The Fallacy of “Free Will”

Most people believe in "free will", that is the idea of "self determination" or that our lives are not "fated" from conception until death. In many ways this is a core and necessary belief – to believe otherwise is at a minimum disconcerting and for most, enormously threatening to one’s sense of self.

However, while the idea that we have “free will” is desirable or even compelling, it is also unfortunately as noted in the title, a fallacy. In fact it takes very simple logic to show how flawed the concept is.

Now before I continue I should note that quite possibly there are things that are beyond my conception. Perhaps there is a God, and there are things like “souls” and perhaps I just cannot fathom some natural or supernatural construct that would allow true “free will”. I readily admit that I could be missing something. In fact I rather hope I am.

However, again unfortunately, I doubt I am.

So let’s start with a simple example:

My son’s favorite color is “red”. As fine of a choice as any color and one could say my son “used his ‘free will’ to choose ‘red’”. At a basic level I cannot argue – it was his choice and no one compelled him to do it.

At another level though one has to ask, “What made him choose the color ‘red’?” Did he “choose” to “choose” the color “red”? Did he magically decide before he was born that “red” was the color in his future life he’d pick as favorite and thus act in his “free will” in advance of his birth? If so, back “heaven” or wherever his “soul” came from, what made him want to choose to choose “red” as his favorite color?

Rather confusing isn’t it.

The point is, at some point back in his history, whether by God or by nature he was “wired” to think “red” was his favorite color. He did not choose, and thus exercise his “free will”, it was somehow chosen for him. He had no choice that “red” would by fate become his favorite color.

“But wait,” you say, “he could choose another color as his favorite at any time! He could still exercise his ‘free will’!”

True, no argument there, sort of. The problem is, what made him choose this new color? Let’s say in response to reading this diatribe he makes a conscious decision to select a new color, say “green” just to show me up.

Fine, but what made him choose to be so dang independent little tike that he would go out of his way to show me up? Did he “choose” to be uppity?

No, he was born wired, or influenced by outside events, to be headstrong and uppity (and he is!). He had no choice, it was chosen for him, whether by fate, or by God, or whatever to be uppity. That uppity-ness in turn compelled him to select “green” just to show his dear old “Dah” up.

In fact just about every so called “decision” in life can be linked back this way (actually, not “just about”, absolutely every decision can be linked back this way). In the end we do not choose to be how we are, we are wired to be how we are. And how we are wired to be how we are in turn predisposes us, outright defines frankly, the choices we make.

To change this “loop”, that is to break out of it, would require nearly literal time travel and the ability to influence the electrochemical reactions of the previous “you” that existed. To go back and change the “you” that made you decide to make the decisions you made. In fact even then it doesn’t even solve the causality issues. Every action and decision you make is based on prior events within and without you and those events you have no control of.

You may read the above drivel and think that you will respond or you may read it and think that there is no point, or a thousand other possible reactions. You might then say to myself, I “choose” to respond or not, therefore I “exercise free will”.

At a momentary level it would seem as such, however why did you decide to respond or not? Did you decide at some prior date that if you read a post per above that you would respond, or did you have some immediate reaction. If so, were you in control of that immediate reaction, or did it just come to you because “that’s who you are?”

More likely the later of course. We just react to the stimulus around us and how we react is essentially the sum of our “initial wiring” plus the re-wiring that experience gives each of us. Since we can neither control the initial wiring nor at some fundamental level the events that make up our experience, logically we cannot actually control how we react – we have no free will.

I know this isn’t exactly a pleasant thought when you come down to it. No one wants to believe that who they are and their future are essentially pre-ordained for them, but that is what I believe the truth is.

Some who I have talked about this with have reacted negatively not so much because we are “fated” to a path, but because they feel it implies that there’s no reason to try to better oneself. You may as well just be a lump.

Well here’s my answer – the only way you’ll be a lump is the sum of your initial “self”, plus your life experience, plus the input of this theory interact together to make you decide to be a lump. Again, you have no control of this, no “free will”. You will either do it in reaction or you won’t. Moreover if you don’t, then don’t feel all high and mighty above those that might, you’re choice not to be a lump is driven not by some great “free will” desire to better yourself regardless, but rather by again your initial programming followed by life experience followed by the reaction to this theory. Again, if you follow it all back through all the recursions of, “but what made you choose do that?”, you get down to you didn’t choose at all. You’re just lucky enough to be wired by fate to not want to be a lump.

Again, fundamentally this isn’t pleasant, so what does one do with it:

  1. Ignore it. I know it, but it doesn’t stop me from living life like I actually make the decisions. But of course, that’s how I’m wired!
  2. Give yourself a break for who you are and who you aren’t. The honest truth is you really can’t control it. Those who aren’t up to “snuff” as it were, will either have the will and ability to change themselves for the better, or they won’t. The fact that they (or maybe you) don’t, is ultimately out of your control. The truth is not that you don’t – it’s that you literally can’t. The sum of who you are won’t allow you (if it would, then you would change!)(or perhaps you will – there’s always the possibility that the addition of future “input” of experience will finally enable, or drive, you to change).
  3. Find holes in the proposition, either logical, philosophical, or religious. Again, maybe I’m full of crap.

Finally, if you doubt that bettering oneself or not bettering oneself as I apply above is ultimately out of your control, then consider  someone with a 80 IQ versus someone with a 160 IQ. Can a 80 IQ will themselves to be 160 IQ? Can they do exercises to make themselves 160 IQ? No, as you can see, some things are quite obviously not within the purvey of free will. We don’t question those, but it’s funny we question a lot of other things (like praising those who are successful while denigrating those who aren’t – I would argue the exact same constraints on success or non-success exist as the IQ example, just in more complex and less obvious forms).

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