Part 1: You’re Not As Free As You Think

Recently I fell down the rabbit-hole of consciousness. I spent months researching everything from neural networks in the brain to exciting new scientific theories.

I can’t say I reached the very bottom, but I went deep enough to learn some things that have completely changed my life.

In this three-part series I’m going to share the crux of everything I’ve read and learnt from countless articles, videos, essays, and books.

To do this effectively means a few things:

  1. I don’t answer everything about everything (until the last post)
  2. I’ve written this mostly in bullet-points (to save you and me time)
  3. It’s a little dense (so I threw in some emojis ๐ŸŒŠ)

All I can say is to stick with it, because it’s worth it.

The golden rule: cause-and-effect

Historically as science evolved we got to the point where we realised that everything in nature is ruled by cause-and-effect:

  • The conservation of energy law dictates that nothing comes from nothing.
  • Every action has a causal action.
  • In Buddhist terms, nothing inherently exists, because everything is caused by something else.

What is determinism?

If you apply this idea of causality to human nature:

  • Then all of our thoughts, come from prior thoughts.
  • All of our actions, from prior actions.
  • You can follow the chain backwards to the beginning of time.
  • But you can also see how it goes forward.
  • Everything that will happen is already determined by what has happened.
  • All the way back to the beginning of time when the big bang triggered it all.
  • ๐Ÿ’ฅ โ†’ ๐ŸŒŽ โ†’ ๐ŸŒฑโ†’ ๐ŸŸ โ†’ ๐Ÿ’ โ†’ ๐Ÿ‘ซ โ†’ ๐Ÿ’ฃ โ†’ ๐ŸŒŽ โ†’ ๐Ÿ’ฅ

What’s the big deal with determinism?

  • If everything is caused by past events (a causally closed system), then “you” never had a say in any “decision”.
  • In fact, there is no such thing as choice, because everything that has ever happened, was always going to happen.
  • Therefore, we are just experiencing the universe unfold, with no say in how it unfolds.
  • Essentially, determinism is incompatible the idea of free will.

Why does “free will” matter?

If you don’t currently think that “free will” really matters, you probably haven’t thought deep enough (snobbiness not intended). The question of free will is important because:

  1. Your whole life is already “known” โ€“ if there is no “free will” then your entire life is already “planned out” and can never (could never) have been any different.
  2. People like to think they are in control of their lives โ€“ย if you really believed that you are not in control of your life in any way, that you are just riding a hectic rollercoaster with no influence on its direction, you would probably end up feeling like shit.
  3. Control gives us meaning โ€“ continuing from the above point, if you didn’t have any control over your thoughts/actions/decisions, life for “you” would lose all meaning, as “you” would have no say in it.
  4. Society is built upon it โ€“ย our current judicial system is firmly rooted in the idea of free will. If people themselves are not in control of their own actions/thoughts/destinies, then what use is punishment for bad behaviour; the person never had any choice in the matter, since they were doomed to be “bad” from the beginning of time.
  5. This can also be liberating โ€“ย if “you” are not “responsible” for your past actions/faults/successes, then “you” don’t have to worry, or feel anxious about the past/present/future as it could never be any other way. Vegas baby!

Definitions of free will

There are a few different ways you can define free will. I’m going to try summarise the main ones:

1. Predictability

Free will is the ability to choose what couldn’t be predicted

  • If with 100% accuracy I can predict what you are going to do next, then you can never say that you ever really had a “choice”.
  • It doesn’t even have to be possible to predict your decision, but just theoretically possible.
  • This definition is problematic in that nobody has free will; even religious people who believe in an omnipotent God, do not have free will, as God always knew what we were going to do.
  • The only thing that changes this is if you believe in quantum randomness, in which case the future is determined, but not predictably. However, this doesn’t give people much solace about their free will.

2. Possibility

Free will is the ability to make a decision that could have been made differently

  • If we went back in time, could you have made a different choice?
  • If yes, then you have “free will” in making decisions,
  • If no, then you don’t have “free will” in making decisions.
  • This definition rests on the ability to choose differently under exactly the same conditions.

3. Rational action

Free will is the ability to rationally assess and decide on a potential action

  • My actions are freely willed when I have rationally chosen what I want to do.
  • If I want to eat a candy bar but I rationally decide that candy bars are not good for me, and choose not to, then I have exercised free will.
  • This view is very deeply influenced by western philosophy’s attempt to exclude other animals from free will.
  • Here, only Man can exercise free will.

4. Control

Free will is being in control of my actions

  • If I (the agent) am in full control (free from external influence) of my action, then I have exercised free will.
  • If I want to eat a candy bar and I decide its a good idea, as long as nobody stops me from eating the candy bar, boom free will baby!
  • This definition clearly eliminates any sort of external pressure/influence in the decision: it must be solely the agent’s choice.

5. A mis-mash of the above

Free will is having rational control over your decisions, where there was a real possibility for alternate action.

