Free Will: The grand illusion

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A guy walks into a bar. He heads over to the counter to order a drink. The waiter asks him what he will have. He takes half a dozen seconds to think about. He chooses to have a Bond 7 whiskey from 16 other options. He sees a woman sitting alone at the end of the counter, and a couple of his drinking buddies at a table at the corner. He chooses to head over to the girl to say hi and probably offer her a drink hoping to get lucky. But he is not sure how to approach the girl, whether to play vulnerable and humble or cocky and rich unaware of the girl’s taste in men. He goes with the former. Our guy is called Sam. Sam gets lucky tonight. Sam lives in a world where things can take any direction depending on the choices one makes. At least that is what he is taught to believe.

Free will is defined as the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. Sam appears to have made the choice to have a Bond 7 Whiskey from the 17 drinks that were available. He chose to make a move on the girl instead of going to talk football and drinking with his friends. He also chose to go with the approach he thought would give him the highest chances of getting lucky with the girl. And it all worked out. Question is, did Sam actually make these choices of his own free will? Isn’t it possible that every choice he made were determined by chemical reactions in his body, his genetic makeup, his environment; factors which are beyond his control?

Can it still be said to be one’s choice when there are determinants at play, beyond the subject’s control? Consider this: scientists have found that about 1 in every 2 people have a gene – DRD4 or the thrill-seeking gene – which makes them more likely to cheat on their partners or be involved in gambling and alcohol addictions. There have been a number of other genes associated with other behaviors that have long been thought to be people’s own choices, like a gene that gives people a religious predisposition, the alleged gay gene etc. Although scientists are still divided on some of them what is becoming clear is that at least some of our choices are made at the genetic level. We practically made them as soon as we were conceived.

And it’s not just the genes that determine our choices, it is the environment we grow up in, level of intelligence, the moral code implanted by the parents and guardians, every one of them beyond our control. That’s why a kid brought up in the middle of Saudi Arabia will naturally become a Muslim even unto old age when he thinks it’s his own choice, a way of living that gives him a completely different moral code from what he would get if he was born in a mostly Christian nation like the USA or a secular nation like Sweden. So naturally we would ask if we can hold people responsible for their moral positions. Is it possible that we have no control of who we are? Is it possible that everything can be determined from equations?

Since Einstein, scientists have been in search of a theory that describes everything – literally called the Theory of Everything. This theory would be able to give us a picture of everything from the tiniest building block of matter to the universe itself. The possibility of such a theory existing might shove us back to the drawing board on the very meaning of life. Given that humans are just biochemical entities, the ability to reduce everything to an equation makes everything deterministic.

There’s some sort of security that accompanies the feeling that we are the makers of our own destiny, that our choices have direct consequences on the paths our lives take, that we are completely in charge of our lives. So it becomes very unsettling when it appears that human behavior, his actions and inactions can be sought from equations. The idea that all it takes is a good calculation to figure someone out and tell what they will do next or even chart the course of their lives with good precision puts an asterisk on life itself. What is the point, if it is all figured out? And yet my mind is made up on this. I know, it probably doesn’t matter what I decide , because I may not be actually making a decision in the strictest philosophical sense of the word. From the way my human mind works, and it’s limitation to process time one second per second I think of a past, a present and a future and think that I have a hand in how the future manifests. Perhaps that is a greater illusion than that of free will.

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4 thoughts on “Free Will: The grand illusion

  1. OracularSpectacular

    I believe that a huge amount of things we think we choose actually come from genetics, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say we don’t have agency over our actions. I think this is actually a kind of excuse people make for bad decisions sometimes.

  2. nickhargreaves

    @ OracularSpectacular – I believe that genetics is always at play, and given other factors like environment and biology it is questionable holding people responsible for their decisions when in practice they have no control whatsoever. Also, defining “bad decision” and immoral is tricky when we think of ourselves as animals who are consequences of evolution like the other apes.

  3. Interesting blog that leads us down a slippery slope – OracularSpectacular brings up a great point and in your response, when you say we can’t hold people responsible for “choices” preordained by genetics, environmental conditions, and the evolution of our species, it makes me wonder if a belief in free will and human agency (flawed as it may be) is necessary to help ensure personal accountability and moral codes of conduct. I can’t imagine why we would bother manifesting on this plane and “playing out our lives” if we didn’t have a say in how the story unfolds.

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