Actually, Free Will IS an illusion

David Copperfield. Credit: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many individuals, scientists and non-scientists alike believe that Free Will exists. However, as with all extraordinary positive claims (whether or not these claims derive from centuries of religious dogma), it is the claimants’ responsibility to provide supporting evidence. As it turns out, there are numerous pieces of convincing evidence which clearly demonstrate the implausibility of free will. If one of these pieces of evidence happens to be false, should we take this to indicate that the original claim is true? In fact we should not. It is a logical fallacy to argue that because some specific piece of negative evidence against one’s positive belief is wrong, that therefore that positive claim must also be true.

Despite this apparent logical contradiction, professor WR Klemm makes this very claim in his post, “Free Will is NOT An Illusion“. Klemm argues that contrary to the positions held by such noted scholars Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, the subconscious mind cannot be said to control human “intentions, choices, and decisions”. He goes on to debunk empirical support for this position provided by a series of experiments conducted in the early 1980s by Benjamin Libet. These experiments purport to demonstrate that electrical potentials of the brain can be recorded which predict how a person will act up to several seconds before that person can consciously state his intention to act.

I won’t deny that many scientists and philosophers have used these experiments to infer that free will is an illusion. I am not one of them. Even taken at face value, I agree with Dr. Klemm that the evidence provided by Libet’s experiments do not logically support the position that the subconscious mind controls human actions.

Case closed.

What still remains unmentioned is that Klemm stated at the outset that “Free Will is NOT An Illusion”. In fact, this statement is a non-sequitur.

Klemm does not make clear how he defines free will, nor even whether such a term is definable at all. For example, I agree with Klemm when he states that “subconscious and conscious minds interact and share duties”, but this statement is entirely irrelevant to the concept of free will, unless one assumes a priori that the conscious mind is free and the subconscious mind is not. This assumption is flawed.

Even if we take the position that the conscious mind is free, we are still left to wonder exactly what this means. Indeed, one might assume based upon Klemm’s statements that the answer to this question determines “whether we are victims of genetics and environment or bear responsibility for our intentions”. This again does not follow. How could the conscious mind be free from the constraints of genetics and environment, whereas the subconscious mind is not? Is Klemm arguing that the conscious mind does not rely upon the brain, whereas the subconscious mind is what subsists within the thick encasement of our human skulls? By defining free will in terms of a mind which is controlled either by conscious or subconscious forces, Klemm presents his readers with a false dichotomy–a straw man which he swiftly and effectively debunks.

The more important questions on this topic deal not with competing minds but with the concept of causality. There is a long historical debate which pits free will against a deterministic reality which is similarly mired in irredeemable conclusions. As with Klemm’s arguments, even in a universe which is not deterministic, it is unclear how free will could exist: in fact, inherent in the definition of free will is the idea that the universe is deterministic and free will represents a human escape from these constraints on reality.

I have mentioned in the past far more convincing empirical arguments that the brain is a critical determinant of how the human mind functions. Therefore, if we accept that the brain is subject to causal laws (such as destruction from physical injury or disease) and that the mind is also affected when the brain is injured, then we must reasonably conclude that our choices are constrained by the same genes and environments which affect our brains. This isn’t proven in the mathematical or philosophical sense, but it’s the closest thing we have to a reasonable position, given what we know. In this context, free will is essentially incomprehensible and therefore doesn’t offer a reasonable alternative.


5 thoughts on “Actually, Free Will IS an illusion

  1. Alex W

    I’m of a similar mind, but I don’t know how to call the view that you espouse here. What is the name for the position you (and I incidentally) espouse, where free will is an illusion, but we are not machines whose choices have been predetermined by sets of conditions of the universe? Constrained choise-ists? Determinists? I am unsure what to call that notion.

    1. zstansfi Post author

      I agree it’s a tough position to define Alex. Although, given the starting point that free will is undefinable, then it almost becomes expected that a label will be elusive.

      This is a similar sort of issue that I run into on questions of whether or not there is a god. I can’t really call myself an atheist, because I suspect, quite rationally I think, that there’s a lot more to this reality than we can understand right now–but I also don’t see the point in coming up with some blanket prescription for what is out there. But then I find that everyone wants to dump me into the big-house or “default” category of agnosticism, which includes just about every form of denial under the sun. Alternate positions like Possibilianism argue for many perspectives simultaneously, which sounds like fun I guess, but also seems like a good way to come up with lots of wrong answers on a whim.