  • We’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole.
  • These definitions are just semantically differentiating the above.
  • As you can tell, nobody really knows what free will is or how to define it.

Annnnd… that’s it

If you are feeling like this was a complete waste of time and did nothing but make you more confused about life, then my job here is done.

The debate over free will has been raging for [literally thousands of years](https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free will/) by people way smarter than us.

Accepting that you are not going to “solve” it is part of the journey.

With that being said, I’ll be following this up with an interesting new theory that seems totally unrelated at first, but in the end will make you happy you spent all this time reading.


Next up: A Theory of Consciousness

Next post in this series we look at a cool new theory that aims to help resolve some of the hard problems we have faced here.

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

2 Comments

  1. I’m going to have to do this as we go along.

    A) You say, “everything in nature is ruled by cause-and-effect”. That is incorrect. Causation actually causes nothing. It is a concept referring to the reliable behavior of the objects that make up the physical universe. Only the objects themselves, and the natural forces between them, can actually be said to “cause” events. We happen to be such objects. Cause-and-effect doesn’t actually do anything. (It’s called a “reification fallacy”).

    B) You say, “Everything that will happen is already determined by what has happened.” That is incorrect. No event can be said to be “already caused” until the last prior cause of the event has played its part in bringing it about. It is fair to say that every event is causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity (most people use the Big Bang) but it would be inaccurate to suggest that prior point “caused” the future event. You may say that it is “AS IF the event were already caused”, but you cannot assert that it is actually already caused. Lots of other stuff has to happen first.

    C) You say, “If everything is caused by past events (a causally closed system), then โ€œyouโ€ never had a say in any โ€œdecisionโ€.” That too is empirically false. If your choice was inevitable (and every event is always causally inevitable) then it was also inevitable that (1) you would face some problem or issue requiring a decision, (2) you would consider your options, (3) you would imagine how each option might play out if chosen, (4) and you would apply some comparative criteria to evaluate the results, (5) you would choose the one that seemed to best suit your own purpose and your own reasons. You see, we cannot say that you had no choice, because it was causally inevitable (from any prior point in eternity) that you would be making such a choice!

    D) You say, “Essentially, determinism is incompatible the idea of free will.” But that is false. Whenever a person decides for himself what he “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence, it is called “free will” (it is literally a “freely chosen” “will”). Decision making is also a deterministic process. Your choice will be reliably determined according to your own purpose and your own reasons. Therefore there is no violation of perfectly reliable cause and effect.

    E) You say, “This definition is problematic in that nobody has free will; even religious people who believe in an omnipotent God, do not have free will, as God always knew what we were going to do.” Really, religion has nothing to do with this issue. Free will is a secular concept.

    Just to be clear, “free will” is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. This is the definition that everyone correctly applies in nearly all practical scenarios. It involves nothing supernatural. It makes no claims of “uncaused” choices (just ask the guy and he’ll give you his reasons). It is commonly understood and corresponds to the first definition found in most dictionaries. And it is sufficient for both moral and legal responsibility.

    I hope this critique helps.

    • Hey Marvin,

      Thanks so much for the feedback!

      A) I think what you’re saying here is that “causation” in-and-of-itself doesn’t “cause” (this feels circular) anything, but rather “cause” is an idea to model the relationship between physical entities. I agree with this, especially because this series is all about linking the physical causations of the brain with the experience of consciousness.
      B) This is spot on. Thanks!
      C) I think we’re on the same page on this one, and that it’s a matter of word choice. Essentially, if you assume a causally closed system and that our brains (and hence our thoughts) are purely determinist, then while you had a “say” in the choice (choosing options, etc) you were always going to make the “choice” that you did.
      D) I think the view you are expressing here is essentially the Definition 4 above. It’s looking at the human as a black box and saying that it has free will if its actions are unobstructed. But if you look past the whole, and look into the brain it’s not so clear what “free will” actually is, since thoughts are deterministic neural activity. I think the broader point here is that if you accept determinism then the idea of this “soul” or other thing making a “choice” doesn’t fit. The choice was made by inputs being passed through the rulesets that are your neural network.
      E) You’re right in saying it’s secular, in that it affects every worldview equally. However, I think they are extremely tightly related. Determinism and free will are critical factors in differentiating worldviews from each other. But I think the point you’re making is not to cloud the two together, which is fair ๐Ÿ™‚

      You say “‘free will’ is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other under influence.” I think this definition is essentially Definition 4 above, and I think you’re correct in saying it’s the most practical definition, however, it simply views humans as a black box. It doesn’t make clear what “decide” actually means. By this definition, computers also exercise free will, as do any complex network of cause-and-effect such as the biological systems (oceans, plants, etc).
      I think when viewed from afar, the idea of free will is clear and simple. However, upon deeper inspection, it’s extremely complex and vague. Maybe you can say that about everything in life ๐Ÿ˜„

      Thanks again for challenging and improving on these ideas!

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