Free will is an illusion?


A common meme that is often treated as if it were somehow radical and new is that free will is in an illusion. Here’s a recent one.

The first time I heard this issue discussed it struck me as useless, because if I have no free will then it’s not up to me what I believe about reality or anything else. Although entirely mindless machines could be programmed to determine what’s true or not, to achieve ever more accurate beliefs, I somehow just can’t get away from that initial feeling. More evolutionary sleight of hand to keep me hoodwinked?

A smaller issue I have with many discussions about free will is the undue weight placed on the fact that my brain makes decisions before I’m consciously aware of them. So? What’s consciousness got to do with my free will? My consciousness is mostly an observer and story teller and modeler — it’s not a homuncular director. I’m confident that consciousness serves a significantly adaptive role, but it doesn’t invent and choose. Pointing that out is no argument against free will.

According to Susan Blackmore

It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. […] I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away. […] When the feeling is gone, decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them […] It seems that when people throw out the illusion of an inner self who acts […] they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. […] As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether—this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But […] I think it is true that I don’t.”

It could also be that we have free will, but that there are advantages to believing otherwise. (Observe also the over-emphasis on consciousness, which is not as important as it pretends to be.)

See also “Most people are basically good — approximately 94%“.


2 responses »

    • Dave, thanks for the link to the Sean Carroll article. I read it, and plan to check out his Cosmic Variance blog. But a point I’m unclear on is, doesn’t God play dice? I thought current thinking is that quantum mechanics has some underlying true inherent randomness. Wouldn’t this make it truly impossible to deduce the future?

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