Free will does (not) exist

On the inception of free will

Is your life governed by your own free will? Or is it governed by the alerts on your smartphone, your base urges, the demands of society and life’s slings and arrows? Is any intelligent agent, natural or artificial, truly intelligent or truly an agent if it does not possess and exert free will? And if so; what is free will? Can such a thing even exist?

Free will does not exist

Free will does not exist. Such is more or less the consensus in the current scientific community.

You as a person, and all of your thoughts, feelings, and actions are a product of the immensely complex interplay between your genetics — which you can’t choose — and the environment in which you happen to exist. Every choice you think you made was basically made for you.

Don’t believe it? Check out the Cambridge Analytica scandal and how it shows that influencing people can work. The popularity and tricky addictiveness of digital technology. Check out some stuff by Derren Brown. Or your favorite reality tv show that doubles as a Social psychology experiment, the ethics of which are likely debatable.

Choice (1)
Every choice that you think you make
Gets made through you, not by you
By the design that creates
What you experience as “me”.
 
The interplay between
Your biology; your childhood
Environment and the daily
Storm of information your system receives:
 
The earth, the sun and the rain
Telling the pre-programmed seed
How, when and where to grow.
Into a form that our grown up sprout finds, itself, unique.
 
And possibly, also free of will.

Finding free will

From ancient Greek philosophers, to Christian theologists to post-renaissance or modern philosophers and scientists the question has eluded us. Does free will exist? And if so; what is it? The search for the truth has lead to some extended and heated debate and elaborate theories.

And then we reach the current conclusion, backed by neuropsychological research: that it most likely doesn’t exist. It’s just a figment of our mind’s imagination: the ‘I’ as agent and driver actually merely an explanation after the fact. Choices are made through you, not by you.

But why does this conclusion sit so awkwardly?

How Free will can exist for you

Naturally, man even unconsciously makes the assumption that he himself chooses what he chooses – unless, for instance, if under the influence of a deity or demon or drug. And if free will doesn’t exist, how is it that some people seem to have much more control or discipline when it comes to managing and monitoring their own actions, even thoughts and feelings?

  • Side note: I probably read dozens if not hundreds of self-help or life improvement books in my early twenties. Some of them offering useful insights, none but one even mentioned something akin to the so incredibly important aspect of free will, discipline, or self-control. In Willpower, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney combine insights from the victorian age and recent psychology research into a power formula for all of us. To be brief: they propose willpower is like a muscle that can be trained, but that also can be depleted if it is nog trained, fed and rested enough. I strongly advise the book if you are interested in further reading about and improving your own power of will.
  • Side note to the side note (edit on 13 feb 2019): Nir Eyal made me question the assumptions in the above referenced book. In this article he does a decent job of ‘debunking’ the idea of willpower as a muscle, and in stead proposes — after professor Michael Inzlicht that we should view willpower more like an emotion — that comes and goes and that might be able to glean us some useful information about what’s going on subconsciously.

Psychologists have shown that when you do have more self-control, you achieve more. And that when you have more belief in your own power to manage your own actions, you also achieve more. Belief in self (what is broadly known academically as ‘self-efficacy beliefs’) is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Great news!

I propose that free will can exist and does exist, for those who believe in it. I propose that if I – as an agnostic – choose to believe in something the existence of which I know to likely be a human myth, it will be hard to attribute that choice to any complex of deterministic factors.

My main point, though, is that we humans can will something into existence that had not existed before.

Choice (II)
Free will does not exist.
Unless if I, free, decide it to be.
I will free will into my being.
The code to rewrite my un-original programming:
I believe that I can be
The captain of my ship and
King of my castle.
I choose to do this thing that is 
Of importance to my growth
And I choose to do it Now.

Rewrite your default code

Free will is a lot like money; only less social. Money isn’t a real thing, much as Carlo Rovelli shows us in The Order of Time that time itself isn’t, really, real. Money only exists and has real effects in each of our lives because we collectively believe in it.

Free will can have massive positive effects in our lives if we personally believe in it, train it, and use it. Use this supercode to rewrite your own default software. Believe in your ability to choose freely what you want to achieve. And in your ability to control your own actions. You will be better for it. Choose.


Was this article helpful, meaningful and relevant to you? What are your thoughts on the whole and on specific points? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section! Claps are also very much appreciated.