This morning I went to work. I don’t really like the job and often it doesn’t seem worth the money. That being said, I didn’t lie awake in bed faced with the difficult choice of whether or not to get out of bed–I just did.
I didn’t make my morning coffee because, being the just-in-time procrastinator that I am, I just plain didn’t have time. I didn’t even give coffee a moment’s thought. I haven’t made my morning coffee in a long time because I’m so used to not having enough time. I could have had coffee this morning and been a few minutes late at work but it wasn’t a choice that I engaged in. I just didn’t give it any thought.
About a mile from my house, where I usually make a right turn to continue on towards work, there is a traffic light. I can see the light for a while before I get there and if I see it turn red, I take a different, smaller street to bypass the light. It adds two more turns to my route but it saves a little time. If the light is red when I first see it, I continue on to the light because chances are, it will be turning green right around the time I get there and it’ll be faster in that case than taking the route with two additional turns. As I drove towards that traffic light this morning I could see that it was green. I hoped that it would remain green until I reached it but I kept a sharp eye on it and prepared to take the secondary route should it turn yellow. It did turn yellow and I turned on the secondary street without giving it a moment of thought. A long time ago, I reasoned through this plan and now the route that I take doesn’t feel like a choice anymore. It depends only on the state of the traffic light.
Of course I could defy my earlier reasoning and the choice to take the secondary route based on the state of the traffic light and intentionally deviate from my normal morning travel plan but what would be the point? Would it be worth it just to prove that I actually have a choice in the matter? If I defied my normal travel plan would that have been a real choice or would it simply have been because my reflection on the nature of free will caused me to feel disconcerted causing some inner instinct to force me to prove something to myself? Would that really be a choice or would it just be my brain once again controlling my mind?
Before I reached the fourth traffic light on my route, the vehicle directly in front of me braked suddenly. Almost instantaneously I pushed on the brake pedal of my own vehicle. When I saw the vehicle brake in front of me, I wasn’t faced with the difficult dilemma of whether or not I should brake. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I just braked… instinctively.
Later today I was asked if I could work a little later than normal. Finally I was faced with what seemed to be a real choice. I deliberated on the matter for a moment and made the decision to work two extra hours but not the full three that had been asked of me.
Of course once I looked a little deeper at my choice I realized that I didn’t actually have a choice in the matter. I don’t like working late at this job (because of other responsibilities) but I felt that I needed to. The last two times I was asked I had refused. It was time that I compromised and worked a little later to stay on the good side of my employer. Given my circumstances, and my state(s) of mind, I took the only possible action.
Free will is an illusion. True freedom of will does not seem to exist because if my choices have a reason, then obviously I can trace the causality of my actions to a point prior to my “choosing” to take that action. If I have no reason for an action that I took–if I just selected randomly from the available options, how is that free will?
It seems that I am just another cog in the grand machine. I am a special cog, though, because I have the ability to look inward and reflect upon myself.
When I feel happy, it is not because I decided to be happy. It is because the complex biological system that is my body, moved certain chemicals around in my brain which caused it to experience what I call “happiness”. That thing which I call “I” had no choice in the matter. Similarly, when the mind is faced with what seems to be a choice, it is chemical and electrical interactions within the brain that decide the outcome. There really is no room for or need of anything like free will.
When I am faced with the dilemma of choosing pizza or a sandwich for lunch, my brain runs algorithms which I have barely begun to understand. This algorithm may factor in my prior experiences with sandwiches and pizza, a financial comparison of the two, my current financial situation, whether or not I’ll be eating alone, the comparative ease with which these foods can be acquired, the amount of time since I have experienced either of these foods, and many other factors that I don’t even know. Within seconds, the algorithm has completed and pizza is the winner. It feels like I decided to get pizza instead of sandwiches but after thinking through all of the above, it no longer feels like it was really my choice. My brain makes all of my decisions. I really have no choice in the matter. Before I realize that I want pizza, my brain has already made up its mind (I’m not even sure what to call that. Is it a pun? It seems like so much more).
Science seeks natural explanations for questions. Naturally, since there is no other kind of explanation (‘supernatural explanation’ is an oxymoron). Our universe, at least at the macro level where we live and play, appears to be deterministic. In other words, every event within the universe appears to have a cause. Quantum mechanics seems like it could be a whole different story but there seems little indication that events at the quantum level are relevant to the question of free will.
We can take any event (e.g. Uncle Bob died) and find its cause, (e.g. car wreck), find the cause of that (e.g. brakes were bad), find the cause of that (e.g. Uncle Bob was a procrastinator and never got around to fixing his brakes), and so on and on. Theoretically, if we were smart enough, we could take any event and trace it back through causes until we reach the beginning of time. Even the actions of people can be traced to causes which were caused by prior causes, and so on. If Uncle Bob procrastinated because his father never taught him the benefits of getting things done right away, can we blame Uncle Bob’s father for the car wreck? No wait… Why did Uncle Bob’s father not teach Bob about the dangers of procrastination? Can we trace the ultimate cause back even further?
