Free Will Doesn’t Matter

A video on the subject of free will, and why it isn’t nearly as important as we think it is.

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Transcript is below the fold:

Hello, my name is Al. I’m an atheist. I believe that supernatural gods do not exist.

Have you heard about the concept of free will? Free will is huge philosophical question that everybody has some opinion on because it has implications for morality, and religion, and individuality, and how we can and should live our lives. So people think it’s kind of a big deal. For example, you’re watching this video. But are you watching this video because you chose to watch it of your free will? Or are you watching this video because the laws of physics of every atom in the universe, including the atoms of your body and brain, have played out so that I have come to inevitably watch this video?

On the other hand, it seems that the entire universe follows a set of regular, ordered laws, the laws of physics. The atoms of the universe are bouncing around according to the laws of physics like a massive game of pool. And our bodies and brains are also physical systems, so it seems all our actions and thoughts and decisions are the inevitable playing out of these physical rules.

In that case it seems that we don’t make decisions at all. There’s this concept called Laplace’s Demon that you’ve probably thought of before but didn’t know that someone gave it a name. This is a hypothetical demon or entity or supercomputer that knows the position and velocity of every atom in the universe, and using the laws of physics, can then determine everything in the future. And so you may ask, how can we hold anyone responsible for anything if they could not have possibly done anything else?

Religion steps in and claims to solve this problem with the concept of a “soul”, which is this immortal non-physical thing that floats in your chest or head that you can’t see, but if you could see it it would look like this bluish-whitish ghosty version of yourself. Really, nobody can agree what the soul is or looks like but that’s the common image people come up with. Your soul is conveniently not subject to the rules of physics or rules of anything else. Your soul is completely free to make choices of its own volition, and so you can justifiably be rewarded or punished after your body dies.

Which is good, because religions have a lot of rules about the way you should live along with rewards and punishments. Your free will lets you choose to live by these rules and have an afterlife of heavenly bliss, or you can choose not to follow them and be tortured for eternity in a lake of hell fire. So, you know, do whichever one you want, it’s your free choice.

You could go a step furthur than the soul concept and say there is a spiritual dimension to the universe as well as a physical dimension, and somewhere in there, we get free will. Spirituality is a nice cop out because it is completely untangible and nonfalsifiable. I could love comes from our spirituality, and that sounds poetic and also can’t be proven wrong. Nothing can be proven wrong when you talk about spirituality, you can make any claim you want. So saying free will comes from some arbitrary, invisible dimension of reality isn’t the most concrete of arguments.

Some of you with an unread copy of A Brief History of Time on your coffeetable might say that we don’t live in a deterministic universe, because of quantum physics and heisenburg’s principle and this zombie cat-in-a-box. But then we just replace causal determinism with random probabilities, which doesn’t leave us much room for free will anyway. If you made every decision in your life by tossing a coin, we wouldn’t call that free choice.

But nobody wants to admit that determinism can be true because then we throw a childish, nihilistic tantrum. “Everything is preordained, I have no control over my life, I am just a robot, I can’t change anything in my life.” This is the tinyest violin for them.

Here’s what I have to say about free will. Free will doesn’t matter. No, really. This entire philosophical question of free will is pointless, because it doesn’t matter if free will exists or not, we’re going to live our lives like we have it either way. If free will does exist, great, whoop-de-doo. We continue living our lives normally. If free will doesn’t exist, we’ll still make decisions as we always have and we can’t predict the future anyway. If we don’t have free will, we still have a perfect illusion of it that works exactly just as well.

I’m not saying the truth doesn’t matter or ignorance is bliss, but in this case our behavior is the same either way. The existence or nonexistence of free will doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect our lives if we have it or not. And I’m not ignoring a grand mystery of existence, I mean you could assign just as much importance to the question of “Do we live in the Matrix?”.

Anyway, people think the idea of determinism is horrifying because it makes them feel like they don’t have any control over the course of their life. Because as we all know, we have complete control of our lives now. I could do that, I just don’t wanna.

