Sam Harris famously said free will is the topic atheists should have taken a stand on rather than evolution. Free will is one of the last pillars supporting the idea of a soul. In this post, I want to present my take on this fascinating concept and hopefully reconceptualize free will in a manner that makes it real.

It is indisputable that we humans believe that our will is free. It feels so clear that we retain control and can choose what we do until the very last moment. Our language encodes this assumption in its very structure. This makes any discussion trying to negate free will very confusing.

When I say things like "I believe" or "I want"; the implicit assumption is that I can choose differently, that I could have believed differently. So as you read further, keep in mind that we are trying to challenge one of the most fundamental beliefs held by all of us. It is natural to feel uncomfortable.

Even if you are convinced at the end of this, I think you will likely just be aware of this fact, but we all will and should act as though free will exists. Actions are one of the best measures of belief, and in that sense, maybe I still believe in free will.

Predictability

Even if supercomputers running the latest algorithms tried their best, consuming an obscene amount of computational power, using our DNA, past actions, all as input. We still don't believe that it could predict our decision. We all still feel like the conscious self is making that decision at the last second. Sure there are forces - peer pressure, memories, instinct, etc. trying to make us pick certain choices, but even at the last second if willed we could choose differently.

Now I said most actions because anyone who knows you well will know details like your favorite ice cream flavor, political affiliation, career goals. Trust is based on understanding, and people close to you will accurately guess what action you will take when it comes to significant decisions. These decisions reflect who you are, your core identity.

But if I ask you to think of a random number between 1 and 10, you must genuinely believe that you could have picked any other number among the options. That is the sense of control, choice, or free will that we believe we have. This "random" number you picked could not possibly be predicted in advance, right?

Simulations

There are some ways to convince you that your actions are theoretically predictable. If someone scans your brain and reconstructs it virtually inside a computer, then they can feed it the same environmental stimuli you were exposed to then the computer would tell us what number you would have picked.

To get some answers, we may not even need to scan at the atomic level and run the simulations according to fundamental physics. Instead, it might be enough to study the neural connections and run the physics simulation at the macro (biological) level.

Depending on the level of accuracy we want, it is enough to construct a model at a higher level of abstraction. These models even need not be explicit; machine learning algorithms form these implicitly when they control human behavior.

The implications of having an accurate model are that you could change inputs - small details, the temperature of the room, the tone of voice, the words used, the time you asked the question, etc. and rerun the simulation, again and again, to find out how to get any desired outcome, like this they can get you to pick any particular number, spend more time browsing FB or make you click on a notification.

Now decisions which are independent of your past, personality, and other clues would necessarily be transient choices you made. These chaotic choices are highly sensitive to priming, but we don't realize this and naively believe that we retain control. This illusion that your decision is based on internal values and immune to suggestion is exploited by mentalists to amaze you.

At this point, you might protest that the laws that govern the brain and environment are not fully deterministic. There are aspects of randomness, so you can only speak in terms of probabilities. Yes, that is true.

But even if simulation only gave us a probability map of outcomes, this does not mean you the individual has the power to pick deterministically among these outcomes. Even you would be at the mercy of chance! You really can't call random, luck, chance, or fate as "your" choice. If you want it to be your will, it must be predictable.

So when explaining the chain of causality, all that is possible is determinism, true randomness, or a mix of these two. This does not allow for choice; the idea of free will, as most of us conceptualize it is a concept that just does not make coherent sense.

We, the individual is not larger than physics, the laws of physics constrain us. We act on the environment, and the environment acts on us; but physics encapsulates all of us - including the past and the future.

I am trying to argue that all your decisions, even the most trivial ones are similarly reflections of your past, the sum of your genes and experiences. They are predictable in so far as they are yours.

Causality

The idea of controlling the outcome at the last second, i.e. free will actually goes against causality itself.

Suppose we imagine every event as a node and the edges connecting them to be casual links that tell us how each event plays a role in causing other events. We will see a directed acyclic graph emerge as we move through time slices.

Here the individual making a free choice is the same as creating a new node without any backlinks, spontaneously through force of will.

Even if you only agree that any choice you make, including the random number you picked is partly caused by many other events like how hungry you were, what time it was, humidity, how your parents raised you, the books you read, etc. So if the past can only partly explain it then what else can explain that decision? true randomness? "will"?

You must be feeling uncomfortable trying to grasp for the intuitive idea that we all have an immortal soul which is outside physics, able to exert control over this graph. But the reality is that we are all constrained by the laws of causality.

