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How does not believing in free will affect one’s life?, with physicist Daniel Whiteson

A talk with Daniel Whiteson, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. He’s the co-author of “We Have No Idea,” about the unknown mysteries remaining in physics, and a co-host of the podcast Daniel and Jorge Explain The Universe.

I talk to Whiteson about free will. We talk a little bit about why we both think free will is unlikely to exist, but our main focus is on more psychological and emotional aspects: What are the results in our own lives of not believing in free will? What potential effects does lack of belief in free will have for people in general? Because the idea that free will doesn’t exist can make people anxious or sad, the idea that we are basically just automatons, the idea that our conscious experience of the world is like watching a movie we have no real control over.

A transcript is below.

Episode links:

There are many resources on free will out there, but here are a few that were either discussed in this episode or that I’ve found interesting:


Zachary Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m Zachary Elwood. 

On today’s podcast, recorded January 8th 2021, I talk to Daniel Whiteson, who’s a  Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. Our subject is free will. Daniel and I talk a little bit about why we both think that free will is unlikely to exist, but our main focus is on more psychological and emotional aspects: basically, what are the results in our own lives of not believing in free will. Because the idea that free will doesn’t exist can be an anxiety or sadness-producing idea, that we are basically just automatons, that our conscious experience of the world is like watching a movie we have no real control over. 

When it comes to learning arguments for or against free will, there are plenty of better resources on these things from more informed philosophers than Daniel and I, so that’s why I wanted to focus on something he and I were able to talk about: how such ideas impact us personally. 

A little bit about Daniel Whiteson; he’s the author of a book called We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe, which he co-wrote with Jorge Cham. That book examines the unanswered questions of the universe. I enjoyed the book a lot, especially because when it comes to some physics writing and research, you can get the sense that some physicists are arrogant, that they think they have the universe figured out. Not to say all physicists necessarily believe that, but that can be the sense one gets from their writing and speaking about it. 

So I really enjoyed Whiteson’s book for the focus on the mysteries of the universe, of which there are many. His decision to focus on the many unanswered questions about our world, his humility about the mysteries of the world, was one reason I thought he’d make an interesting person to talk to about this topic. And because I thought it’d be interesting to hear what a physicist, with their necessary focus on the physicality of our existence, thought about these topics. 

You can follow Daniel on Twitter at @danielwhiteson, last name spelled W H I T E S O N. And he has his own physics podcast called Daniel and JOrge Explain the Universe. 

If you’re curious to learn more about free will, you can check out my blog at; for the post about this episode I’ve included some resources that have influenced my thinking, or that we mention in this episode. 

I also wanted to thank Christopher Moyer, a psychology researcher and professor who you may remember I talked to in a previous episode about electrodermal activity. Moyer was very helpful in talking to me about free will and helped me arrive at some interesting areas of discussion. You can follow Moyer on Twitter at @moyerpsychology. 

Okay, here’s the interview with Daniel Whiteson.

Zach: All right, thanks for coming on, Daniel.

Daniel Whiteson: Yeah, a pleasure to be here. Thanks very much for inviting me.

Zach: Oh, my pleasure. It’s an honor to have you on. I thought we’d start out with some quick thoughts about why we believe what we believe about free will, and then we’ll get into thoughts about how those kinds of beliefs affect our life. Let’s start out with if you had to sum up your beliefs about the likelihood of free will in a few sentences, what would you say?

Daniel: Well, you know, I’m a physicist, and I’m the kind of physicist that likes to take a reductionist view of the universe. Meaning I want to take complex things apart and understand them in terms of their simpler bits, and see things as emergent phenomena from the rules that apply to very small pieces. And so I like to take things apart and understand that they follow rules. So from my point of view, everything in the universe so far follows some rules. Maybe they’re chaotic, maybe there’s random elements to them, but there are always rules there. So it’s hard for me to imagine any place in our system of natural laws for something as fuzzy and hard to describe as a freedom of choice, you know, where there’s this supernatural element where somebody gets to flip a switch. I don’t have a complete understanding of the nature of the human experience or how people make decisions and I certainly don’t have a good grasp on how to define morality from a philosophical point of view, but I don’t see any room for free will in our universe.

Zach: Maybe it’s a good thing to start out with, let’s define what we mean when we say free will. One definition I read that I thought was pretty good was the freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes. I’m curious if that seems like a pretty good definition to you.

Daniel: Yeah, I think it does. Because you want to get down to the heart of the matter, which is, am I making these decisions? Meaning I’m in a certain moment, could I have made a different choice than the one I’ve made? This is the freedom to make another choice. And if your choices are determined by the things that happened before, or even if the probability of your choices is determined quantum mechanically by things that happened before, then you’re not really influencing. You’re just sort of along for the ride. So yeah, I think that’s a great description of what we mean by free will.

Zach: Right. It seems like so much of the writing and talking about free will, even surprisingly from academics and philosophers, a lot of it just seems so abstract and overly complicated to me, when to me, my belief that free will is very unlikely is based on– like you said– it’s a very simple idea that if you believe that the world is a physical place, that our minds and brains are physical objects and they follow physical laws, then it’s a pretty simple idea that everything that we experience is just based on particles and reactions happening in our brains, our brains interacting with the world, etc, etc. Barring some unforeseen law or rules– which I don’t rule out, I’m open-minded about those things– but barring some unforeseen property happening, these are all physical reactions. And I feel like a lot of the talking about it gets overly complicated but that’s what it boils down to for me.

