I just received this email from a reader about free will, and I actually get a lot of these because of my numerous articles on the topic.
I thought his email was so well put together that I should answer publicly. So here are his questions, along with my answers inline.
If everything has been predetermined, how come we can make rational, informed, choices?
The same way a computer can. Computers can be smart and rational when it comes to solving problems, and nobody would argue that they have free will.
Would it also not be silly to think about things because of no matter what it was predetermined for you to do it?
I’m releasing a full video essay on this topic soon.
The answer to this is that we’re human and we can’t live without behaving as if we have free will, and as if our “choices” matter. That is how we must function in a moment-to-moment, day-by-day basis because that’s how we’re built. But it doesn’t mean we have to accept that perception as truth. There are many situations where our senses lie to us in ways that we can prove objectively.
For example, when you touch your nose, the sensation of your nose and finger arrive at different times in the brain, but the brain groups them together to make it feel simultaneous. Even with this knowledge, we live in the reality of our senses, not in raw truth.
The longer answer is something I call General Absurdism, which is the universal distance between human experience and underlying reality. This gap applies to so many things. In Absurdism (proper), it applies to the search for inherent meaning in this chaotic universe. And it also applies to our perception of agency and free will.
We experience one thing (making choices) while another thing is true (we cannot affect outcomes if our actions are the result of previous inputs). Those things are in conflict, but that’s ok. Ice cream is a bunch of atoms bumping into each other, but that doesn’t make it any less glorious.
Do you think that even if we can’t control the present or the future we can at the very least chose how we deal with it or our mindset of the situation? Or is that all determined to?
Determined here really just means out of our control. If there is true randomness that goes against determinism, but doesn’t give us any control.
Yes, it’s all determined. Even how we choose to deal with things that we contemplate.
Again, computers can do that. They can see a chess move is made, contemplate the future, and make a choice that seems best for their goals. That’s not free will.
Do you believe we exist or are we just illusions? If we can’t chose what we do, how can we as a concept exist?
Well, we all have a collective perception that we exist. And everyone seems to mostly have the same perception. And there is a strong argument that the only possible thing we can be sure of, is that we are conscious. Because feeling conscious is itself the proof.
As far as whether we really exist, well, that depends on what you think qualifies? If we’re running in a simulation but we’re still here doing these things, and still conscious, do you think that’s reality? I do. Is it as much reality as another kind? I don’t know.
At what point do we consider something real?
When a whole bunch of individuals in the collective develop the scientific method, and we can independently verify truths about the environment. Again, that doesn’t tell us how real it is. Maybe we’re in a virtual reality engine somewhere. Maybe we’re in one of a trillion universes. Whatever.
The question is what you consider to be the cutoff for real. I personally think whatever this is definitely qualifies.
Is there a possibility that we could be wrong? I have been accused of using circular logic when trying to convince people they don’t make choices and are mindless cause and effect machines even though all the science says otherwise. Is it just a copout? Because no matter what they do we are right because it was determined to do so?
Yes, it’s possible that we’re wrong.
If we live in a world with true, Libertarian Free Will, like the kind given by a god, then we would be wrong.
As an atheist I don’t see any evidence for this, but it could absolutely be true. It’s just very, very unlikely.
If free will is a lie is self-control not real? Does that mean it does not matter how hard a person tries to change they never will of their own?
I wrote a whole piece about this, called Free Will’s Absurdist Paradox.
This is where the paradox comes in.
Yes, self-control is ultimately an illusion. But as a human, living this human life, it’s quite real. It’s real from our perspective as these weird, complex animals that we are.
Answer me this. Do people love their romantic partners? Do they love their children? Does ice cream taste good? Yes. Of course they do. Those things are true because they’re about perception. They’re interpretations of reality from a human point of view.
If you are an unfeeling, super-evolved AI life form from the other side of the multiverse, and I show you the atoms of an ice cream cone, does those atoms taste good? The question doesn’t even make sense, because both “taste” and “good” require a perspective.
When you wake up every morning you have to try to be a better person. You have to try to help your friends and loved ones live better lives. That’s human truth. That’s human reality.
At the same time, it’s not really possible to do anything other than what you’re going to do. So maybe you did improve yourself. Or maybe you stayed in bed. You don’t know and nobody else does either.
As humans, all you can do is lean into the illusion and be the best possible version of yourself. Absurdism is about embracing that paradox and living on despite it.
Sam Harris thinks that morality is objective and be scientifically deduced. I want to agree. But how does that work if we have no free will? How can people make good choices or make the world better if they have no choice at all?
He sees the world the way I’ve described above. He knows it’s all an illusion.
When he talks about trying to make good or bad choices, and trying to maximize well-being, he’s talking about doing so from within the illusion. As he’s talked about in his books, the alternative is laying in bed paralyzed, without ambition and without purpose.
We are humans, and we have to operate most of our lives within the human framework. That means behaving “as if” we were free agents.
Our intellects allow us to simultaneously see the paradox.