Free Will Is an Illusion, So What?


Think of someone that you dislike. Let’s call this person X. Now, imagine that you were born with X’s “genetic material.” That is, imagine that you had X’s looks, body odor, inherent tastes, intelligence, aptitudes, etc. Imagine, further, that you had X’s upbringing and life-experiences as well; so, imagine that you had X’s parents growing up, and that you grew up in the same country, city, and neighborhood in which X grew up, etc.

Would behave any differently from how X behaves?

Most people realize, perhaps after a moment of startled pause, that the answer to the question is “No.”

The question helps people realize that their thoughts and actions are determined entirely by their genetic and social conditioning. In other words, it helps people intuitively grasp the idea that free will is an illusion.

Over the past few decades, gathering evidence from both psychology and the neurosciences has provided convincing support for the idea that free will is an illusion. (Read this and this, but for a contrarian view, also read this.) Of course, most people can’t relate to the idea that free will is an illusion, and there’s a good reason why. It feels as if we exercise free will all the time. For instance, it seems that you are exercising free will in choosing to read this article. Similarly, it seems that you exercise free will when you deny yourself the pleasure of eating tasty-but-unhealthy food, or when you overcome laziness to work out at the gym.

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