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Exploring the Illusion of Free Will Pages

Welcome to Exploring the Illusion of Free Will!

Here’s some of what we’ll explore over the coming months. Don't be put off if it seems a lot. We will unravel the free will illusion mainly through common sense and logic, and use the science to back up our reasoning.

The term FREE WILL is generally taken to mean that we human beings are free to think, feel and do whatever we want regardless of --

1) Whom we were born to, and how they raised us
2) Where we were born, and where we grew up
3) What we learned, or didn't learn, in school and from life in general
4) How young or old we are
5) How smart or not we are
6) What experiences we’ve had, or haven’t had
7) What type of personality we have
8) What our genetic makeup is, including whether we were born male or female
9) What our unconscious mind happens to be doing
10) Our preferences, needs and desires
11) And various other factors

That’s what the vast majority of philosophers and scientists mean when they say free will.

The basic reason we human beings do not have a free will is because of the principle of causality, which is better known as the law of cause and effect, and is also referred to as determinism. It basically says that everything that happens is caused. Things don't just happen.

The most general understanding of this principle is that the state of the universe at one moment is the cause of the state of the universe at the next moment and the effect of the state of the universe at the previous moment. This chain of universal causation stretches back in time to before the Earth was created and forward in time into the indefinite future. That’s basically the reason free will is an illusion. Through the process of cause and effect, the universe before we were born has predetermined everything that happens in our universe now, including everything we think, feel, and do. But there are easier ways to understand this.

In science there was once a debate over whether what we human beings do is the result of nature or nurture. Scientists ultimately proved that human behavior results from both our genetic endowment AND our environment. But, neither nature nor nurture, nor their combination, allow for a free will.

If you are beginning to see why we human beings do not have a free will, this is a good place to consider two important caveats. Understanding that we human beings really do not have a free will…

…does not give us permission to do whatever we want.

…does not mean we’ll accept bad behavior from others

…does not mean we will do away with our rules, governments, and systems of law

…will not cause civilization to crumble.

What did our greatest modern philosophers think about free will?

In his 1943 book Physics and Philosophy, British physicist, astronomer and mathematician Sir James Jeans writes:

"Practically all modern philosophers of the first rank -- Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Alexander, as well as many others -- have been determinists in the sense of admitting the cogency of the arguments for determinism, but many have at the same time been indeterminists in the sense of hoping to find a loophole of escape from these arguments. Often they conceded that our apparent freedom is an illusion, so that the only loophole they could hope to find would be an explanation as to how the illusion could originate."

Why were these philosophers forced to admit that free will is, in fact, an illusion?

In the late 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton developed Newtonian or Classical Mechanics and it said that nature is governed by the principle of cause and effect, or determinism. Quantum mechanics came along in the early 1900s, and some scientists and philosophers thought that cause and effect might not govern the quantum world of elementary particles. They thought that maybe nature was inherently indetermanistic, and things happened at random rather than by cause and effect.

They eventually realized that an indeterministic universe where things happen at random, and for no reason, didn’t help their case. How could we call our will free if all of our choices were random?

A brief history of determined vs. free will ideas

Cause and Effect – At about the 5th century BC, in his work On the Mind, the Greek Philosopher Leucippus penned the earliest known universal statement describing what we today understand as determinism, or the law of cause and effect

“Nothing happens at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.”

Human Will – The concepts of will and free will are actually Christian in orgin. It was Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans, which is dated at about 58 A.D., who first discovered this thing we call human will. He came to it by recognizing that he could not often do as much right as he wanted. Saint Paul wrote in Romans 7:15 that:

“I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t.” I do what I don’t want to – what I hate.” (Translation – The Living Bible)

Free Will -- Nothing new was said on the matter for the next few hundred years until St. Augustine grappled with the concepts of evil and justice. Saint Augustine wrote in his book De Libero Arbitrio, 386-395 A.D., (translated as “On Free Will”)

“Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.”

The problem he saw was that if human beings do not have a free will, it would be unfair for God to arbitrarily reward or punish us. St. Augustine concluded that God could not be unfair, and so he created the concept of a human free will, whereby we earn our reward or punishment by what we freely do.

Scientific concepts relating to the
determined will vs. free will question

Classical Mechanics -- In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton publishes his “Laws of Motions” that mathematically describes the physical universe as acting in a mechanistic manner according to the principle of cause and effect.

Classical Mechanics is a completely deterministic theory

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle -- In 1925 Warner Heisenberg describes mathematically that…

We can measure the position of a particle or the momentum of a particle (momentum meaning its direction and velocity), but we cannot simultaneously measure the position and momentum of a particle.

Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics -- Niels Bohr and others make the following assertions;

1) Particles do not have a simultaneous position and momentum.

2) Elementary particles behave indeterministically, and are not subject to the principle of cause and effect.

Believers in free will saw the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics as providing a possibility for free will to exist. They asserted that if elementary particles behave indeterministically, they are not subject to the principle of cause and effect that prohibits free will.

But, as noted above, it eventually became apparent that indeterminism also prohibits free will.

During the last several decades, the idea of free will has been repeatedly refuted by geneticists, neuroscientists, sociologists, and psychologists, who have devised many experiments to explain why we do not have a free will. Let’s look at one from neuroscience.

