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24 Feb 2011

The Illusion of Free Will

The notion of free will is a byproduct of our conscious, more specifically our ego. It treats emotions as a nuisance which it should control and the unconscious a fantasy which it should  ignore. Yet, these two are fundamental determinants of our personalities which make our choices quite predictable.

In the January 17, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, David Brooks writes in “Social Animal” that “A core finding of this work [cited in the article] is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking.” In other words, we just think we are making choices.

Some people use choice as proof of free will; if we have a choice, we have free will. However, we program computers to make choices all the time. Under one set of criteria, they choose “A,” while under another it’s “B.” They can even make random choices: choosing “A” 65% of the time and “B” 35%. But, do they have free will?

Yes, they are just following coded programs, but we could be following our own program. It’s called personality and is heavily influenced by genetic code. When we understand a computer’s code, we can predict its choices. If it’s too complex, we won’t. The same is true for personality. If we understand it, we can make predictions about a person’s choices. If we don’t, we can’t.

David Brooks describes everyday events that appear choice-filled but are quite predictable. The key is to remember that we are observing a people who 1) believe they have free will and 2) don’t believe they’ve been programmed with a personality.


Related link: Illusion of Free Will Revisited


11 Responses

  1. Pingback : Illusion of Free Will Revisited | Mike Lehr's Blog

  2. I was looking for an image to put on my blog and I liked this one …..then I read your post and I felt compelled to respond.
    I don’t define free will the same way that you do. I think “free will” is exactly the opposite – a byproduct of our spirit (as opposed to our ego). Our ego does not allow us to have free will, because we are busy serving it. Our spirit, which is free of ego, has the potential to enjoy the essence of what free will is meant to be.
    In other words, willpower is the power to control our will which should not be necessary, because our will wants the best for us – because it comes from our true selves -our spirit.
    Accordingly, if we think that free will is the ability to make choices, I would agree that this is a fallacy….however, with true free will there are no choices to be made – because our spirit (the essence of who we are) knows exactly what we want and will always (without thinking or choosing) follow that path.
    I hope this made sense. I just felt compelled to refute the argument that free will is an illusion. Au contraire, it is a blessing!
    PS- I realize the image is copyrighted, so I did not use it 🙂

    1. Thank you, Shayna, for your deep comment. I appreciate it. I will differ with you though on your refutation of the argument. You did not refute the argument; you refuted the definition. Analogously, that’s similar to you saying that you prefer to carry on this discussion in Russian as opposed to English. Since definitions are arbitrary, that’s why societies, governments and cultures try to create generally accepted definitions.

      For instance, I can define the word “blue” to mean the color red, and the word “red” to mean the color blue. So, if I convince my friends that red is blue, all I’ve done was encourage them to accept a different definition – I haven’t convinced them that RED is BLUE. Thus, the argument you refuted was just the definition of free will, not the argument of whether free will is an illusion. You tried to refute the argument by changing the definition of “free will”

      Still, in most ways I would suggest you agree that free will is an illusion and agree with the way I describe it. For example, the issue of choice is an integral part to the historical debate of free will (search “free will” on Wikipedia for example: “Free will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints.” Here, the issue of choice is in the first sentence. I would also challenge you to find ANY discussion of free will that does not involve choices). Also, keep in mind that I did state free will was a byproduct of our conscious, primarily our ego (but not only our ego). So, the questions I have for you are these:

      Does our spirit exist on a conscious or unconscious level?
      *What happens when our spirit wants something we cannot have? Or, does it only want things we can have?
      *What happens when we take a path that is not in agreement with our spirit?
      *Our spirit may know what we want, but does it also know how to get it? How does it tell us? The choices we make aren’t only about what we want but also how do we get it.

      Nevertheless, you have the freedom to choose how you want to define “free will.” While I believe I agree with you (I won’t know for sure until you answer some questions), I am doing so because I’ve accepted your definition of blue as being red. However, if you agreed to accept my definitions, I’m fairly certain you would agree with me: that free will is an illusion.

      Again, thank you for your comment. It encouraged me to ponder on a deeper level. I appreciate that.

  3. One more point- bearing in mind the previous comment, accordingly, even if you think you know the person based on their behavior and are able to predict their choices….you may not be able to predict their “will” – especially if they react and behave according to the expectations of others – which most of us do (ego based behavior).