If you believe in God and you believe that God is omniscient, then you run into the same problem with free will. If God knows everything, including whether or not you will end up in hell, then what could you possibly do now to change that destination? If God knows everything, then the future must be predetermined which means that free will is only an illusion.
It seems that no matter how you look at it, whether it’s from an introspective, a scientific, or a religious perspective, free will is ultimately an illusion.
Note: I believe that free will is ultimately an illusion. I also believe that free will is an important and useful concept. This apparent contradiction seems to be caused by mere semantic confusion which I’ll try to address in a future post.
The question of free will is one that philosophers down through the ages have been contemplating. I have come to the conclusion that we have free will if we perceive we do. Perhaps the ability to self-reflect is what consciousness is about… and maybe self-reflection is free will in disguise.
I think that it takes the power of free will to break old patterns. Without that, we wouldn’t have any recovering addicts, people losing weight, or people leaving jobs or relationships that are not good for them.
About not liking your job… you might like to hear this Freakonomics radio podcast… maybe you’d even like to participate in their survey. Now there’s a choice for you… at least if you perceive it as a choice.
Here is the link: http://www.freakonomics.com/2013/01/31/would-you-let-a-coin-toss-decide-your-future-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-3/
Oh and one more thought: Without the ability to choose to do so, do you think you’d have left the Amish? I know I wouldn’t have.
As for the Amish who’ve never considered the choice — they probably don’t have it.
I do believe in that kind of free will. It all comes down to semantics, I think. My choice to leave the Amish was based on a lot of different factors (i.e. exposure to brilliant minds via books, a tendency to question, etc.). However, if those factors (which I had no control over) had not been in place, I would never have made the choice to leave. In that sense, it was already decided for me (by those factors). We seem to have free will but if you look at it under a microscope, it disappears.
A microscope only works on physical phenomena. There is so much more to life than we can sense or “prove.” So you cannot put this under a microscope. But you CAN believe or disbelieve that you have choices. You DID have control over those factors, after all. No one else determined which books you picked up to read or who you chose to interact with (brilliant minds).
I wonder if your tendency to question would have been enough to get you to leave. I have that in common with you… I had an insatiable desire to ponder fundamental questions. And we both know that there is no place for that in most Amish communities.
Either way, you did choose to leave. Even with all these factors in place, you could have chosen to stay. But you didn’t. Was it because you thought the benefits of leaving were greater than for staying? That’s making a choice, using your ability to reflect on your life and choosing to change the course of it.
I still say it’s our ability to reflect on our lives, our existence, and our universe that gives us the ability to make choices — it’s called consciousness. Otherwise we may as well be a centipede.
I think there is flaw in your argument since you’ve based it on a view of yourself as separate in some way from the individual components which make up each of us. That is, the idea of the brain deciding for us or the firing of neurons being an entity of it’s own. That’s all part of who we are after all. I’m not discounting that certain functions can seem to have a life of their own. Even the autonomic nervous system has an effect on our emotions. However, it’s our ability to think logically that we use for decision making, bringing me back to my original point.
I think discussion of free will becomes a moot point in this context. We aren’t talking about free will as humans in a world ruled by gods after all.
All the same; great post!
I agree with you that free will becomes a moot point in that context. A lot of people don’t see themselves as a bunch of components working together as a system and those people tend to think of free will as being an objective characteristic of themselves. They tend to think that their “I” is somehow separate from their physical brains. I was arguing against the ‘free will’ that arises from that position so I think that “flaw” doesn’t apply to my argument. If I have completely misunderstood you, please tell me.
Really enjoy reading your posts!
Myra Lemson said:
In my 63 years of living, there have been times when I had free will and times when I didn’t. My circumstances at each time change and thus changed my opportunities to freely choose.
In our society with all its rules, there is the idea that we have no free will. But if you look carefully at each situation, there are choices you can make which will change the outcome. For Example, Uncle Bob could have gotten the brakes fixed. No one told him NOT to do it. Even if he didn’t have the money, he could have asked a friend for the money, or found someone in his clan who could fix the brakes for him! If time was the problem, he could have made an appointment with a mechanic. Why did he have to be a procrastinator?
When I have no perceived choices, I end up in a depression. So for me, I must have choices, even though I have no income and 6 different conditions that could take me down. One of them is diabetes, which runs in my family. So free will and choices can be critical to survival.
I believe that perceived choices in life are critical to survival. And I equate free will with perceived choices.
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