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:
- I don't answer everything about everything (until the last post)
- I've written this mostly in bullet-points (to save you and me time)
- It's a little dense (so I threw in some emojis 🌊)
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.
- 💥 → 🌎 → 🌱→ 🐟 → 🐒 → 👫 → 💣 → 🌎 → 💥
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:
- Your whole life is already "known" – if there is no "free will" then your entire life is already "planned out" and can never (could never) have been any different.
- People like to think they are in control of their lives – 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.
- Control gives us meaning – 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.
- Society is built upon it – 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.
- This can also be liberating – 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:
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.
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.
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.