Is Free Will an Illusion We’re Incapable of Disbelieving

January 31st, 2008

There is a logical inconsistency between believing that all things are explainable in terms of science and believing that we have free will. Suppose for some reason you end up in a situation where you are very angry and have a loaded pistol pointed at another person. What will decide if you pull the trigger? Well, ultimately, it is a neuron firing that sends a signal down your spinal cord to twitch your finger. Well, what causes that neuron to fire? There’s a storm of memories and emotions in your head at the moment, all of which have been accumulated over a lifetime and all of which have been encoded in your brain. You could go further if you wanted, down to the atomic level and look at yourself as a computer, but I think my point is clear. Do you have a choice in whether to pull that trigger? If you accept that you’re just a tangle of bio-circuitry or a system of chemical reactions, then the answer is, no. If you believe you do have a choice, then from where is your ability to choose coming? When you follow your actions back as far as they will physically go and get to that final electron on the fence, you have to ask yourself what made it fall to one side rather than the other? Was it pure randomness? Is that then what we’re calling free will? Random fluctuations? Or is there something that is you, some soul, some mind, some consciousness, that gave it a little nudge.

Maybe free will is something analogous to surfing, being carried along by the powerful waves of the universe, but staying on your board and enjoying the ride, doing a few tricks for your own amusement and that of the crowd on the shore. Or maybe it’s just a beautiful illusion–an illusion we are logically incapable of disbelieving. But if it’s not an illusion, if free will truly exists, then at some very primitive level, some elemental level, we must be capable of breaking free from the strict laws of physics–and that has great implications as to the nature of the universe. It would not be unreasonable then to ask, what else there is beyond the physical universe. However, if free will is just an illusion, if all my behavior is governed by the inescapable and unforgiving laws of nature, well, then I apologize for this post, but I just couldn’t help myself.

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