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The illusion of free will

November 8, 2012

Ideally, if I want to have a post about free will, I should give a lot more context. Do we have it? Do we not? Is free will an illusion? Is this the real life…or is it fantasy?

Unfortunately, if I tried to write that context, I’d probably sound like some high school amateur philosopher or something…heck, I’ll probably sound like a high school amateur philosopher even if I don’t write about the context first, but I am leaning toward the latter just because I’m too lazy to put in the footwork.

I want to start from some ideas and then explore them, though. My conversations with others has shown me that mileage can definitely vary, so if you don’t agree with these ideas, then I’m sorry.

The first idea is that I perceive freedom in choosing how to act.

The second idea is that I do not perceive freedom in choosing how to believe.

In my earlier article, addressing Terryl Givens’ Letter to a Doubter, I addressed the second idea somewhat…and throughout this blog, I have certainly discussed whether belief is chosen on several occasions. I recognize that some people apparently do perceive freedom in choosing how to believe, although I still can’t quite grasp this, and I tend to suspect that what they cite as being their free will in believing is actually illusory or nonexistent.

That leads me to suspect something else. If someone can be misperceive their own freedom or lack of freedom to choose what they believe, couldn’t someone (like, say, me) misperceive my own freedom or lack of freedom in choosing how to act?

In other words, my feelings on being free to act are because it just seems intuitive that that is the case. But my intuition may be misinformed.

I think this misinformation is what people call the illusion of free will.

The thing that I’ve been playing around with, though, is that that illusion seems more or less apparent in some situations.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about dreaming. Particularly, of the lucid variety. The difference between a regular dream and a lucid dream is that during a lucid dream, you are (or become) aware that you’re dreaming. From a practical standpoint, this gives you a lot more control over what you can do in the dream — when you realize you’re dreaming, you realize that you don’t have to bind yourself to physical laws (or at least, the skewed physical laws of dream sense).

The interesting thing about dreaming is that whether you are lucid or whether you aren’t, you will perceive that you were free to choose in both situations. It’s only when you wake up that you realize a) awww snaps, that was only a dream, and b) if I had known I was dreaming, then I would’ve done x!

So, for the past few weeks, I’ve wondered what this could say about free will (and its potentially illusory quality.)

The working hypothesis I have is that there are going to be actions that, in the heat of the moment, I’m going to perceive are my free choice…but at some point, I’ll realize that I wasn’t really as free as I thought I was.

…Unfortunately, waking life isn’t something I can “wake up from,” so I can’t realize my non-lucidity based on waking up…instead, as happens within the dream, I have to figure out a way to become lucid within the experience.

Totems for Waking and Sleeping

Inception Totem

If you haven’t seen the movie Inception, then I say that you definitely should fix this situation. But whether you have or haven’t, I’m going to talk about a concept in the movie that is at least somewhat true to my experiences with lucid dreaming: the totem.

In Inception, totems are small objects that are personal to the individual that have some sort of aspect that only the individual knows about. When the person is dreaming in someone else’s dream, that aspect will not be replicated, and thus, the person who owns the totem can check it to determine if they are dreaming in someone else’s dream or not.

Becoming lucid in a real dream is pretty much the same, but things are a bit easier — one doesn’t need a unique, individualized totem because so far, we haven’t figured out how to dream in anyone else’s dream. Nevertheless, becoming lucid is a matter of discovering “errors” in the replication of real world physics to the dream world — because while our brains are pretty good at coming up with a mostly believable dream world, there are some details that they miss…in dreams, text often scrambles each time you read it…light switches don’t work…etc.,

The thing about reality checks in dreams is that you have to discipline yourself to checking for them…Many people aren’t so disciplined. They don’t know to suspect anything funny from text and reading, so they don’t do a double-take on written items in dreams. They just go with the flow. Reality checking in dreams is about either breaking away from the flow, or about changing one’s waking flow so that it includes these reality checks. (For the latter, I’ve seen several sites suggest that to raise the chance that you will successfully attempt to check for reality in a dream, you should make a habit of doing it when awake…flipping light switches and paying attention to whether the light comes on…re-reading text, and so on.)

