Before you read what I have to write about free will, you should know that I agree fully with what Sam Harris has written on the subject. I’m just going to be reiterating things he has said in my own words with some of my own observations. So if you are familiar with his words on the topic, I recommend skipping this post.
What is Free Will?
For me to explain why free will is incoherent, I must first define it. The definition I am using is this: Free will is the capacity for conscious agents to do otherwise. For example, I ate vanilla ice cream. I could have eaten chocolate instead, or so it seems. This is the definition most closely aligned with what people understand free will to mean and the first one you will find on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Knock Down Argument
I’m going to come at free will as I have defined it from several perspectives. First, I want to present a knock down argument against it. Usually, there are two sides to an issue or at least some gray area. But with free will, this is not so. Any fool can easily see it makes no sense even with a basic understanding of physics or logic. The argument against free will goes like this:
- The cosmos is either deterministic or random.
- If the cosmos is deterministic, there is no free will.
- If the cosmos is random, there is no free will.
- Therefore, there is no free will.
D = The cosmos is deterministic.
F = Free will exists.
- D -> ~F (True premise)
- ~D -> ~F (True premise)
- F (premise)
- ~D (Modus tollens 1 3)
- D (Modus tollens 2 3)
- Contradiction (4 5)
Therefore, premise 3 is false. Free will does not exist.
I should justify how I know premise 1 and 2 are true. For numbering reference, I’m using the symbolic form of the argument, not the word form. So, let me start with premise 1. If the cosmos is deterministic, then free will does not exist. Imagine watching a movie. If you rewind the movie and replay the scene, the same events happen. If you rewind the movie a hundred times and replay it, you are going to see the same show. If the cosmos is like this, then where is your free will? You would be no more free to choose than the character in a movie you watch. That is to say, if it makes sense to “rewind the cosmos”, then the exact same events are going to happen at the same time in the same order the exact same way. This is incompatible with the popular conception of free will because with free will, you may make a different choice, changing the course of events from that point forward. If the cosmos is deterministic, then everything that was ever going to happen from the beginning of the cosmos until now was determined the moment it began. The atoms that make up your brain and the quarks that make up the atoms, at bottom, behave deterministically. If the cosmos is deterministic, you definitely could not have “done otherwise”, since it was predetermined.
Now on to premise two. If the cosmos is not deterministic, then free will does not exist. I’m going to substitute “not deterministic” for “random”, since they are equivalent by definition. If the cosmos is random, then free will does not exist. Imagine you are choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. You assign chocolate to heads and vanilla as tails on a coin. Then you flip a fair coin. It lands heads, so you eat chocolate ice cream. Did you choose to eat chocolate? Of course not. If you rewind that moment 100 times and if the coin is truly random, then chances are you will eat chocolate around 50 times and vanilla 50 times. But in no sense did you choose. Sure you can “do otherwise” in the superficial sense, but no one would say they chose to eat that flavor. So that shouldn’t be counted. Although it sounds like it satisfies the technical definition of free will, it’s not what anyone means by the term. I need to point out that a coin flip is a bad example. Coin flips are very deterministic because coins are such huge objects compared to atoms and quarks. Quantum mechanics tells us, among many things, that the cosmos has true randomness. I say “true randomness” because a coin flip isn’t truly random. If you know the initial condition of the coin and the airflow of the room and its initial velocity all perfectly, then you can predict which side the coin will land on before it lands. That’s not true randomness. I only used it as an analogy because it’s easier to talk about than quantum mechanics, but my argument still holds true.
It follows therefore that free will does not exist. Note that I use the word “cosmos” instead of “universe” in my argument to include “all that is”. That includes souls if you believe you have one, god or gods, alternate dimensions, nonphysical reality, magic, etc. My argument remains the same for whatever you might want to throw in, so there’s nothing extra you can add that will make free will exist.
But I feel free!
If you pay close enough attention to the process of making a decision, what your brain is doing, then you will clearly see you have no idea where your decisions come from. From the perspective of your conscious mind, your decisions seem to pop right out of the void. You are in no position to say where your decisions come from or why you did what you did. Studies have repeatedly beared this out. The reasons people give for the decisions they make do not align with the actual reasons. Sam Harris referenced an experiment where participants are given hot coffee versus cold coffee before a decision is made, and those two groups of hot and cold participants will make different decisions on average. But they never say it was the temperature of the coffee.
