Is Free Will An Illusion of Mind?

Does life do us, or do we do life? Can we fix ourselves, achieve our goals and win at life? Well, maybe not.

Image of a silhouette of a person standing on a hill at dusk for article titled “the illusion of free will”

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Does life do us, or do we do life? Can we fix ourselves, achieve our goals and win at life? Well, maybe not how we thought.

Let’s have chats about free will and determinism. It’s a topic that has been covered so many times that it seems like a pointless exercise. But the angle I want to take here is with respect to the self; the surface level self, and the deeper perhaps unknowable self. It refers to the idea of “I” or “me” being in control or not, and my relationship with myself and my broader environment from a cause and effect linear perspective. So let’s jump in.

What is this biological, psychological thing that I think I am?

Am I really in control or is that a figment of my colourful imagination, a construct of an outward-facing personality that needs to feel in control of a world it sees as a hostile?

Do I have free will to choose my direction, or is something else the director and overseer of my life?

Do I make my life, or does my life make me?

A couple of years ago, if I had considered these questions, I would have answered firmly, yes; I am in control. I get to decide what I do from moment to moment; therefore, I can direct my life — I have free will.

I can move my body, scratch an itch, or not.

I can engage in nasty habits like smoking, or I can give them up (with significant conscious effort and great difficulty).

I can follow through on my commitment to run today or sit on the couch with a few beers.

I can design my life as I wish.

Or at least I liked to believe I could, even though results rarely reflected that belief.

Either way, I felt that I was responsible.

I believed I could make things happen with effort. The notion that external forces determined my life was incompatible with my world view.

But conditions didn’t reflect that belief.

So I gave up the fight.

In time, as I examined this long-standing question further, it became clear that I ultimately don’t, and can’t, direct my life to the superficial material ends I had designed.

Besides, material things don’t seem to satisfy, and metaphysical aspirations are just not attractive to me.

You see, I have come to understand that no matter how much I try, I cannot lift myself by my own shirt collars.

I am the same me that perceives itself as broken; therefore, there is nothing to fix — there is no separate good me that has been assigned the role of fixing bad me.

I am myself in my entirety.

On top of this comes the realisation that time is an illusion also. There is no future better me towards which I must work.

However, sometimes, I find my stand on things changes. Sometimes I’m not so sure.

As Aldous Huxley wrote;

“A man may be a pessimistic determinist before lunch and an optimistic believer in the will’s freedom after it.”

- Aldous Huxley | Author

I Cannot Will Myself To Will

Everyday moment to moment decisions, my reactions, seem to be under my control.

Trivial matters such as deciding what t-shirt to wear this morning seem under my control.

But next week, next month, next year and so on, I cannot dictate.

I cannot dictate the day that I die or how that eventuality will play out, although I do accept that I appear to have a specific long-range influence over it.

Concerning the big-ticket life experiences, there seem to be far too many moving parts, most of which I am unaware, altering the direction of my actions and life experience.

In certain respects, it feels that free will is an illusion. In other respects, I seem to be in control.

I’m glad it’s that way because if my every intent, no matter how fleeting materialised, many people would probably be lying dead in ditches and I’d be on the run!

Schopenhauer said that I can do what I will to do, but I cannot determine my will.

Now, that seems a little complicated, but I guess what he was saying here is that we can never get to the root of the thing. I can make a decision, but I cannot decide to decide or decide to decide to decide.

I can never get to the core of myself.

This seems accurate.

Purposeful Accident: Letting Things Happen Instead of Forcing

It seems paradoxical.

By letting go, it all falls into place.

But we want it to be either one way or the other — we are either in control or we’re not — we can’t have that cake and eat it too.

Let’s take goal setting for example;

The predominant nauseating rhetoric around the pursuit of goals suggests that we must force ourselves to change. It says that nothing significant will happen on its own — we must make it happen.

“If it is to be it is up to me” and all that hyper-positivity crap.

But Purposeful Accident says different.

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Purposeful Accident says we should, first and foremost, do our daily work for its inherent enjoyment. We must relax into the work and let it happen, rather than attempt to bend and force conditions and people to comply with our preconceived ideas of how things should be.

Besides, that mode of action is exhausting, always defensive, and entirely fear-based.

In an engaged and enthused mode of thought and action, doing the thing for its inherent enjoyment with no ulterior motive, both individual free will and determinate forces can work together to bring about favourable results.

Contrary to this idea that I must make life happen, I have found that the less I plan the shit out of things, the better things turn out.

Planning feels like forcing rather than going with the flow, so these days I mostly take things as they come.

This is not to assume an irresponsible or indeed a defeatist or fatalist position. Instead, it’s an acceptance that this thing that goes on all around me is far too complex and nuanced for me to control.

If I could design my life down to the end degree, that wouldn’t be a life worth living as far as I am concerned.

The enjoyment of life incorporates the element of not knowing.

It’s the surprise that counts.

I know there will be experiences that I will enjoy, and there will be those I don’t.

But just as I cannot decide when to beat my heart or grow my hair, I cannot determine my future in advance no matter the degree to which I believe I am in control.

“A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills”

- Arthur Schopenhauer | Philosopher

Neuroscience & The Illusion of Free Will

Studies of the brain have brought our understanding of human functioning to an enhanced level in modern times.

As a result of neuroscience research, some philosophers and scientists suggest that the illusion of free will fools us. That we are not free to choose because our actions are the result of neuronal processes inside the brain that run prior to our conscious awareness of them.

