You do not have free will. Or, at least, we seem to have very good reasons to think that you don’t. I know. “Preposterous”, you think, “I make choices every day. Do I want salt and vinegar Pringles, or perhaps a bar of Milka? Fosters or Stella?”, and, depending on how you feel that day, you make a choice one way or the other. When it comes to describing how you made that choice you can often provide a handful of reasons, but describing the actual process of making the choice – of willing – is a lot more hazy. It kind of comes down to a sort of feeling we get – a sense of two possible paths that the future could take, and then choosing between one of those. But I want to describe to you that that feeling is an illusion. In fact, there has only ever been one path that the universe could have taken since the dawning of time – and you, and every single one of your actions, your choices, are bound up with it.
Let’s think about it from the level of bare physics to start with. Science. Ruling aside quantum mechanics, most people are happy to assume that if we know all the physical conditions of an object and we know the past (and present) states of the universe that are acting on an object, then we can describe with certainty how that object will behave. Billiard balls is the classic example. When you’re playing pool (or billiards, whatever) and you fire the cue ball into the coloured balls, then you can know how the coloured balls will behave if you know the angle of the collision, the velocity of the cue ball, and the weights of the two balls etc.. So if you know with certainty all the physical facts about a system, then you can describe with a certainty how that system will behave. There is no room for two possible outcomes of the exact same physical event. All things being equal it could only have possibly behaved in the way that it did. It was “written in the stars”, so to speak.
Now most people are happy to accept that the brain is a physical system. As a physical system it behaves mechanistically – just like the billiard balls. When you make a “choice”, certain neurons in your brain fire that have been triggered by previous physical actions in the brain. We can imagine a future where we’re talented enough at neuroscience to describe all the physical processes that govern the brain. Then we could plot all the physical processes that led to you choosing the way you did, leaving no room for you as a kind of “radical chooser”. Your choices are just governed by purely physical reactions. Physical reactions that have been predetermined to play out in the way that they did since the beginning of time.
And, yes, I agree, this is pretty intellectually dissatisfying. We do have an experience of ourselves as a “radical chooser” – of actually experientially “choosing” between two possible futures – an experience of selfhood that seemingly cannot be reduced to physical processes. But, worryingly, this doesn’t save our freedom of the will.
Let’s imagine we’re an immaterial soul, freed from all physical processes. Surely then we have room to make a free choice – a choice that is really our own. But, from what platform would this choice be made? In choosing, I must have made a choice that was “mine” by the past “me” carrying itself forward by making a choice in the present. But then, my choice is built purely upon the past states of myself. It was not a radically free choice of the present, it was shaped entirely by my past. This morning I appeared to have a choice as to whether I should write this post or not, but ultimately I was predestined to write this post as the sum-total of my previous experiences (studying philosophy, enjoying writing, knowing I had time to write etc.) made it impossible for me to choose otherwise. The same thing happened with you choosing to read this.
Now some of you might think that this makes you “free” in an important sense. I don’t disagree. In some sense these actions are your own. All this constitutes is an argument against free will in the “radical” sense – in the sense of having the godlike power to radically choose between two possible futures when you make a choice in the present. I’m saying that you could never have chosen any differently because of the way that you are (and, ultimately, the way that the universe is). The feeling of choice is nothing more than an illusion. The road was always set.
Now, I briefly excluded quantum mechanics from my arguments before, and some of you might be tempted to look to quantum randomness as a place within which your free will could hide. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help much. Random actions do not constitute free actions. In many ways, “random willing” constitutes a much less appealing outcome than unfree, predetermined willing. Perhaps you want to claim an immaterial soul’s choices interact with the universe through some kind of quantum weirdness, but then I’d like to refer you to the previous two paragraphs, where I explain how this doesn’t save the will as a “radically free” one.
The most agreeable rebuttal to these arguments that I can think of, and that I have a lot of sympathy for, is a non-rational one. You can claim that we cannot rationally comprehend free will, and that the non-rational, felt experience of freedom is ultimately all the proof we need. However, we all know that we can be deceived by our experiences. Setting aside deception though, if you want to rebut my arguments through feeling, I want you to take a long hard look at other things you might not accept feeling as an argument for. Like God. Or a flat-earth. People feel these things, people believe these things. If you’re using rational evidence to rebut God or a flat earth, then you have to have a long hard think about why your non-rational feeling of free will is enough to justify its existence.
So, there you go: you are not free. This is not big news to philosophers, but to non-philosophers it can often seem fairly shocking and outrageous. I know I’ve certainly annoyed a lot of non-philosophers with these kinds of arguments in the past. People almost always reject these arguments outright as “just stupid”. When this happens I tend to tell my interlocutors to go away and have a think about it when I’m not there. And when they do, nearly all of them eventually concede that there’s not much space for free will (at least, of the radical kind).
So is this a bad thing? Ultimately, I don’t think so. I actually find it rather comforting. These arguments make me feel much more connected to everything in the universe. It unites me with the infinite. I am part of and caused by everything that exists. I don’t know what the infinite is working for (if, indeed, anything at all) – but I like the fact that we’re all connected and all in it together. We’re all inextricably a part of the greatest apparatus ever invented, and just as it acts on and defines us, so to do we act on and define it. To me there’s something incredibly romantic – poetic – about that.
[[Note that the free will arguments are some of the oldest in philosophical history and are ongoing today. My argument against the “soul” as I’ve termed it (used as a convenient term to describe something free from physical processes) is ultimately incomplete. If you’ve picked up on this I can point you towards some good literature that explains why this is not a get-out clause for free will, but it might make your brain hurt a little. Also, if you’re worried about moral responsibility, please don’t be. I don’t believe in free will but I do believe that we have good reasons to still think of people as morally responsible. However, I do think that these arguments change the way we should think about punishing people; especially whilst thinking about punishment in a retributive sense. Again, if you want me to point you in the direction of some literature that explains this I’m more than happy to – there’s soooo much out there!]]