The funny thing about free will

Is that you don’t have any.

A trippy picture of the San Francisco Bay Bridge
Courtesy of Scott Loftesness

Wait! Before you move on, remember this! It was determined since the beginning of time for you to only get this far into the article and then leave. Goodbye, have a nice life.

Now, if you’re reading this, it was determined for you to continue reading. In fact, at any point in this article, especially the part where I start talking about turtles, when your strings get pulled and it feels as if you decided to leave, it’s because fate intervened, not because of your illusion of free will.

This is the way of the hard determinist. For the hard determinist believes that everything that has happened, is happening now, or that will occur in the future has been determined by a long and wide cause and effect chain of events that begun at the big bang. More importantly, they also believe that there is no such thing as free will, with no exceptions. They reason that our brains are made of molecules, and molecules must obey the natural laws of physics. Therefore, our choices are merely molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances jumping around in our heads from one brain cell to another. Just as nature intended.

Okay, so let’s get to the turtles. One day a group of our ancient ancestors begun to wonder what our flat earth was sitting on top of. So, they sought out a very wise man who spent all his days investigating such things. After some time in his spirit shack and consultation with a hamster, he returned to tell them that the world was resting firmly on top of a giant turtle. Obviously this did not satisfy all of our ancestors, so one asked, “If the earth, which of course is flat, is sitting on top of a turtle, what is that turtle sitting on top of?” The wise man then built a fire in order to to burn some sacred herbs and read into the smoke what the giant turtle was sitting on top of. After an hour or so of this, he turned to the group and said, “The earth, which can’t possibly be round, is resting peacefully on the back of a giant turtle, that is standing on top of an even bigger turtle. Which naturally made someone ask, “Well then, what is that turtle standing on top of?” To which the very wise man infamously exclaimed, “It’s freaking turtles all the way down!” Thus, creating the first infinite regress, or a sequence of reasoning or justification which can never come to an end.

The infinite regress

The infinite regress, like your decision to stop reading this article at any point to prove that you are your own free agent, and me pointing out that it was destiny and determined for you to do so because you are a robot made of meat, executing your pre-written code, is the annoying yet powerful thing the hard determinist has to argue with whenever someone tries to prove that they’re exercising their free will.

Señor Sisig food truck
Is that Becky? ️

For example, the other day, I made an attempt to exercise my free will all over the Señor Sisig food truck. This is how it went down:

The line was long, the sun was hot, everyone was uncomfortable, the food truck employee was poking their head out the window, the pressure was on, and a decision had to be made. Back in forth in my head I evaluated the choice. Well, once I had the tacos and afterwards, I didn’t feel satisfied. Yet, last time I ate the burrito and I went back to work and struggled to stay awake. Oh my god is that Becky? What is she doing here? What would she order? Why do I care? Ah fuck it. “One order of tacos, please.”

Wait what just happened there in that ah fuck it moment? Did I make a choice? Yes, but if I look at it one infinitely regressive step back, I will see that,

I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do — for instance, after going back and forth between two options — I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable.

(Harris, Sam. Free Will (p. 39). Free Press. Kindle Edition)

Regardless of where this choosing of the choice that I did not choose comes from, once it has been made, it then becomes clearer how to track from whence it came. For example, see if you can follow this natural mundane causal effect chain in our deterministic universe I lay out here:

I started the day lying in bed waiting for destiny to arrive. It didn’t. So, I waited some more. Finally, around 11am, some of the microbes (that make up the 90 percent of the cells in my body) started sending messages to my brain that they and I, which are one of the same, required some nourishment. This caused me and the microbes which are also me, to fire a few molecules in our brain to cause us to get up and go foraging for food. The refrigerator and pantry were sparse as an effect of my gluttonous roommates, which caused me to go down to the local cafe.

Howard Schultz, Italy 1982
Howard Schultz, Italy 1982

I ordered a cappuccino because Howard Schultz went to Italy in 1982 and decided to bring Italian coffee culture back to the United States. Schultz’s idea was an effect of Luigi Bezzera forcing pressurized water through a handful of coffee powder to produce a short, concentrated drink which he called espresso in 1901. Luigi was able to get his hands on some coffee powder because in the 16th century Italians started trading coffee beans with pasta-loving Egyptians in Venice. These Egyptian traders were able to do this because Ethiopian farmers wanted to make some money off of their coffee bean crops and told the Egyptians about this delicious food called pasta in Italy. Ethiopian farmers cultivated and began to sell coffee beans because an Abyssinian goatherd name Kaldi and some goats ate a few raw coffee beans and felt an elevated effect in thought and body.