Even without any outside influence, you didn’t wire your brain. You didn’t choose your upbringing. You didn’t choose your parents or genes which we know influence how impulsive you are, how neurotic, and other factors. There is a continuous chain of causality (which you didn’t choose) that led up to this moment. Pay attention to your breath going in and out for just 30 seconds and wait for your next thought. Where did that thought come from? How can you have free will if you don’t know the next thing that you’re going to think? Your mind is not under your own control. If it was, then part of it would be doing the controlling and the other part controlled. But the part that is doing the controlling is not under control by definition. This invites an infinite regression of who is controlling the controller. The buck has to stop somewhere. Even if you did wire your own brain, that would invite an infinite regression again. Did you wire the part that did the wiring? This is all assuming it even makes sense to talk about your brain as two logically distinct separate entities. Even the sense of having free will is a feeling you did not yourself manufacture.
What I’m trying to show is that you are not the thinker of your thoughts. In general, we feel that we have thoughts. And that there is a separate us that is thinking them. This is not so. There is no separate thinker of your thoughts. The feeling of there being a thinker of your thoughts is itself a sensation in consciousness. The sensation of there being a “decider” of your decisions is just itself a sensation. Not only do you not have free will, but there is no self, no ego, no decider that could possibly make decisions in the first place. There are only decisions. The problem is the word decisions implies a decider, so it’s a loaded word that I have to labor under to get my point across.
If you still feel free, all I can do is invite you to look closer at your own decision making process going on inside your head. But it’s not hard to see that you’re not “doing” your decisions.
When I say free will is incoherent, what I mean is it’s impossible to conceive of a cosmos in which free will does exist. My knock down argument only shows that free will does not exist, not that it’s incoherent. In truth, it’s an awkward argument to make. One could debate the semantics of proving the nonexistence of an incoherent concept, but my argument gets my point across anyhow. For example, the idea of fairies is at least coherent. That is, it’s at least possible to imagine a cosmos in which they exist, even though we know there’s no evidence for them. The same cannot be said about free will, no matter how good your imagination is. It’s difficult to show that something is incoherent because there’s nothing to show. It’s really on the burden of those supporting it to prove that it is coherent. And if they are unable, my work is done. I’ll give an example.
If you ask someone that doesn’t philosophize all day long what free will is, they might tell you it’s the ability to choose. But what does it mean to make a choice? The problem has been pushed back a step because now we have to define what a choice is. If you ask them again, “What is a choice?”, they may respond saying it’s a decision. And then you can ask “Let’s get very precise here since it is philosophy after all. What exactly is a decision”? And you can go on and on like this. The problem is any time they use the word “choice” or “decision”, they are unknowingly sneaking in free will. Anecdotally, I have never had someone give me a satisfactory explanation to that inquiry. It was always replacing “choice” with “decision” or vice versa. I never did get to the bottom of it and it’s always the same conversation. This leads one to believe that free will isn’t really concrete at all. It’s a vague idea that people think they understand. But when challenged, they can’t explain what it physically means.
There is a philosophical position called compatibilism which I should mention. Not everyone uses the same definition of free will as I have used in my argument. Compatibilists claim that free will is compatible with determinism by redefining the term “free will”. I don’t really consider this worth arguing against since no one thinks of or uses the word free will in that sense. Immanuel Kant called it “word jugglery” and William James pejoratively referred to it as “soft determinism”.
Our cosmos as we currently understand it isn’t even deterministic, so the compatibilist also has to claim that a random cosmos is compatible with free will as well. This means a cosmos which is, at bottom, behaving in a random fashion somehow gives you free will. Free will also can’t be an emergent property of determinism or randomness, so the compatibilist position is just a failed attempt at redefining common parlance to win an argument.
I have shown that free will is an incoherent idea and addressed some common arguments in favor of it. It’s easy to despair after reading this post. In the next and final post, I want to show that the lack of free will is not something to despair about. It can actually be a source of compassion. It has important implications for how we think about responsibility as I have hinted at in my past post on individual responsibility. It has huge implications for the US criminal justice system. I would suggest collecting some thoughts of your own and drawing your own conclusions about what this means for our society as an exercise before you go on to read the next part. It does take me a lot of work to put these ideas out expressed in a clear way. So, if you find value in my posts, send a donation (details on my about page).