Free Will: The Grand Illusion

Martin Marietta Park, New Bern, North Carolina

A new article from Dave Pollard really got me thinking, and my desire to tie together the material I have already compiled and to make sense of it all along with the material I was reading made me realize that here was a new article in the making. It takes much humility to comprehend exactly how small we really are in this universe, how interconnected to everything else we are, and how much of our attention is spent doing all the things we are more or less pre-programmed to do by biology, genetics, instinct, and conditioning. Many or most people believe in free will despite the fact that no such thing actually exists. The rest of what we do is chosen from a set of mostly pre-programmed options indoctrinated into us from cultural programming.

Our behavior is based upon a set of pre-existing rules, so in reality, we do not have free will. Many people claim that we have free will but that it is limited to those pre-existing rules. Again, this isn't taking reality into consideration. For instance, many people think that if they could go back into the past, they would do something differently. They're forgetting that whatever it was that they did that they think they would do differently was done that way based on a set of decisions or reasons, and those decisions or reasons would not change based upon the knowledge that was available to them at that point in time. Given the same circumstances and the same knowledge they had at the time, more than likely the exact same choice would be made today. 

I have written two different articles based on this same topic which are tied into many of my other articles, one titled, Agency - Do We Have Free Will?, and the other titled, The Grand Illusion. These were to explain why so many different ideas (which otherwise might help) on how to deal with the predicaments we face might be technically possible but are realistically infeasible. Some ideas (anything dealing with technology use) take us in the wrong direction altogether and will not help. Most of the ideas that actually gain widespread support from society fall into the second category while the ones that actually might help do not win such support. Admittedly, few people are interested in reducing technology use, promoting degrowth, and promoting the abandonment of the system of civilization even though this is not really optional. Either we do it voluntarily or nature will do it for us. This is the bind we are in and the longer we continue bargaining with the predicament instead of accepting the truth, the faster we condemn ourselves to extinction.  

Much of this disconnect with reality has to do with the human inability to think systemically AND our inability to understand the exponential function. In addition, very few people can see all that far down the road in general. Yet another factor also is responsible for this disconnect with reality. Urbanization has accomplished two very important things to society. It has separated people psychologically from the ecosphere and it has separated them physically from the ecosystems that actually sustain them. This makes having an ecological knowledge and a connection with nature almost impossible without actually having this pointed out and the person having an actual interest in discovering the truth. My travels over the last decade have made this painfully obvious to me, as I have countless pictures of trailheads, parks, nature centers, and other natural recreational spots where I am the only person there. 20 years ago these places would have all been packed with people (just like all the similar places I visited back then).  

This denial of reality is precisely part of human nature and what has allowed us to get to this point in time. Without technology use, negative feedbacks would have kept our numbers in check to a sustainable level. Going back to my quip about things that could be done which might actually help reduce ecological overshoot being technically possible but realistically infeasible, this more or less means that, yes, we could do these things, but we won't. Why we won't has to do with the entrenched systems of civilization and civilizational inertia, in addition to the Maximum Power Principle. These are simple, objective, biophysical realities, no differently than civilization being inherently unsustainable. Whether a person agrees with that reality or not is more or less entirely irrelevant because his or her opinion won't change those facts. 

One of the things I understand about false beliefs and denial is that knowledge doesn't change behavior. A person will only change his or her behavior when he or she is ready, period. No amount of persuasion, pleading, or negotiations will have any long-term effect until and unless the person is actually ready to change. So even though I constantly put out these articles in hopes of at least raising a few eyebrows, I'm not expecting any major societal changes in behavior. The major societal changes won't take place until the relative abundance we have today is gone. So, educating people about ecological overshoot or telling them that they "need to do this" or any other form of attempting to change behavior will have a negligible effect collectively. What my attempts here are meant to accomplish is for the reader to understand that he or she is not alone, that these things ARE happening, that we are deep into overshoot and collapse, that the mass extinction we are in is real as well, and that all of this is irreversible. Sure, we may be able (with enough fossil hydrocarbon energy) to forestall extinction in a few species right now. But once that "magic" energy is gone, then what? Oops. 

While I was writing this, I noticed a new video from Nate Hagens' The Great Simplification series featuring William Rees. Some of the ideas I've incorporated here come directly from Dave Pollard's article and Nate's video with Bill. Ironically, the point of this article is to bring about the reality of our lack of agency to the forefront and Bill reiterates that rather wonderfully at about the 1:39:20 point in the video. I actually had to chuckle because it is so true and he is every bit as passionate about it as I am. He also confirms the bargaining to maintain civilization. It's yet another excellent conversation from both Nate and Bill. 

The sad truth about all of this is the fact that despite rosy predictions I see from some people, the facts and observations line up quite well with my understanding of the science. Perhaps I would seriously like to be able to see something wrong with my comprehension; something that would lead me to think that my understanding is too dark. My fear is that my understanding might actually be too conservative and that conditions will turn out worse than I think. I honestly think that we have far less control over these predicaments than many people think we do and I am convinced that the systems we depend on for our very sustanence are in a state of collapse already. Lots of scientists publicly claim that "we can turn things around" to mitigate climate change and other predicaments, but if this is actually the case, then why aren't we even making a dent in the observable measurements? All the trends and trajectories are still going the wrong way. This is why privately, most climate scientists (and many other scientists as well) are quite fearful of what is unfolding.

At the end of the day, one can only conclude that the future - regardless of precisely how it turns out - is going to be one which features increasing levels of chaos, continuous streams of hazards brought about by extreme weather events and climate change, and far less throughputs of energy and resources. 

