Free Will: How Would It Actually Work?

Free WillThe notion of free will simply doesn’t make sense. Having realized the fictitious nature of objective reality, the question is a non-starter—there’s simply no entity to possess it—but even if, for the sake of discussion, we grant the existence of a material universe, there’s still no way in which “free will” could ever be an intelligible notion. That is, if we ask ourselves what we actually mean by the word “free,” we can’t seem to come up with an answer.

Commonly, the notion of “free will” means something like: To be able to have chosen otherwise. In other words, “I did this, but I could have done that instead.”

But what does it mean that ‘I could have done differently?’

Let’s say that I chose vanilla ice cream. But I firmly believe that I could have chosen chocolate instead. I believe that the choice to take the vanilla flavour came from myself, that the choice was mine. Sure, I may have been influenced by external forces, but I alone ultimately decided whether I wanted vanilla or chocolate ice cream today. Right?

But if the choice to take the vanilla was caused by me, what then caused me to cause that choice? There has to have been a prior cause; some force making me decide what to eat—whether internal or external—otherwise that choice to take the vanilla ice cream is simply indistinguishable from a random one. In other words, unless I decide to decide, or something decides for me, the choice is simply random.

So, do I decide to decide? Of course not. Then we would have to admit another decision, one that decided that we were going to decide to decide, and so on ad infinitum.

The only possibilities left are either that choices are random, or they’re caused—their causes themselves being caused, and so on, “all the way back,” so to speak—but neither of these alternatives fit what we mean by the word “free.” So, what do we mean?

Well, there’s the problem. When we truly  try to comprehend the concept of “free will,” we realize that we don’t even know what we mean.  The notion is literally inconceivable.

Either choices depend on something, in which case they’re not “free,” or they don’t, in which case they’re indistinguishable from random ones. There’s no third alternative here.

Even if we grant the existence of some kind of “soul” that exists outside of the chain of causation, yet with the ability to inject decisions into it, we would still be unable to come up with an idea of how ‘free will’ would actually work. If we as the source of a decision exist outside of the chain of causation, how’s that decision any different from a merely random one? And do we really mean to say that our souls are uncaused? We usually think that some force put us here; but if anything, whatever is responsible for putting us here would then also be the ultimate cause for any decisions that we come up with.

Does all of this mean that there’s no possibility of choice? That there aren’t a multitude of possible outcomes? That everything is “on rails,” so to speak? Yes it does.

The idea that anything could be different than it is, is simply delusion. The idea that there were multiple possible outcomes to an event is nothing but a way of thinking. We call events “random” when we couldn’t predict what was going to happen, mentally creating a plethora of “possible outcomes” – but all of that is just in thought. It’s just a way of thinking. None of that exists in reality.

The way things are, is simply the only way they could be.

When you realize this—that nothing could be different than it is—the habit of incessantly worrying about past and future decisions can finally come to an end. Thoughts surrounding the notions of selection and choice need not to occupy our consciousness anymore; instead, their absence signifies a newfound freedom: anything but constant perfection is starting to become unthinkable. In the absence of these thoughts surrounding the notion of “free will,” we can at last rest assured that everything is always unfolding exactly as it should.

Further reading:

16 Responses to Free Will: How Would It Actually Work?

  1. Rien says:

    I agree, but a discussion of free will is incomplete without also mentioning responsibility. The two go hand in hand. What is responsibility? Or better, what is responsibility without, or in the light of, free will?

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Hi Rien! I’m planning to cover responsibility as such in a blog post coming soon!

  2. Kari says:

    Free will is nothing but a thought about a ‘person’ who could have a choice.
    Neither the person (a me), or the choice exist, other than a thought about it.

  3. Winston Anderson says:

    Thank you Goran but two related issues remain unclear. First, I accept the ‘involuntariness’ of thought but does this necessarily mean we have to choose a particular thought? We are often advised to ‘watch’ our thoughts passing through. Surely the thought proceed the action and we ‘choose’ the thought that we will act upon? Second, you imply (and Sam Harris says expressly) that the absence of free will seems not to preclude the possibility of ‘change’ i.e., improvement. You mention ‘rehabilitation’. Does this not imply there is the possibility of change?

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Choosing a thought to act upon is just like choosing ice cream. And the decision to watch thoughts are also like that; we don’t decide to decide. If we beleive that we do, then did we also make a decision to decide to decide? This thinking ends in an infinite regress.

