How the Illusion of Choice Inhibits Compromise

Updated on July 17, 2016


Do you feel free to stop reading this article?

Let Us Explore Your Alternatives

Assuming no one has a gun to your head, then presumably, whether you continue to read this or not depends only upon your choice to do so, right? Undoubtedly there are other, and likely far better, alternatives for you. In fact, it readily appears you have already made, and will continue to make, a multitude of decisions today - whether or not to continue investing your time into this post is just one of them.

Looking Back, Were You Really Free?

But what if I told you that, in fact, you had no choice but to read to this very sentence; that your idea of choice is merely an illusion, or a parlor trick in your mind? Even if you now stop reading this exact word, your decision to do so is still not your decision at all. At least not in the sense you think it is. That choice, rather, is merely an inescapable chain reaction caused by neurophysiological events in your brain that far preceded any apparent conscious decision to act. These events are natural consequences of occurrences moments prior, which were also beyond your control.

"The illusoriness of free will is as certain a fact, to my mind, as the truth of evolution."

— Sam Harris, Neuroscientist and Author

Choice As An Illusion

Such is the case according to Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet, two prominent scientists and well-known philosophers on the topic of "Free Will." While there is some disagreement among the two (primarily over ascribing accurate meaning and/or definition to the term itself), the thrust of the argument is the same: freedom to choose as it is commonly understood is largely an illusion.

In essence, the brain is no more than a mechanism; part of the Universe's clockwork. And, in your case, as in mine, each decision you are purportedly making right now is simply a necessary cause of events that happened moments before. You did not intend these events to occur, and you have no control over them.

Who Exactly Is In Control Then?

In practical terms, it is impossible to think your thoughts before you think them. In fact, you no more decide the next thing you think, then you choose the next word I write. Words, ideas, thoughts, simply arise in your mind due to experiences and causes outside of your control. And although it seems like you voluntarily go through a conscious decision-making process, in actuality, your mind and body are merely experiencing an orchestrated series of neural events undergoing a predetermined reaction to circumstances prior.

Is There Another -You- Inside You?

No. You are not Tony Stark, living inside and operating the Iron Man body suit - rather, you are the suit; and you have already come pre-fabricated to act and pre-wired to choose.
No. You are not Tony Stark, living inside and operating the Iron Man body suit - rather, you are the suit; and you have already come pre-fabricated to act and pre-wired to choose.

The Origin Of Action

Isn't there something there, though? Isn't there anything special that we can attribute to the decisions that give rise to our actions, aside from our raw physical makeup relative to the circumstances we find ourselves in? Of course, it may be difficult to know for certain - or to at least comprehend. But can anyone really say that they would behave any differently than, say, you do, if they hypothetically swapped out your physical properties atom-for-atom? Is there something extra about you that makes you act differently?

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

If our choices really are just the inevitable product of immovable physical processes in the mind, some suggest that our society may need to collectively revisit how we think about such concepts as justice, punishment, and rehabilitation. In fact, it may be a basis for restructuring our entire legal system as we know it - not necessarily implying that criminals should now be set free on the basis of insanity, but that we should at least make efforts at treating them more as beings destined to commit a criminal act, rather than as having made a conscious choice to commit one.

A Question Of Compassion

To elaborate further on this proposal, to what extent can the notion of 'no free will' offer insight into how we approach other areas of our lives as well, particularly those involving social debate? What impact may this line of reasoning have on our overall negotiation strategies? Would our day-to-day interactions on social media websites change at all?

Assuming our thoughts and choices are not our own, in the sense we think they are, and understanding how passionate we can be as adults about politics, religion, law, or otherwise, would we be so emotional (and sometimes irrational) knowing that the other side is physically incapable of "choosing" to agree with our position? Would we argue so strenuously with someone who otherwise had a mental deficiency or some other form of physical impediment hindering their capacity to "decide" in our favor?

Shouldn't we, rather, take extra care to cautiously explain ourselves more fully? Why not, at the expense of a temporary "win," seize each opportunity at dialogue as a means to better understand the other side and crystallize our own thoughts for future conflict? Would it not be better, in the long run, to plant small seeds deeply rooted in compassion and humility, than to berate the supposed poor choices of your enemy?

The Will To Compromise

In the end, the hope is that ironically, acknowledging our lack of choice may, in a sense, free us to approach contentious situations with a greater sense of compassion and disinterest for those who disagree us. Indeed, it would, in the very least, seem futile and immature to spark unnecessary emotional triggers or resort to extreme positions purely as a defensive measure. Knowing that the other side is not consciously "choosing" to disagree with you, but simply is that way, as a matter of course, should prompt us to approach our discussions understanding that we will never be the mechanism for some miraculous 'change of heart' by the other side. Likewise, we would be empowered to better focus our efforts on what it is exactly both parties are actually trying to accomplish and, thus, perhaps with some added willpower, be more of a mind to grant reasonable concessions in order to achieve real, substantial progress.

Are We Suited To Let Change Occur Naturally? Is It Possible To Set Aside Goals Of Artificial Victory In Favor Of Understanding, Collaboration, And Mutually Beneficial Results?

Is Free Will Truly An Illusion?

