The Illusion of Free Will

By Ziad Abouchadi, Class of 2017

Ziad Abouchadi, Class of 2017

Ziad Abouchadi, Class of 2017

When geeks ask what superpower I want to have, my solution to make them bugger off is to say that I fantasize about being able to make optimal decisions. This serious contender for the dorkiest and most boring superpower gets people at Booth excited. Few people entertain the idea of their free will being no more than a mere egocentric illusion, let alone something physically impossible. We like the feeling that comes with being the captain of our ship. Each and every one of us was free to behave differently than how he or she did; you could have chosen chocolate instead of vanilla, but you like blondes so you asked him out.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of cause and effect. It is scientifically uncontroversial to say that things don’t just happen. The moment you accept that your thoughts are mapped to the deterministic chemistry of your brain is the moment you realize that there is no room for free will. You no more control your brain than you control your heart or liver. We accept that a well (or wrongly) placed tumor in your brain can make you act as a psychopath, but frown at more common manifestations of physical events leading to thoughts and behaviors. If I put electrodes in your brain, I can know your decisions and feelings seconds before you are aware of them and I can even force you to make them. That is spooky, but still true. The process of you becoming aware of your decision is just you coming to terms with a deterministic process described by the rules of physics and chemistry. Free will cannot be mapped in the physical world in any serious sense.

Now, I hear you coming. Electrodes or not, science is not advanced enough to account for the mysteries of the “soul”. But, is free will even a subjective thing that you can experience? If you pay attention, you realize that you have no more control over the choice of your next thought than the next thing I say. Try it. In case you didn’t notice, you have a voice in your head that is constantly saying things you have no control over, sometimes things you would rather not hear (e.g. “I should probably drink less coffee in the morning”). How much control do you have over your inner voice?

It is not because it is funny that it is not true. Courtesy of Dilbert.com

It is not because it is funny that it is not true. Courtesy of Dilbert.com

Someone may quip: "Since I do not have free will, then the future is fixed, and it does not matter what I do". But determinism is not fatalism. I am not advocating that we sit on our hands and see what will happen. Our decisions and actions matter and we should strive to make better ones. The future is predetermined, but unknown. The way in which one crosses the street influences the chances of getting across safely. If you care about living another day, then keeping your eyes open matters too.

Ziad is an avid reader, stubborn debater and pro bono devil’s advocate.