      Yes, change is possible. Everything that happens is change! It’s just that the conditions that facilitate the change are outside any control. An alcoholic can stop drinking. But the forces that make this possible is outside his control.

  4. Jireh says:

    So,the concept of “parallel universe” is only a concept? It somehow means there can be two choices about a decision. I chose A and have the life i have now. But in a parallel universe,i may choose B and am having a different life. So, is this concept just fictitious too?

    Beseides, knowing that I dont have free will may be a relief but at the same time,fear arise too. It sounds to me that even if somethng bad is coming and i dont have anything to do with it. Of course,it will then be the discussion about if thing can be bad or good,or only thing happening. But very honestly, subjectively, i do think something are bad and dont like them to happen. It may involve the sense of “i”. But honestly, this is how i feel right now.

  5. Adam says:

    How does infinity fit into this?
    If the world is limited, the idea of constant perfection is hard to entertain, because it still leaves the idea of an imperfection which the world is not.
    In an infinite universe, all possibilities already exist everywhere. Including parallel universes, although they are not parallel and separate.

  6. Marianne Sciberras says:

    love love love it! Keep ’em coming.

  7. BK says:

    Was the article on responsibility posted? At this point, does one “decide” to vaccinate the cat or let the universe unfold as it will? I will look around the site.

    • Mr Mark says:

      “At this point, does one “decide” to vaccinate the cat”

      At the point where their brain neurons are firing in such a way that the desire to go and vaccinate the cat finally outweighs the desire to ‘leave it for later’.

  8. Dan F. says:

    I disagree with this. There does not have to be an infinite chain of causes. People are not dominoes. If they were, then yes, there would have to be an infinite chain of them. But they aren’t. The best explanation I’ve read is the rules that govern complex systems, such as a person or a society, are a different set of rules than what govern subatomic particles or bowling balls or dominoes. If you want to understand how subatomic particles behave, you need to study quantum physics. If you want to understand how dominoes or bowling balls behave, you need to study dynamics. If you want to understand how people behave, then you need to study psychology, sociology, biology, etc. It’s possible that two extremely different sciences like quantum physics and phsychology are related at some crazy level that we don’t yet understand. But they might not be either. The rules that govern one type of system do not necessarily need to govern the other type. The rules of the more complex system only need to not violate the rules of the lower level systems. New rules emerge as you add complexity. Understanding the basic properties of water at a molecular level will not help you predict the behavior of a hurricane. The hurricane can’t violate the basic laws of molecular water, but there are a whole new set of rules that apply to the hurricane as a system that are meaningless when looking at individual water molecules. This is how people are, too. In short, things can be greater than the sum of their parts.

    • Mr Mark says:

      “Understanding the basic properties of water at a molecular level will not help you predict the behavior of a hurricane.”

      No, but a hurricane would be predictable if someone or a computer knew all the variables before it came about. Which of course is not possible, and not ‘predictable’ in the sense we have the tools or brain to predict it, because we don’t. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t followed a set of causes one after another.

      If a hurricane is currently over a certain town, in the shape and strength it is, it’s in that ‘state’ at that very moment, because of the state it was in just before that, which caused it’s current state, and the same thing going further back, at any point one has snapshot of the state and size of the hurricane, it is in that state because of a previous cause to it.

      Which means it was predictable, just we are incapable of calculating that prediction.

  9. Max says:

    Goran, have you heard about the concept of infinite parallel realities? Many channelers (like Bashar) talk about it often

  10. Erik says:

    Not disagreeing on the matter presented here on free will at all, well done. Just that things are the only way they could have been. Given the randomness of quantum mechanics, there would seem to be no preset future. Again though this changes the matter of free will in no way.

  11. don says:

    The answer is right, there is no free will. But the analysis is wrong.

    There is no free will because everything happens spontaneously. There is no ‘thing’ that is doing anything. What appears as reality is actually the unreal. like a cartoon, flip the pages, the characters change positions, but nothing is actually happening.
    There is thinking but no thinker. Ask this: What’s the next thought? What’s the next thought? There will be no response. Why, because you are not the thinker. You are that which is PRIOR to the thought. The mind is only a receiver.
    Consider all that appears to occur an accident. There must be a witness to testify to the accident. Like standing on the corner waiting on a car wreck. But there is no one there, only witnessing. Witnessing, no witness. The little leap (enter the gate-less gate) that happens to no one. And what power in witnessing? Zero.

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