The Illusion of Free Will

A number of reasons have been offered as to why we don’t have free will. Or why free will is an illusion or delusion depending on how charitable you wish to be.

Let’s start with what you experience through the sense. Ask yourself with each of your senses is do you have the ability to override what you experience through your senses?

Sounds. The tenant in the unit above you is playing heavy metal music at 2.00 a.m. If you had free will, then you could choose to make the noise disappear. You’d have the power not to hear it.

Smells. You walk into a bakery and smell fresh bread. Do you have the power to turn off your smell or recalibrate the scent to say apple sauce? Again, you have no free will.

Taste. You pop a spoon of fresh honey into your mouth. You have no free will not experience the taste.

Touch: You run your fingers over a piece of fine Thai silk. Can you experience the texture of sandpaper as a substitute experience?

Vision: There are many Illusions used in psychology that once we have them pointed out, we still lack the ability to update our knowledge and not to be fooled. The reality we have no free will not to be fooled.

Here are two visual illustrations of illusions.

The Ponzo illusion

Muller-Lyer Illusion

Can you will the cars to be the same size? Or the lines equal to one another in the Muller-Lyer Illusion? We possess a limited sensory radar that allows us to read the world of people and objects and events. And we can easily be misled as to what we are perceiving.

If we had genuine free will could switch these inputs off or alter them. As we’ve seen from the examples above, no matter how much we will the change the loud booming heavy metal for a Bach sonata, we won’t succeed.

Cognitive Biases

The second main argument against free will is much like our lack of power of over our mental processing of the outside world. Our minds filtered only part of the information collected by our senses. This processing isn’t a neutral objective platform. Our mental processing of experience is riddled with many cognitive biases. There are over a hundred such biases.

I’ll start with some fundamentals about cognitive biases. Our minds are infested with multiple biases. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

You might believe that you are unbiased. That is a delusion, and a bias itself. We can’t choose not to have cognitive biases. Our mental processing is loaded with biases that are shared by everyone else. If we genuinely had free will, we’d have the power to switch off the biases that act as filters on our thinking. We can be aware of our biases but we can’t shut them down. They are forever automatically programmed to pop into our mind.

Cognitive biases aren’t necessarily a bad thing. We spend most of our lives making observations, measurements and decisions based on a rule of thumb or heuristic. A bear charging at you along a mountain path evokes an immediate reaction: flee. There is no time to contemplate that the bear have other intentions than eating you. When you commute from home to the office (in the days when one drove to office), you are likely on automatic pilot, you aren’t consciously aware of every slight movement of the steering wheel or all of the thing happening or near the road on which you are driving. We habitually make cognitive shortcuts to reduce the load of information we have to process. Most of the time that has a good outcome. At the same time, no one would think this is an act of free will. It’s a feature built-in to the software/hardware operating system of a human brain.

Two of the common biases will serve to illustrate the absence of free will. We can’t switch off “availability bias” or “confirmation bias”.

Availability bias. Jack wants a new apartment. He asks his friend Sally, a real estate agent, for advice. She chooses the apartments on her list. Her list is limited. It is what is available as stock on the books to move. There may be better, cheaper and more convenient apartments in another neighborhood but neither she (who has a financial interest to protect) nor Jack who is being lazy, have explored the larger possibilities in favor of what is available to their personal interest or Knowledge. This applies to mate selection, travel, employment, diets, religion, and reading. We don’t have the free will (or the free time) to explore the true landscape of availability. We take a tiny slice and make lifelong decisions based on that available information.

Confirmation bias. We have very little free will to alter our beliefs, ideas, and opinions. As identity is often drawn from a belief system and you belong to a group, clan or tribe who also believes a certain state of affairs about the world, your free will is disconnected. If you are anti-abortion, pro-open carry gun inclined, you will seek news reports, blogs, podcasts that reinforce your view on abortion and guns. If you are pro-life and gun restriction inclined, you also look for reinforcement from history, studies, sources of authority. Without confirmation bias, we’d expose ourselves to contrary data. In a world of free will, we would be able to toggle back and forth through conflicting data. We might vigilant and try to do this for a while. Untimely we fall back to our original bias setting and resume looking for confirmation.

The conclusion is we lack free will to either change the experiences produced by our senses or eliminate our cognitive biases. This is the state of our non-free will existence.

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Christopher G. Moore is a Canadian author who has lived in Thailand since 1988. He has written over 40 books and hundreds of essays.

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Christopher G. Moore

Christopher G. Moore

Christopher G. Moore is a Canadian author who has lived in Thailand since 1988. He has written over 40 books and hundreds of essays.

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