The Illusion of Free Will

Here is an apple and here’s a banana.

Pick one.

Whichever one you picked, it was your decision, completely. This is what we call free will. It’s the idea that we are the sole authors of our destiny. That in the face of multiple choices, whatever decision we make is completely down to us. We have the power of free choice.  

But what if I told you that free will is a myth? That we are all just a group of atoms who will react to a particular stimulus in a way that can be predetermined?

If you picked a banana at the beginning of the video and we go back in time, if free will truly exists, you should be able to change your mind and pick the apple instead. But what if I told you that if we go back in time under the exact same circumstances, you’ll pick the banana again?

What if I told you that I can tell which of these two options you’re going to pick 300 milliseconds before you actually pick it... with 100% accuracy? 

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist, used an EEG, an electroencephalogram, to show that you can read and tell that somebody is about to move, 300 milliseconds before they decide in their conscious mind to actually move. This means that before we decide that we want to move our bodies, it’s already been decided for us in our subconscious, and we only think that we made the decision ourselves after it’s already been made. 

In a similar study, participants were asked to press one of two buttons while looking at a clock with a random sequence of letters on a screen. With the use of fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, they discovered that two of the participants’ brain regions showed what button they would press seven to ten seconds before they consciously made that decision. 

The results of this research only proves one thing. A few seconds before you pick the banana or the apple, your brain makes that decision for you. It is after this decision has been made deep in your subconscious that your brain becomes aware of it and we become convinced that we are in the process of making that decision. Because the brain is like the heart, we don’t tell it what to do, it just does. 

So in reality, consciously making a decision, the experience we call “free will,” is actually an illusion. It’s simply a visualization of events that the brain has already set in motion. It tells you what the brain has decided to do.

For as long as society has existed, we’ve understood the role of surrounding influences on our decision-making. With idioms like “it takes a village to raise a child” and “you are the product of your environment,” we understand that to a great extent our upbringing, our parents, the society we grew up in, all of these influence our decision making process. If someone is born religious, it’s not crazy to think that they’ll be religious throughout their lives. 

Taking it a step further, things like genetics also play a huge role in our choices. Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution brought forward the idea that, if species do indeed evolve, then things like intelligence must be hereditary. Intelligence is a trait that helps us make better decisions. And while you can study hard to know more than the average person, for the most part, how intelligent you are is entirely not up to you. So, some people cannot make certain intelligent choices. Not because they don’t want to, but because their genes are limited. In that instance, would you say the person has the freedom to make those intelligent choices? Because in reality, they do not. Their fates are predetermined by their genes. 

How can we all truly have the freedom to decide our fate when we’re not dealt equal cards from the start? And it’s not just the cards we’re dealt, it’s also the ability to play those cards. Some are simply born better bluffers than others. 

When you look at the concept of free will critically, the whole idea seems to crumble pretty quickly. In fact, researchers have come to the conclusion that believing in free will is like believing in religion, neither of them agree with the laws of physics. Think about it, if free will truly exists and if choice is not just a chemical process, then why can things like alcohol and antipsychotics completely change a person’s behavior? 

Even worse, we’ve seen brain tumors turn people from pediatricians to pedophiles. Domenico Mattiello was once a respected pediatrician. For 30 years, he was loved by his patients and adored by their parents and everyone in the society. In a shocking turn of events, however, in 2012, he began facing trial after being accused of making pedophilic advances towards his female patients. 

Neuroscientific research showed that Mattielo had a 4-inch tumor growing at the base of his brain that changed his behavior. 

In 2002, a similar thing happened to an American school teacher. He suddenly started having pedophilic urges towards his step-daughter and was arrested. Then it was discovered that he had an egg-sized tumor growing in the part of his brain that was supposed to be responsible for decision-making. After the tumor got removed, the man’s pedophilic urges stopped completely, and he was able to return to his family. 

If free will exists, why can removing a tumor change a person’s choice? Is it then possible that by altering brain chemistry or physical composition, we can completely change a person’s beliefs, ideologies, and choices without the person being able to do anything about it? 

In more recent years, Lawyers have started using MRI scans to help plead the case of their clients. With neuroscientific research proving that brain tumors and malfunction caused them to commit their crimes, it’s difficult to argue against it. Because if they did not have the freedom to choose something else, then why would you give them the heaviest punishment for actions they could do nothing about? 