      What I prefer to say is that it’s a bad question. I don’t want to ask: “Is there a God?” and then be pigeonholed into some broad category. I would much rather say: “There’s probably some deeper reality and I would like to to learn about it, but please stop expecting me to have some ‘final answer’ laid out with perfect confidence.”

      Along the same lines, I think when people try to think about the world using free will they’re probably asking the wrong question. Rather than trying to ascribe the actions of the serial killer or the brilliant inventor to something mystical or hidden or unalterable, I want to uncover the really important factors that influenced these actions and possibly even figure out how to tweak them. I think about these factors not in the historical “narrative” sense, but more like a process of collecting all of the little pieces, at many different levels, and building the bigger picture from the ground up. In a sense, once most of these key parts come together, I imagine a sort of picture of the individual emerges out of it. And that person, built out of these often contradictory pieces and this un-chosen history can take a certain amount of ownership of himself and his actions in the present.

      I like to think that this kind of small-c “choice” can be used to empower the individual, but I definitely don’t know how to name it at this point. Then again, I’m pretty happy to just stay “uncategorized” for now ;)

      1. A Dude

        You keep saying I want to tweak, I like to think, we should. But if we truly have no free will then you are wasting your breath and mind.

        Fact is we DO have a choice, even if the self is established by the subconscious that is established by genetics and upbringing. Evolution has designed a system that acts based on “who” it is. A person weighs various options, supports one with logical reason and/or emotional reasoning, or decides “who cares?” And upon making a specific decision a specific outcome is made. Until that specific decision is made a decision does not happen. You decide to buy a Lotus Elise based on who you are. But if you did not make the decision to do that..would the car have been bought by you? No. You had to decide to do it first, same as you decide to stand up when you are sitting down. Until you do not decide to stand it does not happen. The involuntary functions that allow you to stand are in place, but they are waiting for you to decide to before they fire off. You may think to do it and the parts of the brain involved get ready…but they don’t start until you give the “go” signal.

        That test about finger tapping? Sure, conscious awareness lapsed behind it. But the fact is that they were asked to tap their finger if they were not willing to tap their finger, the finger would not have tapped. In other words, the subconscious responded because the action was deemed okay. If it had not been deemed okay…Benjamin Libet even admitted it can be vetoed. What allows the vetoing? What controlled it? And if it can be controlled to the point that the finger doesn’t even twitch? Doesn’t it mean that those subconscious actions are subservient to the conscious commands? If it can be controlled to the point that with nobody telling you until you consider the the action the subconscious enabler doesn’t even light up…what made the consideration happen? If we say it happened automatically, that would mean that the consciousness automatically vetoed it because it didn’t just happen until we were aware of the desire to do it and removed the veto allowing it right? In times of stress subconscious can override the conscious, but we can wrestle back control consciously, and we can even consciously program automatic responses. The phenomenon of “muscle memory”. It is really more about dendrites, but we decided how they formed consciously. Subconscious didn’t see a martial arts film and automatically make you a master martial artists. You saw it, it appealed, you consciously allowed yourself to do. There was an option to not do. Consciousness made the final call and if the subconscious was primed to do beforehand it certainly didn’t do anything into the consciousness tuned it.

        The ability to decide is established by the involuntary. But once established it has power over everything else. Who you are may determine how you decide but regardless of how you came to be yourself, once you are yourself and yourself realizes itself, it then is granted control of conscious controls over happenings. If it decides to do a certain thing, it decides to do a certain thing, if not, then not. Preferences may be preset, but because that is ALL WE ARE. Then that is who we are, and that is still the “what/who we are” that is deciding what happens. So us as far as we know it have free will over our ongoing and based on goal setting we can even alter who we will be in the future as far as what is relevant. In practice free will exists. If it did not exist that would make all of existence as far as what it can be defined a practical illusion. But if that is all that can be practiced, then in terms of practicality it is reality. Because nothing else is possible. Therefore when we as far as we can be defined and controlled makes a conscious decision to go one way where there are infinitely many ways in the long scheme that is you deciding what you want to do and what you want to be. How you became you. Whatever. It is still a “you” deciding, and the result of “your” decisions has impact in real time.

