The "Illusion" of Free Will?

by John Spritzler

June 20, 2012


I have copied below three recent examples of mainstream media introducing to the public the notion that free will is an illusion. Why is this worth our attention?

I think the elite may be trying to aggressively promote this idea that free will is an illusion and, in so doing, persuade the minority of intellectuals who agree with it that the vast majority of people who don't agree with it are so ignorant of the basic facts of reality that they are not fit to have a real say in society. The elite have learned this trick--promoting ideas that most people reject in order to attack the idea of democracy--well; they presently argue for example that the majority of people who oppose same-sex marriage are so wrongheaded about something so fundamental that they should not have a real say in society. (As the Green Party expresses this opposition to letting people vote, "It's wrong to vote on rights.")

The "free will is just an illusion" view claims that none of our behavior is determined by our conscious choice; all of our behavior is totally determined by the atoms that make up our brains, in obedience to the impersonal laws of physics. In this view of reality, the existence of consciousness is a complete mystery, since it is impossible to imagine subjective consciousness emerging from purely non-sentient matter. (Some scientists admit this impossibility, while others who try to explain consciousness end up just waving their hands and revealing that they haven't a clue.) Scientists with this "no free will" view either deny the reality of consciousness (as B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist psychologist did) or they admit that it mysteriously exists but only as an "epiphenomenon," meaning that consciousness only reflects (somehow), but never causes, the decisions made by the atoms of our brain following the laws of physics.

If there is no free will, then it follows logically that the governance of society is rightfully a matter of social engineering and not a matter of taking seriously what individual people say they want. In this view, democracy is an irrelevant pointless idea. Society should be controlled by people who understand what makes people tick (i.e., how the laws of physics controlling the atoms in our brains yield the laws of chemistry that control the molecules in our brains, in turn yielding the laws of molecular biology that control our brain cells, in turn yielding the laws of neurology controlling our behavior and (possibly) our merely "epiphenomenal" consciousness.)

For example, the recently released online film, Zeitgeist III, which has more than 16 million viewers and which is a very slick expensive production that appeals in the beginning to people like us in many ways, ends up denying free will and calling for essentially a dictatorship of scientists.

The "no free will" idea does indeed derive very logically from the idea that all there is in nature is non-sentient matter/energy. This notion that there is only non-sentient matter/energy in the world is the chief premise of the modern scientific view of the world.
Here's where it gets interesting.

The modern scientific world view (that there is just non-sentient matter) is purely based on faith. It does not derive deductively from empirical observation. Historically, this view emerged and gained ruling class favor in the Enlightenment period of the 17th century because it was originally linked to the idea that the world consisted of purely non-sentient matter on the one hand and fundamentally different divine things (human souls and God) on the other hand. The ruling class at this time feared the "animistic" ideas that influenced peasants and made them stop fearing the Church and start revolting against the rulers who claimed to derive their authority from the Church. The animism idea was that there was no fundamental difference between our souls and our bodies because, like our souls, our bodies (and all other ordinary things in nature) had an aspect of subjectivity and did things for reasons of their own, i.e., were self-moving (like our souls) and not merely passively controlled by laws of nature. According to animism, our body and our soul are fundamentally similar, not dissimilar. The fact that our body dies and decomposes means that our souls, being fundamentally similar, also die and decompose. And this means that our souls are not eternal, and do not go to heaven or hell depending on whether we obey the Church or not. The Church, naturally, saw this as blasphemy, and relied on the new Enlightenment scientists such as Newton and Boyle (famous for his law of gasses) to rebut animism with non-sentient materialism. Newton and Boyle, themselves, were ardent defenders of the Church's claim that God and souls existed and were fundamentally different from ordinary matter.

The Church also needed ordinary nature to be completely non-sentient matter in order for the miracles of Jesus to be truly supernatural. If matter were animistic it would mean that such miracles were things that happened routinely and were common place. This in turn would mean that Jesus's performance of miracles would no longer provide evidence that Jesus was divine, which in turn would undermine the basis for the Church claiming to be the one true religion.

In subsequent centuries, most scientists lost their belief in the divine component of reality and were left with the non-sentient material component, stripped of sentience for no reason other than the historic fact (largely forgotten) that it was formerly required in order to defend the existence of the divine and of supernatural miracles. The scientists' belief today in the non-sentience of matter is based on faith just as much as the belief of people in the past in divine souls and God was based on faith.

It turns out that there is a way (called 'process philosophy' and first developed by Alfred North Whitehead) of understanding the world, including all of the scientific theories of nature presently held by the scientific community, based on the premise that nature consists not of non-sentient matter but rather of occasions of experience with subjectivity, and no supernaturalism. With this framework as the basic premise, consciousness is a logically occurring phenomenon, and free will is logical and very real.

The notion of sentient matter is partially supported by the view of Lyn Margulis that cells are conscious, expressed in a paper for the Annals of the New York Academy of Science online here. Lyn Margulis died recently; she was elected a member of the extremely prestigious National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and is famous for convincing the initially very skeptical scientific community that some components of eukaryotic cells were originally distinct independent organisms.

Much of what I've discussed above I learned from reading books on philosophy by David Ray Griffin, who is more famous as the leading author of many books challenging the government's official 9/11 story, but who is also a philosopher and theologian at the Center for Process Studies at Claremont, CA. The books are Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy and Religion and Scientific Naturalism.




Guilty, but not responsible?
Monsters are born, not made: the latest round in the debate about criminal responsibility questions the very existence of intuitive morality

Rosalind English for the UK Human Rights Blog, part of the Guardian Legal Network
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 May 2012 11.01 EDT

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Dr. William Petit Jr, right, arrives at court in New Haven, Connecticut for the trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky. Petit's family were killed in a particularly horrific attack. Photograph: Jessica Hill/AP
The US neuroscientist Sam Harris claims in a new book that free will is such a misleading illusion that we need to rethink our criminal justice system on the basis of discoveries coming from the neurological wards and MRI scans of the human brain in action. [full article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2012/may/29/will-neuroscience-change-criminal-justice]



The Opinion Pages

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November 13, 2011, 5:25 PM
Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?

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The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

Is free will an illusion? Some leading scientists think so. For instance, in 2002 the psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote, “It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do… It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion.” More recently, the neuroscientist Patrick Haggard declared, “We certainly don’t have free will. Not in the sense we think.” And in June, the neuroscientist Sam Harris claimed, “You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.”




Home » Scientific American Mind » May 2012

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Features | Mind & Brain
See Inside
How Physics and Neuroscience Dictate Your "Free" Will
Physics and neurobiology can help us understand whether we choose our own destiny
By Christof Koch | April 12, 2012 | 37
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Image: Photoillustration by Aaron Goodman

In Brief
Most of us believe that we are free because, under identical circumstances, we could have acted otherwise. Determinism—the idea that all particles in the universe follow set trajectories—challenges this idea. Theories to explain the potential origins of free will draw on physics, including Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Whether or not free will exists, psychology and neuroscience are beginning to explain why we feel as if we can influence our destiny.


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In a remote corner of the universe, on a small blue planet gravitating around a humdrum sun in the outer districts of the Milky Way, organisms arose from the primordial mud and ooze in an epic struggle for survival that spanned aeons. Despite all evidence to the contrary, these bipedal creatures thought of themselves as extraordinarily privileged, occupying a unique place in a cosmos of a trillion trillion stars. Conceited as they were, they believed that they, and only they, could escape the iron law of cause and effect that governs everything. They could do this by virtue of something they called free will, which allowed them to do things without any material reason