Is there free will? This is a question that philosophers have been asking for thousands of years and that remains unsolved. In this text I’d like to document a thought experiment of mine:
Assuming it is true that I don’t have free will, what am I left with?
To this point freedom has been a great value of mine. That’s why I run my own company. I want to be independent and make my own decisions. If free will was an illusion that would be a real bummer for me. I’d have to give up my precious value completely.
The truth would be, I never chose to start that company or pick freedom as a value. It was predetermined by a crazy amount of causes and possibly random factors, including my genes, how I grew up, which people I met etc.
Let’s rewind the universe back to the moment when I was born. And now we clone that universe at exactly that moment. If we fast-forward to the present moment there are only two possibilities. One is that in both universes I’m exactly in the same place. The second possibility is that the two universes are in different states, which means that there are some truly random factors operating. However, in both cases, there’s no provable scientific evidence that I ever made free decisions, as a nature-independent agent. It just “feels” like I made them. Freaky!
If life was a car ride, I’d be the driver of my car, right? During my life I noticed a lot of situations where I was steering left, but the car continued to go straight, or even took a right turn. As a believer in free will there could be only one conclusion: The car is broken, I need to fix it. This is how I spent most of my life, fixing that broken car, so it finally does what “I” want.
What if I’m not in the driving seat?
With no free will at work, it means I was never driving, and I never will. I need a moment to swallow that pill…
Okay, assuming I made peace with that discovery. Could there be something good about it too? And how should I live my life from now on? After some reflection, I realised that such a new reality holds an opportunity. An opportunity to cultivate true faith. If I fully accept that I am not in control, couldn’t I then lean back and relax on my ride of life, witnessing the adventure?
Are humans natural? I think most people would answer that humans are natural, but certainly do lots of unnatural things. Until they have finally destroyed the planet and artificial intelligence takes over. Is it only me, or do others see the contradiction too?
I want to explore a radical claim:
Humans are natural and so are all their actions.
To do this, let’s assume a world where humans don’t exist. Only animals. The perfect natural Earth so to say. After some millions of years of evolution, it happens that penguins become pretty smart. They develop languages, build ships to go around and at some point start cultivating aquaculture, so that they don’t have to fish manually anymore. They invent electricity so that they can hang around in warm areas too. They form political parties, and one day launch a huge atomic bomb, which blows up the planet and kills all penguins.
On their last days, were the penguins still natural? Were they doing natural things?
What makes the prospect of not having a free will so unpleasant is the fact that we would feel like puppets. We’d have zero control. But that view is coming from an ego perspective, and just one way to look at it.
I’m born from nature not into nature.
Another way would be to consider ourselves part of nature, rather than separate from it. Do apple trees freely decide to bloom? Do bees freely decide to make honey? Do humans freely decide to build airplanes?
For trees and bees I’d have no doubt to say that their behavior is determined by their genes and instincts and the environment they are facing at a certain time.
If a bee stings me, it’d be hard to find a judge, who’s convicting her of doing it intentionally.
Trees and bees follow nature’s will, not their own. Most people would agree with that. But why is it so hard to consider that the same could be true also for humans? Are we the exception in the universe, the only autonomous agents that decide independently?
I think it is very possible that our brain “invents” the notion of a personality, a “self” that says “I did this”, while in reality we are following nature’s will, just like bees and trees.
I think most people would agree that they do a lot of things unconsciously or “on autopilot”. At the same time they believe that when they are conscious, their decisions are made willingly.
I’d doubt that being conscious of my decisions makes them free. However, I would claim then that while I don’t decide freely, everything that I consciously “witness” (as in observe) has an impact on my future life.
I never decide, but sometimes understand.
One day I saw a Youtube video, in which someone made very good points on why it is a good idea to talk to strangers on the streets. This idea fascinated me, but did I choose to do so? How did this thought “Is it possible to just talk to any stranger on the street?” come to my mind? Since this realisation I talked to hundreds of strangers that crossed my way, resulting in new friendships and relationships. But again, was I really free to choose so?
I believe that there is only auto-pilot mode. But the more I “consciously see” the more advanced my auto-pilot gets.
Understanding a certain thing takes me to the next level. Still I’d be running on autopilot, but a more advanced one. Levelling up means gaining a more accurate model of reality, allowing me to make better decisions.
Paradoxically, I can’t influence this process. There’s nothing I can do to improve my understanding. I’ll just continue to move through my environment, making realisations on the way, sometimes levelling up, sometimes not.
Given the possibility that I am solely driven by nature’s forces, what is it that I experience then? Or in other words, who or what is that “observer” that witnesses everything, such as visuals, sensations, feelings like pain, joy, etc.? What is consciousness?
