TED Conversations

Arkady Grudzinsky


This conversation is closed.

Is "free will" an illusion?

Can someone explain to me how to understand "free will" from a purely materialistic point of view?

Let's assume that my mind is a product of my physical brain. This means that everything that's going on in my mind is a product of neural activity. Say, I'm looking at a can of vanilla and a can of strawberry ice cream and try to make my choice. WHO makes the choice?

Again, if my mind is nothing more than neural activity, then, perhaps, visual stimulus activates some associations and connections from my past experiences, and I pick vanilla, because it is associated with some childhood memory. This means that our response to every situation is predetermined by the neural connections that make my memories. Right?

Doesn't this mean that "free will" is an illusion? Can we really make decisions or do decisions "just happen"? If not, then WHO makes the decisions?


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Oct 21 2012: Arkady,
    You use an example that has no real consequences. There isn't much thought that goes into which flavor to choose.

    Free will comes into play when we make choices that have real consequences. Now we have to think about it. We have to weigh the pros with the cons; what will we gain, what might we lose? The choice we make may decide our fate. There is a lot of neural activity going on during these decisions. Saying that we don't have free will is like saying that the weather is entirely predictable if we make the model accurate enough. I don't think that such a model is possible. There are too many variables that could go either way.

    That being said, I have made many choices that I now realize were preconditioned responses. I played the cards I was dealt in life, but I was not the dealer. What my parents taught me and what school taught me prepared my knowledge base. I had little choice until I graduated school. Once I was on my own, now I could choose where I would go. Most of my choices stemmed from childhood dreams and desires. I was fulfilling ambitions that I was exposed to during my early years. Environmental conditioning played a great part in setting the stage. By the time I had full control over what choices I made, I was already pre-programmed.

    I had a choice in what TED talks I could respond to. I chose your topic because it appealed to my curiosity. Why I am on TED at all is because I stumbled upon it while doing an internet search for an author to a book that I had read. I read the book in response to a childhood experience. The title of the book was "A History of God".
    • thumb
      Oct 21 2012: Roy, this makes sense, but it's still controversial. Even before I read your comment, I thought of my own example: I choose not to ride roller coasters, because I got very sick a couple of times I rode them. So, my choice is based on my unpleasant memories from past experiences. Why did I choose to ride a roller coaster then? Because I had a chance to do that and I was with a friend who enjoyed doing that. So, it was a random chance plus preconditioning from other people. So, when did I make a "free choice"? Back then, when I did not have experience or now, when I do have experience?

      It seems that free will is a feeling that comes from the memories of past experiences that we did not choose to have.
      • thumb
        Oct 21 2012: You are finding connectedness in things, which is very insightful. The controversial part may be that there is no one right answer.
        We make decisions based on peer pressure and past memories. How much was choice and how much was going with the flow we may never know. I like to believe that as our understanding of things gets deeper, our choices become more refined. In that respect, we begin to shape future events and not just allow them to happen.
        Free will may be an acquired ability and not just something that we have or don't have.
        • thumb
          Oct 21 2012: Re: "Free will may be an acquired ability and not just something that we have or don't have."

          Mats, Coleen, and I have addressed this somewhere below. It's controversial as well.
        • thumb
          Oct 21 2012: Arkady and Roy,
          We have indeed addressed this a little bit, and Roy brings new information to the discussion.

          First of all, he points out that "You are finding connectedness in things, which is very insightful".
          In the beginning of this discussion, Arkady, you were saying it is nonsense, confusing, etc. You are not saying that any more.

          Roy also points out that "as our understanding of things gets deeper, our choices become more refined. In that respect, we begin to shape future events and not just allow them to happen.
          We begin to REALIZE more about the concept of free will?
        • thumb
          Oct 22 2012: Coleen, I agree. I was confused by my own dilemma "do we choose how to feel or do we feel what to choose?" until I realized that it is not a dilemma. "Feeling" IS "choosing" :-)

          Still, there is a question whether we can learn how to feel. Most likely, the answer is "if we feel that we can learn, then we can."
      • Oct 21 2012: Arkady, or anyone else :) I have a booklet in pdf format that I got for free from Google books. It's copy right issues have gone becouse it was written in 1880.. It is all pictures of pages and I'm transfering it to text but that will take a while longer than this discussion.

        The title is "Free-will, Repentance, Reformation and Regeneration"

        I can send it to anyone that would like to have a look.
        It was written in 1880 but matter and spirit (and life) have not changed.
        Just send me an email

        Have a great weekend
      • thumb
        Oct 23 2012: Arkady,
        This is in response to your statement.....
        "Still, there is a question whether we can learn how to feel. Most likely, the answer is "if we feel that we can learn, then we can."

        I agree..."if we feel that we can learn, then we can":>)

        I had the opportunity, while co-facilitating "cognitive self change" sessions with offenders who were incarcerated, to observe that we (humans) can indeed learn different ways to "feel".

        One of the first questions I asked at the beginning of the sessions was..."what were you thinking or feeling when you committed the crime?" The answer was often..."nothing....wasn't thinking or feeling anything".

        One of our main goals, was to get the offenders to be aware of their thoughts and feelings and how it impacted their actions, and what the ramifications and consequences were to themselves.

        They often said things like....it is the system that is screwed up...that's why I'm here....it was his/her fault for making me angry.....that's why I beat him/her up....etc. etc...

        They gave up their ability to make good decisions for themselves, and gave responsibility for the actions to someone or something outside themselves. Our mission was to get them to realize that the choices they made for themselves directly impacted their lives. Sometimes, we were successful, and they experimented with some of the concepts and ideas while still incarcerated.

