Free Will

I have been going through an intense period of self-discovery and reconstruction. I realized that the path in life I have been following for the past several years is not working for me; it is not resonating with me, and it is taking me somewhere I don’t want to be. This realization was revealing itself to me at the same time as a complicated and heartbreaking end to a (short) relationship unfolded, and everything I believed crashed down and came into question. I was a programmer with no desire for a computer, I was a calm communicator behaving violently, I was an atheist experiencing God.

I believe that I am now picking up my pieces and realigning with my dreams — dreams I had forgotten or dumbed down. I’ve believed this several times during the past weeks, only to find another layer collapsing beneath me, so I may be full of shit. But all I can do is to use the best information I have now. It’s a very interesting, emotional time for me.

One of the axioms that crashed during this experience was the idea that I have any control over what happens in the world. This began as a grounded life principle: my attempts to control life only led to more suffering, so I should surrender to the flow of the world. It percolated up to my intellect, combining with the studies of physics I was using to distract myself from my emotions, eventually leading me to the confusing world of philosophy that I love to entertain.

The idea that there is something physically more to a human being than a physical system is something I consider absurd. The conventional non-spiritual idea is that you put more and more molecules together and suddenly a light turns on called consciousness. Humans have consciousness, dogs probably do, lizards perhaps not as they are simple stimulus-response machines, bacteria have no brains so certainly not. Associated with consciousness is the ability to make decisions as an independent entity: free will. Cognitive scientists are madly in search of the magical light that turns on consciousness, a holy grail in our search to understand ourselves.

My developing position — I won’t call it a belief, but I’ll say I am considering it and its implications seriously — is to reject the above narcissism. I see what we define to be consciousness as a gradual increase in sophistication of these biological machines. There is not self-awareness and self-unawareness, merely a band of sophistication in which we communicate that there is a definite “I” and that it is aware of itself. We can communicate that to ourselves, by having a little simulated conversation in our brains in which we say such things to some abstract person.

My experience, particularly at the end of the aforementioned relationship, showed me that a great deal of my self-awareness — my free will — is a hoax. I listened, I reasoned, I concluded the best action. I watched as a ridiculous prediction took hold of my reasoning process. I watched as I carried out, in a state of mental contradiction, the opposite of what I had concluded. I watched myself crying, simultaneously astonished and unsurprised by the way things actually unfolded. I saw myself not as a single unified “I”, but as an ensemble of communicating (or not) decision-making machines, combined with a mechanism retroactively justifying my ridiculous actions.

That free will I was so convinced I had struck me as a process, always living a moment in the past, existing to analyze and retrain my unconscious decision making processes for the future. I was a sophisticated machine, but a machine. I am governed by the same laws as a rock tumbling down a landslide. When asking whether it is possible that I will not push publish in a few minutes and share my thoughts with the world, I’m expressing not a set of a decisions available to me, but a state of uncertainty about what my action will eventually be.

I was walking down the mall and had the strongest urge to pick up a brick and throw it through a window. Jail schmail, money schmoney, I just wanted to do something nuts to release the pressure. And I did not; I watched the urge pass, frustratingly, as I didn’t carry out the action I had pictured so strongly. I couldn’t; my consciousness is not a decider but a justifier, and the action was not there to justify. There was no immediate reason it could come up with for why I didn’t — I was even disappointed that I didn’t. One might view this post as the belated conclusion of my justifier of that situation — that it does not in fact have control of my actions.

I see the universe as a great continuous four-dimensional tapestry, that I have the capability to view only a little slice at a time. I cannot ground the idea that there is some “I” which can cause the tapestry to be altered meanwhile existing within it. What could “altered” even mean in this situation: altered from what? I have been seeing this as a physicist studying something external for quite some time, but to incorporate it, to understand it as something I am part of, is taking me to a whole new place.

