What I Think About Before Chores

Listening to an interview of a physicist recently, I was struck by his remark that 99% of scientists believe there is no human free will–that what we perceive as free will is just an illusion or mind-trick. Everything, including everything that happens inside the human brain, necessarily obeys the laws of physics. So, being the nerd that I am, I’ve been researching this, and it seems that among physicists and neuroscientists at least, he’s right.

But because the implications of this are so potentially disruptive to society, it’s not talked about much. As one piece I read put it, “there is no free will, but we’re better off believing in it anyway.”

So the philosopher Saul Smilansky:

advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.

Think about that: “If the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”

About a hundred or so years ago, I took a course on free will and determinism. And I’ve studied philosophy on and off in the years since then. So I’ve long known about hard determinists–I just didn’t realize how completely they seem to have carried the day. As the physicist put it, to believe in human free will you have to believe in miracles–that is, that the laws of physics are sometimes violated or suspended. Scientists don’t believe in miracles, ergo they don’t believe in human free will.

Which brings me to something I read this morning to the effect that stereotypically the right concerns itself with freedom and the left concerns itself with equality. And I imagine the world’s scientists watching as the two camps argue, shaking their heads with the knowledge that both are building their claims on premises that are nothing more than illusions.



24 comments on “What I Think About Before Chores

  1. shoreacres says:

    This caught my attention: “The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.”

    Isn’t it interesting that “the initiated” always claim to possess the truth? For some strange reason, Jim Jones comes to mind, along with others of his ilk. As for the ivory towers, and those behind walls: I’m awfully glad that I’m free to ignore them if I choose. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bill says:

      I probably should have included more context, so the quote didn’t sound quite so sinister (although in fairness to the professor, he did admit the idea is “drastic, even terrible”).

      Studies show that when subjects are tested for moral behavior, they behave less morally if first shown the evidence that there is no free will. In other words, when the notion that there is no free will is reinforced, people behave worse. So the concern is that if the scientific consensus that there is no free will became widely known and believed, then society might fall apart. Certainly it upsets our concepts of justice and punishment. So he says that we have to privilege that which is “good” over that which is “true.” Of course, he is a philosopher, not a physicist. The scientists might see it differently.

      And I struggle with what a determinist could possibly meaning when using a word like “should.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes indeed; I’d rather be outside the walls and breathing fresh air, than stuck inside with the Special People any day; )


  2. NebraskaDave says:

    Bil, another deep thought for today. I never have a day that I would call a free day with no responsibilities. Your post today made me think about what exactly is my definition is for “free will”. Is it what I let take root in my life? Is it what I decide to let take up my time? For me “free will” would be the freedom to make my own choices in life. and yet every day other people plan my day of freedom. Today, there’s grandson responsibilities to get him to school and home again; taking neighbors (elderly and can’t drive) to lunch; clean house; do laundry; etc. What exactly would “free will” entail. Total uninhibited free will would be a boring life for me. For the skills and talents that God has given to me, outside requirements and responsibilities are necessary.

    Illusions. There are many illusions in life. I liken them to the grass is greener on the other side of the fence syndrome. People of my generation look back to childhood years and wish they could go back to the good old days. It’s an illusion and a fantasy to think life was better back then. I kind of like hot showers and flush toilets. TV advertisements are filled with illusions of buy this product and your life will be ever so much better. Perhaps life is just an illusion and we are all in the Matrix. 🙂

    Have a great philosophical day.

    Nebraska Dave
    Urban Farmer


  3. Ed says:

    This post makes my head hurt! I am reminded of a class I took in college many years ago considered one of the fluff classes, Philosophy 101. We had to read a book “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and write up a report of what it was about. I love to read and remember loving the story and writing up my book report. We handed in our papers and then the professor started asking us questions. People were saying that all these things that I took literally were metaphors for all these other things in life. (If that was the case why didn’t the author just write it that way?) I realized right then that I was going to be an engineer and not a philosopher and dropped the class the next day. My fluff class became American History which I did much better at.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Scott says:

    I love thinking about this stuff Bill. I suppose you’ve heard the scientists and programmers posit that the earth and all the experiences therein are a computer simulation?
    Have you seen a Playstation 4 game recently? (I’ve seen screenshots) They’re real dang lifelike. The argument is that simulation is becoming so much like reality (e.g., augmented reality, wearable VR, etc. and from within those games, people can create new lifelike content) that it is quite plausible that we and everything we see and touch are actually part of the simulation. That computer simulation has gone so far that we can’t tell the difference.

