The Contentious Idea that Free Will is an Illusion

I, for one, love science. Science helps us understand the physical world around us, and regardless if you believe that it was sheer accident or the greatest creative construct, one has to be awed by the beautiful complexity of it all. I delight in learning about stars composed only of neutrons, and about creatures that survive chemo-synthetically at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. But science has evolved into a reductionist, materialistic regime. The scientific method was created to ensure that facts, not fiction or opinion, determine what is real and what is not real. I agree with this foundation of science, but I’ve noticed that scientists tend to believe that a thing exists only when it can be measured by the tools created by other scientists.

What a shock it was when Fritz Zwicky discovered dark matter and dark energy – a mysterious substance that makes up nearly 90 percent of our universe, but has so far completely evaded identification. Dark matter doesn’t interact with light, or produce particles that can be measured. It can only be inferenced because it has a gravitational effect. Dark energy, on the other hand, is the force that is ripping our universe apart – causing the ever-increasing expansion of galaxies, and yet the cause is also unknown.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists can readily admit that all of the current ways of measuring matter and energy in our universe have fallen short in determining the makeup and character of dark matter and dark energy. It’s obvious that dark matter exists, however, because the stars in our galaxy would otherwise have been flung into the void of interstellar space.  Similarly, our universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate, therefore there must be a driving force behind it.  Using common sense, it becomes obvious that these feature exist in our universe, even if we have yet to identify their primary characteristics.

Human consciousness is something we can observe, but like dark matter and dark energy, we haven’t yet discovered the source.  Although there is no evidence to support the origin of consciousness, there are two main theories.  The materialist theory depicts consciousness as an illusion arising from the many processes that occur in the brain.  According to many biologists and neurologists, the combination of these processes create the illusion of a inner life, the qualia that we identify as our own unique perspective.   The other theory supports a duality of mind and brain; suggesting that the brain does not create the illusion of consciousness through physical processes, but serves more as an interpreter; a receiver that translates consciousness from a source divorced of our brain.  To parrot a well-used metaphor, a brain can be thought of as a radio that transmits sound waves.  The radio itself doesn’t create the broadcast that we hear, it merely interprets the information into sound.  If consciousness is not physical in nature, perhaps the brain is the way it interfaces with the physical body, in order to allow us to experience a physical world and operate a physical body.  Although biologists point to illness of the brain that affect consciousness as proof that the brain creates consciousness, consider again the case of the radio: a broken radio will no longer transmit the sound wave, but the soundwave itself remains undamaged.  When our brain is damaged or we become ill, it may skew how consciousness is received and translated by our brain, resulting in the experience of impaired consciousness, but it doesn’t prove that consciousness itself has been impaired.

The “free will is an illusion” argument is similar. According to biologist Anthony Cashmore, our conscious minds don’t actually make decisions at all. Our physical brain directs our thoughts and movements before we are aware of it, and when we are made aware of it, we feel as though we came up with the idea. According to Cashmore, none of us are responsible for our actions.  If our environment and genetics automatically determine our actions based on a set of predetermined rules, then we are just robots who, having a particular set of preconditions, are fated to act out in predetermined ways.

Any thinking, feeling human being knows this is preposterous. Scientists love to point to an old badly-written experiment where a person is instructed to press a button at a time of their choosing, and when they get the urge to press the button, note the time on the clock. When brain activity is measured, it seems to occur before the person was conscious of their desire to press the button.

There are many things wrong with this experiment. The most damning thing I can come up with is the fact that it takes a split second to look up at a clock and decipher the time. And this has to happen after the subject feels the urge to press the button, doesn’t it? How do the scientists truly know that the subject didn’t register the desire to press the button before or during the time when they measured the brain activity? Having the subject register this subjective feeling on a clock includes time needed for muscle movement and cognitive function as well.  The experiment is not without controversy, and yet scientists continue to cite this as proof that free will is illusory.

In this article, Cashmore says “To put it simply, free will just doesn’t fit with how the physical world works.”

Can anyone truly say they understand everything there is to know about how the physical world works?  Certainly, we don’t know what makes up 90% of our universe.  I think it’s truly arrogant for scientists to postulate that consciousness and free will must be illusory simply because they haven’t found an alternative beyond the physical brain.  Certainly, they haven’t found proof that the physical brain creates consciousness either.

Scientists cannot bring themselves to even consider the possibility that consciousness can function independent from the brain, because it begins to sound like religion or philosophy and hints at the possibility that consciousness might survive death.  Thus, these scientists are forced to create unsupported theories and pass it off as real science, even though these theories violate Occam’s razor.

This is the worst form of hypocrisy; falling into the trap that suggests that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.  The truth is, no one knows exactly what consciousness is and where it originates; but I dare anyone to try living with the belief that we are simply robots, not responsible for our own choices, not truly conscious, living completely meaningless lives, with no point to cultivating passions or ideas, because the ‘I’ that we feel internally is a trick; our brain makes all the choices for us based on a predetermined set of rules guided by evolution, environment and genetics and we have no say in the matter.  Regardless of how we feel about it; we are simply dumb machines, lent the illusion of control but powerless behind the wheel.

These are the truths we must live with if we believe that free will and consciousness are both illusions.  A world without pride, achievement, love, happiness, creativity and passion.  A world where humanity is reduced to existing as a clever robot, among millions of other robots, mindlessly running through their code and hoping to finish their particular subroutine before death aborts the program.

You would think that our world would be a place of boring efficiency, devoid of love and creativity.  Just a computer always takes the path of least resistance, so would we.  And so, Robert Frost would be disappointed.  For we would never take the road less traveled; for it would be needlessly longer and we would calculate that any perceived  benefit would not outweigh the risk.  No, the road less traveled by exists only for those who believe that our consciousness is an eternal, loving and creative force temporarily reveling in a physical existence in order to learn, grow and experience.  Humans are not computers.  We are fickle, illogical, driven by more than instinct.  And there lies our greatest strength; our free will – the option to  be self-destructive, or go out of our way to experience something just for the beauty of it.   Sometimes we do take the road less traveled by, and that has made all of the difference.

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