Brian Dugan was facing execution in the state of Illinois after he pleaded guilty to murdering a 10 year old girl. However, MRI scans revealed that he had mental malfunctions that affected his decision-making process. His lawyers pleaded with the court to spare him the capital punishment because in reality, can we really say it was his fault? If malfunctions in his brain caused him to do what he did, then he didn’t have the free will to make a better decision. 

While he was on death row, his case continued to get argued and as a result, the state of Illinois abolished capital punishment. 

Some scientists who still want to cling on to the idea of free will argue that, while it’s true that the subconscious makes decisions for the conscious, we still have the free will to shape the unconscious world. And on first glance, this makes a lot of sense. 

You can read a book and an idea gets into your subconscious. Then in the face of a choice, the idea you’ve read floats back out of your subconscious, forming your conscious decision. 

However, there’s a flaw in that idea. It’s much like a paradox, because where then does the desire to change your subconscious by reading a book come from? Desire, much like choice, comes from the subconscious. So a conscious effort to shape your subconscious is actually a subconscious effort to change your subconscious. 

The biggest obstacle the idea of free will (or lack thereof) faces is morality. If morality is based on free will and free will doesn’t exist, then what happens to morality? What happens to every other man-made institution that has been designed around the idea of free will? When faced with questions like these, many people immediately fall into a trap of fatalism. Fatalism is the idea that we are completely powerless in the universe’s game. People who think like this believe that since we aren’t completely in charge of our destiny, we are completely at its mercy, it’s random and not up to us. 

Then they become a lot less happy and start slacking in their relationships. They stop trying to be good people or uphold any moral standards, and overall they start to have a lower sense of fulfillment in life. 

But we don’t have to fall into that trap. The scientists who champion the idea of the absence of free will would rather explain it philosophically as “determinism” rather than fatalism. 

Determinism is the idea that all events are predetermined by existing causes. That everything that will happen can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. It doesn’t mean that we are completely powerless and simply at the mercy of what’s to come. It simply gives us a different way to look at everything that happens around us. 

According to the government of the United Kingdom, more than half of the people in prison have a brain injury. Doesn’t that tell a scary story? Understanding the true concept of free will will help us realize that those people are no different from us. They’re not worse humans and many times, they’re just there because of a combination of bad events that were totally out of their control.

In the same way, with deterministic thinking, we would also show more humility when talking about our achievements because now we understand that we are simply a product of our past experiences. It helps us to have empathy for people who are not in a similar position as we are, and it helps us to reduce our sense of entitlement. If the people in higher positions in society do not attribute all of their success to their personal efforts alone, they are more likely to do more for others. They are more likely to help and give back to others, hoping they might be able to recreate the factors that helped them succeed.

If you’re getting scared or confused right now, I totally get it. Even the scientists who have been studying this for decades have found it very disturbing. It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around because it goes against everything society is built around. 

Free will is the basis of our society. It’s what determines who is right and who is wrong, who gets the praise and who deserves to be punished. It tells us that a man who killed another man deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, and that someone who works hard deserves to live a good life. 

And that’s the fear of spreading the absence of free will message. Many scientists believe that if enough people are aware of this idea, it could literally end society as we know it. Because why would someone risk his life to save another person if after he’s done people will only say “well, he didn’t decide himself to do it, so he doesn’t deserve any praise.” 

The reality is praise and punishment are two huge factors that help influence our decisions. So if we remove them from our society, we pave the way for fewer good deeds and much worse ones. 

It’s a strange dilemma to be in. Because although the truth is that we do not have free will, believing that we do is actually a lot better for us. This is the concept of illusionism. That although free will is an illusion, it’s one that we must keep up with. Because faced with the choice between truth and good, it benefits the most of us to always choose good. 

So next time you see a homeless person down the street, don’t just roll your eyes and judge the person. Understand that there are a multitude of factors, many of which they might not have been able to control that have caused them to be where they are. 

Be humble about what you have and what you’ve achieved, because just a tiny less intelligence in your DNA and you might not have made that one decision that changed your life. 

Know that you do not have free will, at least how you imagine it, and you’re just lucky your mixture of atoms makes the right decisions. But immediately forget that, forget everything I said for the past 10 minutes and act like every decision is yours completely.

Because only then will you be able to make the decisions that can truly change a life.

- EE, MM