My working hypothesis was that if free will in an offline capacity were in any relevant sense analogous to free will in a dreaming sense, then I should notices times of “going with the flow” that would only in hindsight seem unfree.


I feel like I’ve written about this here, but I can’t find any articles on the topic from a quick search, so I won’t focus too much on it. The point of linking to such an article would be to verify that I have actually been thinking about this for some time…but most importantly, the thing that has bothered me is that yes, I do notice times of going with the flow that only in hindsight seem unfree.

Reflecting on certain kinds of experiences have brought my intuition crashing against empirical experience — my intuition that I choose what I’m doing conflicts with (at least some) experiences where I recognized a lack of choice or a bound choice.

As per the title of this subsection, one kind of experience that has provided empirical data — at least for me — has been when I am angry. When I become angry, I often do stuff I later regret. I yell, I shout, I scream, I curse, I stomp my feet.

The worst thing is I never stay mad. So, five minutes later, and the entire feeling is evaporated — but still, all the people around me still have memory of my making a giant fool of myself.

To describe what it feels like, I liken it to becoming the Incredible Hulk (or maybe a Jekyll & Hyde thing…but to be honest, I’ve read more Hulk than J&H…) Normally, I’m mild-mannered (if emotionally disturbed?) Bruce Banner…but when I get angry, I…well, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. But I can tell you that several hours later, I’m back to my mild-mannered self, only my clothes are ripped and a bunch of people are really pissed off about this “incredible hulk” guy who wrecked half the city.

Or, to translate it outside of comic analogy…

When I become angry, there are several parts to it. There is a welling up of heat and pressure from within me. There is a flurry of thoughts and reactions. There is the impulse to act (shout, stomp, etc.,)

From my perspective, I didn’t choose the heat, pressure, or thoughts. And I can’t choose to dismiss them either.

But what about the impulses to act and react?

Here’s the thing — even when I try to deny it, those impulses are still there. More thoughts and reactions come to mind — you must shout! If you don’t, you will never stop being angry! Shouting will make you feel better! It will relieve the pressure and the heat! Do it do it NOW!

Conflicted Wants

The thing is, however, that I’ve gone through this routine enough to recognize the pattern. My thoughts in the moment are horribly misinformed. Not only will shouting not relieve the pressure or solve anything, but it stokes the flames. And I know that if I blow up, then that will make things worse in the future — the other people might respond by blowing up back, or at the very least, my reputation is lowered over a longer time. So where some part of me is insisting that exploding and raging is in my best interest, another part (usually the weaker part) knows otherwise.

In a sense, the not-so-voluntary, overpowering barrage of thoughts and feelings and pressure reminds me of a trope I hear with drug/alcohol addicts:

“I can quit any time I want to; I just don’t want to!”

In the same way, it feels like I could stop raging any time I want to. I could stop continuing to post comments in anger. But I don’t want to.

Even when I do.

Next time I get around to blogging, I’ll have to write about what I’ve tried to practice to move beyond this…


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  1. Alex Jones permalink

    I am surprised people even debate the existence of free will when it is observable in front of our own nose. Freewill composes of choice and of opportunities. You walk the road you see two paths, which do you then choose? Plainly you have freewill for you are choosing between paths. Nobody is choosing the path for you.

    Another argument is the snail I trod on a few weeks ago. The snail did not choose to be trodden on, I did not choose to tread on the snail. There was no external agency like a god, the stars, or space aliens choosing for me the death of this snail. I made a choice to walk a route, and a snail made its choice of walking a route, we then randomly came together and the snail died. We have choice, but the end results are part random and part determined by our actions.

  2. Alex,

    I think the issue is this.

    So, if I say, “I choose to act,” who is “I”? It seems to me that “I” is more often than not thoughts, feelings, inclinations, desires, and impulses that I do not choose to have. “I” am on autopilot.

  3. I think that to believe is to act forward following some propositions of loving until loving by oneself. To believe is not an act of one step. To believe is a personal and communitarian route towards either a revealed or disclosed land. To believe is to evolve phisically, ideologically and emotionally, among truths and fantasies, in a very specific way.