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13 thoughts on “Free Will

  1. Or it could just be that the machine is not working properly and you have a medical condition of sorts. Check for food intolerances. For instance, fructose malabsorption is known to initiate depression due to faulty serotonin reabsorption. Migraine can be caused by high histamine (fish, wine, any fermented food, and others), etc, etc.

    A telltale sign is that your unhappiness does not recede, even after you changed your life and views, which you probably did several times already. There’s always something to complain and fret and be depressed about; but feelings may find themselves a reason, not the other way round. I’ve seen smart friends verbally abuse harmless cashiers for absolutely no reason other than that they unknowingly ate food they didn’t tolerate earlier in the morning.

  2. Determinism (as you seem to be gravitating toward) is a natural result of naturalism, i.e., the physical world is all there is and your choices are a result of prior physical conditions. What I would challenge you to do is to take that idea to its natural conclusion — if naturalism and determinism is true, then even our knowledge and choices on what to believe are predetermined too. We would not only be unable to choose to do something, but even our reasons for believing anything are predetermined too.

    But we _do_ exercise knowledge and reasons for belief … you read, think about and understand new axioms, you think through your reasons for believing, and then you reevaluate your belief system — as you demonstrate simply by writing your blog entry above.

    Of course, that leads to a thought: if determinism isn’t true, then naturalism isn’t true either … life is NOT just a series of dominoes falling, meaning there’s more to things than just the physical. The real question could be, what world view best reflects reality?

  3. Bodies are wonderful machines, and minds are wonderful computers, but emotions can throw the whole system of out whack something fierce, sending you down strange pathways. Emotions ARE part of the machine, but it’s… like a black box. Logic goes in. Things happen. Emotions come out and then you act. They’re always mixed up in it and you can’t suppress them (and it’s dangerous if you do). Staying in a strictly logical, physical mindset ignores the physical manifestations of emotion and, in my experience, leaves you floundering because you’re missing variables. A lot of time I wonder how the HECK I’ve done something and the variable always always seems to be that I wasn’t considering the weird chartreuse-and-fuchsia soup that poured out of my emotional black box and how it was affecting things. Emotions are a HUGE thing and even with the same logical input, a different situation could easily be affected by emotions to produce a different set of response-actions.

    I’ve found that the ‘alteration’ to the tapestry occurs simply by existing. I have gravity. Weight. Mass. Presence. The material world – in my experience – is fundamentally altered by the simple fact that I’m there, going about the business of living. Whether it’s rote and predestined or narcissistic in a Chaos Theory fashion, I am part and apart of the world. Woven in. A thread. But that thread affects all the other threads in a complicated weave that brings me in and out of the lives of others. I have a really hard time seeing how the secrets, adventures, and brief moments in which I learn and my world shifts are predestined. Predictable, perhaps, but not predestined. Destiny, to me, says there is no choice. Prediction, on the other hand, means that I am the sum of my experiences, but I still have choice to act with or against.

    Also, if you feel constricted to action in situations where there are consequences (even if you say you don’t care about them, they’re still on your mind, yes?), why can’t you do something nuts in a situation where you CAN control the consequences? I guess it wouldn’t, technically, be nuts at that point, but it might be cathartic anyways.

  4. I love the wide variety of interpretations you guys are getting from this post. The post was kind of a cocktail of philosophy and personal experience, so I suppose a cocktail of responses makes sense.

    @Anonymous, who said I was unhappy? I am in a deeply moving experience! When you are crying in the middle of a film or a piece of music, does it mean that you are unhappy?

    @Rachel, I think I agree with you. As for alteration by existence, I raise the question again, “altered from what?” Altered from what the world would have been if you didn’t exist — this hypothetical world has no reality because you do exist. We don’t have the luxury of getting a “trial run” in which you don’t.

    And as far as emotions; I agree. The lack of control I observed because of my emotions led me to experience my consciousness as living in the past; as justifying rather than making my decisions. The emotions, by themselves, do not reject free will or consciousness, they just hint at a plurality beyond my singular conscious experience.