Perhaps the most famous neuroscience experiment on free will was conducted by Benjamin Libet in the early 1980s.

Libet’s experiments showed that freely volitional acts are preceded by a specific electrical change in brain states which he terms; “readiness potential” (RP).

This electrical change begins 550 ms before the act. Subjects became aware of their intention to act 350–400 ms after RP starts, but 200 ms before the motor act.

He found, therefore, that the voluntary process initiates unconsciously. However, he also found that conscious decisions can still control the outcome; it can veto the act.

He suggests, therefore, free will is a factor.

Libet says, his findings constrain our ideas on how free will operates; it would not initiate a voluntary act, but it could control the performance of the action.

Libet in 1994 further suggested, that under the apparent deterministic laws of physical reality, human beings would be reduced to sophisticated automatons with conscious feelings and intentions tacked on as epiphenomena with no causal power and wonders if there is not some aspect of consciousness that acts independently of physical laws.

An interesting thought.

In his essay titled; Is Free Will An Illusion?, John R. Meyer argues that a great deal of scientific evidence suggests that, despite difficulties in explaining free will, we do not unconsciously cause our actions.

Meyer says;

Our experience suggests that our states of mind are not completely determined by neural events. Indeed, material determinism fails to acknowledge the numinous qualities of the mind and thus threatens to change what it means to be human.

Perhaps a noteworthy aspect of Meyer’s essay is his reference to quantum physics.

He discusses what proponents of quantum theory suggest may be at play at the subatomic level in living organisms — randomness and probability that allows for the presence of free will in human beings.

In an article by theoretical Physicist, Christophe le Mouël, examing some of the dominant philosophical and psychological findings on free will titled, Self and The Paradox of Free Will, he says the psyche is not just a structure.

He states;

It seems to me that each one of us is constantly asked to make this choice, even though at times it takes a more dramatic turn. These unspoken decisions are highly individual and determine who we are. They can hardly be reproduced and do not belong to the category of mechanical things that science can easily investigate.

I am inclined to agree with him.

The Illusion of Free Will & The Surface Level Personality

The difference between what I call me (my surface-level personality), and the broader me of which I often have little present moment awareness, is perhaps key to understanding what the true nature of free will is.

The typical frame of mind of most human beings is that we are somebody, that we are relevant, meaningful and real, even if that somebody we perceive ourselves to be is self-destructive and lacking self-worth.

In other words, I might regard myself as a big-shot businessman, have a big bank account and an inflated idea of myself, or I may be a reclusive with an eating disorder, anxious and afraid to leave my house — either way, I believe myself to be this personality.

In that surface-personality-led state of mind, disconnected from my deeper here-and-now reality, I either believe I am in control or not, that I have free will or not.

That feeling then is an interpretation of the personality (you can call it ego if you like).

I contend that genuine free will, the feeling of being in control, in a state of flow you might say, is the sense of being at one with our right now experience regardless of conditions.

“What you do, is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call here and now. The real you is not a puppet which life pushes around — the real deep down you, IS the whole universe.”

- Alan Watts | Philosopher

We may find ourselves in negative momentum, experiencing life events that on the surface we say we didn’t choose, but in truth, we did choose, we wanted those conditions.

Wanting, being the absence of something; a need which we must fill or must be filled.

The idea here is that even though we are not consciously aware of our wants and desires, they will eventually play out in our experience. In Freudian terms, it is the unconscious aspects of the self that largely determines experience.

However, psychoanalysis does offer a way out of this bind. Through language, utilising dialogue, we can expose the deterministic influences of the unconscious and take back control.

In Buddhist terms, the playing out of conscious and unconscious aspects of the self is known as Karma, meaning, it is your doing.

You did it.

But when we perceive ourselves as separate from everything else, alone and isolated, responsible on a very superficial level, we can’t accept that.

When the surface personality leads our thought, then we are apt to defend ourselves, or indeed submit to a deterministic and aggressive universe.

Likewise, where the personality believes it is in control or should be in control, and things don’t go according to plan, we may feel we’ve lost it, we’re not up to scratch.

Either way, we’re in for a fight either with ourselves or with the world.

Ultimately it’s the same thing.

Some Final Thoughts on Free Will

Einstein said that time, in an absolute sense, is an illusion. But at a personal and societal level, we do not accept this.

We believe our lives are linear, and the phenomenon of cause and effect are real; if I do this, then that happens.

Memory creates change and subsequently, time, and in this frame of mind, the discussion around free will and determinism has relevance.

In the idea that life is only now, that the universe we perceive exists only in the present moment, any argument for free will or determinism evaporates in my opinion.

However, honestly, I don’t know what’s going on.

My best guess is that I am here, I am something rather than nothing, and I seem to influence certain things but not over others.

I am sure I do not live in a time based linear reality where some dogmatic entity pushes the buttons. It seems instead that the buttons are pushing themselves.

There’s a gestalt aspect to life, and it always seeks balance no matter what I think, say or do.

There is momentum.

When I try to fight it or bend it by force or coercion into what it is not, then things don’t tend to work out very well.

So do we have free will?

I can’t say categorically — it depends. Sometimes it seems that I choose and other times it feels like I don’t. I think, most importantly, I have chosen not to fight with myself anymore.

That’s the biggest change I’ve noticed.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. You’ll also find me on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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