• Introduction (coming soon)
    • About Me
    • My Motivations
    • A Stage for Rational Discourse
  • The Mind: Internal Reality
    • The Importance of Belief
    • The Illusion of the Self
    • Consciousness
  • The Universe: External Reality
    • The Origin and Future of The Universe
    • The Illusion of Free Will
    • Control In Understanding
    • Freedom As An Emergent Property of Consciousness
  • Personal Well-being
    • Happiness
    • Selfishness


In a previous article I wrote about how free will is an illusion and our conscious awareness, our "will" some might call it, has seemingly no more freedom to make choices than the will of squirrel or a toaster or even a rock. If this statement seems outlandish to you (not that you have to agree with it per se, but rather because you can't even conceive how it could possibly be true), then this discussion won't really make sense to you. I would recommend reading the aforementioned post on free will first, but as a quick recap:

I wrote about the apparent physical nature of all things (all the measurable stuff we interact with seems to be reducible to particles and waves[1]) and how the interactions between these physical things seems to be — for the most part[2] — entirely based on fixed natural laws and therefore predictable (determinable) in principle. Indeed, with a complete understanding of the state of a system (one that obeys physical laws like ours) at any given time — which would include at a minimum knowing the position of every atom, the active forces on each of those atoms, and the consequences of each atoms interaction with every other possible atom — the way things would progress thereafter could be, in theory, entirely determined indefinitely into the future. Of course, we rarely get such a complete picture of a system nor is our understanding of the complex interactions of matter at all complete, but no matter how you slice it, it is quite evident that our decisions occur as a result of some physical events in our brains which could, in theory, be measured (and indeed, neuroscience research is already beginning to do this, see the various studies of brains and decision making). Even if a particular reason behind a given decision is not always obvious to us as onlookers (or even ourselves), there is never no reason whatsoever — no decision we've ever made just magically "poofed into our minds out of nowhere" — there is always a chain of physical events that can be traced to a given behavioral outcome. With this understanding, free will in the traditional sense — the capacity to have possibly chosen other than you did for any given decision — is very clearly an illusion; in fact, for any given decision, a sufficiently robust understanding of neuroscience (much more than we have today) and a complete picture of our brains down to every atom would reveal that there is only one possible future before us. But that doesn't mean we aren't deciding, it just means our decision isn't really under the locus of control that is our conscious awareness; we are free to make choices, but the choice we ultimately go with is the product of an unbroken chain of prior events and not some sort of invisible "will" under the control of our conscious awareness that is somehow the arbiter of all our choices. And to reiterate the important final message of my original post, this new understanding doesn't mean our lives are any less rich or meaningful than we feel they are. However, we should recognize what it implies in terms of certain ideas such as punishment, praise, and — for the topic of this post — intention.

The Merovingian discussing the nature of free will in The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The Merovingian in The Matrix Reloaded (2003). He follows his above statement with: "Our only hope, our only peace, is to understand it, to understand the why." This is absolutely true, and perhaps by the time you are done reading this post you will understand why it brings peace along with a more compassionate view of others.

Free Will vs. Free Choice

If you don't have free will, can you intend anything other than exactly what you do? Can someone intend to do something if they are merely a puppet to prior causes? If your toaster was programmed to pop-up bread after 60 seconds, and indeed it does so, does it make sense to say that it intended to do that? We talk about intent today largely through the lens of free will: to most people, for example, it is entirely two different things to say something rude to someone intentionally vs. unintentionally (accidentally), and we would treat that person differently depending on how we felt about their intention to do one or the other. But without free will, does intention still matter?

The answer is yes, absolutely. The confusion that might arise here is that people often conflate free will with free choice ("freedom of choice") — though some people define them in the same or similar ways, they are not really the same because free will implies the choices are made with the our will. We are free to make choices, yes, but as stated before it is not our will that is making those choices. Indeed, I have made the choice right now to write this post, but not "I" in the sense of my conscious awareness but rather "I" in the sense of my body (my brain, effectively). Indeed, my choices are entirely the product of my physical state (which is all-encompassing way of saying ones genetics plus one's personal history, experiences, etc. which are indeed all part of the physical state of one's brain) up til the moment of the choice, and this all happens prior to being consciously aware of that choice (you can find numerous scientific studies that demonstrate this). In contrast, the idea of free will as classically used in the West supposes ourselves as having some capacity to deliberate as conscious agents in a manner somehow exempt from the laws of causality and free of (or mostly free of) internal and external influences — this is simply not the case. We are conscious agents, our bodies do make decisions, and our bodies do deliberate — but only in the sense that many complex interactions are taking place in our brains, interactions ("calculations" in some sense) which have evolved as a means to maximize our survival based on received sensory inputs and historical data (memory). We are permanently bound by physical causality and we will never be free of it's total influence over every decision we make. The beautiful thing, however, is that this understanding doesn't really have to change as much as one might think it might in our lives, and in the case of intention there is really only one important but subtle takeaway.

The Measure of Mental States

So what is intention, if decisions do take place but are not directly under our conscious control? It is simply a measure of someone's mental state (which is entirely based on the physical composition/configuration/arrangement of a person's brain, which includes their genetics, their present observations, and their memories from past observations and experiences). Although we do not consciously choose our intentions, our intent at any moment gives an indication of how we will continue acting in the future. For example, we would rightly praise the hero who intentionally saved a child from a burning building, but we wouldn't hold that person in as high regard (or any) if we found out they actually went in to grab their DVD collection, just happened to see a child on the way out, and only helped because doing so wouldn't put their collection at risk. In both cases a child was saved, but the mindset of the person is different and this changes our reaction towards them. But it's not because they made a choice between two options and chose the less noble one as the reason why we praise them less, but because the choice they made suggests something about their current mental state, and most importantly, it gives us an idea of how they might continue behaving in the future. This is why, for example, we have different degrees of murder in the U.S.:

First-degree murder: any intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought.
Second-degree murder: any intentional murder with malice aforethought, but is not premeditated or planned.
Voluntary manslaughter: sometimes called a "crime of passion" murder, is any intentional killing that involves no prior intent to kill, and which was committed under such circumstances that would "cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed".
Involuntary manslaughter: a killing that stems from a lack of intention to cause death but involving an intentional, or negligent, act leading to death.

