Is our sense of free will just an illusion?

by Tim Dean on September 8, 2013

Pierre-Simon Laplace postulated a demon of vast intellect will full knowledge of the “forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it”, and suggested that to such a being, “nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

The ramifications of the Big Bang are far more significant than you probably think. Not only did it give birth to the entire universe in a cataclysmic eruption in-and-of space and time, but it also determined, down to the finest subatomic detail, precisely what you ate for breakfast this morning. At least, that is if the thesis of determinism is true.

After all, the Big Bang set in motion the paths of countless particles, some of which bumped their way through 13.77-odd billion years to coalesce momentarily as your breakfast. Not only that, but some of those particles also bounced around through eons to galvanise as you.

If this is the case, then not only what you ate for breakfast was fixed at the moment of the universe’s birth, but so too was your decision as to what to eat for breakfast. That flicker of deliberation over whether to have peanut butter or vegemite, or that momentary urge to drink tea instead of coffee. Those, too, were written into the very fabric of the universe.

So much for free will then. Sure, it might feel like we genuinely deliberate over possible courses of action, and we feel like for any particular decision we could have chosen otherwise. But if determinism is true, then this fundamental sense that we can genuinely choose between actions is little more than an illusion fuelled by our ignorance of what the future will look like.

After all, if you were really, really smart – let’s say “omniscient” – and you knew the position of every particle in the universe, and were versed in the details of all the natural laws, and you had the computational clout to run the numbers, then you could predict with perfect accuracy the entire future of the universe, breakfast decisions and all.

And if you’re hoping chaos theory or quantum mechanics will save free will, well you’re out of luck. Both are, in fact, thoroughly deterministic in their own way. If genuine free will existed, it would break both theories.

Don’t be too despondent about the death of free will though. The illusion of free will doesn’t imply fatalism. Fatalism says our future unfolds the way it does regardless of our beliefs and desires. Determinism says our future unfolds the way it does because of our beliefs and desires, only that the latter are themselves determined. Although, if you do become despondent, well, that was bound to happen.

Jamie Flinn (@thekingofswing)

September 20, 2013 11:20 am

The question has been raised: Does it matter if Free Will is an illusion?

If we consider Sam Harris' view that Free Will is an illusion in that we react to events and occurances in a manner which we've been pre-programmed (by previous events, socialisation, brain pattern etc.) to do so, which is interesting and I'm unsure about but let's assume it's true then the answer to whether it matters has to be 'Yes' for a simple reason.

Crime and Punishment, if Free Will is an illusion as described above then surely it is immoral to punish people for their crimes, that's not to say crime should go unpunished but that we shouldn't go out of our way to injure people who have committed them.

Dangerous people have to be removed from society/constrained to stop them from injuring people whether or not Free Will is real and to those who believe that Free Will is an illusion, this is where it should stop. There's no use or morallity in continuing to punish someone for their wrongdoings, no point in chopping off the hands of a thief or subjecting a viscious killer to prison beatings.

Our mandate should be protectionism, protect wider society from the dangerous person but don't inflict pain upon a person who had no choice in his/her actions.

That said debating Free Will and what that should mean for our behaviour seems contradictory as we'll do whatever it is we choose to do whether we choose to do it or not!


September 19, 2013 11:34 am

The sense of Quantum Mechanics offered here isn't too bad Matt. The article suggests that either you were always going to say what you did, or your comment has popped up randomly. Intriguingly, you suggest however, there may be some hope for free-will amidst the murky waters of Quantum Mechanics, but I wonder what that could look like. Do you imagine some sort of telekinetic ability on the part of some (e.g. humans), such that they might apply forces to influence the resultant vectors of particles? If so, does it only work at the say, atomic or sub-atomic level, because the forces (from brain-waves?) are more effective? If so, how many particles need to be influenced? How do we target them- do we have an extraordinary unconscious sense for divining the position and momentum of, say, key particles? And, at the end of the day, aren't you still in the position of having to explain on what basis freely chosen telekinetic acts might be made? If so, surely freely choosing on the basis of something is deterministic, and freely choosing on the basis of nothing is randomness.

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