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Is Free Will an Illusion?

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

Let me start off by defining some key terminologies.

Will: To wish, Desire

Volition: A choice or decision made by the will.

Free Will: Freedom to choose/act

Vivekananda once pointed out, "where there's will there's no freedom and where there's freedom there’s no need for a will".

So, by this definition, 'Free Will' seems to be an oxymoron. There is freedom, which comes from the self realization about the reality of our existence and real nature, and ignorance of this leads to bondage, which forms likes and dislikes that give rise to desires. Our need to succumb to or overcome these desires is where ‘Will’ comes in. So, where there is ‘Will’ there is no freedom and where there is freedom, there is no question of will.

'Will' really seems to be a part of the causal universe. Free will is experiential and not something that really exists in nature. So, is our mind only a link in a chain of cause and effect and our idea of free will is completely an illusory construct?

The more we find out about the inner workings of our brain, the less room there seems to be in it for any kind of autonomous, rational self. Our behaviour can be traced to biological events, which we have no conscious knowledge/awareness of. So lets delve into various streams of thoughts out there to make sense of what Free Will is all about and if we have it or not.

Arguments 'against' Free Will


Every human action is an event in time, and every event in time is preceded by a cause, and everything that has a cause is strictly linked to an effect. So if there is a cause then effect is inevitable. But, the very essence of freedom is the ability to choose freely from a buffet of options. So if a cause leads to an effect and the cause exists (we may not be aware of them consciously) even before we take an action then does freedom really come into play? If it is part of a chain and effect continuum, then it is strictly determined and this is the whole notion behind ‘Determinism’.

We might think we have the freedom of choices and choices might indeed present themselves but the choice we pick and the decision we take, is predetermined by past events.

In the 1980s, the late Benjamin Libet, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up his subjects so that he could monitor the timing of some electrical events in their brains. He asked them to flex their wrists whenever they felt like it, and to register the exact time when they decided to do so.

The results seemed to show that our actions can be triggered before we form an intention, rather than afterwards, thus leaving no time for conscious will to play a role in what we do. In other words, the brain knows before the body knows. Similar tests have been repeated and refined many times, and appear to confirm that the feeling of deliberation can be a mirage. It shows that there are some deterministic forces beyond our conscious control, are involved in our “decisions”, i.e. that free will isn’t really “free” after all. The appearance of a pre-conscious decision process may not in fact reflect a decision at all. It merely looks that way because of the nature of spontaneous brain activity. They simply appear to be indeterminate because of their complexity, our inability to connect the dots or even spare enough bandwidth to probe the factors influencing these decisions.

So, if ‘we’ really aren’t the ones who govern how the systems in our brain work, then we cannot account for the potential that precedes the action. And if we don't govern the potential that precedes the action, then how exactly do we account for our actions according to free will? Moreover, the observation that an action potential sub/unconsciously occurs before a person is going to make a decision, then further debunks free will.

In the chain of events leading up to an action, could such a thing as Free Will be found? Does this mean that we have no more real volition than a star or a stone, a plant or a microbe?

God, Religion and Omniscience

How do we reconcile human freedom with God’s presumed foreknowledge of all actions. If God is omniscient and knows everything, which includes what decision I will take then is my decision really Free? The essence of freedom as to what I will or won't do is already known by someone, which in this instance is God, then where is the freedom in that choice. So if we believe in God or the idea of a God, then clearly we should believe there is no Free Will.

Law of Karma

If we really believe in the strict Law of karma, which states that our past actions give rise to effects in the future (or sometimes straight away) then every event that happens in our life, so be it physical or mental is the result of our past karma. So, in that case then every decision we take is not really freely chosen because a decision is also a mental event and that mental event is caused by some past karma which is again predetermined. So, then how are our decisions, thoughts, actions really free?

Psychological Determinism

Do physical actions alone have causes? What about mental acts? So be it due to environmental, genetic, epigenetic or psychological. So the factors can be nature or nurture but we seem to be compelled to act in a certain way.

Our actions and our thinking arise from the inseparability of emotions, intuition (gut feeling) and cognition. The decision before the voluntary decision is an emotive process, which is generated in the limbic system where emotions stem from. It can be recognized as an impulse and then leads to a conscious decision, and these emotions are given an expression. All of these factors come together to produce a brain state that sets a behaviour in motion, the result of which is observable to the individual, which results in our coherent world view.

If brain is an integral element for the origins of a behaviour, then are ‘we’ mere onlookers

for the production and execution of this behaviour?

Logico Semantic Argument

This stems from logic and language, which states that any statement can be either ‘True’ or ‘False’.

For Example: Lets say if I make a statement that 'India will be the richest nation by 2050'. Now this can be either True or False. In 2050, India may indeed be the richest nation or maybe not and we can only know for sure in 2050. So, If it is already either True or False that India is/isn't the richest nation, then from a linguistic and truth value point of view if the truth and falsity of a statement is already there but only unknown, then where is the freedom of choice?

In the next blog, we will look into arguments 'For' Free Will.

P.S: This blog is inspired by talks of Swami Sarvapriyananda

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1 Comment

pratishtha sr
pratishtha sr
Jul 13, 2020

Thanks for this blog. I find this quite interesting myself. In fact I'm surprised why more people don't think of such issues.. They're fundamental to life! Waiting for the next blog.

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