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The illusion of free will

As you walk and act through life, you may feel a sense of freedom and agency. You can choose to do what you want because you are a free soul that is able to choose do whatever you want to do. There is you, riding around in a body, dictating its every action with autonomy. From the moment we become fully aware of our presence on Earth, this is how we view the world. We are the drivers of consciousness and the thinkers of thoughts. There is an issue with this — it’s an illusion.

Free will is the idea that human beings are free to act in any way possible. This idea simply does not work in conjunction with how we understand the order of the natural world. The entire universe can be measured; it is governed by natural laws that are observable. The human brain and body are not excluded from this. We are made of naturally occurring materials that the rest of universe is made of.

The brain is an incredibly complex organ. It is the essence of what makes us “us.” If it were not for the brain, conscious experience does not occur and our perceptions would be nothing. We have an understanding of how this all comes together. The brain operates as a complicated group of cells that send electrical signals back and forth. These synaptic firings and connections cause thoughts to occur. At what moment do you control the deterministic laws of nature? You don’t.

Scientists have found in lab experiments that when a subject is told to do a simple task like choosing to use their left or right hand, you can predict what people will do. By using fMRI testing, researchers could see activity in the frontopolar cortex and use the information to accurately predicted the decision the person would make 7 seconds before they made the decision.

You can see this when you examine the way your thoughts occur.

Sam Harris, a renowned neuroscientist and philosopher, has a thought experiment to demonstrate the lack of choice. Stop and think of a city in the world. Got one? Did you think of Atlanta, GA? If you didn’t, you know that Atlanta exists, right? However, it simply never came into your mind to pick it. At what moment are you free to pick something that did not occur to you? You cannot choose a decision that does not pop into your consciousness.

From this, let’s think about how free will would even work. To suggest full control of your thoughts is to believe that you think about your thoughts before their inception. You don’t do this — you just think and thoughts merely appear into your consciousness.

Science is clear that free will is not compatible with our knowledge of neuroscience. One scientific argument to rebut these claims is the rules of quantum mechanics. People argue quantum indeterminism leaves room for free will. This is because it adds an element of randomness into the equation. However, randomness doesn’t mean free will. In fact, it may even demonstrate the opposite. If quantum indeterminism guides your thoughts, you are still not in control of those situations.

What does this all mean? Free will is the basis for moral responsibility. It makes it so any evil done by someone is directly attributed to a choice they made. However, if we understand that choices are not freely made and are a result of a complex series of prior events, that means people are not directly responsible for the actions they commit.

Does this mean we shouldn’t punish people? No. If people are dangerous, we should still put them away. However, this does destroy the idea of retributive justice. If people are guilty but not responsible, how do we reform the justice system to fit this outlook?

By ending the free will debate, we free ourselves from hatred. Hatred does not make sense if we look at people as a product of genetics and environment. We don’t hate things that act in accordance with their true nature. If a tiger kills someone that hops into their cage, we don’t hate the tiger — we expect it to do that. If we begin to look at people in this light, we can start to create a social outlook that is more compassionate and just. By negating free will, we can begin to create a new outlook at our relationships with the world and the people around us.

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