Recently, we’ve started questioning the one thing we always thought was obvious — our ability to choose.
The deeper we go, the more we realize free will it isn’t just a given. Even so, we’ve embedded this “free will” — something that might not even be real — into every fibre of our lives.
But why shouldn’t we? After all, we can feel free will in every bone in our body. We know our mind can think, and we know thoughts lead to choices, which lead to real outcomes. How much “real-er” could something get?
True. But what if it wasn’t real? What would you do? What would you do if it was all fake, and you just didn’t notice?
Let’s try looking at things scientifically, shall we?
At the level we understand it, our universe is deterministic. When we observe something happen, we know there must’ve been a force that drove it. When we observe a force, we know it’ll lead to something if we follow it.
We might not always know what the causes are, or what the effects might be, or how quintillions of them connect to form the reality we experience, but it doesn’t change the fact they exist.
If you’re reading this article, it probably means you were born. You were born X years ago to parents with a predetermined set of genes, in an environment you had absolutely no control over. Those factors were the first links in your life’s chain of cause and effect, and you didn’t get to decide what they were.
But forget about that. The body you use to act, the situations you go through, your personality you show to others, and most importantly, the consciousness you perceive the world with. You don’t get to pick those things, either. And yet, they get to pick what happens to you for the rest of your life:
Every thing you think you feel, every action you think you make, and every thought you think you think is just determined by the causes that came before them.
And if you traced them back far enough, you’d just arrive at those first chains. The circumstances you never got to choose.
Well, why not follow the chain back even further? Your parents were born X years ago to parents they couldn’t choose — in an environment they had absolutely no control over.
The same goes for your grandparents your great-grandparents, and so on. The chain stretches back all the way to the first primate, the first cell that created them, the space rocks that created Earth, and the single atom that sparked the universe. That’s as far down the chain as we’ve gotten — at least for now:
Now, isn’t that interesting? If you wanted to, you could blame the supposedly random expansion of a 14 billion year old atom for whatever situation you’re facing.
Wait. Let me take a guess guess at what you’re thinking.
You’re probably frustrated at how much you worried about the effects of the actions you took. The things you achieved might not have been the things you achieved at all. At the same time, your failures might not be yours, either.
In that sense, you could blame this article too. You could blame me for spoiling your illusion of free will while you’re at it. But you can’t. You clicked on it, didn’t you? It was your choice, but not yours at the same time.
Choice is the comfort of knowing we’re in control. It’s the security of knowing we’re the only ones who can set the trajectory of our lives. It’s the knowledge that, no matter what happens to you, the decisions you make that matter more than anything. It’s the pillar that holds us up when nothing else can:
Try thinking about the last time you chose something. Would you have been happier if someone else did the choosing — even if it was what you wanted to choose anyway?
Imagine the mundane scenario of picking breakfast. How would you feel if you woke up and found your favourite cereal (with the perfect ratio of milk) lying there on your table? Chances are, it wouldn’t match the satisfaction you’d get from looking at your options and choosing what you’d pour in your bowl yourself.
TLDR. Choice is nice. Except you probably don’t have it.
But, let’s be real. Thinking this way isn’t very fun, is it? It isn’t very useful either, since realizing you have no say in anything makes you want to curl up in a ball and cry. It takes all the fun out of living. Or does it?
Here’s the thing. We might not have free choice, but does it even matter? Does making decisions that aren’t yours make life any less enjoyable? No. Well, since this was meant to be an essay, I’ll keep the explanation short.
Ever played one of those role-playing story mode games?
If you have, you completing a precoded set of tasks, used pre-built controls, and played in preset boundaries. And ultimately — even if your path was direct or slow or anything in between — you were working toward the same, predictable end.
But you still had fun, right?
And it would never have happened if you didn’t participate in the experience. Without you, none if it would be real. You were the one who completed it. You brought everything together. Only you could’ve done that.
If free will’s an illusion, then you’re an illusion. But if you’re an illusion, there’s no escaping it, is there? Enjoy the game. Really, that’s the only choice you have to make.
After all that mind-warping, you probably have a few things to talk to me about. I know we probably won’t ever meet in real-life to do that, but if we ever met at a coffee shop, our conversation would be pretty short.
You’d say:“I don’t have any free will. Should I care?”
And I’d reply: “I don’t know. Should you?”