I love the idea that free will is an illusion.
Sure, for each of us it feels like we can freely choose what to do. But as I've observed numerous times before, it also feels like the earth stands still and the sun sets, which is another illusion.
So if we want to know reality as it is, not as how we consider it to be, it's important to not overly trust our subjective perceptions, because that can lead us astray.
I've continued to enjoy my reading of Brian Greene's new book, "Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe." Today I finished the Particles and Consciousness chapter, which has a section on free will that made great good sense to me.
Both rationally and emotionally.
Emotionally, it just is so much more appealing to know that I, and you, and everybody, am not an isolated independent actor who writes my own lines in the play of life. Rather, we are parts of a unified whole, the universe. What we do isn't up to us, but to an amazingly vast interconnected web of causes and effects.
Here's how Greene cogently describes an argument that "knocks free will back on its heels."
Your experiences and mine appear to confirm that we influence the unfolding of reality through actions that reflect our freely willed thoughts, desires, and decisions. Yet, maintaining our physicalist stance, you and I are nothing but constellations of particles whose behavior is fully governed by physical law.
Our choices are the result of our particles coursing one way or another through our brains. Our actions are the results of our particles moving this way or that through our bodies. And all particle motion -- whether in a brain, a body, or a baseball -- is controlled by physics and so is fully dictated by mathematical decree.
The equations determine the state of our particles today based on their state yesterday, with no opportunity for any of us to end-run the mathematics and freely shape, or mold, or change the lawful unfolding.
Indeed, following this chain ever further back, the big bang is the ultimate source of all particles, and their behavior over cosmic history has been dictated by the nonnegotiable and insensate laws of physics, which determine the structure and function of everything that exists.
Our sense of individuality, value, and esteem rest on our autonomy. But faced with the intransigence of physical law, autonomy withdraws. We are no more than playthings knocked to and fro by the dispassionate rules of the cosmos.
Sounds good to me. I've got no problem with being a cosmic plaything. But why does it seem otherwise to us? Greene has an answer.
Our choices seem free because we do not witness the operation of nature's laws in the world of particles. Our senses and our reasoning focus on everyday human scales and actions: we think about the future, compare courses of action, and weigh possibilities.
As a result, when our particles do act, it seems to us that their collective behaviors emerge from our autonomous choices.
However, if we had the superhuman vision invoked earlier and were able to analyze everyday reality at the level of its fundamental constituents, we would recognize that our thoughts and behaviors amount to complex processes of shifting particles that yield a powerful sense of free will but are fully governed by physical law.
So what's the difference between a human and a rock, given that each is fully governed by physical law? Here's how Greene addresses this important question in a persuasive fashion.
Within the rock there's just not a whole lot going on. What makes you special is that your sophisticated internal organization allows for a rich spectrum of behavioral responses.
The point, then, is that when evaluating free will there is much to be gained by shifting attention from a narrow focus on ultimate cause to a broader perusal of human response. Our freedom is not from physical laws that are beyond our ability to affect.
Our freedom is to exhibit behaviors -- leaping, thinking, imagining, observing, deliberating, explaining, and so on -- that are not available to most other collections of particles. Human freedom is not about willed choice. Everything science has so far revealed has only strengthened the case that such volitional intercession in the unfolding of reality does not exist.
Instead, human freedom is about being released from the bondage of an impoverished range of response that has long constrained the behavior of the inanimate world.