If you’ve read anything regarding free will skepticism, it’s likely that you’ve heard the term “free will illusion” or “the illusion of free will”. This is a common expression used to denote that the free will that most people intuitively feel they possess isn’t something real. Like an optical illusion or an illusion created by your favorite magician, we are experiencing something that isn’t really there. It’s a trick of the mind. Something the mind does to fill in the gaps.
For the experience of free will, this type of “filling in the blanks” is exactly the illusion that is happening. We don’t see all of the variables that go into our thoughts and decisions, so we think those thoughts and decisions are more “free” than they actually are.
For any given decision we perceive many different options. Should I pour myself a glass of water, apple juice, or root beer (options available in the refrigerator)? Hmm, both the juice and the root beer sound good to me. I think this time I’ll choose the root beer, but I certainly feel like I could have chosen the apple juice. That option, per my mind, was just as open to possibility for me. Not only do I feel it was open to possibility, but also that such possibility would be something that would be of my own volition. “I” could have chosen the apple juice instead of the root beer, not some variable that is outside of “my” control.
This feeling is so intuitive, that it’s hard to break. Even once we do recognize it’s only an illusion, it’s such a strong illusion that we still feel it’s power when we make the decision to grab the root beer.
So what’s happening here? What information are we seeing and what information is hidden from us? How is that hidden information causing us to have such a strong illusion? Perhaps to understand this we can analogize a bit with things that are uncontroversially known as an illusion: Optical Illusions.
When looking at an optical illusion, our mind plays tricks on us. The image is set up in a particular way in which our mind either fills in information due to its common understanding of an object or scene that it expects to see, or sees something that isn’t really there or really happening due to a setup our mind can’t parse entirely as a whole.
Take, for example, the common “elephant” image here:
At first glance the elephant might seem fine. On closer inspection of the legs we recognize something is wrong. Some of the legs aren’t connected to the feet, the amount of feet if five instead of four, the space between the trunk and where the leg is supposed to go has a foot, and so on. The legs are a confused mess. But when we step back and glance at this image, our mind has a tendency to fill in those gaps, or lose information that is in conflict. To make what isn’t correct for a “real” elephant make more sense.
Let’s take a look at another illusion. This one I also used in my book for a chapter about the illusion of free will, because it’s the type of “fill in the gaps” that is (in ways) similar to the free will illusion. The Kanizsa triangle illusion:
For this illusion, our mind has a tendency to group objects together to see them as a whole. It fills in the gaps that are missing and sees those gaps as something actual. The white equilateral triangle that you see (the one without the black lines) is not really there at all. The shapes of the black lines, however, make that white triangle seem to be there. In fact, it may even seem like that triangle is a brighter white than the surrounding white, but it’s not. This is our mind filling in gaps. Our mind likes to see cohesive wholes, so that is what it sees.
As you can see, when information is missing from our mind, our mind often fills those gaps in information in. Even if that something isn’t the actual reality. Take a look at this fascinating illusion showing how our minds can distort reality:
At first glance this just seems like some crazy pattern of black boxes sitting on some really crooked horizontal lines. But are those horizontal lines really crooked? or are they parallel? If we were to remove the black boxes and just keep the lines they would be absolutely parallel to each other. But due to the shifted boxes, our mind seems to bend those lines. This isn’t the craziest thing our mind does either. It can even fill in shades that aren’t there. Are the dots below white, gray, or black?
As well as motion that isn’t there:
There are any number of optical illusions showing that what our mind produces isn’t necessarily what exists in reality. And when certain information is missing, or juxtaposed with other information, our mind fills in those gaps in very strange ways.
Or how about the famous animated dancing girl illusion, in which sometimes you will see her spinning in one direction, other times in another direction, and some are able to switch back and forth between the two.
In each situation our mind fills in the details for the direction the girl seems to be going in:
And illusions aren’t always of the optical variety. There are illusions that can be accomplished with taste, smell, touch, words, and so on. There are even some in which one part of the brain competes with another. Take for example, this next one. Don’t read the words, rather, as quickly as you can, say the color you see (not what the word spells). You can quickly see a conflict in how you are parsing the color:
So how do we know if what we are experiencing is an illusion or real? There are various tests and procedures we can do to find out. They can be as simple as measuring those seemingly crooked horizontal lines with a ruler, or as complex as showing that what we are intuitively feeling is logically incoherent (e.g. a self- contradiction).
If our mind allows us to see a circle as a square, yet we still know it’s a circle, we know an illusion is happening. We know this because square circles are a contradiction.
So back to the free will illusion. Why does this intuitive feeling that all options before us are “real possibilities” happen? Why do we think we could have, of our own accord, done otherwise than what we did?
Because we don’t, nor is it possible for us to, see all of the variables that push us to one option over another. I might not see or understand the causal variables that will push me to root beer over apple juice. It may even seem like I want both equally, and such might actually be the case. It could be that either beverage would be fine with me. So when I make the selection, it seems to me that either one could be chosen.
What I’m not seeing are the causal variables that actually push me to the one over the other. I’m not seeing the specific neural setup of my brain physiology, or recognizing that the reason I might grab one over the other could stem to other facts than what I want to drink, such as the shape of the bottle, the fact that the root beer is on the shelf while the apple juice is in the door, the fact that I might subconsciously want to hear the fizzing sound when opening the bottle, the fact that one might be easier to grab or to pour, the color of the root beer, the label on the bottle, as well as any other subconscious or unconscious processes that lead to the one over the other. And since I don’t see these variables, my mind doesn’t parse them. In fact my mind doesn’t even think about looking for the variables. It’s simply too much work.
So what does it do instead? It makes up things. It fills in those gaps of knowledge with other information. It tells me that since I don’t see the variables, that I could have freely chosen that apple juice. Since I truly did desire apple juice as well, but only wanted one type of drink at that time, I simply decided on a different option regardless if I could have chosen the other. It fills in that gap just as quickly and easily as it fills in that Kanizsa triangle or sees those crooked lines.
But since we can logically understand that one could not have, of their own accord, chosen otherwise – we can understand that this free will feeling we possess is not something that is giving an accurate depiction of our abilities. Rather, it’s faking us out. It’s tricking us.
And though, when we look down to the horizon from parallel train tracks it appears that they converge, with a little investigation we can understand that such train tracks never do converge. We can understand that the train doesn’t actually shrink in size as it get’s closer to the horizon. With a little investigation in the matter we can understand that perspective is just the way we see things at different locations and distances. And once educated on the matter, it becomes immediately obvious. We don’t live our life as if trains shrink or parallel tracks converge. We aren’t concerned for the passengers that they will simply vanish into nothingness.
Likewise, with a little investigation we can recognize the free will illusion. We can know that such is not real, it’s just how our mind sees things. And eventually, though we still feel the illusion just as we still see perspective, we can move away from living our lives as if it’s something real. And there are so many reasons to do this. So many things that can become better once the illusion is out in the open and obvious to everyone. But that’s another story that I go deeply into in the book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind.