Freedom is the biggest lie, the greatest illusion of all.
Whatever you may think, no matter how sure you are about your own perception – you are probably wrong.
And it does not matter.
When I wrote these introductory words about three and a half years ago, I could never have dreamt of what would follow. I had no choice. Those carefully crafted phrases resembled the first building blocks of a different blog I started back in the days on a blockchain based platform. I grew it to some popularity, made new friends, dated, and broke up with two different partners I met there and eventually ended up abandoning the whole project altogether.
I cannot really pinpoint the exact reasons, but somehow at some point I felt I didn’t belong there anymore, hence I left.
The topic of free will is a rather intriguing one. An idea on which I have spent countless hours thinking through and reading up on it. Just as so many smarter people before me. Thinking about the concept of free will never ceased to amaze me and I figured it would be a shame if my thoughts on it would be left in the void of the dark corners of the internet. Relics, forgotten in time. I am truly that vain.
Which is one of the main reasons I decided to republish them here. I also used this opportunity to add some new thoughts, clarify some of the arguments and adjusted the language to align it more with the person which I have become during the past years.
With this said and done, enjoy a deep dive into my mind of the past, present and unpredictable future.
The Nonsensical Limbo
Wait, who is this crazy guy on the internet telling me, that the decision, to click on this post to read and think about it, was all but my own? If you are thinking “Hey, I know, it was my idea to read this and I absolutely could have decided otherwise”, I would recommend, to reconsider this position. If you have the freedom to do so. It is your choice, after all. Or is it?
Humans love control. We are obsessed with it. The feeling of power to shape the environment and people according to our will fulfils us with a craving for endless possibilities. Why shouldn’t we be the craftsmen of our own fortune? Forged in the fires of Mount Destiny, we alone decide how to act, choose, and live every breathing moment on our path towards the ultimate demise.
Well, that depends on how you define free will and choice, to mimic a famous but unhinged intellectual of our current time. Alas, I am far less famous but probably equally unhinged, which is why you absolutely should trust whatever I am telling you. Or maybe I am able to convince you by mere logical superiority. Whatever works best.
In order to achieve a more thorough understanding of the concept of free will, we have to define three key ingredients first: freedom, will and choice.
Since every single one of those aspects affects the debate surrounding free will in some way, I deem it a necessity to agree on general definitions upon which we can build our understanding of the arguments that follow.
For the sake of logical consistency, the term freedom will be defined as the ability to accept or reject presented opportunities in real-world circumstances. This ability is solely based on the possibility of decision-making without restraints. Neither by real-world situations nor internal objections. We can do whatever the fuck we want, as long as we are alive.
This definition might appear short-sighted and narrow at first glance – because it is – but it is important to keep it in mind, since I will make you understand how the whole debate about free will falls into a nonsensical limbo, if we refuse to accept some sort of narrow definitions.
One of my favourite philosophers (maybe because he seems to be as grumpy as I often feel), Arthur Schopenhauer, once wrote so diligently “Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills”.
Most people’s understanding of free will is the ability to freely choose how to behave in a given situation. Their sheer willpower provides them with the opportunity to act freely in any environment. Or, to put it more sophisticated: free will enables people to carefully consider all available options, ignore their own past, desires, temptations, genetic imprints and socio-cultural status and make a decision purely based on a metaphysical decision-making process which is devoid of any physical or spiritual connection to said situation.
At this point it gets a bit more technical. Based on the previous two definitions we also have two different options to choose from. I am aware of the irony, thank you.
Our ability to make choices can either be a part of the above mentioned metaphysical decision-making process, stripping it essentially of all what makes us who we are in the first place. Or it can be more grounded in real-world circumstances, acknowledging our ties to our previous decisions and influences and follow up with choices which are consistent to our previous character makeup.
To stay logical consistent, proponents of a free will, based on the provided definition of freedom, will be forced to choose the first option, otherwise their whole argument will fall into the already mentioned nonsensical limbo. I appreciate the irony, again.
The Brutality of Absolutes
Forcing people to choose is anything but freedom. On so much we all can probably agree on. It makes a mockery of the whole decision-making process itself, since there is effectively none.