Really, what I think would be horrible isn’t determinism but knowing the future and being unable to do anything to change it. And that’s only when the future is bad. Nobody becomes depressed at the idea that one is inevitably going to win the lottery.

So when you worry if we have free will or not, don’t worry about it. You’re just as free now as you’ve ever been. Even if the future was predictable, we certainly can’t predict it. And life is still, as it always has been, pretty much what you make of it.

Thanks for watching.

21 Responses to “Free Will Doesn’t Matter”

  1. Bob Chatman Says:

    Its definitely good to see you back at it.


  2. the doctor Says:

    Al’s back, baby!

  3. Marc Says:

    Technically, assuming this world is defined by precise rules and laws that are set in stone; laws that will end up creating a predefined/predictable world. Then theoretically one could calculate the infinite variables that affect every action/thoughts/vibrations (to a subatomic level) at any given time. You could predict the universe and every organism in it if you knew how to analyze these infinite variables/factors.

    But we are designed in such a way that our march into the future is constantly changing, giving us the impression of free will. It’s this constant change, the idea that one word can influence the next; one piece of dust falling on your screen can break your train of the thought; one itch on the back of your foot can change the rest of the course of your day. Everything is co-existing and mutually influencing each other. The universe is self-influencing; for its every internal parts influence one another endlessly. But humans, [having been given dynamic assets of physical mobility, and a quick brain to actively process information] have more option than a rock has. And yet a large portion of your desires and needs are programmed into your DNA. Everything can be traced back to a source of causation. Your thoughts can be traced back to influences that helped trigger specific neurons in your brains. And the laws of the universe, which created you, could predict all your actions. Your mind isn’t exactly yours; it’s the universe’s. Just as a brain creates thought, a universe creates “free thinking” agents.

  4. locksmyth Says:

    Finally a new video.
    Again your argument echo opinions I’ve had for years but you articulate them so well.

  5. neil Says:

    I think youre right in the sense that people shouldn’t freak out at not having a ‘free will’, but i think the fact that we dont have free will matters alot. It has huge implications on our sense of morality and even sprituality. The eventual, i guess ‘popular realisation’ that free will is in fact a myth, or a ‘convienient illusion’, will revolutionise our society. I believe the changes are happening already, in the way we view and moralise the behaviour of people with mental illnesses, and our modern views on animal behaviour, neither of which we attach the concept of free will where we once did.
    The idea of free will is entreched deeply within us, it is an important part of our evolved nature that has help us to develop and survive as a species. Eventually we will shed it as we have shed so many of our previous beliefs and evolved behaviours, and come to a more progressive and rational opinion on the subject.

    Thanks for your interesting video.

  6. neil Says:

    oh and as for religion, be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Widespread beliefs in religious concepts that span civilisations and centuries didnt happen by accident, I think religions have tapped into alot of truth in many ways. the Soul or spirit may be something that scientists tend to cringe at, but it doesnt have to be a horrible unsolvable exception to all that science has discovered, or some kind of ‘get-out clause’ It may simply be the other end of the known spectrum, and have rules of its own, that lye beyond what we have currently discovered but nevertheleess fit right in to a perfectly sceintific picture of our universe that we are yet to make. Lets not make the mistakes that mainstream science has been making since it began, thinking it knows more than it does. I would characterise scientific discovery thus far as having made extrodinary progress, as our technolgy can attest to, but we have a hell of along way to go yet before we can really have a solid understanding the nature of what it is to be a conscious being.

  7. Jolly Sapper Says:

    Neil, I could wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of your comment, if only the religions (or the religious) would keep their dogma more focused into the realm of the spiritual and less focused on things more physical.