    @Pk, perhaps. I have trouble exploring philosophy without incorporating it into my belief system (if temporarily); if I use too much caution in exploring world views, I may end up dismissing a valid, interesting, or enlightening one because I am subconsciously clinging to an opposed one. So I try to embrace ridiculous beliefs and take them to their limit. I reserve the right to reject them once I have found an essential contradiction (or — this is the most fun part — reject a different belief which had a hand in causing the contradiction).

  5. Welcome, Luke, to a fairly exclusive club, especially in the Western world. All the experiences you describe here are familiar, and it’s natural and expected that you will feel disoriented as you break the bonds of beliefs and adopt a new view of your world, more coherent within a greater context of meaning-making.

    I’ve described it as traveling into the void, with no visible means of support, and coming out the other side with everything just as it was—but simpler, lacking the illusion of an essential self.

    Best wishes to you on your journey.

    - Jef

  6. IMHO you are seeing things more accurately now.
    In the book The Illusion of Conscious Will (Bradford Books) by Daniel M. Wegner, the experiments are described in detail that demonstrate that Conscious Will is a feeling that comes after the fact. i.e. You mind examines your own actions and decides whether you have deliberately taken these actions. If so you feel that you have consciously chosen them (and resonsible for them).
    I would more so word it that you have been more conscious of the verbalizing justifying parts of your mind. gives some information on the deciding parts of the brain, which at least in my case, are more difficult to be consciously aware of.

  7. If you are crying when you are not in the middle of a film or a piece of music, does that mean that your current experience must be deeply moving? Or may it be that your machine is simply malfunctioning in a completely mundane situation?

    Concerning unhappiness, that’s what I gathered from your words. “I realized that the path in life I have been following for the past several years is not working for me; it is not resonating with me, and it is taking me somewhere I don’t want to be. [...] my attempts to control life only led to more suffering.” My apologies if I misinterpreted that.

  8. Luke :
    @Rachel, I think I agree with you. As for alteration by existence, I raise the question again, “altered from what?” Altered from what the world would have been if you didn’t exist — this hypothetical world has no reality because you do exist. We don’t have the luxury of getting a “trial run” in which you don’t.
    And as far as emotions; I agree. The lack of control I observed because of my emotions led me to experience my consciousness as living in the past; as justifying rather than making my decisions. The emotions, by themselves, do not reject free will or consciousness, they just hint at a plurality beyond my singular conscious experience.

    I read and write fiction, so the what-ifs are part of the fabric of my reality. I steal the alternatives and make them reality through the power of the written word, so dismissing these hypothetical worlds immediately bothers me. I _need_ the what-ifs and nonexistent realities because I use them all the time. For me, writing is an exercise of the imaginative what-if in many respects, as is philosophy.

    However, I think I’m conceptualizing altered in a different fashion than you are, perhaps? I see the alterations caused by an individual like a gravity well around a planet. We slingshot objects around planets all the time, altering their trajectories as they bend to accommodate. Anything that comes within my reach is changed because it has been within my, um, ‘causality well’, I suppose. I’m adding variables to the physical equations, which – to me – is an alteration from base. I’m not well versed in physics, I’m afraid, but don’t most physics problems assume some sort of base state and then take into consideration actors upon the physical stage? I get to be a variable (woo!) which means I cause ripples and affect the world, mostly in small ways, but I MUST be taken into account or the whole equation goes wonky. Scientists always trying to prove that things exist because they’re affecting the equations since they’re not taken into account. Heck, we DISCOVER planets that way.

    Like you said, Luke, I don’t think that that emotions (or defense mechanisms, or autonomic responses) invalidate free will. I suggest that the other bits often kick in before will does, but just because they’re popped from the stack first doesn’t mean conscious decision-making isn’t on there also. It does mean, however, that when they ‘go first’ that I’m stuck playing catchup. I’ve had a series of similar crappy periods where I acted against my judgment, but I learned that I can only accept the consequences. I can explain my actions, but I can never justify my actions.

