Red or Blue? - Is Free Will Just an Illusion?

Choose a pill, red or blue. Picked one? Great! I guess you believe you could have picked any color you like, right? I don’t. I don’t believe in free will.

Causal determinism claims that future events are necessitated by past and present events combined with the laws of nature. In principle, if I would to know all the facts about the past, the present, and all the natural laws that govern the universe, I would be able to use this knowledge in order to foresee the future, down to the smallest detail. The illusion of free will emerges from the interaction of finite rules and deterministic parameters that generate something that looks like infinite and unpredictable behaviour. Yet, if all these events were accounted for, and there was a known way to evaluate these events, the seemingly unpredictable behaviour would become predictable. In this case, if I was able to map your brain to the smallest detail a few seconds before you picked your color, I could have known your choice even before you made it.

If the casual determinism argument haven't convinced you there is no free will, how about this: There are several experiments (like Benjamin Libet's experiments) regarding the build-up of electrical brain signal called the readiness potential. These tests demonstrate that unconscious brain activity is leading up to the conscious decision, about half a second later. In other words, your subconscious is actually choosing, and your conscious decision making is just an illusion, just a retrospection, an attempt to rationally justify the choice made by your subconscious. So... No free will for you! Come back one year!

But if there is no free will, how can a person be responsible for his acts? How can we send a murderer to prison when we know his subconscious made the choice for him? Well, I think we can. First, it does not matter if this killer is responsible for his decision. The fact is that his mind reached the point where murder seems like a possible solution to a problem. This is one dangerous brain walking around, so it should be locked up. Second, by putting this man behind bars, it will make other brains fear this punishment, reducing crime level. Finally, I think human society can not function correctly when people are not presumed responsible for their choices, even if it’s not actually true.

Believing free will is just an illusion can make you less sorry for the wrong decisions you made in your life, but it also denies you from taking credit for the right ones. My advice to you is to do what I do. Be proud when your choices are a success, and blame your subconscious when they fail.

p.s. Whenever I want to sound intellectual, I quote Chewbacca.


The Interested said...

I will prove you that a free will exists by showing that it actually changes the present state. Since you like the Monty Hall problem consider the following variant: The host shows you the door with one goat before you choose a door. Now you select a door. What is the probability that you select a car? exactly 50%. It doesn't matter if you switch now the door the probability will always be 50%. But If you select a door before the host shows you the goat then ... you know what you should do. What is the difference between the two scenarios? In the first one you are free to choose no constrains at all. The other one does constrain you by claiming "choose first and then I'll reveal the content of one door". Well if free will (=the ability to select door freely) does not exists and does not make any difference how come the probabilities are so different?

Uri Kalish said...

What you did is to change the rules of the game and by doing that you changed the probabilities of finding the prize.
In the final stage of your new scenario, I can choose between 2 curtains, with no help from the host.
In the final stage of the classic Monty Hall problem, I can also choose between 2 curtains, but the host helped me pick one of them (using his backstage knowledge).

Yair h. said...

Hi Uri,

Note that the 'new physics' (i.e. not Newton's harmonic world but quantum physics) favors the non-deterministic terminology.

Uri Kalish said...

Hi Yair,

Actually, I thought about talking on that subject, but eventually left it out of the post. Personally, I have a problem with the whole quantum probabilities / superposition / observer effect like in the Schrödinger's Cat experiment. Maybe we’re simply not using the correct equations to describe the atomic and subatomic world? Maybe we need a better theory which is deterministic? That said, if our choice of red or blue is affected by probabilities of quantum events in our brain, than it only strengthening my point, making free will a definite illusion.


Steve said...

What about the argument that determinism is completely unscientific? That is, it's completely unfalsifiable in that there is no possible example in which it can be wrong?

Uri Kalish said...

Hi Steve,

If you accept quantum physics in its current form, then you already have your perfect example of it being wrong. If the current quantum equations (using probabilities) are the correct way to describe the atomic/sub-atomic universe, and quantum events do affect the visible world, then determinism is not possible. Personally, I have a problem with the current quantum physics description of the world (see my answer to Yair). I believe a deterministic model to the microscopic world will be found eventually, disabling probabilities and enabling macroscopic determinism.


veryheaven said...

dear, ever heard of clearvoyances? some call it forecast, instinct, intuition, whatsoever - where do you categorize this ability to catch up spiritually on things before they happen?

in my subjective opinion free will does exist by any means. or are you determined to blog by your past`? anything conducting or stalking you daily, weekly to write, to make love, to think, to work?

thoughts of a freethinker :-)

Anonymous said...

Maybe... I'm just overspeculating...

Could free will be an emergent behaviour?

Or maybe, we are just like very complicated zombies... super zombies!!!

Like the architect said "99 point something % of the test subjects accepted the program while as long as they believed they had a choice" or something like... well, like that. My guess would be that the Wachowski dudes (maybe they don't exit either!!!) read a psychology book and based that line on some psychologic theory.

My personal guess would be... We wouldn't know for sure... because if we don't have free will, we wouldn't be able to freely direct our thoughts towards objectivity and therefore incapacitated to accuratelly determine if we actually have free will or not... If by reasoning we get to one or many conlusions, and our lack of free will makes us mentally attach to those and discard other, even unssen not even thought possibilities, we cannot get the whole spectrum of the topic, and then not be able, as I said before to actually determine if such thing as free will exists...
And if it exists... maybe we would deicover that there is no such thing -as free will- (In the notion or variety of notions and concepts we had of free will) but more like something else we couldn't even conceptualize.

(But what if we are actually programmed to follow objectivity. If that's it, what would be the actual proof)

By the way.

I still invite you to have a look at my DA account ;)