The Illusion of Free Will
4 min read

The Illusion of Free Will

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp is the idea that free will, the cornerstone of our human experience, might be nothing more than an illusion. That may sound like an outrageous claim, but the truth is that it's rooted in mainstream science. To get specific, by free will I mean the ability to choose otherwise given the exact same state of the universe. It turns out this concept is as unscientific as magic.

It works like this: we exist in a deterministic universe, governed by the laws of physics, and the atoms in our bodies are no exception to this. Every part of you, from your DNA, to your life experiences, stems from a previous 'step' in the universe. You didn't choose your genetic makeup or your upbringing. And the subjects you discuss in conversation, or the thoughts in your head, are triggered by other things you've heard or read. In essence, your thoughts, decisions and actions are a result of a complex chain of events you have no control over. Your brain no more chooses it thoughts than your heart chooses to beat.

Why do we believe in free-will? The only evidence we have for it is that we feel it so keenly. Yet this has never been a good measure of reality, our senses are notoriously unreliable. Vision, for example, is predominantly a simulation. Studies demonstrate that when we glance at something new, our sight temporarily shuts off and then reactivates, filling in the gaps with a simulation. The fact that we feel free will so strongly doesn't make it any more real than the many other illusions our senses create.

Quantum physics, with its mysterious subatomic particles, doesn't grant us free will. Its uncertainty and probabilities may seem to challenge determinism, but randomness isn't the same as choice. It's just chaos without intention or self-determination. So, even in the quantum realm, we find no shelter for free will; we remain caught in a web of chance and cause, lacking true control.

People are often willing to accept that environmental factors, such as lead exposure, can influence crime rates and violence, but they balk at the idea of determinism. Why is that? Because the implications of a deterministic universe are profound and, for many, disturbing. How do we define love, responsibility, agency, or even the purpose of life without free will?

Despite these concerns, it turns out there are meaningful answers to many of these questions within a deterministic framework. I would go further and say not only are there answers, but I think it's very important that we come to terms with them for our future.

Does determinism render the concept of decision-making obsolete? Not at all. It's possible to make decisions without free will, depending on your definition. If we view decisions as relative to a particular agent, the term remains useful, similar to how a computer program "decides" to follow one conditional branch over another, such as the way it decides to auto-update itself overnight. The same semantics applies to the notion of belief.

In this deterministic universe, probability is merely a resource hack, employed when we lack sufficient data, memory, or computational power to make a decision. In principle, if we had access to enough data, we could predict the future with certainty. In practice this is unfeasible. It would require simulating large parts (if not all) of the universe and, since we can't even simulate a cell, our predictive powers are limited.

However, recognizing the illusion of free will has practical implications, both personally and in public policy. On a personal level, embracing the reality of determinism can cultivate empathy for others, humility for our luck, and mindfulness regarding the information we consume. On a public policy level, understanding that incentives drive outcomes can lead to more effective policies.

What happens to self-responsibility without free-will - do we let all our criminals off the hook, after all, they could not have done differently? The answer lies not in absolving individuals of accountability, but in recalibrating our understanding of responsibility itself. In this new light we look at the incentives behind criminal behavior, and, instead of seeking retribution, focus on rehabilitation.

Think of it like this: When your car breaks down you don't blame or punish it; rather, you send it to a shop to repair the underlying issue. Once repaired, your car is safely 'let back out on the street'. There's no morality involved, just a practical approach to problem-solving. Our criminal-justice system could work the same way - a lack of free-will doesn't mean anarchy, quite the opposite. Rather than treating prisoners as inherently evil, we should treat them as unlucky recipients of the wrong incentives. As it stands, bringing morality in the what is essentially a systems-problem ironically creates an immoral situation.

Once you start looking at the world this way every problem becomes a systems-problem. Gun control, student debt, conspiracy theories, income inequality, poverty, terroism... you name it, they're all system problems. That doesn't mean they're easy to solve, or even easy to model, but only once you remove blame and realize that poor incentives and misguided ideas are the root cause behind all of these problems, can you possibly have a chance at solving them.

A common misconception is that rejecting free will leads to a life of apathy and stagnation. This is confusing determinism with fatalism. Determinism acknowledges the influence of prior causes, while fatalism suggests our actions don't matter. Accepting the reality of determinism doesn't sap our motivation to act or achieve; it helps us understand the complex web of causes shaping our lives.

Of course, it's impractical to live every day as if free will doesn't exist. As the saying goes, we must believe in free will – we have no choice. Nonetheless, determinism can provide a valuable perspective to visit, helping us navigate life with greater understanding and compassion. That said, I don't expect most people will be able to come to terms with this, it's just too radical an idea. But if we acknowledged it at a government and judicial policy level I think the world would be better for it.

Lastly, what is the point of living if everything is ultimately predetermined? Answering this is a path that each of us must tread for ourselves, but for me life's meaning lies with witness. Although free-will might be an illusion, we can still derive meaning and significance from our lives by bearing witness to the unfolding of the cosmos - reveling in the sheer wonder of our own existence.

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