    I’ve never been very concerned about free will, even during these crap catchup periods, mostly because I’ve always made it my business to identify when I’m out of sorts and then to figure out what walls I’ve put up and where. Free will is only so free as my own established walls makes it, and even though I’m not perfect at identifying my walls before my free will impacts them (messily, usually), I can often circumnavigate them if I’m forewarned that they’re there.

    I guess… I fundamentally believe that people are complicated plates of multicolored spaghetti (bear with me on this metaphor *grins*) and that sometimes my actions come from the noodles colored with experience, emotions, and self-defense rather than the noodles colored with thought. That’s why being able to sort and examine your noodles (introspection) is a useful skill, since it means you have a chance of serving up better tasting (and looking!) noodles when someone comes to your plate with a fork.

    … have a whole wall of metaphors. I’m not sure how I could explain my understanding of some of this stuff without them, though. XD

  9. The biggest mystery to me is why there is such a thing as interiority. That increasingly complex feedback systems could lead to an organism that can respond skillfully to its environment seems totally fine, but I don’t follow why any organism would experience anything.

    The only working hypothesis that I feel comfortable with is that interiority is somehow fundamental, like energy / space / time, etc. and that will increasing neuronal complexity this innate interiority/awareness is channelled through memory forming systems, etc.

    On the subject of free will, I think it’s an illusion due to insufficient awareness (of the ordinary sort), my analogy for this is the mail. If one didn’t know better it would seem like all mail originates from the local mail sorting office, and all mail (that we send) terminates there too; so too with perceptions, intentions, thoughts; they seem to originate from a centerpoint, a self, but I think if we take the time to follow the perceptions we will see they do not originate from some ‘free centerpoint / self’ but they instead arise causally from prior sensations.

    One technique for doing is called vipassanna.

    You seem like quite an intense person, perhaps you have already been examining reality intensively enough already that you’ve accidently tripped a mental switch revealing more about the ‘postal sorting office’. I did so and it doesn’t seem to be undoable (which I have mixed feelings about). Flipping this switch has a technical name: knowledge of the arising and passing away (of phenomena), the experience of which can seem ‘spiritual’ and is typically interpreted in terms of the religion that a person grew up with. The other datapoint which partially suggests to me that this may have happened to you is that following the A&P is an emotional roller-coster called the dark-night (when something in us reluctantly begins to come to terms with the absence of a separate abiding self)

    I guess all of this is pretty left field, but I got nothing to sell, nothing to proselytise, am an atheist too. You might find something interesting at

  10. All people who tried or will try to answer the question “Is there free will?” either die before they can answer it or realize that the question cannot be answered.

    The only difference among those who conclude that the question cannot be answered is the method of reasoning used to arrive at the conclusion.


    It is a fact that a person (like you) is not a part of the physical universe. A person exists as such. The universe outside of you is what it is, it isn’t you. You are you, the outside universe is the outside universe.

    It is a mistake to confuse the social world (the people, us) with the physical world. These two worlds are different. Physical world (rocks, etc) is different from the world of people. A rock is different from a human being.


    There are rules (programs, as in a computer). Once a rule starts executing, it cannot (by definition) stop itself. It will stop when another rule interrupts it.

    Rules are everywhere. Outside you and inside you.

    Executing a rule brings about consequences. Different rules have different consequences. Consequences are of two basic types: good ones and bad ones.

    Changing the rule can result in more good things. The problem of knowing the rules and the problem of which rules (and how!) need to be changed are the tasks mankind is solving. It is hard and it takes a long time.

  11. try this experiment,

    as you close your fist … imagine becoming slowly into a hero, a coward, an animal, a tree, a plant, a virus …. nothing

    now try the reverse. as you open your fist, and stretch your fingers … you become a plant, a tree, an elephant, a hero, a warrior, a businessman, alexander the great, aristotle, the first ape man, lava, earth, sun ……

    if you did it right, welcome to buddhahood, you have experienced your past lives

  12. could be that all the responses here are predetermined, and the people responding are also all machines reacting to stimulus.

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