Would a Universe Without Free Will Give Us More Freedom to Act?
The existence of free will is a hotly debated topic among scientists and philosophers. So far, it has neither been proved nor disproved. The discussion often boils down to the following question: Are there any truly random events in nature?
Their existence would imply that any interaction, whether it be of particles or people, could lead to more than one outcome and therefore fork into different futures. That, in turn, would leave plenty of room for us to choose a future we want, which is the basic idea behind the concept of free will.
However, the quantum field theory comes with a snag. Namely, the hidden variable. What if there’s some fundamental property of the universe, a variable we can’t yet observe or measure, that determines the outcome of any event we perceive as random? On the macroscopic scale, there’s nothing random about the toss of a coin, or opening shot in the game of snooker. Our understanding of physics is advanced enough to predict or simulate such events and predict their outcomes. But on the microscopic scale, it’s a different story entirely.
What if everything that happened since the fraction of a second after the Big Bang happened in the only way possible? We’d be foolish to think human brains were exempt from determinism if stars and galaxies were not.
The point is we don’t know whether free will exists or not. But the lack of it is an intriguing concept.
Wouldn’t a deterministic universe, a world without free will, give us more freedom to act? If the future has already happened the same way that the past has, why waste time worrying about how it will turn out? After all, your past self, a person no less real than you are right now, worried about the future, same you worry about yours, and yet, here you are alive and kicking. You’re fine. Despite the many ups and downs along the way. More interestingly, your past self hasn’t arrived in the present moment by following many different paths that coalesced into one but rather traveled along just one path. From then to now.
To me, the realization that there is just one future, one path ahead, is liberating. Why obsess about the outcomes if instead, we could live fully in the here and now? Why spend years thinking about a new career if we could just go and it give it a try?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s good reason to put effort into making your future the best it can be because that effort determines the shape of your life more than anything else. But, at the same time, in a universe without free will, you could just focus your energy on the present and let the future sort itself out.
Even if free will is just an illusion, there’s good reason to put the effort in, to struggle, to feel bad about failure, and to try to do better next time. Obsessing about the outcome of your effort, on the other hand? That makes no sense.
I’m starting to think that even in a universe with free will, that’s time wasted.
Originally published at https://www.sebastianhetman.com on July 17, 2020.