Is Free Will an Illusion?

It’s kind of disheartening when you delve deep enough into physics to come to the conclusion that free will can only be an illusion. We think we have a choice: we feel conflicted when we choose where to live, what to eat, or which pair of socks to put on of a morning. But much like the flow of time, which seems to be so undeniably real and linear but is not, our free will may be nothing more than an illusion.

The good news is, there many scientists who, despite knowing that free will cannot exist, refuse to believe it doesn’t! If we don’t have free will, then what the heck is the point? I love when scientists are stubborn in this area, to me it suggests we have some intrinsic “knowing” within us that perhaps we’re willing to fight for. And if science has taught us anything, it’s that there is always more to learn.

There are many reasons why free will can only be an illusion according to science. One of them is due to the illusion of time itself: if the present can occur at a different moment for me than it does for you, as per Einstein’s Special Relativity, then we have no fixed “now”.

The reason why time works the way it does is due to the constant speed of light, which always travels at 299,792km per second. The weird thing is, this speed stays the same, regardless of motion! So if a vehicle with its headlights on was travelling at, say, 100,000 kilometres per second (just as a crazy example), you’d think that the light must then be travelling at 399,792km per second, right? But nope, light still travels at the same speed of 299,792km/sec.

How can that be? I find it easiest to think of in terms of very basic mathematics. If speed is just the distance of space travelled over a period of time, then in order for the speed of light to stay constant, mathematically it means time and/or space must adjust accordingly. In fact, they both do: space distorts, and time speeds up and slows down. We just don’t move fast enough here on earth to notice it in our everyday lives.

Strange as it seems, Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity has been proven many times (ha! See what I did there?). Check out the 1971 experiment, for example, where atomic clocks were flown around the world and compared with an atomic clock kept on the ground at NASA headquarters – their time differences were billionths of a millisecond, but exactly what Einstein’s calculations predicted they would be.

The question is, since time is only an illusion (as Einstein put it, “albeit a persistent one”), should we put free will in a box of illusions along with it? Or can our free will somehow be salvaged?

I believe the latter. Science is still evolving, and there are so many things it cannot explain! For example, we don’t understand many fundamental things about space, like why the universe expanding at an accelerated rate, when logic would say it should be contracting. We just call it “dark energy”, which pretty much means: “we don’t know what the heck is happening.”

Another example is the fact we cannot make sense of how the fundamental forces of the universe actually work together in one cohesive framework. We still need to use General Relativity (synonymous with gravity) to study objects of large mass, such as planets and stars, and we use quantum theory to study atoms and sub-atomic particles. The two realms of science work brilliantly and with incredible accuracy on their own, but scientists cannot for the life of them figure out how they work together. And they just have to work together – they exist in the same universe.

Unifying the forces of the universe was Einstein’s biggest goal. You may have heard of String Theory, which came about long after Einstein’s death and offers possible unification of the forces by suggesting that the universe is made up, below the quark level, of tiny vibrating strings. But at this stage, it’s really just some brilliant, fancy mathematics and since it is not testable, observable or provable, it’s not actually science, but it’s still incredibly fascinating. I believe Einstein would say: “That’s nice. But let’s keep looking, folks.”

Science is cool. So freakin’ cool. But it just doesn’t know much.

I always laugh (politely, on the inside) when I hear people say: I don’t believe in God, I believe in science. Fair enough to not believe in God if you don’t want to, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. People who seem to think there’s some sort of God vs Science debate are probably looking at God in the biblical sense, and forgetting that God does not need to be limited to the manmade concepts of the Bible – the great punisher of men.

God could be so much more. Just read up on the poets like Rilke (oooh) and Rumi (ahhh) and look at the wonderful, beautiful, unlimited way that they look at God. Or, if you want to stick with the Scientists, let’s go back to Einstein himself. Some say Einstein was an atheist, others (such as myself) believe he saw God as the energy of the universe, and as such, God’s handwork becomes the mathematical formulas which would tie together the universal forces. I love that.

I heard physicist Margaret Wertheim the other day talk about the Pythagorean view of God. Given that everything is impermanent: 4 mountains eventually crumble, 4 civilisations eventually fall, 4 planets eventually die… then what do we have left? They saw God as the actual numbers themselves, since only the numbers, rather than the objects, are permanent. I don’t agree with their view (nor does she), but how cool is that?

When it comes to freewill, I like Descartes line of thinking. You know Descartes, the philosopher and scientist who said “I think, therefore I am,” who now gets criticised a lot because the latest line of thinking in spiritual circles is not “I think therefore I am,” it’s “I am. And I also think.” Pfft. So pretentious. Yes we are more than our thoughts, but it’s our thoughts that lead to our words and actions, and therefore plant the seeds for everything manmade we see in the universe, every car, house and social norm was once just a thought. The differentiation is unnecessary.

But I digress…

Descartes. He said there are two worlds: the physical world and the emotional/spiritual world, and all physics describes is the behaviour of matter in motion, and it does not describe anything about the emotional or spiritual world. What I take from that, is since we know for certain that a human body is comprised of the same atoms and molecules which comprise absolutely everything, Descartes must believe human consciousness gives rise to something which behaves somehow differently to the atoms which comprise our very being.

Cool eh? And why the heck not?

I for one refuse to believe I don’t have free will, or that science has all the answers. Actually, let me rephrase: of course science has all the answers – we just haven’t discovered them all yet, and we probably never will.

2 thoughts on “Is Free Will an Illusion?

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