But the main caveat of free will is exactly that. The ability to choose differently, regardless of individual circumstances. Even if you might agree on my inherent logic, that the definition of freedom demands that you will agree on the conclusion I derived, your remarkable ability of free will enables you to disagree – no matter how nonsensical and inconsistent this decision might be. In the end, it doesn’t matter what I or smarter people tell you – your decision-making process is devoid of all previous influences, otherwise it will never be truly free.
Which brings me to the main issue, I have already mentioned several times at this point: free will necessarily implies freedom from the past. If you have any ties to your former self, you will never be free. How could you? If your past decisions, your biology, your dreams affect your decision-making process, it will never be a free choice based on your free will but always a decision born from the necessity of your previous actions.
Your ability to choose a specific brand of breakfast cereals is no different of choosing a career which suits your needs. Only the amount of contributing variables may differ.
This reasoning goes along with for what the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky coined the terms “system 1” and “system 2”.
Your system 1 works as your intuitive behaviour, making decisions without wasting mental resources to consider them. While system 2 tries to find valid reasons to make any decision or, if it is unlucky, find explanations for the choices system 1 made. In many cases, you are nothing more than an emotional dog with a rational tail, as Jonathan Haidt put it quite eloquently.
There is, of course, a lot of science behind this assumption (and so much more). Hundreds of studies carried out by an army of psychologists and neurologists. When I started studying psychology a few years ago, I was already quite familiar with a lot of philosophical theories about free will and freedom of choice. But until then I lacked the science-backed knowledge to connect philosophy and science in a logical and therefore useful way. Up to this point there is, of course, not an absolute consensus in the scientific community, whether free will exists or not – but most researchers who are working on this topic, seem to be quite sure, that it is indeed becoming a lot harder to ride into battle with a waving flag signalling “I have free will”.
Imagine for a second, how free will needs to work to be actually “free”. Free, as already defined is equivalent to “acausal” – something which happens without any trace of a prior cause. It just happens. Your own physiology, your experiences, your surroundings – that’s all irrelevant to a decision-making “free will”, because it can choose to be affected by those things – or not. When I started to think about free will and choices, I struggled with this issue a lot. It just felt unconvincing. It didn’t feel “right”. My own experience was, that my mind, my feelings, everything I did, changed everyday a little bit – affected by the books I read, the people I met, situations I got involved. I couldn’t fit a metaphysically concept of “free will” into the logic of my daily live anymore. If there really was something “free” inside me, I could neither grasp nor control it. I could try to convince myself, If I drink this whole bottle of whisky, I won’t be drunk, because my free will “choose” to neglect the detrimental effects of alcohol on my body. Obviously, this is not how any of those things work. If we were able to freely change our own desires and temptations, psychotropic drugs would be a complete waste of money and research resources.
If I just could tell myself not to interpret almost every social encounter in the worst possible way and that it is far more likely that people simply have different issues on their mind, instead of scheming about the most nefarious ways to destroy my life or find 101 reasons why I am a horrible human being, I would take that opportunity any time.
Alas, it is not a valid option. I just can’t tell my brain to stop being constantly in a paranoid state and assume the worst imaginable outcome. I have no freedom to just make that decision. Instead, I have to fight for this change of perspective every single day and keep reminding myself, that the majority of people probably don’t want to see me suffer. It is a gradual shift of perception over a long period of time, not a simple decision based on my ability of just choosing to see things differently.
This difference does not rise from a deliberate act of free decision-making but is merely a consequence of necessity. Experiences of discomfort force us to readjust our decisions, lead to new situations and change our perception of reality and our position within.
An Insult to Humanity
Darwin insulted our fragile human egos with the idea that we are nothing more but naked apes. Modern neuroscience will probably add one more insult to the previous one: we are as determined by our genes and environment as said apes.
The only difference is, that we are stuck in a constant state of blissful denial.
