Is Free Will An Illusion?

November 22, 2011

Political Theory


Many neuroscientists argue that “free will is an illusion” because our brains are responsible for all of our actions and behavior. Some go even further to say that because of this, we may be justified in misbehaving, cheating, breaking laws, etc. because free will is a precondition for deserving blame. This idea can have dangerous implications for society because without having free will how can we be blamed for any wrongs we commit?

Scientists see the brain as a physical entity, but a very complex one that allows us to be conscious and unique, and gives us the capacity to comprehend, converse, and create things that never existed before. However, they are divided in their views of how it connects to free will:

Is the brain just an engine that creates thoughts and causes actions which we have no control over?

The ones that believe we do not actually have free will think of it as a spiritual, immaterial process, like a “ghost in the machine,” (Haggard). These people believe that we are detached from the causal chain in our brains that lead to our actions, and that all our decisions are just like chemical reactions in the brain.

“How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”

-neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes

The ones that believe science actually proves that it isn’t an illusion believe it is not a “magical process” and that it can be explained as a whole in terms of its individual components. These people believe that we have the capacity for conscious deliberation and self-control which ties with free will. It is a fact that the brain generates activity before we realize and actually make our decisions, but scientists say this does not prove that free will is an illusion. They say it just shows that there are discernible patterns of neural activity that precede a decision.

Perhaps the argument comes down to whether we are conscious of our decision making process, which is also difficult to explain. It is obvious that we are conscious for many decisions we make, such as when we are planning a trip or deciding what to eat, but what about for spontaneous decisions or reactions? For the latter examples, it is difficult to say whether we are conscious in those decision making processes, suggesting we did not have free will when making those decisions.

This debate on whether free will is real has many political implications. For example, Thomas Hobbes was opposed to the idea of free will.

“…no liberty can be inferred to the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do.”

-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

He believed that God was the cause of every action but that, unless physically forced, any decision made by a person was free.  On the other hand, John Locke believed that “free will” was not a compatible term.

“Concerning a man’s liberty, there yet, therefore, is raised this further question,Whether a man be free to will? which I think is what is meant, when it is disputed whether the will be free.”

-John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

He believed that the term “free” can only apply to the person, and not to the will, which is determined by the mind, which determines the action. In his view, a person is free to think or not to think, but the will is not.

What else does this debate on free will imply, and what would other thinkers say? Do we actually have free will, our own conscious ability to make decisions? Or is it a nonsensical term like Locke believes? How would we be able to actually show whether it exists or not, knowing that all our thoughts and actions come from our brain, a mere physical entity but with a possible “soul” or “spiritual” content.

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2 Comments on “Is Free Will An Illusion?”

  1. joethahn Says:

    The thought on whether free will is an illusion or not does not seem possible to be settled in today’s world because there is no way to completely prove one or the other. As a person, however, I would like to think that my actions are shaped by my conscious thoughts and beliefs, not some predetermined chemical reaction in my brain. It is human nature to yearn for a feeling of control over your own life. I think that if people did not have this sense of control they would never attempt to pursue any life goals because they would feel as if their actions were out of their hands. The world has progressed this far because people have the ability to think for themselves and have sacrificed their own time to understand and better certain aspects of life. I also think that if free will was an illusion people would look out only for themselves (like animals in nature) because there would be no biological advantage to acts of altruism.
    It was unsettling to read, “without having free will how can we be blamed for any wrongs we commit?” because there are many people who have committed crimes and gone to jail or put to death. If free will is an illusion we cannot punish or blame these people because the crimes they committed were not their own doing, but the program of their brain. On this basis we have wrongfully killed and incarcerated millions of people. Until firm evidence that supports free will as an illusion is found I will continue to believe that I am held accountable for my own actions.

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