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Questions & Answers


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      • Jean Bakula profile image

        Jean Bakula 

        2 years ago from New Jersey

        These are some interesting ideas. I am an astrologer and clairsentient tarot reader, and always have believed we have free will. We have the discipline to make decisions based on what is best for us, but sadly, many people don't do what's best for them.

        I would like to see less of the "us" vs "them" that we are currently seeing in the US. I have seen people so entrenched in their beliefs that they can't even think about how other people would view a situation, especially on political forums on HP. I've stopped going on them.

        Best Wishes in your writings on HP. It's an easy platform to use to be able to write.

      • tsadjatko profile image

        2 years ago from now on

        So you admit the idea that there is no such thing as free will or at least that it is an illusion is not scientifically provable but just an idea or I would say a whim since it is supported by opinions that are scientifically unproven or at least arguably questionable. And that is the basis on which you propose to suggest that it inhibits compromise?

        Why then is compromise not an illusion? If it is an illusion to choose, how is choosing to compromise not an illusion? Why is when you say "Knowing that the other side is not consciously "choosing" to disagree with you, but simply is that way," any different than saying: Knowing that the other side is not consciously "choosing" to compromise with you, but simply is that way?

      • Jeffrey Borup profile imageAUTHOR


        2 years ago from Chicago, IL

        I don't know if labels are always helpful as they tend to create artificial divides, but I would probably say I am a more hopeful materialist. I tend to think that there are scientific truths that exist whether or not they are practical to human beings or beneficial to the continued survival of any living organism. I am just also hopeful that those truths, especially those that exist outside of our sphere of influence, will turn out for the best. For our purposes here, I remain optimistic that a deeper understanding of the concept of "free will," namely, that we might not be just as "free" as we once thought, will lead us down a path of sympathy and compassion, rather than something else entirely...

        The concern expressed in your original comment, essentially "prove me the science," is a perfectly valid observation. I imagine there is still much that is lacking in this area. That said, Sam does do a bit asking his audience in one of his videos to "think of a city... any city..." that is about as hands on an approach as it can get - basically breaking down the process bit by bit and really calling into question whether the city you thought of was, in fact, a product of free choice.

      • tsadjatko profile image

        2 years ago from now on

        So you are not a materialist? A materialist like Sam Harris with whom I am well familiar. That is good to hear so your use of his "philosophy" is more a pragmatic approach? That is to say in reference to your obsession with compromise.

      • Jeffrey Borup profile imageAUTHOR


        2 years ago from Chicago, IL

        Thanks for reading. If you are interested in understanding more about the underpinnings of this theory, I would recommend the book "Free Will" in the links above. As for my "world-view," it is simply that of a society in which diverse thought and interesting ideas may be shared openly and received with a slightly less contentious attitude. I am not always the most tolerant toward positions I do not personally hold, but am trying :)

      • tsadjatko profile image

        2 years ago from now on

        Your world view? And what exactly is that?

        From what you have written I might infer that you are a materialist, that is to say that you are a person who supports the theory that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. For you science is your "God" in that the last word about everything is or will be found in science.

        If that is true can you, or has anyone scientifically proven through observation and experiment that choice is "merely an inescapable chain reaction caused by neurophysiological events in your brain that far preceded any apparent conscious decision to act." I would like to see a study that demonstrates such an hypothesis.

      • Jeffrey Borup profile imageAUTHOR


        2 years ago from Chicago, IL

        The logic does seem circular, in a sense. My intent, however, is not to demand that we all now consciously move forward and "decide" to be more open-minded. Rather, it is simply to shed light on the concept of "no free will" in such a way that, even if only for a select few, a newfound understanding of this idea becomes the genesis by which they begin to behave differently; even if they are already inclined to do so naturally. All reactions still necessitate some degree of action.

        In theory, there is one person out there in need of this specific action by me, which I too took involuntarily, in order for them to react accordingly. By implanting the "no free will" thesis into his or her mind, the hope is by doing so, that in-and-of itself will generate the pre-programmed reaction intended - a greater degree of acceptance. Some may react differently, of course, and that is the risk of every step we take in life. But in any case, I am not asking anyone to choose, all I can do is inform, and hope that the reaction others have when becoming familiar with the notion of "no free will", the same reaction they were all already destined to have, is also one that aligns with my world-view.

      • RonElFran profile image

        Ronald E Franklin 

        2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Jeffrey, all "no free will" arguments necessarily collapse under their own weight, as does the one you describe. You ask, shouldn't the knowledge that we have no ability to make free will decisions cause us to make the free will decision "to approach contentious situations with a greater sense of compassion and disinterest for those who disagree us"? Your very question assumes that we have the power to make a free will decision.

        Obviously, if the “no free will” thesis is correct, none of us can ever know it's correct. All we can "know" is that we are pre-programmed to react to that suggestion in a certain way. (I put "know" in quotes because if there is no free will, the very concept of knowing is exploded. Does a spider "know" that moving in a certain pattern while exuding spider silk will eventually result in being able to eat a fly? Or does it simply do what it's programmed to do?)

        Thus, in a no-free-will universe, people will react as their genetic inheritance and life experiences have programmed them to react, no matter what articles or arguments they may be exposed to. In other words, if there is no free will, it’s all pointless, so why bother?

        Except that if there’s no free will, our choice to bother or not is already pre-programmed.


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