Folks, it is with great sadness that I report to you today that we do not in fact have free will, as has been commonly believed. I know this is going to come as a surprise to a lot of you, who for all your lives thought we really did. But no, free will does not exist.
Some of you will say, "well surely I have control over my own actions, nobody has control over what I do". Well, let me explain. First of all, free will is an illusion. And it feels very real because we feel like we're at the drivers seat of our lives making our own decisions. But have you ever stopped to wonder why you decided to make one decision over another? Why did you decide to go camping on Saturday instead of going out drinking with the buds? Or why did you decide on McDonalds vs Burger King. Or why did you decide on red carpet vs blue? We make a million decisions like this throughout our lives. Some are as simple as a decision to put one's legs up on the couch to relax, others are very serious like someone's decision to commit a crime. All the while we feel that we have complete control over these decisions, but what we don't realize is that there's millions of factors guiding why we do things one way over another.
Here is the main hurdle that may keep someone from seeing that we have no free will: the amount of factors that go into guiding our behavior is enormous and incomprehensible. It's not as simple as saying that if someone has a bad childhood then they will be a criminal. Or if someone was molested then they will be a molester. Or if someone's parents are successful they will be successful. I could go on and on and on with generalizations people try to come up with, where there's probably more exceptions to the rule than examples of it being true. That's because it's not as simple as that. In those examples, we're only comparing 1 variable to 1 outcome. A variable from the above would be a bad childhood. An outcome would be how they turned out. We like to make easy generalizations like that but time and time again there's exceptions that show they're often dead wrong. And that's because millions of billions of variables effect us in ways we couldn't even begin to understand. The color of the carpet in your house when you were 4 years old was a small variable that probably had some effect on you. How much of an effect? Who knows, probably very small. But when you add millions upon billions of variables up like this, it collectively guides your behavior. You sitting there in the drivers seat of your life, you feel you're in full control. But the whole time, you're merely reacting to the many variables effecting you, most of them you couldn't possibly comprehend their effect on you and your actions.
Let me make a few points:
If we knew every single factor or variable that someone has experienced in their past, and we were smart enough to calculate the effect of all those variables, we will have a very good idea how this person will act or make decisions in any given situation. Now, there's no way to ever know every variable in someones life and the exact effect it has, so chances are slim that we'll ever be able to predict someone's behavior down to the T. But I argue that if we did have those capabilities we could in fact predict everyone's behavior. Now, for those out there saying I'm treading on the nature vs nurture debate, let me just say that it's obviously both. Genetics is the foundation, and experiences and upbringing build on top of that. We don't know the exact way certain genetics can effect behavior or the exact way experiences effect future behavior, but whether or not we have the formula down yet doesn't take away from the fact that generics and variables around us and our past experiences control our behavior 100%.
Just for fun, let's think about some things in our lives that shaped us that we had absolutely no control over.
- What country, city, neighborhood we grew up in. USA? Zimbabwe? China?
- The income of the home you grew up in. Poverty? Middle class? Rich?
- Our parents. Good parents? Loving? Overparenting? Neglect? Divorced or together? Political leaning of your parents? Religion? Morals?
- Your peers growing up. Have a best friend? No friends? Bullied?
I could go on and on and on. Some might say, ok those are just a couple examples but obviously there's still some room left for free will. But there's millions and billions of variables. Everything down to the color of the carpet growing up, to you breaking your finger when you fell down at age 2, or getting yelled at by a weird neighbor. etc etc etc. Everything shapes us, and that shaping dictates our behavior.
Human nature. What's human nature? Well, go watch some humans. Whatever they're doing, that's human nature. We have a nature about us and our behavior just as dogs, mice, cats, rabbits, and lions have a nature about them and what they do. If you became an observer of mice for years and became an expert, after a while you'd understand the nature of mice. And once you understood their nature, the amount of free will you thought a particular mouse had would approach zero. Let's say your job is to experiment with mice all day long. Put them in mazes. You change variables to observe the behavioral differences after the variable changes. You put a piece of cheese in the middle of the maze this time. Next time, you put it towards the end. Then you reverse how the maze runs. You do all these different things. From the perspective of the mouse, he has complete free will and control over what he wants to do. Hmmm he feels like going down the maze and making a right turn today, because last time he went that way there was a piece of cheese. And he's hungry right now. All free will. Except the experimenter has been doing this for years and he has the mouse's every move down to a science. Clearly no free will at all. Once you understand the nature of an animal, all illusions of free will disappear and you understand how variables around them guide their every move.
Another point: our brains are all wired very similarly. Everyone thinks they're so unique, but at the same time it's very easy for us to understand why someone else did something by putting ourselves in their shoes. That's because our brains and how we think are almost the same. "Why did the boss hire that lady that's clearly unqualified?" Then you find out that they were having an affair and immediately you go "oh ok I understand now". You were able to imagine a man and a woman having an affair, and you were also able to imagine that conflict of interest would arrive from that scenario. How were you such a genius to see in the mind of that boss? Well because his brain isn't that much different from yours. The similarities of our minds allows us to put ourselves in someone elses shoes and to have compassion. If our minds were different, then we'd be confused all the time about what everyone was doing. After we hear the reasons why someone did something, it always makes sense. Why? Because our brains all use the same formula for decision making. Each animal has its own decision making formula, but I doubt they're as different as they might seem. At the end of the day, an animal needs to survive and reproduce. And all animals have those same goals.
So you may be wondering "Wait a minute, my genius brain has the same decision making formula of that idiot that tried to rob the bank but actually gave the teller his ID?" Well I am going to propose an idea: all decisions from all people are logical based upon what they have to work with.
"ok you had me before but this is kind of crazy, I'm the master at logic and I see idiots all day long making dumb decisions". I propose that intelligence and stupidity are a completely different topic than logical decision making in the brain. If someone tries to rob a bank, that is really stupid. But to him, it was logical to do. That person is in a situation that they're trying to improve, they want money for a variety of reasons. But they are short sighted. They don't think of the consequences. Now maybe you'll argue that his inability to look ahead is a logical problem. I'll give you that, however you look at it isn't the point, there's only 1 reality. But we can see that a stupid decision is stupid because we know things that the stupid decision maker doesn't know. We know that that bank is heavily guarded and monitored and can see what a stupid act that is. And we know a life of crime always ends up bad. So again, the difference between a good decision and a bad one isn't how logical it is, but how smart or stupid it is based upon the knowledge the person has, which of course is dependent upon his experiences beforehand.
Let me end it with this: Some might say, "oh ok I get it, you're saying there's no free will so you can excuse the actions of criminals. I guess you want to just let them all out of jail then, since they were merely reacting to society when they committed them". And my answer is "absolutely not". In the same way the criminals commit crimes based up circumstances leading them to do that, communities have been lead to make laws and enforce them to promote peace in the community. So criminals will be criminals, and governments will have their laws against criminals and the jails that lock them up. In the end, it's all justified by the "invisible hand" so to speak, that guides all of our behavior.