    I still can’t figure out why wearing polycotton blends has damned my soul to eternal hell fire. ;)

  8. locksmyth Says:

    neil I’d disagree with you statement “religions have tapped into alot of truth in many ways.” It’s success is in large to nothing more then the fact that it makes people feel good about their place in the world, in more extreme situations the success of religion can be attributed to selection among humans towards having faith via killing non-believers. There does appear to be a genetic predisposition to experiencing spirituality. Also the soul or spirit is merely the functioning of the human brain, without all this ‘machinery’ a soul is useless and ultimately pointless. Until evidence some kind of non-physical interaction is found within the brain I’ll continue to say the ghost is not in the machine, the ghost is the machine.

  9. Matt Says:

    Glad to see you are back. I’m fond of your brand of positive atheism (as opposed to the brooding persecuted type). Are you still kicking it in Texas?

  10. Josh Says:

    Great to see a new video from you Al! We share so many of the same thoughts on the universe I have to keep watching (to see what I already think). Just nice to see someone else out there I can sort of connect with.
    To Neil – Use evidence to make claims, not appeals to ignorance. Oh and if we knew everything, science could not exist. We do what we can with what we got. Science has saved literally billions of lives (see Norman Borlaug). I’m not sure what you mean by science thinking it knows more than it does- anyone that has looked a Quantum Mechanics will be confounded, or to astronomy- humbled. Have a great day everyone.

  11. 6Thanatos66 Says:

    Yay, I waited 4 months but it was worth it! haha. What are your thoughts on the current state of democracy in America? :D.

  12. Socrates Johnson Says:

    Fun in a pragmatic way. Assuming that there are no meaningful or discernable differences between the two states this is pretty good. If however one is concerned with questions which do not conflate the descriptive with the prescriptive (which is to say the is and ought) then this falls a bit short.

    After all, one only “ought” to do something if one “can.” Obviously without free will one cannot but do what one does. Therefore if one does the “wrong” thing they can’t have done the right, and thus ought not. The “is vs. ought” distinction even matters in many moral systems which do not appeal to the supernatural.

  13. Gull Says:

    Albert, may i ask for a video of your opinions on the church of Scientology and its ideals and dogma. I would be interested in an intelligent and well spoken atheist’s point of view on the subject.

    Hope you are well and continue to be so.


  14. Jolly Sapper Says:

    hehe.. Its all Xenu’s fault… ;)

  15. Jolly Sapper Says:

    This made me giggle for about 10 minutes.

  16. Curtis Says:

    for anyone who has seen the film “Waking Life” it is clear that you pulled some of these ideas, almost in some cases line for line. Now i dont really have any issue with this, but i thought credit should be given to the film.

  17. Curtis Says:

    sorry bought the last one, tried to post the video.

  18. John Kellner Says:

    “or you can choose to not follow these rules and be tortured for eternity….

    Hilarious. Not only are you presenting true information you are funny and entertaining while doing it. A+++

    There are many more instances like this in your video. Keep up the good work and keep well.


  19. John Kellner Says:

    Dang. After the … I wrote “eye brow lift” which is but in < brackets and it wasn’t included. I thought that was a very good part of the video. Anyway I will continue persuing your site. Going through your web site is encouraging me to create my own.

    Keep well,


  20. Mick Says:

    Your explanation is good. I do see an exception to you’re saying ‘the question freewill is irrelevant because because we live our lives as if we have it anyway’. Mental illness, specifically Bipolar Disorder, though others may be relevant. During an episode (I have BPD) there is no choice. You … I cannot think my way out of it. It some sometimes runs its course or can be treated by meds or ECT.
    Otherwise I think you are right … for most people.
    Nice work. I intend to read and watch more of it.

  21. Sebastian Says:

    As far as the question of whether people should be punished if they don’t have free will is concerned, think of it this way. Our brains are devices that take the information that is received and output a response based on that information. So if someone commits murder, it is arguable that their brain is likely to output a response that is destructive to society. Therefore, the appropriate course of action is to remove them from society (this also includes prison, I personally am against the death penalty). To make an analogy, your computer does not have free will. But if your computer randomly deletes files stored on it, the logical course of action is not to store files on it.

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