Resolution

The resolution to this disconnect between our intuition and logic is to recognize that even if we were not free to change our choice at the last moment. The choice we make is still our choice. We should own that choice because it reflects who we are, what we stand for.

Every choice we make, even the seemingly trivial ones are made over a long period. Habits are formed, associations are built, experiences are accumulated. Our emotions, values, memory, predictions all work together in a deterministic way to help us arrive at a decision. This is why we take ownership of that decision because it reflects who we are. It is not some spontaneous reaction we take in the heat of the moment.

Even those harsh words you said in the heat of the moment reflect who you are, different people would have reacted differently in that situation. Maybe you don't like that part of you that reacted in that way but it is there in you, in your genes, memories, trauma, insecurities. But I think we can always reject parts of ourselves as an attempt to grow/change into better people.

So any decision we take is "ours" to the extent that this decision making process is deterministic. It is our will because our decision is predictable. The random aspects add chaos and unpredictability to it. The freedom we imagine we have is the lack of order and structure. Will is not free, and that is a good thing.

Locus of Control

If we give up on freedom and choice and focus on tracing back along these causal chains. We quickly discover that every event was caused by events preceding them or is a random accident. We can't honestly seem to say the buck stops here. We, therefore, end up losing a valuable idea - responsibility.

This is why this idea that "free will is an illusion" can be dangerous. It is necessary in many cases to internalize the locus of control and stop chasing down casual chains. We need to accept responsibility for our actions and not push the locus of control outside and blame society, our upbringing, or our genes. We need to feel motivated and in control of our future.

In this regard, it is essential that explanation not be confused with exculpation. Responsibility doesn't require that behavior be uncaused, as long as behavior responds to praise and blame. There can still be value in punishment as a force of deterrence.

We need to blame some people for the actions they did instead of excusing their crimes as something they did not have control over. The illusion of free will might be necessary. This is why I find this to be a great example of an idea that is useful but not true.

Now that we realize this, pay attention to the language used when people shame you, try to focus on how you had control, this is them pushing the LOC inward. When people spin narratives it is a constant battle/negotiation over where the LOC lies. If people want to push the LOC outward they try to focus on mental illness, circumstances, and underplay the amount of free will a person has. So as a society, we need to decide where the LOC should lie in each of the contexts, we find ourselves in. The right seems to want it inward, and the left pushes it outward.

Consequences

It is up to us what we do now; what idea of free will we adopt as part of our culture? It will not be easy to choose because the tradeoffs are hard to predict. Any path we pick will have ramifications in all walks of life. Such as challenging the idea of a punitive justice system, we might move to a more restorative justice system.

It is time to ask ourselves hard questions regarding consent, intention, conscious volition, effort, talent, privilege, hard work, morality, etc. Our belief in this freedom of will means libertarianism is the dominant ideology with people wanting to give individuals more freedom without considering what the consequences are. There never was freedom, we can only choose which shackles we are subject to - biology or culture.

We also don't have a lot of time because while most of us feel secure in this idea that our will is free; unable to be controlled, large corporations are mining our personal data and training their algorithms to model us.

They are already frighteningly successful in predicting which movie you will want to watch, which items you will end up purchasing, who you will vote for. Like I mentioned before once they have a model which can accurately predict your decisions then controlling your decision is a simple matter of changing the input to the model until you pick the choice they want you to pick.

As long as we cling onto this idea that our will is impossible to subvert, that our decisions flow from our soul which is protected from external manipulations, we will spend hours on Youtube, Facebook, Reddit and believe that it was our choice to do so and that we were not overly manipulated in any way to make that decision. We will take ownership of decisions that were not really ours.

We will fall into a dystopia where we won't admit we are no longer individuals, just extensions of that large corporate entity that acts through us. We drive on the road they pick for us, we attend events they show us, we read books they pick for us, soon we might pick our careers and partner using these tools.

Are we using the tools? or are the tools using us? The boundary between us and these tools are become blurred as we spend most of our time plugged into our devices.

Our will was never free, but soon it won't be our will either. The boundaries around the individual are dissolving, and no one seems to be noticing.

Further Reading

There are lots of interesting ideas relevant to this discussion.

If we humans have free will then so must elementary particles. After all, what are we but a complicated collection of such particles.

Many paradoxes might be resolved if we give up on free will.

This whole line of thought is if we adopt Materialism as our philosophy. While most educated people adopt this philosophy, they don't realize how free will needs a cartesian dualist framework.

To what extent does our consciousness actually have control over the decisions we make? Is it just an observer that makes post hoc rationalizations for every choice that is made based on genetics and years of experience?

It seems like our brain commits to a decision before we are aware of making the decision itself.