Live Now!


  1. Thanks for raising my eyebrows! We are all alone in this together.

  2. Excellent summary as usual. The Nate Hagens-Bill Rees discussion is a great piece as well.

  3. If, as you say, "A person will only change his or her behavior when he or she is ready, period.", then doesn't it imply free will?
    I think* people are free to decide what to do within boundaries set by their surroundings and thoughts.

    *Only because of what I have chosen** to read.

    **What was made cognitively and physically available as a result of earlier decisions*** based on what I have experienced.

    ***Etc, ad infinitum. Ladder of Inference, etc.

    1. No, that doesn't imply free will. See this video:

    2. Been pondering the free will youtube lecture. Not being competent in maths or physics means I can't say anything useful about it. But it occurred to me as I was out walking that it doesn't matter if what she says is true or not, especially now. The view that the universe is basically matter, that has properties that can be explained mathematically and therefore is predictable if you know all the variables, you included, removes subjective interpretation. Almost: you see the universe as matter with no spirit, which means any arbitrary value can be attached to it, any value "de jour". Who does the most harm: a technician who sees things as atoms strung out in various forms and can prove it, or a tribesperson who sees all things as "people" and can't? Which mode of thought has created the predicament?
      I'd toss the whole body of scientific and mathematic knowledge in the bin if I could, and we'd all be better without it. The truth doesn't matter. What matters is how we view the world, and if that view causes harm.

    3. My point in this (article) is that we don't have agency in many things that we might think we do. Free will is an illusion created in our minds. It doesn't exist in reality, but I take her message to heart about the fact that it doesn't matter with the caveat of "for the most part." I have attempted to point this out in my article about optimism bias, where just because we might think we can accomplish something doesn't mean that said something might actually be able to be accomplished. For instance, many people think that we can stop or reverse climate change, something the science has proven is simply not true (in relevant human scales and timelines). This is equally applicable to many other things which in reality can not be done.

      I can see where your idea of tossing out scientific and mathematical knowledge could be beneficial, but there would also be harms. In my mind, the mode of thought which has created the predicaments we face has been the separation of humans from nature, known as wetiko. Imagining that we are separate from nature has allowed for the idea of property, where humans can own land when in reality, the land owns us and we are simply the caretakers. This separation of humans from nature has allowed us to ignore the true costs of technology use and only see the positive benefits from it rather than see how it is destroying everything which surrounds us.

  4. Individuals have free will by definition. Otherwise they couldn't be held accountable for their actions. To argue for or against 'free will' is to argue semantics. From a legal and social standpoint, free will, agency and volition are valid concepts.
    From the perspective of behaviour, instinct and neurobiology, there is no free will.

    1. I'm sorry, but legal and social moral definitions don't exist in a vacuum. Without the concept of free will, there would be no law, no justice system, and no civilization. We'd be living in the wild as an asocial species.
      Free will exists in the same sense that units of measurement exist. We don't argue what a kilogram is, because it has been strictly defined. I'm not in disagreement with the expanded definition of free will. But you cannot define free will out of existence. It's a conceptual necessity for social animals.

    2. I'm sorry Mr. Pan, but I've already provided more than sufficient evidence to prove my point. Your claims, on the other hand, don't hold up under scrutiny. I shall refer you back to the article I linked to above on denial of reality since this appears to be what you are suffering from:

  5. Erik, Due to your like today on my comment to Simon Michaux, I looked at your FB listing. Pls email me. kurtzs at ncf dot ca Definite synergy.

  6. Subjectively, I have *occasional* experiences of the exercise of "free will," although that is not the term I would use for what I reference. I would use a term more like "momentary bubble of conscious volition & choice." Its existence in me (or my knowledge of its existence?) seems only to have surfaced in recent years, after undergoing anger management therapy. Prior to this therapy, outside stimulus provoked an automatic and unconsidered response from me which felt almost like possession. After this therapy, I occasionally have the following experience: outside stimulus arrives to one or more of my five senses; I experience my body and thoughts responding; I become aware of my body and thoughts; I direct my thoughts and, consequently, my nervous system and my response toward a different reaction. I would argue that, technically speaking, this is the exercise of "free will," more accurately called "a momentary bubble of conscious volition and choice." Is this a typical or frequent experience for me or anybody else? I don't think so.

    However, as we observe the horror of the current war in Gaza, the concept of "free will" must be invoked - both when referring to the original Hamas attack of 10/7 and, urgently, to the mass homicidal response by the state of Israel. Like so many individuals and state actors throughout history, Israel claims they have no choice in how they respond and that mass scale destruction of civilian society is their only option. (Hamas would claim something similar to justify their attack of 10/7). I understand the neurological theory behind the claims that free will does not exist. But if free will does not exist, then individual responsibility does not exist. And corporate executives who sacrifice entire landscapes in order to extract oil are not culpable for their actions. But they are. Choices were made. Perhaps William Shakespeare handled the question best: His plays depict characters struggling with moral decisions, but it is never a clear where the line between their individual agency and the billions of forces acting upon them - which we might call destiny - can be drawn. As such, it is not clear whether or not his characters even have free agency. I prefer Shakespeare's answer: the question of "free will" is an *unanswerable* question, but one that is crucial to ponder.

    1. Compatibilism is a compromise between free will and determinism. So you are deemed responsible for your actions, with mitigating circumstances being considered.
      Compatibilism may be a kludge according to philosophers, or nonsense according to scientists, but it is socially necessary.
      The absence of collective free will of homo sapiens speaks for itself. The Earth bears its scars.


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