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How Dispelling the Illusion of Free Will Can Be Freeing
A journey into personal liberation through understanding
A year ago I listened to Sam Harris discussing free will on the Waking Up app. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I tried to investigate his claims through my own experience, especially during the meditation retreat two months ago.
I find understanding the illusion of free will has changed so much about how I see myself and others. And it’s surprisingly liberating.
In this post, I’d like to share some learnings. But before that let me briefly clarify the terminology.
I think it’s easier to start talking about free will by talking about determinism.
Determinism, in philosophy and science, the thesis that all events in the universe, including human decisions and actions, are causally inevitable. Determinism entails that, in a situation in which a person makes a certain decision or performs a certain action, it is impossible that he or she could have made any other decision or performed any other action. In other words, it is never true that people could have decided or acted otherwise than they actually did.
It’s easy to see that determinism is incompatible with our usual sense of free will, that we have the capacity to make decisions independently of any prior or outside event.
Others argue that quantum theory suggests the universe involves randomness, not just determinism. This however is incompatible with free will as well, for if our decisions or actions are in part determined by randomness, it’s not the free will we want either.
So if we agree on determinism, or determinism plus randomness, we don’t have the kind of free will we think we have.
Why do I think so? One could study what science tells us.1 I believe this by looking closely at how thoughts arise in my mind: Thoughts and feelings arise on their own; I do not know what is my next thought until it arises from my consciousness.
For example, I indeed chose to write this post, but I can’t explain why this thought came to me, or why I’m writing now instead of going for a walk. I can offer explanations, but I can’t be sure they are true.2
Getting back to the free will debate: Many scientists and philosophers agree on determinism, but they argue free will is compatible with it. As I see it, they seem to argue that we still have free will by presenting another definition: We’re free as long as we’re in control of our actions. Although they may appear out of mystery, they’re still our thoughts and actions. To which Sam Harris replies, it’s like saying “A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.”
Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes the disagreement well:
In the end, the important question may be not whether the universe is deterministic or indeterministic but whether one is willing to accept a definition of free will that is much weaker than intuition demands.
So let’s not bother about the semantics of free will. I think what matters most is realizing that determinism (or determinism plus randomness) is true, the idea that we could not have chosen to do what we did not in fact do.
One might think such an idea is depressing, that it means we don’t have any agency, since what we’re doing now is determined. But I find it the opposite.
It allows me to better accept myself and my past. For example, I could have blamed myself for procrastinating this post until the end of the week. But accepting that I could not have done otherwise suggests it’s wiser for me to let go of the blame and instead focus on what I can do next.3
Understanding the past has nothing to do with our free will creates room for real self-acceptance.
(One of my favorite movie scenes is Sean telling Will that it’s not his fault.)
Determinism doesn’t mean fatalism. The actions we take still matter, because what we decide to do become the prior causes that affect future behaviors. I can’t decide whether I’ll eat healthier or go to the gym five times a week. If humans have such ability then Atomic Habits won’t stay on the best-sellers list. I can, however, surround myself with friends who live a healthy lifestyle so I’m more likely to be like them.
I think the choices we make matter more than we normally think. For example, not long after I learned about the illusion of free will, I went to watch the new Top Gun movie. I saw good reviews weeks before, and my friend asked whether I wanted to do something fun that day. So I suggested we go watch the Top Gun. Had I not paid attention to the reviews weeks ago, we probably wouldn’t have watched it. And I cannot explain why that movie appeared in my mind when my friend asked me.
This suggests that my current focus will be part of the causal chain that can influence my future actions, shaping decisions I’ll make today, or even weeks and years from now. I cannot know when, or whether they will ever exert any real power on me. From a neuroscience perspective, our brain is indeed changed by each and every experience.
It also helps me to accept and be more empathetic with others by the same logic. Sometimes my parents quarrel fiercely over small things. I once discussed with my mom that, when that happened, my dad was seized by emotions — he really was not in the driver’s seat. It’s not that he chose to harm people or say bad words, but he was simply a victim of his emotions, which were shaped by his past experiences and genes.
We know what it’s like to be taken away by thoughts or emotions, but the fact is in every moment we are controlled by the “wilderness” of thoughts and feelings that arise in our consciousness.
This does not diminish any moral responsibility that we believe we have. We should still hold people accountable, not to punish them for the sake of making them miserable, but to prevent harm and deter others. Because if we exchange all the genes and past experiences with them, we would do the same. We’re luckier than them to have a saner mind. This creates grounds for compassion.
How about love? If hatred doesn’t make sense, is love still valuable?
Sam Harris calls this “one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.” He writes,
Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behavior. Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company. […]
Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently. We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu. We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense. True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions.
The realization of free will as an illusion has been far from disempowering. Instead, it has allowed me to better engage with life and deepen my understanding of our human experience:
Our choices and surroundings exert a greater influence than we might initially believe.
True transformation isn’t just a matter of willpower. It’s about creating conducive conditions that nurture positive change.
Deep and meaningful change is rooted in a genuine acceptance of ourselves, realizing that our past actions were shaped by factors beyond our conscious control.
Recognizing our reactions are not of our own choosing creates a more empathetic perspective toward ourselves and others.
In a world where free will is questioned, love and compassion retain their significance.
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Have a great weekend,
Derek Sivers once talked about a short story with Tim Ferris: During brain surgery, the patient needs to stay awake. And so there was a woman — I don’t know the details of this. It was on the EconTalk podcast — that during brain surgery they were poking around in there and suddenly the woman started laughing — the patient started laughing, and they asked, “Why are you laughing?” And she said, “Oh, well, it’s just it’s really funny the way that that curtain is hanging.” And she really thought that the reason she was laughing was because that’s the way the curtain was hanging. But it was actually because they were poking.
It’s the shame vs guilt difference psychologists talk about: If I believe I’m the author of my actions, it’s natural to shame myself for not having done better, which is counter-productive. Guilt is productive, as it’s directed at things rather than people.