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Cristabelle García

Is Free Will an Illusion? About Free Will (Part I)

Let us begin by clarifying that the notion of free will is a perfectly acceptable one for both dualists and physicalists. Physicalists don’t believe in a separate soul, and while some of them believe there is no such thing as free will, because they state that we are purely physical objects who are subject to determinism, others assert that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible (this is called “compatibilism”); and then there are those physicalists who, abiding by the laws of quantum mechanics, state that not all physical systems are subject to determinism, concluding that it is perfectly plausible that we have free will, even if compatibilism is ruled out.

To exemplify the dualist view, here’s a passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kundera, 1984): “Then what was the relationship between Tereza and her body? Had her body the right to call itself Tereza? And if not, then what did the name refer to? Merely something incorporeal? Intangible?” Whether, like Tereza, you believe in the body and the soul as separate things, or not, and independently of your religious beliefs or ontological posture, it is highly likely that you believe you have free will. So for these series of articles, I would like to raise a question, and explore the concept from the lens that shows free will as an illusion.

I see people struggling with choices every day. I work in a start-up that sells bridesmaid dresses, and my role as a stylist has got me thinking a lot about decision making processes. According to philosopher Alan Watts, our life is actually “uncalculated”. He states that our relationship with the environment is inherently harmonious, and that we make our decisions before even thinking about them, after which we do make “funny little rationalizations” to explain why we made them in the first place. Watts concludes that we are always doing what we want to do, even when we don’t believe so, or aren’t aware of it.

I completely agree with the foundation of his hypothesis, but not with the conclusion. Because, if our unconscious mind is already harmoniously interacting with our environment, and all we do later is try to rationalize and explain it, to me, this means we have little to no control over our decisions. Yes, everything does happen in a very organic fashion, because we do as our unconscious tells us. But isn’t free will supposed to be conscious-level?

I was intrigued by the possibility of this unconscious-level decision making process, so I dug further into it. According to theoretician and experimentalist in neuroscience Ezequiel Morsella, in what he calls the Passive Frame Theory (2015), “consciousness is the the middle-man”, receiving everything the unconscious mind produces, and hence making it perceivable to us. At our conscious level, we believe we have free will, but this is just an illusion.

My question is, don’t you think that, maybe, all of our actions, all of our decisions, are already rooted inside us? Don’t you think that, maybe, our “free will” is just the gateway for all of that to become exteriorized, rather than something that really allows us to choose in any given moment? If this were found to be true, the multiverse theory would become completely annulled, because this would mean that the choices we’ve made are the only ones we could’ve made.

This reminds me of Mr. Nobody (2009), a movie in which the main character struggles with options and decisions, and the plot unfolds in all the possible choices he could’ve made in his life. There actually is such a thing as analysis paralysis, and Mr. Nobody suffers from it, believing that “as long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible”. I think that such paralysis actually takes place when our conscious mind thinks it is in charge.

Therefore, if there were actually just one choice that our brain would process, over and over again, I would say that, no matter how still and action-less you remained, there would just be one possibility there, in a virtual state, waiting for you to make the move and materialize it. So the moment you started moving forward, the road that would unfold ahead of you would just possibly be one, the only one there ever was and ever would be. I know it doesn’t sound appealing, and you don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to. That’s what’s so beautiful about it, there’s no answer, at least not yet.

So what does this mean for concepts such as Alex-style brainwashing (A Clockwork Orange, 1971)? Or the possibility of artificial intelligence of the likes of Hal (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)?. Kundera (1984) also says: “A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence”. And indeed, even if these topics remain unresolved, the wonderful journey of exploring these frontiers will have made it worth it. To be continued…

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