Freewill: Reality or Illusion?


Aristotle, Newton and Einstein gave us natural laws that generate predictable causes and effects. When every effect is produced by a precise cause, everything happens for a reason, in a predictably mechanical manner. Science calls this determinism. Religion calls it predestination. Belief in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, or a supernatural higher power, reduces human freewill to an illusion. 

Quantum physics rewrites reality in ways that are both frightening and liberating.  In any given moment you and I can decide to run away and join the circus, or change our name and start a brand new life on the other side of the world, or sell everything we own and give the money to charity. We could decide that this is the day we will quit our crappy job, or leave our unhappy marriage, start a dream business, confess a long concealed love, or assassinate a despicable villain.

All of these possibilities and many more are theoretically possible for each of us, and we can find evidence of people who have seized the present instant and made them happen, but the probability that you or I will make one of these uncommon choices in any given moment is remote. Infinite freedom is more of an illusion than reality. When we step out of the shower in the morning, the next thing we are most likely to do is grab a towel, not a suitcase and head for the airport.  

The inertial force of our previous actions, experiences, habits, conditioning, expectations and opportunities acts so strongly upon us that our choices in life are highly predictable.

The inertial force of our previous actions, experiences, habits, conditioning, expectations and opportunities acts so strongly upon us that our choices in life are highly predictable. If I know the probability function that defines your life, I can easily predict the most likely choice you will make in any given moment, as well as the second and third most probable choices. The world around us works to hold us in our predictable orbits. Our family and friends counsel us to be sensible, to think twice, to keep our dreams within reason, to be logical and do the sensible thing.  Most of the time we conform, which is precisely why most lives, most of the time, are as unremarkable as white background noise. Drama requires conflict, taking risks, venturing into dangerous territory.

Our freedom is more theoretical than real. Burdened by constraints, fears, and cautious advice we usually take the course of least resistance, like a planet obediently following the smoothly curved contours of space-time, or we allow emotions to override reason and then suffer the unhappy consequences of our stupid actions and live with regret. In every moment, we surf on a wave of almost infinite possibilities and at some level we are conscious of our extraordinary power to be the author of our own destiny. We know we are not pre-programmed automatons, or slaves to our unchosen circumstances.

We all have moments in which we dare to do something extraordinarily courageous that will strike many observers as out of character, yet these are the moments that define what we truly believe and who we truly are. These rare moments of will – in which our dizzying wave of possibilities collapses into single, deliberate action that we have dared to chose – can change the universe.