About a year ago, I was running at night, around 9’o clock. I was around a sharp bend and Sam Harris’s voice came on, “there’s no free will”. I had to take a pause from running because it was one of those statements that sounds like bullshit but also induces some sort of anger. I think to myself, “I had an inactive lifestyle, I decided to get better and I started running. Clearly, I went from point A to point B every day all by my own will. There’s no one forcing me to do any of that yet I do it.” I haven’t stopped running ever since (not like Forest Gump, but you know) and I feel more energetic than at any point in my entire life so far. It is me who decides and acts and no on else. I have free will.

I let the matter go. I wasn’t interested in listening to his supporting arguments and never really thought about it after that. Then, about 6 months later, I was listening to Robert Sapolsky and this time I was driving instead of running. And he says - “I don’t think we have any free will whatsoever”. And this is the guy who has written Why Zebras don’t get ulcer a book to deal with stress and I wonder how can you deal with stress if you have no free will? Anyways, I continued listening..

You should watch this short video before reading on.

I have had discussions on free will with some friends of mine and I have had similar kinds of reactions when I first encountered this idea myself.

Act 1: Enters Denial

“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord…. So would a being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.” – Albert Einstein

When you get two job offers, you can objectively choose which one is better for you and go with that option. This means at any given point of time you have the ability to rationalize and make intelligent decisions. Hence, free will.

So if you were to create a new artificial being tomorrow that has free will, it needs to fulfil two conditions:

  1. Come up with choices in any given situation.
  2. Objectively assess those choices, choose the best one and act on it.

Now consider these two thought experiments which will prove that we don’t actually meet these two conditions.

Thought Experiment 1:

Think of 3 movies that you like very much. Do it right now as part of an experiment. While you are at it, why don’t you put them in the comments if you make it to the end of this post? TIA :)

If you successfully did, observe how you came up with those 3 movies. Where did it originate from? If you tried the same experiment on a different day, with no new movies watched in between, would your choices remain the same?

You will realize that you don’t know where your choices comes from. But why does that even matter, as long as you can objectively choose between n number of choices.

Thought Experiment 2:

You go to an ice-cream shop and there are 10 new flavors of ice-cream. You decided to try tasters of all those flavors and decided to get the one you like most. Before trying, you don’t know which one you will end up liking most, but you will be able to after trying them all. You don’t know why you like a particular choice the most, but you know thats the one you like most.

You can tell others what social causes you back, like racism, environmentalism and so on but you don’t know why you back only them and not others.

Act 2: The Death of Robot

If by now you have realized that you have no free will, the immediate reaction is “then what’s the point of all this”? Why even work towards change if you cannot will to change? The answer to that is as Sapolsky says “..Change can happen with a framework of mechanistic neurobiology”, but it happens with things that are outside your control.

Let me explain. Suppose you go for a run tomorrow for the first time in your life. Two things can happen, you love it or hate it. If you ended up loving it, you don’t really know why you did. Two people with different dopamine pathways can perceive the same activity in different ways. The likelihood of you continuing your runs on future dates highly depends on how you felt on your first run. “Feeling” is not really in your control. The feeling of wanting to continue a “feeling” is also not in your control.

Act 3: The Rising Sun

In his book What I Believe Bertrand Russell writes

Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life. In the Middle Ages, when pestilence appeared in a country, holy men advised the population to assemble in churches and pray for deliverance; the result was that the infection spread with extraordinary rapidity among the crowded masses of supplicants. This was an example of love, without knowledge. The late war afforded an example of knowledge without love. In each case, the result was death on a large scale.

True understanding results in better choices. You have no control over whether or not you gain true understanding, but if you do by chance or circumstance, your choices will improve over time. Like you already know that reading books or investing is a good idea, but how many people actually read books on a regular basis? It highly depends on wheather they enjoy reading, it has nothing to do with the understanding that reading is a worthwhile endeavor.

True understanding of having no free will is somewhat liberating. It arms you with more empathy, that the choices of others are not really their fault or merit. It is easy to think in terms of faults but is applicable for merits too.

The implications of this from the standpoint of flaws are somewhat obvious. Like designing better justice systems and not punishing people for their crimes but creating correction facilities etc.

But I would like to explore the implications in detail in a future post. Send me a hi for counter arguments, I would be thrilled to hear that.