    1. You are absolutely correct, Shayna. That is why I view people through two lenses: “How they think they are” and “How they are.” (http://blog.omegazadvisors.com/?p=1141). I do believe you can gain insight into their spirit and eventually their will. Not all our behaviors are consciously driven. Everything we think, do and say says something about us. Yes, some are in accordance with the behavior of others but many others are not. That’s why learning and listening to others is so important; you will be able to tell which is which and where the conflicts between the two will appear down the road. Still, with all this, people remain surprises and able to think, do and say in unpredictable ways. In many ways, it’s like poker: play the odds.

      Again, thank you for your comments, Shayna. I appreciated and enjoyed them.

  4. Wow – I love this. You have a brain and you use it!!! Now let me try to use my own and answer these questions in order to defend my definition of free will….and, I do understand that I have redefined free will as opposed to disagreeing with what you are saying.
    Please be advised that I will answer the questions from the perspective of understanding that we are both ego and spirit, but we spend our lives trying (whether we know it or not) to overcome our egoic needs and connect with our higher selves – our spirit.
    If you do not agree with this understanding, it will be very hard for me to present an answer that you will be able to accept as reasonable.
    First of all, I believe that our spirit exists initially on a subconscious (or unconscious) level, but I believe that every time we take a moment and simply think about our collective existence, our spirit comes to a conscious level and is able to fill our minds with higher thinking making us more self aware, or self conscious.
    In other words, if we go through life mindlessly, our ego will be in control of us. By mindlessly I mean focusing our thought on our own physical needs and how to fulfill them.
    Which brings me to the next question….our spirit, accordingly, does not want what our ego wants and yes, our spirit wants what we can have – an understanding of what our purpose is, individual and collective. The problem comes when we are not aware that this is what we really want because our ego tell us we want something else – our physical needs to be satisfied.
    When we choose a path (within your’s and everyone else’s definition of free will) that is not in agreement with our spirit, our ego is choosing that path and we will inevitably follow, despite the fact that it may not be our most ideal choice, but because we have not connected with our spirit by understanding that it is not beneficial to allow our ego to rule our thoughts, our spirit remains unconscious.
    The last question is tricky because though I have already mentioned that by simply thinking about our collective existence we connect with our spirit, we must also understand that just as we put effort or work into the needs of our ego to fulfill them (i.e. gym to lose weight, job to make money etc…) we must put work into our spirit to get what we need from it – how to fulfill our purpose individually (which, in my opinion, is always a purpose that contributes to the entire human race collectively by optimally utilizing some specific unique feature of our spirit or our true self)
    Whew……now back to the definition of free will…..
    Based on this, I would like to end with saying that if we define free will according to the mind of our ego – free will does consist of choices that we think we are making and I would agree this is an illusion because the choices we are making are leading us no where and ultimately don’t even matter – and are predictable.
    But…If we are connected spiritually, then free will is not defined as choices anymore. It is defined as the opportunity to do what ever you want to do because you will know (after much spiritual work) how you must go about fulfilling your purpose as an individual and there is no choice involved. You just do what you have to do, by being who you really are (your spirit and not your ego) and doing what you really love (your unique gift that is held within the spirit) – and you are doing for a purpose that has meaning and does make a difference (for the benefit of the collective evolution of humanity)
    I am so sorry about the length of this answer, but you asked some pretty hefty questions – and I love the challenge (call it my spirit giving me some work to do 🙂 !)

  5. Pingback : Some Questions are Hard to Answer…. « peaceful controversy

  6. Sally

    So which rules, our hearts or our heads? If we are using our ‘head’ this implies that we make a choice that is heavily influenced by external influences about what might be best for us. For example, choosing a career which our parents approve of, or conforming to social and cultural norms.This intellectualisation of our choosing could also arise internally from learning and experience that we have acquired.
    If we make a choice with our ‘heart’ then that implies a choice which, if we are completely uninhibited, we feel will make us happy.Could this be truly ‘free will’?
    In adult life I think it can be rare for the latter to occur, making free will a rare and beautiful thing when it is used for the good.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Very true, Sally, free will is rare and beautiful when used for good. That is really the point of the posts; free will is much rarer than we think it is. Another aspect I would suggest to incorporate is our unconscious self. We not only have our conscious thoughts and emotions but our unconscious ones too. It’s generally the latter that represents our true self and is more reflected in our emotions. I also find that our emotions influence our thoughts more powerfully than the reverse. So, to answer your initial question, our hearts rule in 99% of the cases even if we think it’s our thoughts. Behind all our thoughts are emotions driving the outcome of that thought process. In this sense, our personalities are nature’s programming of us. We can no more violate our programming without consequences than a computer can violate it’s own programming without incurring problems. The thing to keep in mind is that whether it’s God or nature, we are born for growth, not self-destruction.

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