This is a fascinating topic, and one that is very easy to overlook. But if you think about it enough, it begins to make sense. There is not free will.
By free will, I mean you could have done otherwise, and you’re the author of your actions. Seems like there obviously is free will, right? Think again.
Your brother wants to walk his dog tomorrow morning, and if he wants to in the morning, he will. Right?
While that is true, whether he makes the decision to do it or not really isn’t his, and I’ll try to explain in this post why.
Much of our consciousness is an illusion. We think we have control over things because we consciously think we are making choices, but we really aren’t making those choices. Thoughts arise out of our heads beyond our control. Stop reading this for a minute, close your eyes, and try to think about nothing for 2 minutes. You won’t be able to. Thoughts will be constantly popping into your head outside of your control. It goes all the way back to when we were born. Every second after is a reflection of the next and causes the next action.
So if you’re 25 years old and make a decision, the decision that is made is just a reflection of every moment up to that time in your life that led you to make the decision at this present time. And if you trace back every second leading up to this point, you will realize it started outside of your control (when you were born). If it started outside of your control, how can it end up in your control?
If this doesn’t make sense, hopefully it will after you finish this article.
Genetics & Environment
There are only 2 things that influence everything in life – our genetics, and our environment. Our genetics are what we get from our parents, our environment is the place in space that we exist, including everything around us that influences us. We may be born in the middle of Afghanistan from two wealthy parents who are politicians, or we may be born into England, raised by a single mom in the poorest part of London. Neither of these are within our control, yet influence everything we do throughout our lives.
You’ll then suggest “but wait, when I’m 18 my consciousness is raised and I can think for myself”. While your consciousness is certainly raised as your grow older, the actions that you take are purely just reflections of everything in your life up until the point you have the thought and took the action. If you’re 18 and decide to backpack the world or if your 18 and decide to stay working at McDonalds, whichever you decide is merely a reflection of your past – genetics and environment – which makeup all of your experiences, decisions, and your present state of mind.
If atom for atom, I traded spots with you, I would be you. What else could possibly suggest otherwise?
There are 2 perspectives that I think we have to look at when it comes to this free will idea: the whole, and I.
I’ll propose everything we do, and think in our lifetimes, everything, is dependent on 2 things: your genetics, and your environment. Genetics being the DNA that gave you the cells that make up your mind and body, and environment being the surroundings of the cells, everything but the cells, or in other words, everything but your body. This includes your parents, your house, the trees, the air, friends, everything else is the environment.
Now when you make one of your first decisions as a child, for example, such as to break the wine glass your mom had, how much of that decision was within your control? Intuitively, most people would say the child made a conscious choice to do it, or that he was too young to know better. But really, think a bit deeper, why and how does one make decisions? Whether the child decides to break the glass or not is entirely dependant on his brain and the decisions it makes, and his environment and how he was raised up until that point. What other possible influences could there be?
In another example, you see your sister go on and graduate valedictorian of her high school class, attend Harvard for an MBA, and get married to the love of her life. Within 5 years, she is a millionaire and has 2 babies. How much of all of this was in her control? We consciously think that she was hardworking, smart, intelligent, etc. because she chose to be, and her hard work paid off. But how did she become a hard worker and how much of that was in her control? If you suggest it was how she was raised, that would be part of the environment which was not a single bit in her control.
In another example, lets talk about Uday Hussein. Uday Hussein was the eldest son of Saddam Hussein. Uday went on to become an evil person by almost every measure, including kidnapping and raping young Iraqi women. How much of his actions were in his own control? To start, he was born into an environment which was the family of Saddam Hussein. From the day he was born, he was surrounded by that family, and as a result, affected all the decisions he made. Now when he turned 18, you may suggest that he is old enough to know right from wrong. Perhaps (only if his genetics or environment convinced him of that), but whether he abandons the family or not isn’t within his control, it is simply a reflection of genetics and environment up until that very moment that determines every next action, and whether it happens or not.
If two people both read a book on how to become a stock trader, and after reading one person starts trading the next day, and the other person doesn’t ever trade at all, what influences these outcomes? Judgement, past experience, current state of mind, etc., all of which are things that are derived outside of our control. Whether you make a judgement and/or what judgement you make seems like we have a choice and we can sit and try to reason it all day, but at another look it clearly is derived from the past which started outside of our control, and therefore cannot be in our control. If you think is it, at what point do we get control and how do we do get control? Comment below.
I call this view the “I” view, which is basically looking at individuals in society and demonstrating how every thought that arises, every action they take, and every outcome in their lives is out of their control, and it’s only an illusion to think we have control. In fact pretty much everything in society suggests we have control of our own actions – look at all the self help stuff in existence. While one person reading a self help book could influence that person in a big way, whether it does or not will merely be a reflection of every past thought and action up until that moment of influence.
The next perspective will look more at society as a whole, in what I call the “whole” view.
