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Free Will is an Illusion

August 3, 2010

Is free will an illusion? This article by Anthony Cashmore argues convincingly that it is.

To start with, how is free will defined? Cashmore defines a belief in the existence of free will as

a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.
According to the paper, a strong case can be made that genes, environmental factors and stochasticity influence our unconscious mind, and our concious mind is merely a way of following this unconscious mind, rather than influencing it. Information may flow back to the unconscious mind from the concious, but with no other source of “input” in can be nothing other than a product of the information that was given to it by the unconscious mind in the first place.
This is backed up by some interesting research. Cashmore cites examples of experiments where subjects have indicated when they have consciously made a decision. However, FMRI scans show that unconsciously the decisions are made way before the subject is aware of them – maybe even 10 seconds before. This is strong evidence that in some situations that we would like to think we are consciously making a choice we may not be.
Why do we like to cling to the idea that we have free will? If it is an illusion it is a convincing one; it is hard to deny something that we are convinced we experience all the time. It may also be a function of the usefulness of the concept; if we deny the existence of free will, do we open ourselves up to an argument along the lines of “why does it matter what I choose, it’s not really my choice”?
A deterministic mind isn’t necessarily a bad thing – indeed, it seems to serve us pretty well at the moment! It is important to remember that if our minds are deterministic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one day we will be able to predict exactly what someone will think or do, and this is the case in a way that doesn’t leave a gap for free will to re-enter the fray. As Jerry Coyne points out,

We need to know not only how molecules, chemicals, and neurons interact with each other and their environment, but also how these interactions occur in own own unique configuration of molecules. On top of our inability to know everything is the fact that some things simplycan’t be known: things like where an electron will move and when an atom will decay. But nobody thinks that free will resides in quantum indeterminacy.

I’m getting pretty comfortable with the idea that there is no such thing as free will but, like everyone else on the planet, will continue to live under the comfortable illusion that I am making decisions for myself!

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