Why I Have No Free Will


I have no free will, and itís great.

My brain is what controls my behaviour. It is, like all matter, composed entirely of chemicals. It is extraordinarily complicated, with many many working parts, all interconnected in a fiendish and as-yet unfathomed pattern. No matter how complicated a thing is, however, it remains true that at any given instant in time, it is in a particular state. The chemicals are joined in particular combinations, and energy and matter are moving around in particular directions.

Some stimulus comes into my brain from outside. It is sensed by my senses and the signal is sent to my brain. That signal interacts with my brain, changes the physical and chemical state of my brain, and the result is some behaviour from me. My body follows what my brain instructs it to do. Where was the free will? There wasnít any.

Someone tells a joke. I hear the joke. The sounds of the joke come into my brains through my ears, and are translated into electro-chemical activity. The language parts of my brain recognise what the words I hear mean. The joke relies on my understanding that the sound of "big ears" can mean both large ears, and the name of the fictional character Noddyís best friend. I already know this, from previous life experience, and so I am able to get the joke*. My brain registers the humour of the joke, and I laugh. I do not decide to laugh consciously. The stimulus got a response: my laughter.

A few minutes later, I hear the same person tell the same joke to someone else. This time, I donít laugh. I donít laugh because I have heard the joke before. My brain has been chemically altered by the first telling, and now the sounds I hear are interacting with a different brain.

Sometimes, though, it seems to me that I do make decisions. I am in a shop, and am tempted to buy a pair of glow-in-the-dark sunglasses, but canít decide whether they are really worth the money I must pay. I dither and agonise over the decision, and then leave the shop without buying them, and walk home, all the time wondering whether I have done the right thing. Still, no free will is involved, merely the illusion of it.

I was always going to decide not to buy the glasses. My brain was in a particular chemical state when the opportunity to buy the glasses arose, and given the particular combination of circumstances (the mood I was in, the light in the shop, my knowledge of my bank balance) I was always going to decide against the investment. My conscious mind didnít know what the final decision would be, however, and what I consciously experienced was the agony of decision. Such difficult decisions are very rare.

Some people rebel against the conclusion that we have no free will. They claim that it is for some reason depressing. I have never been told by anyone, despite my having asked many times, why I should be depressed to realise that I have no free will. That I have no free will seems a logical conclusion which must be drawn from the simple facts that my brain is made of matter and that it interacts with the world through the senses.

This is how I see it: -

The world I live in is a very large and complicated place. Consequently, though it has a certain and comforting degree of predictability, I do not ever know for certain what stimuli I am going to experience next. Also, since I do not have conscious access to everything my brain is doing, even if I could predict what is going to happen to me next, I still could not predict how I would react. Life is an interesting three-dimensional experience, with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. Why should I complain that I have no free will, when I have the perfect illusion of it, and the world is so marvellous? How would having free will make me any happier?

People talk about how amazing it is that we have evolved free will. Some people consider free will to be so amazing that it convinces them that a god must have created humans, and that free will is some special magic that humans have. In fact, we have not evolved free will at all. Instead we have evolved a consciousness, and the illusion of free will. Often, to us, it really seems as though we could have decided to act some other way from the way we did act.

So why did we evolve the illusion of free will? Well, partly this is to do with the phenomenon of consciousness, but also to do with self-deception. If I can fool myself into thinking that Iím a nice guy, then Iím going to be much better at fooling you into thinking the same. Actually, deep down, our every instinct is self-serving. I am only nice because in the long term it suits me to be nice. If I become convinced to my core that I truly am nice, then I will not yield to the temptation to be nasty for short-term advantage. I will be consistently nice, and the benefits of niceness are far greater if one acts that way. The illusion of free will makes me feel that I am deciding to be nice, and if I am deciding to be nice, having the option of being nasty, then I must be a truly nice guy, right?

People who have been hypnotised to shout ďBasingstoke!Ē at the tops of their voices whenever anyone uses the word ďspongeĒ will, when asked why they just shouted Basingstoke, give totally spurious reasons. They do what they do despite not knowing why. The illusion of free will protects us from our true motives. Evolutionary psychology is largely the study of subconscious motives. Those of us who study it notice again and again that our motives just happen to coincide with the strategy which would maximise the number of genes we might pass on. Men do not decide to find twenty-year old women sexier than eighty-year olds, they just do. It just so happens that men who feel this way pass on more genes, because eighty-year olds cannot get pregnant. This is no coincidence. Similarly, people who are wronged several times by their siblings are far more likely to be forgiving than those wronged by non-relatives. The siblings share the genes of the potential forgiver, and so there is shared genetic interest. The wronged man may feel that he has the option of not forgiving his brother, and of forgiving his friend, but he has not. The illusion of free will prevents him from realising the truth, and so he acts more effectively in the service of his genes. If he knew the truth, he might start acting against the interests of his genes. Perhaps some people in the past started doing this, but they probably did not become our ancestors (and even then, they still didnít actually have free will).

So, I have no free will, and I can sit back and enjoy the roller-coaster ride of life. Even I donít know what Iím going to do next. Exciting, eh?




* The joke goes as follows: Q: WHY HAVE ELEPHANTS GOT BIG EARS?
A: BECAUSE NODDY WOULDN'T PAY THE RANSOM.

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Written by Nikolas Lloyd