        Who and what you are shaped your subconsciousness that shaped your consciousness that became the final authority over everything you do, based on who and what you are and who and what you want to be to define who and what you are. And who you are and what you are is who you are and what you are because is all that you/what can be. It is in control of everything and it is you. You became the you that determines your destiny because evolution decided that you should be something that has control over its own destiny. So in the confines of who you are, no matter how you came to be, you decide based on who you want to be versus who you currently are. Preferences predetermined that dictate the “how” but because those preferences are in effect “you” that is YOU making a choice no?

        All there is, all there will be, you as far as what you are decided to post this. You decided regardless of what established the you deciding. It is still you deciding and if you decided not to post this, it would not have been posted. If what established your decision is still supporting your ability to decide and influencing your decision, then what is framing you acting upon you is still a part of you and therefore IS you in the highest sense. It is all you. But in the actual relative sense as in what is effecting the reality that is perpetuated by the highest you: you are still you deciding defined by you deciding for you.

        You are in control of you BECAUSE of forces beyond your control, but you still have the ability to control. You are who you are BECAUSE of forces beyond your control. But who you are is still exercising the ability to control. That is all there is to it, all there is to free will, all there is to reality. Free will IS reality. Period.

        1. zstansfi Post author

          Thanks for your input.

          For starters, I think we can find some agreement on some premises, but we run into differences with our conclusions.

          For example, you accept for the sake of argument the premise that:

          “the self is established by the subconscious that is established by genetics and upbringing. Evolution has designed a system that acts based on “who” it is.”

          In principle, we agree here, although I should clarify. Evolutionary processes certainty have affected our genetic make-up (though not in the hardline “genetic determinism” sense), and both our genes and various other “environmental” factors have certainly established who we are at present. Agreed.

          However, I don’t think it’s necessary to posit a role of the “subconscious” as ruling over the “conscious” mind. In fact, I don’t think that a satisfactory distinction can be made between sub-conscious and conscious processes as they are inextricably linked. Both rely upon the same physiological processes and overlapping brain networks, so how can they be separated into distinct entities?

          Rather, I argue that it’s important to recognize that neither conscious nor subconscious processes (nor any processes of the brain or mind) can be said to be “free” in any logically viable sense.

          This distinction is definitely a place where we differ. Take, for example, your statement that

          “upon making a specific decision a specific outcome is made…[t]he involuntary functions… are waiting for you to decide… before they fire off… they don’t start until you give the “go” signal.”

          I still agree with you that there MUST be some process that initiates what you describe as the “involuntary functions” that allow us to orchestrate the muscles involved in standing or finger tapping.

          But, as above, I don’t think we agree on what a “decision” is and the role it plays in initiating these functions. You have argued that this decision is somehow initiated by the conscious mind, but you haven’t told me what the “go” signal is or how this signal arises. I posit that this signal doesn’t exist, not because I am a materialist, but because it isn’t logically meaningful to ask where the “start” of a decision arises, given the circularity of brain processes and their inextricable link to a constant feed of sensory input.

          Moreover, you clearly argue that a clear demarcation can be made between conscious and sub-conscious processes, with different tasks handed off to each. I disagree.

          As I note above, conscious processes are almost certainly under-girded by lower-level events which couldn’t possibly themselves be conscious (an action potential is not conscious) in the same way that “subconscious” events are. In fact, why should conscious experiences not directly feed into subconscious processes and vice versa? Extracting these processes is much more complicated than you let on, and doesn’t appear to allow such a simple division of tasks as you describe.

          Finally, you conclude on 3-4 paragraphs which appear to follow a similar pattern to the above: we agree on the premises but not the conclusions.

          You clearly and repeatedly state that prior determinants establish “preferences” or “preset” who we are and that human lives are set into motion by forces “beyond our control”. Broadly speaking, we are in agreement on this state of affairs. Moreover, I also agree that it follows to take ownership of this un-chosen state of affairs and accept it as one’s “self”.

          But what is not clear is how you jump from this premise to the conclusion that

          “Free will IS reality. Period.”

          Let me put it this way: we agree on the state of affairs (the broad set of premises), but I come to the conclusion that free will is a nonsensical concept, whereas you summarily conclude that it must exist.

