The Myth of Free Will

Free will remains one of the most fundamental philosophical topics to date. It entails the basic psychology of humanity, and the ability to choose. Say you’ve just eaten an apple, and there are no bins for miles. You don’t want to carry a rotting apple core in your pocket, so you throw it to one side on the field around you. Now fast forward 10 years, and an apple tree may stand where you threw those seeds. Your consciousness, free will, and lack of appetite for apple cores have created a mark in the universe, that may stand there for decades (assuming the landowner likes apples).

Now rewind. Say you’ve got an empty lunchbox to hand. You reason you can put the rotting core in the box until you reach a bin. Okay, so now we go forward another ten years, and you’ve got no apple tree.

Since there is an apple tree at the end of one branch and no apple tree stands at the other, you must agree there are two universes that root back to that one decision taken by the individual. Free will must exist and the universe is changed by all decisions, no matter how consequential.

Free will skepticism

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne rules out free will “simply and decisively, by the laws of physics”. The late Stephen Hawking allegedly agreed, alongside the likes of Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom, and VS Ramachandran.

They cite modern data science, used to predict and manipulate us and our “free will”. It finds repetitive patterns, raising the question of whether it knows us better than ourselves.

Neuroscience also indicates that our brains decide what we are going to do milliseconds in advance of us “deciding” what to do. Not only does this raise the question of who’s in control, but it questions how much of us is truly conscious, and how much is controlled by our DNA and chemistry.

A very interesting video with a humorous twist | Source: exurb1a on YouTube

Implications of the lack of free will

Sam Harris suggests that if humanity begins to accept the knowledge that free will is entirely untrue, it would “precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution”. It would undermine the establishments of society, contradict the core values of humanity and cause us to question why we are given the illusion of control.

The notion that your free will is a complex myth devised by your brain so that you are entertained in your crushingly short existence may depress you, and that’s understandable. In fact, Professor Smilansky from the University of Haifa said that he discourages those prone to depressive episodes from taking his course. Even after preaching it for decades, he hasn’t fully internalized his teachings as they are “too frightening and difficult”.

Our perceptions of free will

When we talk about free will, we think of past actions being changed. It’s the same with fictional ideas of time travel. We’ve heard the phrase of standing on a butterfly in 1908 and changing the future of humanity. What we don’t realize is that, whilst that claim is trivial and likely untrue, it remains as relevant now as it could be in 1908. Doing a small action now may change the future of humanity. So why is it never thought of like that?

Linking back to our apple tree, we imagine ourselves being abstract. Our free will is thought to be an ascended entity, separate from the laws of physics that dictate the tree “we decided” to plant. That is not the case. The neurons that fire to decide you will throw the apple are subject to the same physical laws that govern that tree. So did you choose to throw it, or was it the universe?

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