Kaldi and his goats
Kaldi and his goats

This elation caused Kaldi to go to the local monastery and explain to the head monk what these magic beans had done to him. Kaldi’s story caused the monk to grab the beans out of his hand and throw them into the fire, because he thought that they were surely the “Devil’s work.” This being the first roasting of coffee beans caused the rest of the monks to come rushing in to see what this savory aroma wafting in the air was. These monks began experimenting with the roasted beans, crushing them and mixing them with water in their monastery, because some time back in the 5th century Abuna Za-Mika’el Aregawi, one of the so-called “Nine Saints” brought Christianity to Ethiopia. The fact that there were even people available to become monks in Ethiopia is because Homo sapiens have been chilling in Ethiopia for 195,000 years, which is an effect of our earlier human ancestors deciding to leave the trees and stand upright some 4.2 million years ago. These monkey ancestors of ours lived in the trees because trees started evolving 360 million years ago, which was an effect of the creation of the earth approximately 4.5 billion years ago, when gravity pulled a cloud of dust and gas together to form our solar system. Which happens to be an effect of the creation of the universe caused by the big bang some 13.7 billion years ago.

the big bang
The big bang

So, as you can see, the reason you grab a coffee in the morning is simply because of the creation of the universe.

For as the magnanimous Marcus Aurelius the philosopher king and emperor of Rome eloquently explains it:

“Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you”

Using another item on the cafe menu, the late great cosmologist Carl Sagan puts it this way:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch…

I’ll do funny things if you want me to, I’m your puppet

Still not convinced you’re merely a cosmic puppet on a string? Of course not. The illusion of free will is a seduction and a cherished one at that. Like Becky, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to attempt to break up with her, because it really, really, really… feels like we are free. This feeling of free agency is deeply embedded within us, probably as a result of natural selection. Like any urge that has evolved over millions of years, the feelings associated with free will, when suppressed, will cause irritability. It’s extremely difficult for anyone to rebel against it. When one tries to go against it, even for a moment, a free-will defense mechanism kicks in. This mechanism will make certain people hostile. It will question their sanity by continually asking them if the cheese has slipped off their cracker, which for most of them is intolerable. Yet ironically, these hostile free will-ers are the same people, who when you say to them, “Everything happens for a reason” will respond, “It certainly does”, every time.

Benefits of hard determinism

Yet, the problem of free will when challenged does have some benefits. First, it will increase your feelings of empathy for others. For example, I ask, why is Becky now dating that mashed potato-brained idiot and not me? Well, it’s not her fault. Because of her genes, environment and the fact that Howard Schultz went to Italy in 1982, she met that goof Bradley at Starbucks and fell in love with him. I can now empathize with her. Second, those feelings of sympathy also extend to yourself and reduce feelings of regret. Though I wasted a rare warm San Francisco Sunday inside writing this article, that almost certainly nobody will clap for, I have no regrets. For, it was my destiny to write about unpopular subjects. Perhaps in the future, events in the past will cause good ideas to write about to suddenly appear out of the darkness inside my head. Since, I believe I have no control over what I choose to do, I’m okay with all that. Amor fati!

Detriments of hard determinism

Hard determinism does come with a few drawbacks. First, our entire criminal justice system is based on the notion that we have free will to commit crimes. Other than a few Oregon anarchists, nobody wants to see a complete system failure in that arena. Second, most religions believe that the reason why bad things happen in the world is because we sinners have free will to choose to do evil. So, one must be careful expressing the idea of a deterministic universe around one’s religious friends. They won’t like it. Third, if one fully commits to the idea and lives a virtuous life of truth, it makes traversing the internet difficult. For example, when I go to a website and it asks me to sign up, and I get to that part where the captcha asks me if, “I’m not a robot?” I’m unable to proceed.

Captcha. I’m not a robot
Does this include meat robots?

Moreover, some say that if one gives up their illusion of free-will, they will be consumed by nihilistic feelings of fatalism and run wild in the streets. But as far as I can tell, from my own personal experience, the feeling that my life has purpose has remained. Also, I have not suddenly turned into an immoral reprobate… but there’s always hope.

The jury will always be out

In order to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we live in a predetermined universe, that there is no ghost in the machine, that free will is a seductive illusion, and that we are meat computers, we would have to have knowledge of every event and every single position of every molecule in the universe at any given point in time. With this perfect knowledge, we could accurately explain why everything happened the way it did and to predict what will come next in the future. Well, that’s not going to happen anytime soon, but until then, the jury will always be out and the question of free will, will always remain a problem for all of us free will-ers, Carne Asada-bots…and Becky too.

Want to hear more? Watch these excellent lectures from actual experts. See Jerry A. Coyne and Sam Harris on YouTube.



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