The “Illusion” Delusion

In an interview in 1929 Albert Einstein said, “In a sense, we can hold no one responsible. I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will.” But a few sentences later he says this, “Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” (1)

In his book, “Who’s in Charge?”, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga said, “… we all believe we are agents acting of our own free will, making important choices. The illusion is so powerful that there is no amount of analysis that will change our sensation that we are all acting willfully and with purpose. The simple truth is that even the most strident determinists and fatalists at the personal psychological level do not actually believe they are pawns in the brain’s chess game.” (2)

In the movie Déjà Vu, Denzel Washington said, “I’ll say this slowly, for any PhD’s in the room.”

The Question

How can free will be both an “illusion” and at the same time be something that we must believe is real? What is going on here?

“A most ingenious paradox”

A paradox is a false problem created by a subtle deception. As long as you believe the deception you remain stuck, like a kid with a Chinese finger trap. (3) The harder you pull, the tighter it gets. But once you know the trick (push first) the trap releases you.

So let’s see if we can’t unravel this trap.

The Truth

The physical universe appears to operate in a rational, reliable way. Objects don’t erratically pop into and out of existence. Gravity doesn’t randomly switch from pulling to pushing.

This reliability enables science. We can observe and experiment to discover how things work. Knowing how things work gives us better control of our lives and our environment. For example, knowing how a virus causes disease, and how the body fights infection, we develop vaccines to prevent measles and polio. Knowing the rules of gravity and propulsion we travel to the moon and back.

The Mistake

One day, long ago, a philosopher sat down and picked up a Chinese finger trap. He said to himself, “If each event has a reliable cause, and that cause is also an event that has a reliable cause, then every event must be the result of a chain of causes going back in time as far as anyone can imagine. And what of the future? Is it not also inevitably caused by past events? And if it is already caused, then there is nothing anyone can do about it! We might as well just sit back and watch it happen.”

Is he right? Well, no. You see, the idea of reliable causation, itself, is not a cause. Instead, it refers to all the objects and forces in the universe that actually do the causing. And our philosopher happens to be one of those real objects that actually causes stuff — just like the virus.

In fact, every living organism is a purposeful causal agent. Its purpose is to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce. A tree grows roots into the ground to get water. The lioness takes down the buffalo to feed her cubs. Bees build hives, termites build mounds, and people build cities.

The actions of living organisms change the world they inhabit. And they change it to accomplish a purpose uniquely encapsulated within themselves and their species.

Hey! Where Did He Go?

But isn’t everything that our philosopher does inevitable? Aren’t his choices the inevitable result of his genetic dispositions, his life experiences, his beliefs, his values, his thoughts, and his feelings? Isn’t every memory and thought a product of physical processes taking place in his brain?

Yes. But if you take those things away, he disappears. All of those things are him. He does not exist apart from them and they do not exist except for him. And when “that which is him” decides what he will do, then it is authentically he, himself, that made the choice.

None of those things are external influences upon his choice. They do not compel his choice because they actually are him choosing.

But when someone else forces him to make a choice against his will, subjugating his will to their own, then his will is clearly not free. Coercion is a meaningful constraint upon someone’s will.

The Release

But inevitability is not a meaningful constraint. What we inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

So why did Einstein, and many other scientists, miss this simple insight? Because this is the way a paradox works: it plants a subtle suggestion to get you to see a problem where there is none.

Ordinarily we use the term “free will” to refer to “a decision one makes for oneself free of coercion or other undue influence“. But the paradox suggests we are not free unless we are also “free of causal necessity (inevitability)“. And the idea that what you inevitably do can somehow constrain you is a delusion implanted by the paradox.

In the abstract model of the paradox, you become a falling domino, with no will of your own, because you have been subtly removed from the model, and replaced by all of your parts, as if your genes, your experiences, your reasons, your feelings existed separately from you. The paradox magically turns them against you, supposedly compelling you against your will.

That is irrational. Because that which is you  cannot compel that which is you against your own will. Your will is what that which is you has deliberately chosen to do.

Three Irrational Freedoms

There are three irrational freedoms: freedom from causation, freedom from oneself, and freedom from reality. Because these are impossible, the word “free” can never imply any one of them. And since it cannot, it does not.

This is especially true of “free will”. If the will were free from causation it could never implement its intent. If the will were free from oneself, it would be someone else’s will. If the will were free from reality then it is no longer a will, but only a wish within a dream.

Every practical use of the word “free” references a meaningful constraint. A complimentary gift is free (of charge). A bird can be set free (from its cage). A person may enjoy freedom of speech (free of censorship). And a person can decide for herself what she will do (free of coercion).

When you step back and look at it objectively, it is pretty silly to insist that one must be free of causation to be “truly” free. If the bird released from its cage were also free of causation, then what happens when he flaps his wings? Nothing. Because if  you are “free of causation”, then you can no longer cause anything to happen. And if you can’t do anything, then you have no freedom at all.

Reality or Illusion?

Free will is what we call the everyday process of making decisions for ourselves. We empirically observe this process taking place in the real world. A woman sits at the restaurant table reading a menu. After comparing her options in terms of her own needs and desires, she calls the waiter over and places her order.

