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.

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