    Or something like that. I’m no gamer, or computer geek, or scientist even, so I’m not the guy to ask; I don’t believe it. But my coworkers have described it to me, and the supposed probability of the above situation is quite high. A lot more plausible than a big bang, then a long time later a great spinning orb being just the right distance from a star to develop life over billions of years.
    Eh, I just choose to enjoy myself. Enjoy your day, fellow simulation Bill. 😉


    • Bill says:

      Yes! It’s a fascinating hypothesis. I know there are scientific expressions of it, but I know it from the philosopher Nick Bostrom. His argument is that it is mathematically probable that there are many civilizations in the universe that have advanced to the posthuman stage, and that surely among them there will be some, if not most, who will develop computerized ancestor simulations. If so, they will surely create lots of them (so that sims will far outnumber “real” people). Therefore, he reasons, there is a high probability that we are simulations. It’s a real brain-bender. 🙂


  5. Avery says:

    Rather interesting.


  6. avwalters says:

    Sure, if there is no free will, there is no real choice. Thus, there can be no fault, and no wrongdoing. It follows that punishment is itself immoral–it serves as no deterrent, and unfairly burdens those whose behaviors are pre-determined.

    I’m on the fence about free will/determinism. I see sociology studies that indicate that the overwhelming negative influence of an early deprived environment. And then I meet people who, by all accounts, should have been thus driven to criminality and prison, but who, instead engaged their creative efforts and became musicians or writers or artists. And I see children of privilege, whose minds have been warped by excess into self-propelled, narrow, rationalizing puppets for the status quo. Free will? Who knows.

    We make choices. From what to have for breakfast, to whether or not to leave a marriage, these choices weigh on us. If there is no free will, then, arguably, the trending results of those choices should reward survival. It’s not what I see in Western culture. While, individually I see many people making moral and survival based decisions, at a cultural level, I see Monsanto, reality TV, climate change denialism–not exactly helpful.

    This makes my brains spin. Or is it like Schrodinger’s cat–that if you knowingly observe it changes the outcome (or more correctly, that the thinking that forces you into one of/or two outcomes is itself an impossibility)


    • Bill says:

      I’m glad you brought up that cat. 🙂 The Many-Worlds interpretation is an interesting solution to the problem. If in parallel universes every possibility actually occurs, that seems a little less restricting than linear pure determinism.

      I’ve read that criminal defense attorneys are starting to have some success using neuroscientist expert witnesses to make the case that the defendant lacked the requisite intent. Of course the flip side of the “no one is to blame” coin is that no one deserves credit for anything seemingly praiseworthy or heroic either.

      Something a seminary professor told me once has stuck with me. He said we have to choose the hill we’re going to die on. We can give up beliefs to science up to a point. At some point though we have to plant our flag and say this is as far as I can go. I think my flag is still planted on the free-will hill, but I have to admit I’d feel a little better about it if the science wasn’t so compelling.

      I used to think life would be pointless in the absence of free will, but now I’m not so sure. Even if our individual actions are determined, we’re still part of an amazing inter-connected universe and, as I heard a determinist say, why not just enjoy seeing the actualization of the persons we are.

      Liked by 2 people

      • avwalters says:

        I’m hanging on to that free-will thing, too. Not only does it feel more liberating, but it encompasses me as an individual–a product of my genes and experiences, but also part of something self-made. Perhaps, that is the sin of ego, and of pride.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. ain't for city gals says:

    If I did not think I had free will then I might as well just give up…


  8. Having the ability to think and make chioces, while knowing the difference between right and wrong is why we are here, making decisions instead of sitting contemplating our navels in the Garden…


  9. So many decisions to be made, every second of every day… There is a book. Do you pick it up to read, or do you leave it lay? Having read, do you take each word at face value, believing as it is written or consider the ideas within and then reject the premise as faulty? To think that choice is an illusion is merely an excuse to not make the harder decisions, taking the easy way out. Poppycock! Bear down and do the right thing… No one ever promised you a rose garden; )


    • Bill says:

      No doubt we’re wired to believe we have free will. If it’s an illusion, it’s a convincing one. As I said above, I’m holding onto my belief, in spite of the fact that nearly all scientists would say I’m wrong. But if would feel a little more confident about it if a few more of them would agree with me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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