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.