The Illusoriness of My Free Will

I now seriously suspect that I don’t have free will.  I can’t say I’ve given it much thought in the past – I’ve always viewed it as somewhat philosophical, somewhat theoretical, and the works of Schopenhauer and Hobbes don’t grip me as they should.

A lot of neuroscience, however, makes these questions more interesting, and more real.  For example, we know that we have somewhat modular brains, and that only some parts of our brain create that consciousness that we all believe makes us. We also know that we’re subject to a multitude of biases, such as the awful confirmation bias.

I typically associate Jon, me, with my conscious self and this other brain machinery that “does stuff”.  (Even defining self is difficult).  But that brain machinery does stuff, interacts with my consciousness on occasion, and really, isn’t under my control.

I know I’m not the conscious source of my thoughts and actions.   This is the bit that gets me.  If I was the conscious source of my thoughts and actions, then that would imply that I think of them before I think of them.  Well, I don’t.  Neither do you.  They just emerge.

In many ways, I’m an observer of my self.  Where’s the free will in that?

I’m also not responsible for my brain structure.  It’s the result of my history of interactions with the world – and I think this is a staggering thought.  It started out in a way I had no control over (I didn’t control the genes that provided the basic structure of my brain, nor its growth characteristics).  I had no control over the exposure of my growing brain to environment, to diet. I do now, to an extent, but it’s only a limited an extent – and of course, I’m already the result of all these causal chains. Over which I had no control.

So my brain and its current operation is the result of rich history of causal interactions over which I had no control.  My beliefs are the product of prior causes over which I had no control. Where’s the free will in that?

What’s fascinating are some of the implications of dispensing with the notion of free will – how does that impact our notion of morality, retribution, politics, and in particular religion (many religions rely on free will not being an illusion).  It’s mind blowing.

Well, I’ve just started down this road.  Perhaps I’ll end up reading Schopenhauer after all?  But to start off, here’s the talk (by Sam Harris) that got me all fired up, that covers all of these topics and more.  Enjoy:

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