Let’s consider Laura, an ape, that is not aware of having a personality. Laura would run on nature’s program and not refer to herself as “I” or “Laura”. Still, most people would agree that Laura is conscious. She’ll see, hear and feel stuff. It’s just that there is no “her”. Laura is a human invention, my invention to be exact. ;) But what is “it” then that sees, hears and feels Laura’s world? That is consciousness. Right, it must be something external. Because Laura is just a system of nature following clear rules. But consciousness is Laura’s witness.
If that’s true, then consciousness is also my witness. The only difference would be that my human brain was smart enough to become aware of itself, thus made up a concept called “I” to refer to.
Furthermore, if a universal consciousness is witnessing apes and humans like me, I would conclude it is witnesses everything, including ducks, ants and trees. Even stones. Everything that is made of the fabric of nature. From the subjective perspective it means that even a stone could “feel” the warmth of the sun. Now what people see on psychedelic trips makes a lot more sense. Is everything sort of alive?
However, this possibility very much gets in conflict with the predominant materialistic understanding of the world, which most scientists follow today. To them it’s clear that consciousness is a 2nd-order function of our physical brain. In other words the brain “produces” consciousness and it is bounded to that one individual. My own felt experience of actually observing the world and myself from a place outside of my head makes me doubt that theory. I can’t disprove it but the sole attempt to explain mind through physics seems flawed to me.
An alternative explanation suggests that consciousness exists on the same level as matter. However, while the laws of matter (physics) are understood to a large degree, the laws of consciousness are completely unknown. Is consciousness even subject to laws? At least this theory includes the possibility of a stone or a tree having an experience too. The biggest doubt I have about this theory is that the relationship between matter and consciousness is not defined. Is it that every piece of matter has a bit of consciousness built in? Or is consciousness more like another dimension such as time?
The most interesting explanation I found out there claims that consciousness is first-order while matter is second-order. So it’s basically flipping the whole thing around. What if consciousness is the special kind of clay that the universe is made out of? Matter then arises from consciousness and not vice versa. I definitely can’t grasp this fully but weirdly I find that explanation to be the most plausible. Why? Because it is a very consistent inclusive theory. Consciousness could be the container that could hold all the phenomena we know of: Space, time and matter. This container could stand for nothing (before the big bang) and everything (all possible shapes it could ever form). And it suggests one-ness, as everything that exists is made out of this clay. It connects it all, “it” is the mother of everything, or God.
A guy comes closer, shouting at me: “You idiot, did you just hit my car!?” In such a situation I usually react in one of two ways. I either shout back (confrontation) or more likely, make myself small (retreat) hoping to calm down the situation.
But this time was different. I walked up to the guy and said: “Hey, I just returned from the bank making a big payment after a … let’s call it a divorce. I’ve got nothing to lose today. So, how much do you want?”
First of all, I didn’t choose to scratch this guy’s car. It happened because of trillions of trillions of causes before, including my “decision” to start the car. Second, the guy did not choose to shout at me. His shouting was a result of all his experiences in his life. As I realized later, he had an older car but took great care of it. And then I come along to bump into his oldtimer’s booty. Who would not shout at me?
I gave him 50 € to polish out the scratch. And we kept talking for a bit, and he wished me good luck with my new business. This was one of the rare situations when I was able to catch reality more accurately, and not just my own reality.
What I take away from situations like this is that every perception is relative. In whichever conflict I may end up in, the other side is always right too. From their point of view. I realized that everyone acts from good intentions. But often I can’t see that because I simply can’t relate to the other person’s perspective.
Does this hold universally? I believe so. And to me this was a fundamental life-changing realisation. It even explains why war happens, and implies the only-ever way to resolve a conflict. Neutral empathy.
Let’s take Biden and Putin. And instead of asking who is on the right side of history, let’s ask a more fundamental question: What would need to happen in order for the two to be able to talk to another honestly? Admittedly, that’s very unlikely but what would it take?
Maybe something like this: Biden takes off a week dedicated to writing a personal letter to Putin. He wants to figure out, as good as he possibly can, how it must be like to be Putin. He does it not to seek for any justification for Putin’s actions, but for honestly understanding the desires of a man who couldn’t have a more different reality than himself.
Putin receives the personal letter and reads it alone in his office. He’s quiet and stares at the letter for half an hour. An angry emotion sparks and he burns the letter before going to bed.
The next morning, Putin is getting ready to give new orders. But something happened, he’s in an inner conflict. There’s been something brutally honest in Biden’s letter, which he is unable to ignore.
What if we don’t choose who we become and are mostly unaware of our actions? What if we miss the fact that we’re ultimately one? What if outrage happens only in moments when we can’t see that?