The whole are all the interactions that happen throughout life. These interaction could be talking to someone, tripping over a rock, being in the middle of a tornado, helping a friend, going to the gym, or sleeping on a couch. Tomorrow I may interact with someone I never met before, have a conversation with them, and that conversation changes my life and I end up best friends with them for years to come. These interactions that happen in the world are all events that happen outside of our control. We think we made the choice to do things that lead us to meet those people, but we really didn’t.
Even if the meeting with this person was a planned dinner, whether you planned the dinner or not, and every event after was not in your control, even though it seems to be.
When you’re driving down the highway and a major accident happens in front of you, you think “wow, that could have been me, it wasn’t in my control at all”. While that is true, all events are of such. We are simply deceived in thinking otherwise because our conscious thoughts seem to be authored by us ourselves, when they are actually mere reflections of past experiences and events, along with our genetics (all of which are outside of our control).
The illusions I present above are somewhat difficult to grasp, though with enough thought it will begin to make sense and then boggle your mind for awhile. There are many ways to demonstrate the lack of control we really have over our thoughts and actions, and the example below will simply be describing something more physical which tends to be easier to understand.
In 1966, Charles Witman murdered his wife and mother, and then went to a college campus, stood on the 28th floor of the main building shooting people for an hour and a half, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others. He left a note before his death:
“I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.
I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job […] If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts […] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation.
After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”
After an autopsy was done on his brain, it was discovered that he had a brain tumor, compressing parts of his brain that are known the control emotions such as fear and anxiety. Though not certain, this tumor could have pushed him over the edge, causing him to go on a killing spree.
Now the question to ask, even if you don’t buy into my illusory perspectives described above, surely you’d agree that Witman didn’t choose to have a tumor in his brain. If he didn’t choose this and it came into existence beyond his control, then can we blame him for any effects that it causes or any actions it forces him to take? He is merely a victim of biology and was unlucky to have the gene-environment combo that led him to this result.
The tumor is a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions, while we can certainly have non-physical events (like a thought) also give rise to other thoughts that result in actions.
Take any other person you can think of in the world. If you traded places, atom for atom, you would be that person at this moment. Any experiences he/she had, and any thoughts that have arisen are contained within that person. Think for a bit, why wouldn’t you be that person if you traded atom for atom?
The important note about this is that you can’t only trade atom for atom, you also have to trade space for space. This is because if you traded atom for atom but existed in a different space in time, the interactions you have (see “Whole” above) would change, and therefore the environment would change and therefore the result wouldn’t be the same.
But if you traded places in space, and atom for atom for any other person, you would be that person.
What does this all mean?
Authoring our thoughts (free will) would require we think our thoughts before we think them. But this doesn’t happen. They simply arise out of our consciousness. You can look at examples, you can think hard about it, you can meditate and try to observe thoughts as they arise out of consciousness, and/or you can experiment on your own to see what thoughts you can control. If I say “don’t think of a big, fat pink elephant right now”, you’re almost surely going to think of a pink elephant. If I say think of nothing for 2 minutes except the air going in and out of your nose, you’ll notice very quickly your mind will be wondering onto things completely unrelated. Both in practice and in theory, it is quite clear there isn’t much control, and where there seems like control it is merely an illusion and simply a reflection of all prior events and thoughts leading up to that moment.
The fact that you’re reading this means you’re curious about it and able to read this, and as a result I’d consider you very lucky. When I came to this realization not too long ago, it stumped me for awhile but has certainly made me question a lot more of my judgements about the world and the people around me.
So, did I have a choice to write this article? No. The thoughts, the motivation, the act of actually doing it all came from my genetics and environment from when I was born until this very moment.
This doesn’t mean you just sit there and do nothing because the world is “planned”, it isn’t. Not only is it incredibly hard to do nothing, whether you sit and do nothing is a reflection of all the previous experiences you had and knowledge you gained from your surroundings, and how your genetics allows you to process them. It’s unlikely you’ll do just nothing, but again, it isn’t something you control. Not only this, doing nothing is also a choice you don’t have control over.
You could even go as far as saying you didn’t have the choice to read this, but now that you have, you can attempt to reflect on it. One thing I say could influence the next event. One thing I hear could influence how I live the rest of my life. One thing you read could influence the rest of your life. I strongly think people should publicly share their opinions and thoughts on a blog. Something small to you could positively help others in a big or small well, and also sharing thoughts and opinions helps you find the holes in them, which is always helpful because it reduces bias.
It hard to think of the world through this lens of no “free will” because everything around us says otherwise – that we have choice and “free will”. It’s even harder to explain this topic to people who’ve lived their entire lives without thinking about it through this lens. After recognizing that free will almost certainly doesn’t exist, I certainly try to look at less fortunate people as unlucky and more fortunate ones as very lucky, including myself.
If you have anything to say about this post, please post in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
If you enjoyed this article, the video above is worth watching.