        Sometimes, they actually thought about, and felt the consequenses of fighting with other inmates or with correctional officers for example. Once they thought about and felt the ramifications to themselves, they often changed their choice of behavior.

        So I believe very strongly that we CAN think and feel differently when we give it our attention. Even while incarcerated (not free in some respects), they had the ability (free will) to change their thoughts and feelings, which impacted their life experiences:>)
        • thumb
          Oct 23 2012: Coleen, this is a great example. It is fascinating to me how deeply circular this concept is. Ability to feel and ability to learn how to feel does not seem to come from anywhere, they create themselves. I thought about it a lot. I consciously avoid certain thoughts. For example, I never think "you make me angry", instead I think "I'm getting angry" or never think "you annoy me", but "I'm getting annoyed" or "this situation is frustrating", but "I'm getting frustrated".

          Feelings create desires, desires create will to do something. If we feel that outside things and circumstances affect us, we get a desire to change these things - people or circumstances. So, when I think "you make me angry", my focus is on changing "you". But, since, I do not exercise any self-control, I'm powerless to change anything. I become a slave to my anger. Usually, this leads to making the situation worse.

          But when I think "I'm getting angry", my focus is on changing my own reaction. And, once I exercise self-control, I get more power to change the situation. In a sense, I give up the idea that I can change other people or external circumstances (my free will) and realize that I do not control them ("let go"). Often, as we simply control ourselves, most "situations" and "issues" in our life simply disappear, just by the power of "letting go".

          It's easier to say than to practice, though :)
      • thumb
        Oct 23 2012: Arkady,
        Well said. With your insightful description above, are you exercising "self-control"? Or are you exercising acceptance? Think about your statements in another comment regarding "what ought" and "what is".

        If we embrace the concept that "what is" (the idea/reality that an external force does not cause our anger for example) are we practicing self-control? Or acceptance? In my perception, it is acceptance. So, we let go of our perception of "what ought" to be (our expectations), and accept "what is"? I think/feel we have the free will to do that! :>)

        The more we practice, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes....I can vouch for that my friend!!!
        • thumb
          Oct 23 2012: Hmm... Good point again. Re: "are you exercising "self-control"? Or are you exercising acceptance?" Don't you think, it's both? Perhaps, as in the previous examples, accepting things as they are IS self-control?

          This is one of my favorite videos: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_our_consciousness.html. Dan Dennett talks about consciousness, perception of reality, expectations, and disappointment. The funniest part is the comments. People expected him to explain how consciousness works and he only explained that what we perceive is our expectations, not reality And, boy, are they disappointed!

          As I expressed earlier, the key to internal peace is to bring "what ought" together with "what is". By letting go of some subjective "what oughts" we start perceiving reality more accurately and we begin to sort out real issues (pain and suffering) from imaginary ones.

          My son once took a martial arts class. They had a simple game called "jump and duck" where the students stood in a circle, and the teacher was slowly swinging a long pole around him below, by the feet, or above, by the heads. He could raise or lower the pole unexpectedly. He stated the rules very clearly: "if it goes by your feet, jump; if it goes by your head, duck". The students were only confused and lost when they acted on their expectations instead of perceiving what's going on and reacting to real events. Another examples of how our reactions become more effective if we "let go" of our expectations.
      • thumb
        Oct 23 2012: GREAT example Arkady! Speaking of martial arts....there are LOTS of good lessons with those practices. I do Tai Chi on occasion, and as you may know, one of the basic concepts of martial arts, is to come from the core with strength and yield.

        How it relates to the "free will' topic.....
        We can struggle, be confused, resist and fight against something, OR we can make the choice to recognize our strength (being aware, mindful and fully present in the moment - act/react to real events as you say) and "yield" (accept) those things we cannot change. Like you said previously....we cannot change someone else, so what's the point in "spending" our energy trying to do so?

        A mantra that I use a LOT is called the "serenity prayer", and when I say it, I am not praying to anyone...I'm simply reminding myself...
        "Grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference".

        We all have the ability to explore our "self", and have this information. If we do not believe in it, then it does not exist in our reality. If we DO believe in it, it is a HUGE benefit when navigating the life adventure...in my humble opinion:>)
        • thumb
          Oct 23 2012: You said, you don't believe in God... Whom are you praying to...? :) I guess, a prayer is more like a wish to ourselves, a statement of a goal or an intention. But addressing it to an abstract "God" adds the element of "acceptance" of "God's will" to it. This is to the point that I expressed earlier - that relationship with God is, essentially, relationship with myself. I see religion as a psychological tool, not as a teaching of some absolute objective truth. (I don't mean to criticize your beliefs, because, I think, I understand what this prayer is about).

          Re: "If we do not believe in it, then it does not exist in our reality." Yes. You just emphasized the importance of faith, much questioned these days.
      • thumb
        Oct 23 2012: Like I said Arkady, I'm simply reminding myself. It would probably be more appropriate and accurate for me to say..."I have the serenity and ability in myself to accept things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference". That's not how it's "officially" written though, and I didn't want to change the original:>) Actually, there is one version that starts..."God grant me........"

        Good point...it is a statement of a goal or intention:>) If one believes in a god, and addresses it to that god, it may add an element of acceptance of "god's will".....I do not believe that, and it's fine with me if others make the free will choice to believe in a god.....AS LONG AS THAT BELIEF, AND ACTIONS STEMMING FROM THAT BELIEF, DO NOT ADVERSLY IMPACT OTHER PEOPLE.

        I don't take your words as critisism...I think I understand you too, and respect your choice of beliefs FOR YOU:>)

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.