T Nation

Free Will is an Illusion?


So doesn’t the evidence of the Voh’s study, in particular that subjects made different choices when primed with the idea that free will is an illusion, actually indicate its existence, manifested in an act of will?

Maybe Tirib was right all along, haha. As for me, I have a very hard time swallowing either the Calvinist or the Determinist line, particularly so because both lead to a very dark place. Atheists should have no trouble with this. Though if they accept it, they can never again take any credit or pride in how smart they are.


Those participants who believed in free will were more likely to do the right thing. This it seems to me proves that there is free will to begin with.

What am I missing?


I don’t know about this particular study, but I’ve always found free will to be an interesting conundrum as a believer.


That’s not the question, though. The question is, for those individuals who choose to believe in freewill, what determinants exist in them that may not exist in the other group?

Are their brains “wired” differently through genetics and environmental factors which influence their choice independent of their awareness? Was their choice in free will independent of external factors, or were external factors (including genetics) key in determining that choice to believe in free will?

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Are their brains hardwired to believe in certain things, or is their belief in certain things, their choice to believe in certain things, influencing their brains to wire in specific ways?


But they made a choice, regardless. That, in itself, is an act of will. They could have chosen one way or the other. Each chooser could have just as easily made the opposite choice. But he did not.


The crux of the counter argument to this statement is always predicate upon the notion that the “choice” was merely an illusion, and that the outcome was predetermined. Though it appeared each person had a choice, and could have chosen the other way, in reality the outcome was always going to turn out that way due to a variety of explanations depending on your philosopher of choice.

This is always an interesting debate. Lots of great writing on the topic


Sure, but the difference is that our actor can think about it, and make a choice between a minimum of two options. This is the very definition of will.

No matter how many trillions upon trillions of decisions have led to this one decisive moment, it is always fully within his ability to choose one path or the other. He is free to choose.

No matter how many brain waves you measure, no matter how you science it, the freedom will remain, and the choice will be his alone.

Free. Will.


That’s how I see it as well.

But the argument still remains, as we do not KNOW empirically, whether our choice was that of free will or of some neuro path that has already been pre-coded via genetics and/or influenced by some external stimuli, of which we may or may not be aware.

I tend to believe in the free will argument, but I also concede that a lot of our choices are influenced by our biases and prior experiences and we tend to categorize unknowns (once we observe or experience them) based on prior experiences, hence, not quite free will.

I believe it exists and I believe we exercise it, regardless of our cognizance of it, but we also are subject to whims of our biases and beliefs which start to form our neuro paths from birth.


This is pretty much where the argument will always stalemate. It boils down to if we actually have the power to think what we think or if all actions are predetermined and we are just observing them.

One of my favorite arguments against free will was the theory or relativity, as it demonstrates that we observe time in differing speeds relative to our position, which in term would indicate that all time has already occurred, and we are simply observing it. No past, present or future. That’s mind blowing, but then quantum physics can argue that, at the smallest level, objects behave randomly, which would indicate that the future has not been decided.

It’s really just a fascinating topic.


When science can determine the seat of consciousness, not the brain waves and electrical impulses that it purports comprise the whole of our determined being, I may find myself more moved by the Determinist argument. As it stands, however, science has done an incredibly poor job of accounting for human consciousness. All they have is notions and conjectures, at this point. But they are going to tell us they know the impetus of, well, every single choice we make ad infinitum?

Forgive my skepticism, but I’ll stick with my primitive notions a while longer.


You read any Hume? I’m working through “An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding” right now and it talks a lot to this. A good read honestly.


Yes, but he’s ultimately a determinist. It’s not his conclusions that make Hume interesting, it’s his methodology. He was never afraid to paint himself into corners. I always admired that about him.


Exactly. When I read him, it seems like I’m reading someone who is far more interested in the chase than in being right. Just a very joyous experience. It even allows me to forgive him for inspiring Kant, haha.


I have come to the conclusion that this is ultimately an ontological question. Freewill and morality are connected intrinsically. If there is morality then there is freewill. If there is freewill, there is morality.
If there is no freewill, there is no morality.
If there is no morality, there is no freewill.

Morality in this case meaning “Objective Moral Values”.

Since these to are linked, to answer one is to answer the other. To make the case for objective moral values is easier than to make the case for freewill. We can look at the moral extremes and determine whether or not such things ever possibly morally good to do under the ‘many worlds hypothesis’. For instance, is it ever moral to rape, murder, torture and kill a toddler? For the Moral Objectivist, the answer is easy, the answer is that such an action is always immoral, irregardless of whether or not anyone thinks it moral or not. The moral relativist has to prove that such an action can be moral under some circumstance. Meaning also, that there is no victimhood, not only that a bunch of people think it’s ok.
Victimhood is the tripping stone for the moral relativist. No matter how they can justify an act societally, they cannot remove the immiseration of the victim, who won’t likely agree that the torture they are experiencing is good or morally right. So you will always have a voice of dissension. For moral relativism, you need unanimity, ultimately, to prove it.

So the argument would look something like:
P1) For Freewill to exist, Objective Moral Values must exist.
P2) Objective Moral Values exist.
C) Therefore, Freewill exists.


I am a big Hume fan. His advances in understanding ‘causation’ are bar none, the best work that has ever been done on the topic.

I like Kant’s philosophical advances, especially in epistemology, but his writing style is murder. I hate the way he writes. I prefer summations of his theories.


I skimmed it years ago before I really had any real understanding or experience. It’s in the que to re-read as my perspectives and experience has changed.

Any of my understanding on this topic stems from various articles and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” which gives a decent overview of how we think. I’m fascinated by this topic and love the debate …


Yup. I have a similar relationship with Hobbes. One of these days I’ll actually read all of the Leviathan, but I can’t imagine when.


I should reread it. It’s been years, but I still have the book. We studied him, Leibniz, Berkeley, DesCartes and Kant extensively in Metaphysics. It was, by far, my favorite classes. We got deep into some good topics and none of us wanted to leave when class ended. We were still discussing.


Great post, Pat. You and I and a bunch of guys I really miss used to really get into this stuff, and yours is as succinct and axiomatic a summation of this subject as I’ve seen put forth here.


Kant’s contribution to international relations theory - “Perpetual Peace” - isn’t too bad. His work in ethics and epistemology on the other hand are a slog to put it mildly.