          Let me ask: how would you define free will? Often philosophers talk about individuals being “free agents”, but what is the agent, and how do you define him? Moreover, what does it mean to be free and, in particular, what are we free from? What is the source of this “first cause” that sets you into motion?

          In all of these cases, I argue that these concepts are largely undefinable, given that such definitions must necessarily be circular. In fact, as I argue above, the problem with free will is not that we are all mindless robots, but that it is unnecessary and redundant. It doesn’t describe anything remotely similar to the historical and philosophical concept of “free will” and nor does it inform us colloquially about what it means to “act” or to “decide”.

          In reality, the greatest use for free will is driving needlessly complicated and abstract arguments such as this one, leaving neither participant better informed or more capable of understanding the drivers of his mind.

          It is an opaque term that ought to be retired and replaced with a more realistic view on the meaning of human responsibility and self-determination.

          1. A Dude

            That is really what I was trying to get across, both complete each other the “conscious” and “subconscious” and everything that substantiates both. All one. But that said, you pick up a rock and you throw it one way. There was a possibility of throwing it a myriad of different ways. Why was one way picked over all the other possible ways? Not all directions are being thrown at once same as not all possible actions anybody can take at anytime can be thrown at once. So why are some actions chosen over another if anyone can happen? Ask yourself where do these preferences and orders for actions come from?

            For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, that is a truth, and that is the basis for reasoning. If you plan out: and we do hear a planning going on upstairs or where-ever you believe the planning is taking place to say…write a novel. Your actions are acting out in accordance to that planning no? And why is it that that planning took place in the first place? It did not have to: an act acted to make the action of thinking happen. But ANYTHING could’ve happened, the fact that everything did not happen, but just one thing over a myriad of possibilities suggests that certain acts were chosen over all those other possibilities. Also, if the planning and intention and motivation involved in writing the book did not take place, then the book would not have been written in the way that it was by you (whatever you believe “you” is).

            If both the consciousness and unconsciousness work in concert, and they evolved that way, even if they are the same thing they are the same things with different functions and are part of one another. The consciousness to allow that which the conscious mind evolved from to be aware of that which is clearly thinking, planning, deciding. That specifics are made and the reasons can be explained and indeed predicted: specific decisions on some level are being made. If that level exists at the core of who we are: it is us essentially because the “we” is established by it or for it. Either way, still us.

            When I say “free” I mean 2 things. Free to establish one path over many paths. And that a person (as what that person is) is the one making the decision. Here is an example to clarify what I mean by that. You, the thing that you are, are making decision directing its life in any direction freely. Then somebody comes up, paralyzes you, and sticks a microchip in you brain (this is ridiculous I know) and then controls you with a remote. Everything you are doing now is reflective of ANOTHER energetic and biological construct’s intentions, and even though you can do so yourself, they have control over you; overriding it. Once free, you go back to making decisions on your own provided the brain is intact to do so. But even if the brain is not intact, that is not necessarily indicative that the brain is needed for the mind. But rather the brain is needed for movement of the body which the brain-body relation I believe is just an outward manifestation of what is within, stemmed in the dawn of creation.

            If the possibility of movement exists, what moves it? Does it move itself? With what force? Obviously objects in stasis don’t move until a force is acted upon them. So if something is continually in motion and that constitutes everything that makes up the fabric of all things in the universe human included: that would be energetic particles and the four forces (electromagnetism, gravity, strong force, weak force) behaving eternally; then there must be an infinite force doing to make this so. But again, that force could’ve acted in any way: what decided one way over all other possibilities?

            You go for a constantly undecided force moving: but if everything happens for a reason…what is the reasons for the infinite undecided force? How is it an inifnitely undecided force, how did it come to be? It just is, and the reason for that is? There is no reason! It just is!