In 1964, neuroscientist Hans Kornhuber discovered “the readiness potential.” He used an electromyogram, or EMG, to measure the muscle activity of a person’s finger as it flexes. He used an electroencephalogram, or EEG, to measure the person’s brain activity. He detected brain activity before the finger flexes and called that activity the readiness potential. The readiness potential signals that muscle activity is absolutely and irrevocably about to occur.

In the 1970s, neurophysiologist Bejamin Libet used Kornhuber’s findings to explore the determined will vs. free will question. Like Kornhuber, he attached an EMG and EEG to his subjects. He instructed his subjects to flex their wrist whenever they wished, and to tell him exactly when they made their decision.

Libet found that the readiness potential occurred about 550 milliseconds before the wrist flexed. But the subjects became aware of their decision to flex their wrist about 300 milliseconds before they flexed their wrist.

This experiment showed that the subjects had unconsciously decided to flex their wrist 200 milliseconds before they were consciously aware of their decision. Since their decision was initiated at the level of the unconscious, flexing their wrist could not have been freely willed.

Now let’s explore some recent findings from psychology.

During the mid 90s, Yale psychologist John Bargh and his colleagues studied the effects of priming on our human will. Bargh assigned two groups of subjects the task of making sentences from scrambled words.

The target group’s words -- gray, wrinkled, wise, Florida, and Bingo -- were chosen to prime the stereotype of “elderly.” The control group was given neutral words. After finishing their task, the two groups were observed as they walked toward an elevator to leave the building.

Bargh observed that the target group consistently walked to the elevator at a slower pace than did the control group. His experiment shows how our unconscious is responsible for behavior we ordinarily assume is under our conscious, or free, control.

In a second experiment, Bargh and his colleagues primed his target groups for either rudeness or politeness. Again, Bargh assigned the scrambled word task to each group. The “Rudeness” group was assigned words like aggressively, bold, rude, annoyingly, interrupt and audaciously. The “Politeness” group was assigned words like respect, honor, considerate, appreciate and patiently.

After completing the sentence task, the subjects from each group were instructed to notify one of Bargh’s colleagues that they were done. Bargh, however, instructed his colleague to remain busy in conversation for ten minutes, so that the subjects would either have to wait a long while or interrupt the conversation.

As it turned out, before the ten minutes had elapsed 67 percent of the subjects primed for rudeness interrupted Bargh’s colleague, while only 6 percent of the subjects primed for politeness interrupted. Also, very interestingly, when Bargh asked his subjects why they interrupted or why waited, they offered creative answers, but none showed any awareness of the unconscious priming that had compelled their actions.

These are just a few of the dozens of scientific experiments from various disciplines that reveal that decisions we ordinarily attribute to a "free" will are actually caused by factors completely outside of our control.

Okay, now let’s explore why all of this matters.

Let’s look at two individuals, John and Grace. Grace learned from everyone she ever knew that voting is the right and moral thing to do. John learned from everyone he ever knew that voting is wrong and immoral. Grace always votes. John never votes.

Should we consider Grace praiseworthy for always voting?
Should we blame John for never voting?
Should Grace feel proud of always voting?
Should John feel ashamed or guilty of never voting?

Let’s explore this idea of accountability through another example.

Ten big guys walk into a room, take hold of a person, force him to grasp a magic marker, and despite his resistance, make him scribble FREEBIRD in large letters on the floor in front of him. Would it right to hold him accountable for this action?

Basically all of our choices are as completely forced or compelled as the person in our example.

On a personal level, the belief in free will leads to irrational blame, guilt, arrogance, and envy.

It causes blame rather than understanding or problem solving.
It causes guilt rather than acceptance.
It causes arrogance rather than gratitude.
It causes envy of others rather positive self-regard.

On a societal level, the belief in free will leads to irrational condemnation, punishment and indifference.

The U.S. accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, but is responsible for 25 percent of incarcerations throughout the world. During the last hundred years, our criminal justice system has moved from reform (as in reformatory and penitentiary) to condemnation, retribution and punishment. Regrettably, those prisoners had no choice but to do what they did.

While we must protect ourselves from those who pose a threat, if we were to acknowledge the true causal nature of our human will, we would do so with more understanding and compassion. Also, we would better appreciate the value of reaching potential criminals when they are still young, thereby lessening the likelihood that they will resort to crimes as adults.

In our world, every day 29,000 children aged five and under die of largely preventable poverty-related causes. Many of us from rich countries justify our indifference toward them by blaming their parents for having them, or for not working hard enough to feed and care for them.

How would transcending the illusion of free will create a better world?

It would enable us to see the world in a completely new and different light, and from a refreshingly different perspective.

It would represent a giant leap forward in the evolution of human consciousness.

It would bring our perception of reality more in line with what we know to be the facts of our universe.

It would enable us to be better people.

If you've joined the group, thanks and welcome. If not, join us, and see what this is all about. May we explore this topic with the determined will to create a better world for ourselves and for those who follow. smile

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
Northern Sheep Meadow and Bethesda Lower Passage April 13, 2010 12:27 PM George
Central Park Meetup Map April 9, 2010 5:15 PM George
Resources on our predetermined human wills April 8, 2010 11:20 PM George
About Exploring the Illusion of Free Will April 19, 2013 4:36 AM George

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