  4. Andrew, I hate to post this here but the post you were replying to is not allowing anymore comments.
    Very quickly, I don’t know if you are atheist,agnostic or theist but your reply to Mr.Z was spot on (Allah,Thor,Posiden&Zeus thread from 2010) concerning the quote “I contend we are all atheists,ect …”.
    I’m a Christian and I appreciate your approach to logic and your ability to see things from the other guys perspective. Just wanted to tell you that.

  5. Chris,

    Wow, I didn’t expect to see a followup comment to a post written in 2010…it’s strange how far back 2010 was (in internet time)…

    • Yes,that’s true it was quite a while ago but I just happened upon your comments whilst researching and I discovered after I wrote the last comment that you identify as an atheist. You must understand how surprising it is to me to find an atheist that will defend not only other atheists but Christians (or theists,if you like) when someone is rather biased toward them.
      No disrespect intended. I have atheist friends and my very best friend of 21 years is not to fond of Christians but he’s not an atheist. He believes in God but doesn’t adhere to a particular religion.
      Anyway,as I was saying no disrespect but please understand what 95% of the atheists that I’ve talked with (especially in online forums) are like the MrZ you engaged.
      It’s important to point out,even when it’s someone with similar beliefs, when they are doing disservice to someone,especially when someone feels you are a danger to society by being a Christian. I don’t think atheists are dangerous to society. It’s implied (to some people) that because I’m Christian I hate homosexuals!! Theres nothing further from the truth but…….yknow. Ill stop before I wear out my welcome. Thank you again,Andrew for being an example to ALL of us.

      • I guess it’s because many people on the internet tend to be the most angry, vocal people. I mean, this is true for most groups, most sites, etc.,

        At the same time, I can understand why people are often angry. They see real issues and injustices and from their opinion, it seems like most other people either don’t see the same issues or don’t even find them to be issues at all. That’s frustrating.

        In the end, I feel that anger and rage is a drain on my energy, so I try to stay away from those things.

  6. Wow! What a great find (by coincidence, no less while googling free will is an illusion)! really enjoyed yr article since the question preoccupies me much . We like to think of ourselves as enjoying unrestricted freedom of the will. But maybe our choices are causally determined by some combination of our genes, our social conditioning, and our present circumstances. but when u carefully ponder on any decision you have made in the past, you will recognize that all of them were ultimately based on similar genetic,cultural, social inputs to which you had been exposed, u’ll discover that you had no control over these inputs, which means that you had no free will in taking the decisions u did. the real issue is what follows if we gave up on the idea on the unrestricted freedom ? would we still hold people morally responsible for their actions and choices? being a Muslim this idea torments me!

    It seems that i’m not exercising free will in choosing to read this article. but it has been great reading u in this very specific day (today i was having the same questions about totems while watching inception…what an accident 😀

    cheers and keep it up Andrew 🙂

  7. Nawal,

    Thanks for coming by and commenting.

    I guess one thing that people have to think about is…what is it that people are referring to when they refer to someone? Like, is it the idea of a free, unrestrained will? I think that genes, culture, social inputs, etc., are part of what defines someone. So, I don’t think that there’s a “me” that is separate from genes, culture, social inputs, etc….rather, the “me” is defined by these things. There’s no way to pinpoint “me” without referring a combination of these factors. (So, if “I” had different genes, grew up in a different culture, etc., well, the problem is “I” would not be myself…”I” would be some other person.)

    Although, I do think that there are some issues with the concept of moral responsibility as it is commonly understood. We are just starting to come to grips with someone — e.g., are people “responsible” for what they do when they are mentally or emotionally ill? (Generally, laws take into account whether a crime was a crime of passion…there are defenses for insanity, etc.,) The challenge is that we recognize mental illness as being a thing that only affects some people, but that most people are well and healthy…we don’t consider that there are socially constructed elements to mental illness, and that the people we call “well and healthy” aren’t necessarily more “free”…it’s just that how their neurology, psychology, genes, whatever work just happens to mesh in with what is socially accepted.

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