            Everything happens for a reaon, if it is a continual undecided action, it is allowed by a continous reason, after all, if everything is born of it, and there are observable reasons behind everything born of it, why is that any different? If reasons were not present, then where did they come from if the possibility of their existent did not itself exist. If it were not possible to be? Equal and opposite, if reason is a consequence of no reason, then reason is just as infinite and powerful as no reason. Infinite means there is no first or last, it always was. It could be either or, but it is neither–that is what infinite is. Be beginning or end. So, we have both in existence: reasoned action and unreasoned action. Their actions distinguish. What is the difference? Reason is planned intention, unreasoned is unplanned intention. And everything in existence reflect that, if both are infinite and make up the fabric of existence, neither one is an illusion they are either both illusions are both real as either one is the consequence of the other infinitely evidencing the other and being the cause of the other infinitely.

            That is evolution, and humans evolved to be aware of it going on, but even that is just an extra layer of what is already there. If there is an non-conscious workforce acting in a specific way over all other ways it must be receiving instructions to act in that certain manner over all other manners. If the information is there, but it has no motivation to be used, let alone act in the certain manner: then motivation must link up with the information. If the information cannot see the motivation or the motivation it, nor the particular steps to move a certain direction over all other directions, then they do not meet. After all, the force that is moving them, waiting on instruction has to move the instruction to the motivation and then the combined instruction and motivation pick certain bits of info constituting a specific action and declaring its priority over all other methods of action: a decision. And that which allows each to see each other is “the consciousness”. Everything has one, humans have a consciousness on top of the consciousness making it subconscious enough to hear itself thinking.

            Why would it be there if not needed or even used? Clearly it had to evolve–research evolution of consciousness, it happened.

            We obviously do hear ourselves thinking and are aware of ourselves about to do, which is why we can control our actions. All of this together becomes something unique that the separate parts apart were not: it becomes the sense of “I”, “me”, “our”. Simply put if said “illusion” could not exist it would not. If it is there, forces greater than itself acted it out to be there.

            I supposed you believe that an illusion led you to think about and conclude that your free will is an illusion. But behold that the illusion is still there? Still involved in voluntary movement? Let me frame out voluntary from involuntary: Involuntary: your heart beating that when you get shot in the head beats slowly stop and die, everything dies. But you are not controlling it, it goes automatically. You sit down, and until you “illusionarily decide” to get up and move about. It does not happen. You “illusionarily” decide to go to the park, or changed to a certain channel. All of these things do not have to happen, but because they are decided upon they do. If you cut off your hand and throw it on the ground and watch it for 2 hours, how much does it get done?

            If they were not decided upon: then only three things would be possible: everything at once, one thing always per person or for every being, or nothing at all. That this is not how reality works, either all of reality is an illusion, or there is no illusion. And that would explain even though you came to the conclusion that you are living in an “illusion” it still persists. And the “illusion” of free (free of others doing it for you, free to choose among many options) will is still involved in the so-called illusionary (voluntary movement–movement that does not have to happen but when it does, one out of many options are chosen at a time). If an illusion is how you became, and how you are, and how you continue, defining everything you are, everything you do, everything you will be. Then it is not an illusion: not for you. Because it is everything available to you. It is everything you are. It is your everything, nothing else. What is possibly more real than that?

            I’ll be clear with you about what I am saying: if I feel asleep in a dream, and I am aware and moving in the dream just as I am outside of dreaming as I am right now; I have no realization this is a dream, no recollection of this not being real. And I live every day of life and die in that dream. That “dream” as far as I can tell till proven otherwise is my reality. How can it be anything other than that?

            Decisions are real as proven by common sense, Newtons laws, other laws of physics, a bit of Einstein, and just looking around the world in yourself and out of yourself. Reasoning is real. There is no reason to believe that what is real is an illusion because other optical illusions have a clear start and finish. You evolved an “illusion” that is everlasting until parts of or all of you die. That makes it a natural part of who you are, it is really you. So if you have the semblance of an illusion causing you to illusionarily “do”. It is really you deciding to do something, provided you believe that you exist. If you believe that you don’t exist for real…well, must be frustrating to never be able to break free of the illusion huh?

            There is a reason for everything, keep going through the reasons until you can go no further and you will realize what must be in order for something to be what it is. This is not absurd: four forces in action cannot be seen with any technology. But you know they are there because the results of them being CAN be seen. And they govern how all energy which is also infinite behave. That there are specific instructions. Information is clearly immortal as well. And all of it together became the “you” today with the evolved benefit of controlling its own further evolution, ESPECIALLY so in the case of homo-sapien. That is the you that is thinking, planning and doing.

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