We know that choosing really happened, because multiple options were reduced by a mental process into a single choice. We know that she, herself, made the choice because she was the only one at the table.  No one was there compelling her to make any choice against her will. And the neuroscientist will confirm that the choosing process was a physical event within her own brain.

The purpose, to satisfy her need for food, was her own, and did not exist anywhere else in the universe. Her rationale for choosing the salad rather than the hamburger was also her own.

All of these events are empirically observed to have happened in the real world. Where is there any illusion? There is none.

In Michael Gazzaniga’s quote above he says: “The simple truth is that even the most strident determinists and fatalists at the personal psychological level do not actually believe they are pawns in the brain’s chess game.”

If the brain is the self then it cannot make a pawn of the self. They are one and the same.

Getting Real

Within the physical universe only physical objects and forces can cause effects. Among the physical objects are inanimate objects and living organisms. The behavior of inanimate objects can be predicted with Newtonian physics. But living organisms behave purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. To predict their behavior requires the life and social sciences.

When I choose to eat an apple, the hunger is me and the desire for that particular taste and crunch is me. And soon the apple too will be me. This interest in the apple exists within no other physical object in the entire universe except me. Therefore I am the single most meaningful and relevant cause of the apple eating event.

Free Will and Justice

We have agreed to respect and protect certain rights for each other. As Jefferson said, “to secure these rights Governments are instituted”. We pass laws, hire police, and establish courts. Laws against theft protect our right to property.  Laws against murder protect our right to life. We even protect the right of an offender to a fair penalty, by banning “cruel or unusual punishment”. We change these agreements when necessary to reflect an evolving and maturing morality. Once, long ago, our laws supported slave ownership, but we replaced these by new laws banning slavery.

The concept of free will plays an important role in our system of justice, both in (1) assessing responsibility and (2) offender rehabilitation.

(1) Free will plays a role in establishing responsibility for a crime. For example, the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston marathon in 2013, also hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to assist in their escape. Because the driver was forced against his will, he was not charged with “aiding and abetting” the crime.

But if free will is just an illusion then the two bombers would be just as innocent as the driver who was hijacked! That would undermine our system of justice. And this is why Einstein said, “Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed.” And if he had realized that inevitability is not a meaningful constraint, he could have resolved his dilemma, and recognized that free will means freedom from coercion, and not freedom from causation.

After establishing guilt and responsibility, the court assigns a penalty. The proper goal of a just penalty is to protect the rights of all parties. The goal of a just penalty is to (a) repair the harm to the victim, (b) correct the offender’s future behavior, (c) until corrected, protect society against further harms by confinement or supervision, and (d) do no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c). The natural limit to this penalty is the minimum harm necessary to accomplish the practical effect: to restore and protect everyone’s rights.

(2) The concept of free will is also essential to offender rehabilitation. Whenever possible, we want to return to society a person who makes better choices, without supervision, of his own free will. This may involve counseling, education, skills training, addiction treatment, supervised release, and other programs. Rehabilitation provides the offender with new and better options to choose from next time.

But if free will is just an illusion then his future choices will never be under his control. If he had no choice last time, then he will have no choice next time.

Free Will and Social Responsibility

The fact that an offender deliberately committed the crime of his own free will does not mean that he is solely responsible. The community, state, and nation may also have failed in raising the child. Our communities vary greatly in the quality of education, recreation, job training, and economic opportunity they offer. Adults must value each child and assure that children’s early experiences prepare them to play a constructive role.

In today’s news we are reminded of society’s failure to take responsibility for the damage we did to the black race in America. Two hundred years of slavery were followed by another hundred years of segregation and discrimination. To justify this to ourselves we instilled a profound racial prejudice into our children and theirs. It was only within my lifetime that a black child was allowed to attend school with a white child. And Virginia, my state, shut down its public schools rather than follow federal court orders to integrate. (4)

The harm is still being healed, but very slowly. It can be measured in the discrepancy between the proportion of black men in our prisons versus the proportion of black men and women in our professions. It shows up in unemployment percentages that are typically double that for whites. And it shows up in predominantly black communities that are policed by a predominantly white police force.

Our communities, states, and nation should feel a responsibility to take affirmative steps to expedite this healing.

But if free will is an illusion, then no one has any moral responsibility for addressing these or any other harms.


As is sometimes the case, our intuitions lead us astray. It seems that causal inevitability would be a constraint upon our freedom. But it is not. There is no difference at all between what we inevitably do and what we ourselves choose to do. The man with a gun to our heads may coerce us to act against our will, but causal necessity cannot, because we ourselves are causation in play on the field. Determinism doesn’t actually cause anything to happen. Only real objects and forces can actually cause events. And we, as living organisms, cause events for our own purpose and our own reasons. When I eat an apple, I am the only physical object in the universe with an interest in eating it. Thus I am the most meaningful and relevant cause of this event.

The idea of “freedom from causation” is an irrational concept. We depend upon reliable causation to be able to reliably do anything! Causation does not enslave us, it empowers us.

All the final causes of your choice, your reasons, your feelings, your beliefs and values, are within you and they are essential parts of who you are.  It is authentically you, and your own choice, that determines what you will do. And it is what you do that causally determines what happens next.




(2) Gazzaniga, Michael S.. “Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain” (p. 105). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.



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