Source: Wikipedia

The degree of punishment decreases as intention (a presumed attitude or mental state) is increasingly removed from the picture, such that in the final category of "involuntary manslaughter" carries the least penalties. This is the case because as intention is removed, it is clear that the person's current mental state won't lead them to continue doing the action, whereas if we didn't harshly punish people who committed first-degree murder, it is possible or even likely that they would continue doing so because — for whatever reason in their life — somehow they have come to the conclusion that such behavior is okay under certain circumstances.

From Indignation To Compassion

The most important thing about understanding intention and choice in a universe without free will is how this changes us, especially as observers of behavior in others. It begins with accepting that how people end up behaving is not something one directly chooses, and that even what we would call intentional behavior is no more a willful choice than deciding what subjects we are interested in or foods we like. Think about it: When surveying the range of topics to study in your school, did you point to Mathematics and exclaim, "I choose to be interested in Mathematics!" No, you did not, with mathematics or any subject. You simply were interested in those subjects or not. When taking a bite of your favorite sandwich for the first time, did you think to yourself, "I choose to find this tasty and delicious!" No, I don't think so. We do no choose what we are interested in, nor do we choose what flavors taste delicious to us, they are simply interesting or delicious based on our mental state at the time of the experience (and indeed mental states change as we grow older — our brains change — which is why we can come to love the pure, unadulterated taste of coffee when we once had to smother it with 5 spoonfuls of sugar and lots of cream, or how we can develop a taste for sushi when before we thought it was gross). What you must realize is that the same thing also holds true with regard to our behavior and we are no more in control of our everyday actions than we are in control of our taste buds.

Think about the last time you heard a story about some crazy guy who ate someone's face or when a person committed a school shooting or even the story of Adolf Hitler. Do you think if you asked any of those people when they were younger they would say they chose to be the bad/crazy person everyone despises (or perhaps pities)? No, I'm quite sure if given the option and the "free will" to decide, they would have decided to be the cool, popular person who is successful and everyone loves. The reality is that no one "chooses" to become the bad guy, nor does anyone choose to be the good guy. We don't choose any of it — it just happens, and the presense or absense of drugs or depression/mental illness has nothing to do with it either, because the very choice to do those (or not) is itself something we have no control over, just as one doesn't "choose" to be depressed. We no more choose our own path in life than we choose which subjects we are interested in or what flavors of food we find delicious, and once you realize this you begin to no longer get angry at others based on their behavior towards you. You begin to develop a profound compassion and empathy for others. That person who showed you road rage and nearly ran into your car, instead of becoming furious and yelling back at him, you might instead wonder what unfortunate series of events made that person into who he is today. You can follow this thought process with any behavior, extreme or not, such as a partner cheating on you. Sadness and shock is understandable in such a situation because it indicates the level of love and trust you perhaps thought existed is not actually there, but instead of anger, you might instead try to understand the why behind the behavior. What sequence of events lead this person to behave the way they did? What events made them believe that the course of action their brains chose was the best option for them? And ultimately, how you can help them realize what they did was wrong and change their mental state so they do not behave that way in the future? When you can do this for everyone, for all events from trivial to extreme, you will know a lasting peace that few people ever obtain.

My final food for thought is this: Have you ever recognized in hindsight that you perhaps acted in a way you shouldn't have because you lacked some understanding that you have now? All my other logical reasoning aside, the very fact that a person can behave in a certain way and in time come to regret that behavior lends tacit support to the idea that we do not willingly (knowingly) choose our paths in life. None of us "chose" to be ignorant/unwise in these situations, we just were, in one way or another, and we ended up acting in a way we later regretted. So the next time someone does something to you that you feel was intentionally hurtful and you feel anger welling up within, pause for a moment. Consider their mental state, consider the why. You may be able to figure it out, or you may not be able to — ultimately the why doesn't really matter because one way or another it had to have been something, there couldn't have been no reason whatsoever. This understanding alone should be enough for you to feel compassion for that person and to forgive them instead of developing a rising feeling of indignation. The why is only helpful if you want to understand the person's mental state, for example in the case of a friend or partner rather than a random road rage driver who is soon out of your life anyways. The why will help you understand their intent — whether they will continue doing that same behavior — and most importantly it can help you figure out how to correct that behavior so you can both continue to have a happy, meaningful relationship. So before you get angry, before you jump to conclusions, or decide to ignore them and act passive aggressively, sit down and talk with your friend or partner. Try to figure out the why — it may be the difference between a painful breakup or a lasting friendship. :)

  1. Yes, yes, dark energy and dark matter are postulated by physicists to be the bulk of what's out there in the universe (68% and 27%, respectively), but alas we know virtually nothing about either of those things (Dark Energy, Dark Matter (nasa.gov)). This unknown gives us no insight into the nature of free will and the only conclusions we can draw about anything related to life on Earth are those which come from discussions of matter we can empirically measure. In other words, dark matter/energy may very well be real, but as we know nothing about it we cannot say how it has affected the "classic" matter we know which forms the basis of all life on Earth. ↩︎

  2. Of course, certainty for some quantum level events eludes us for now, but it is clear that such uncertainty could not have any relation to free will, lest one seek to argue that a free will is an uncertain (unpredictable) will, which is obviously nonsense. ↩︎

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