But this should neither scare nor insult you. Your brain possesses incredible powers. One of the most fascinating ones is the ability to trick itself into believing almost anything, which ensures the security of its own self-perception. In short: Your brain has a desperate need to preserve your so-called self, your ego. Everything which dares to threaten the image of your awesome personality, must be framed in a certain, self-reassuring way. Your brain despises threats to your ego and will do anything it deems necessary to give you the amazing feeling of power and control. No matter what I’m writing here, what scientist will tell you in the future – your brain, your mind just doesn’t care. It’s completely irrelevant for your daily life.
Even if you try to remind yourself constantly about “not having a real choice”, your brain will ignore it eventually. For years I’ve been convinced, that the choices I make are only the result of my own physiology combined with the socio-economic system of influences I grew up and live in. But against popular believes I’ve not suddenly become a violent criminal who doesn’t care about societies rules and laws anymore.
Ok, this is one of the points at which past-me could never have imagined future-me. Apparently, I lost my appreciation for engraved societal rules and am now looking for my own in a world I don’t understand. It is not a worse fate, just a different one.
But something which still holds true, is the following: If anything, it enabled me to see human interaction in a different, I’d say a kinder way. I became way less judgemental about other people. Of course, I am still sometimes prone to my own emotions and might react out of mere impulse in ways I will regret deeply later. But almost every time I start reflecting about those moments in my mind, I can see what I could have done differently and next time I might be able to change my behaviour accordingly.
The awareness about the inability of conscient choice can be incredibly helpful. It enables you to look behind the mere action of one person, look past the fast judgment you were about to make and instead trying to understand the causes of the action. Maybe the waiter was a jerk, because someone just stole his car and he was angry and frustrated about it. This kind of awareness can give you the ability to break the circle, to “choose” (you get the irony) not to get offended by jerks, but to smile instead. They don’t necessarily treat you like shit because they want to, but they have no other choice in doing so.
Freedom, guilt and responsibility
In being aware that the other guy had no other choice than to act in the way he did, it also changes your perception of guilt. Accordingly, I also had no other choice than to punch him in the face for being a dick. Some might argue, that without free will there will be no way to hold people accountable for their actions at all.
You are wrong again.
There’s a huge difference between the ideas of guilt and responsibility. Guilt means, we’re thinking, the acting person really had a choice to behave differently. Responsibility, on the other hand, is about the reaction as a society regarding those actions. If you are starting a killing spree, because you’ve suffered severe brain damage by accident or disease, society does not need to endure your behaviour and endanger itself until it’s finally over. Not at all. Our wish for well-being and survival is something worth defending. It is, again, a consequence born out of necessity.
Although we may now know that you had no other choice than to start murdering people – we, therefore, have no other choice than to protect ourselves against you. If we choose to imprison you, we might find a way to cure your behaviour and integrate you into the society again. If not, we will need to separate you, to prevent any further harm. That’s the difference between guilt and responsibility. Neither of us have a choice – but we can still hold people accountable for their actions.
This is also the reason, why abolishing the concept of free will, will not lead to the end of society and law as we know it. Our instinct for survival will always dominate any perceived threat against our individual or societal well-being. To act accordingly to this instinct, we don’t need any form of metaphysical free will but simply follow whatever we deem necessary.
The assumption of an acausal free will, completely devoid of any former ties, seems to be far-fetched, at best. What are we, if not the sum of our prior experiences combined with a unique genetic disposition?
If none of this matter, how could we ever hope to achieve any form of consistency in our actions? How can we strive for anything, if our values change within the blink of an eye because we simply chose to adjust them? How can we love, if our temptations and desires from yesterday mean nothing tomorrow?
I would be terrified, if I could not rely on my prior experiences as a part of my decision-making process. It would add an unhealthy amount of unpredictability to our lives for which we are probably not prepared for.
But in order to proclaim a truly free will, you need to accept the assumption of the above given definition, otherwise you are poking inside muddy waters, trying desperately to find anything to grasp which might still support your idea of some sort of free will. But as long as you have any boundaries left to your prior self, you will never be free, rendering your whole idea of free will null and void.
Free will is most likely nothing more than a comforting illusion but our choices and actions still bear real consequences. Even if they are just born out of necessity.