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Free Will Is Just an Illusion, According to Scientists

Paul studied the philosophy at Leicester University and is passionate about metaphysics and science. UK born, he now lives in Florida.

Is everything predetermined or do we have free will?

Is everything predetermined or do we have free will?

According to the classical view of physics, the universe is like a giant clock that was wound up and then set going at the beginning of time. From the Big Bang onwards, events proceeded in a way that was predetermined.

If true, the implications of this idea are profound. It suggests that free will and science are fundamentally incompatible and that all the happenings in any human life do not occur through decisions, but rather have already been predetermined.

This idea is problematic because it conflicts with our intuitions regarding free will. We like to believe that we are each responsible for making our own choices in life and collectively there are entire social structures built upon this idea.

If there's no free will, one major problem that arises is morality. If everything is preordained, then it can be argued that even the worst criminal does not bear responsibility for his or her crimes, as there was no decision-making involved. Their behavior was essentially outside of their control.

What Is Free Will?

Philosophers can define free will in different ways. For the sake of this article, I am going to define free will as the idea that there are a number of possible futures in any given present moment, and that free will is the ability to select one of these potential futures and make it become a reality.

This is what most people generally understand free will to mean.

Why Do People Believe in Free Will?

It certainly feels like we're constantly making choices in our lives, whether it's the smaller, practical decisions that we take when driving a car, or the bigger, more emotional ones like deciding who to marry or where to live.

Our intuitions can be wrong, though. There are plenty of examples where science shows that our brains deceive us. Optical illusions, for instance, demonstrate how easily our brains can trick us when it comes to interpreting reality.

There is a debate amongst neurologists about free will and whether it exists. Some have postulated that our "decisions" are generated entirely subconsciously and it is only later that we become consciously aware of them. What's more, there does appear to be some experimental evidence that backs up this idea.

This leads many to conclude that our intuitions of free will are perhaps nothing more than an aspect of the self-awareness that we are thinking. Our brains make a calculation and come up with a decision subconsciously. We justify the "decision" afterward, believing that we have made a choice, when really the conscious mind was presented with a fait accompli.

The Argument Against Free Will Made by Physicists

Science is built on laws of nature and the idea that if we know the initial conditions of any given situation, then we are able to calculate what will happen at any moment of time using differential equations. Essentially, the future is determined by the present.

These scientific laws have evolved over centuries and are based on vast amounts of experimental evidence, as well as reasoning and math. The laws apply as much to our brains as our bodies, as brains are physical and made up of particles. These brain particles follow the same fundamental rules as other particles.

A fundamental problem with the intuitive idea of free will is that it doesn't seem to make sense when closely examined. If a decision is dictated by what we want, then clearly it isn't "free." Alternatively, if it's not determined, then it's not actually a "will."

Some people attempt to get around the problem by arguing that, as there was more than one option available, then free will exists because there were potential alternative choices.

The problem with this argument is that there is no actually evidence that these alternatives ever existed. The choices that were never taken didn't actually happen, and they only exist in the human imagination.

You Don't Have Free Will, But Don't Worry

A Scientific Argument In Favor of Free Will?

Some physicists, such as Michio Kaku, believe that the arrival on the scene of quantum mechanics in the early part of the twentieth century meant that the idea of free will could no longer be discounted.

According to this argument, Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle demonstrates that the universe posseses an unpredictability that's built-in. This creates a big enough gap in the idea of determinism to allow space for free will to exist.

Generally speaking, it's certainly true that there is chaos in the universe. However, chaos is still deterministic, as the future still follows from the present. The chaos just makes predictions much harder to make.

In the specific case of quantum physics, some events are truly random and prediction is impossible. However, this randomness is, by definition, outside of the influence of anything. If this is the case, then the random events cannot be influenced by expressions of free will.

In short, chaos and quantum mechanics don't provide any support for the definition of free will that I stated earlier in this article; they only show that the universe possesses some unpredictability.

Michio Kaku: Why Physics Ends the Free Will Debate

Free Will and Morality

If the universe is deterministic and we're just watching its story play out, what happens to morality?

Albert Einstein, who believed in a deterministic universe, still believed that criminals should be imprisoned if they murdered or raped. Does that make him a hypocrite?

One obvious answer to this question is to point out that if criminals cause serious problems for society then they present a threat and it makes sense to lock them up. This is true regardless of whether free will exists or not. The criminal embodies the problem and the solution is to prevent them from harming others by imprisoning them.

Another issue that's often raised is that people would be disincentivized from behaving in a moral way, if they didn't believe that they had free will.

However, there doesn't appear to be any evidence for this. In fact, a 2017 study actually suggested the opposite—that people who don't believe in free will tend to behave more morally and not less.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Paul Goodman