works like this:
    You have your preferences, information, resource endowments and cognitive biases (for the newer models) and your choice is to maximise your utility based on your preferences and information, constrained by your resources.

    Now, your preferences and biases are caused by your brain chemistry, and your information and endowments are caused by previous experiences. In short, everything here is explained by standard causality. But would anyone deny that choices are being made in this model? And if choices are being made then why shouldn’t we call it free will?

  14. @Expatria: My views on criminal justice works just as well without free will. The objectives of punishment are:

    1. Individual prevention. Keep the individual away from society, for society’s protection, and hopefully with an effect on the individual’s future choices. – Works without free will.

    2. Collective prevention. Hopefully have an effect on other individuals’ future choices. Works without free will.

    3. Satisfy society’s sense of justice. Works perfectly well even if a sense of justice comes from a collective delusion of free will.

    @James K: In my opinion it’s isn’t possible to create a _workable_ definition of any kind of “free” will. Your’s is just plain old causality. But if it’s not definable, why would I want it?

    And don’t come dragging in something undefinable that I actually want, like counsciousness, to make the issue murky. :D

  15. Bjornar:

    In my opinion it’s isn’t possible to create a _workable_ definition of any kind of “free” will.

    In that case, surely one cannot say the free will does not exist, any more than you can say frolnik does not exist. Unless “frolnik” is a coherent concept any discussion of whether it exists is incoherent.

    Naturally the definition of free will I posited is compatible with determinism. I am a compatibilist so I think it is possible to define free will in such a way that it works within the laws of causality, but without doing so much violence to the concept of free will that the term loses is commonly understood meaning.

    By contrast, the concept of consciousness is obviously crap ;)

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