Daniel: Yeah. But even if you found some new law, then that would just be another law that describes how things happen. What you really need for free will is some sort of supernatural extra law thing, something which doesn’t follow from the past. It’s not like we’ve described the entire universe in terms of physical laws and so we can say there’s nothing out there that can’t be described by physical laws. But so far, it’s a pretty successful strategy; doing experiments, trying to deduce physical laws. Using those to predict the future, it works. We can predict exactly how a cannonball will fly. Physics does predict the future. That’s the game we’re in. When we smash particles together at the Large Hadron Collider, we have a pretty good sense of what’s going to happen. And there’s a lot of fuzziness involved in two areas. One is chaos and the other is randomness, where people sort of try to stuff free will in there because there’s a room there for fuzziness. Maybe we should go through that, but I don’t really think there’s any room for free will there. And then there’s the other gap, which is like, “Yeah, we don’t really understand everything about the human experience.” Some of these things might be emergent phenomena from particles following rules that we can make sense of, but we can’t always connect the dots. Right? We don’t even understand how hurricanes form. We understand how water droplets move and we can do some calculations, but we don’t have the computers that can do the calculations that can predict is the hurricane going to hit Alabama or not. We have to ask President Trump that question. That doesn’t mean that they don’t follow physical laws. It just means that we don’t always understand them. But whenever there’s a gap there, people like to insert, “Oh, maybe that’s where human consciousness is,” or, “Maybe that’s where free will is, or God is,” or something.

Zach: It’s a hope. Yeah. Maybe that unpredictability is a place where our magical ability to have free will might reside. But it would almost, to me, take a supernatural element to give us free will. Because barring that, to me, it’s like the choice is between us being in a physical world following physical laws, if that makes sense. Or some supernatural ability that gives us the ability to transcend that. And to me, that just seems a clear-cut divide and I’m pretty sure it’s one way. At the same time, I find the universe so mysterious, and reality and consciousness so mysterious and amazing that I don’t rule out anything but I know what I think is more likely.

Daniel: Yeah. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that and to acknowledge the assumptions that we’re making along the way. It’s a pretty big assumption that the universe follows physical laws. That’s not based on anything. That’s just like, “Well, let’s assume that and see how well it works. Oh! It works really well.” [chuckles] Or the assumption that empiricism works; that you can do an experiment, and from it, deduce a rule which is also relevant later. That the physical laws aren’t just changing. We don’t know why that’s the case. It seems to be, and so far, it seems to work. And so we should acknowledge that those assumptions are at the foundation of the whole scientific practice. And we don’t necessarily know that they are true philosophically, but they seem to work and it seems to be successful. And so I think because we’ve defined free will in this way to be a choice that’s not dependent on causes, we’ve also sort of pinned it in the corner there requiring it to be supernatural. Because if it was dependent on the causes, it would just be another physical law. You can ask yourself the question like, “Could we ever prove that? Could we ever do an experiment where we demonstrate that somebody made a choice that wasn’t determined by the previous situations or not? Or is it just a pure philosophical question? Or could it actually be a scientific question?”

Zach: The word that I like that appeals to me when I think about these things is the universe and our minds and our experiences, all of it is an unfolding. And I like that word unfolding because it captures the beauty like a flower unfolding. It can be a complex, mysterious experience, but it is just something that’s being driven by things that happened before it. But it’s still an amazing thing.

Daniel: It is amazing and it’s beautiful and it’s fun to watch it unfold. But maybe for your listeners, we should go through it for a moment. Why, for example, the random element of quantum mechanics doesn’t allow for a supernatural element of free will? Because I think there are a lot of even physicists out there that suggest that quantum mechanics is the heart of consciousness are the place where free will can reside. And I think it’s important to maybe clear that up.

Zach: Yeah, if you could give a few sentences for that, that’d be great. And then we’ll get into the more psychological and emotional stuff.

Daniel: The thing to understand about quantum mechanics is that it’s not that like all the rules are out the window, that there’s no causality. Quantum mechanics has rules. It has very firm rules about what can happen. But those rules are probabilistic. They don’t say what will happen when you do an experiment like you smash two particles together. They don’t say this is exactly what will happen. They say what’s more likely to happen and what’s less likely to happen. And those probabilities are directly determined by how you set up the experiment. You set it up differently, you’re going to get different probabilities. We can do those calculations and those are very firm laws of physics. So, quantum mechanics doesn’t up in the laws of physics and say there is no causality, there’s no determinism. It just takes it a step up to the meta level and says, “The exact outcome isn’t determined. The probability of various outcomes is determined.” And how you pick among those, we believe is truly random. And we have experiments that are sort of mind-boggling that show you that there really is a random element in the universe. That doesn’t allow for free will. It’s not like the quantum mechanics says, “Well, it’s either A or B, you pick.” There’s no knob there where you get to flip a switch or press a button and decide between them. Quantum mechanics doesn’t allow for violations of causality, it just says that the specific outcomes has a random element.

Zach: Like you said, it’s just a place where people place their hopes where free will could live because there is unpredictability there. It doesn’t do anything in itself to… Other than giving some unexplained territory, it doesn’t help the argument of free will.

Daniel: Exactly. It is a fuzzy place where people can sort of slap two fuzzy things together and say, “Hey, maybe these two things are related.” And you know there are things about quantum mechanics we don’t understand. Like, how does that collapse happen? When you have two probabilities and then you do an experiment and the universe chooses A or B, how does it make that choice? How does the actual random number generator of the universe work? When does that collapse happen? These are deep, unanswered questions about the nature of quantum mechanics. But they don’t need free will or consciousness, we think, to answer them.

Zach: And then you’ve got the many worlds theories that explain quantum effects, which would be everything that could happen does happen in some parallel world. In that case, if our choices are quantumly affected in some way, that would mean that every potential choice or action that we could take exists in the many worlds scenario.

Daniel: Yeah. That’s sort of mind-blowing to imagine that every time there’s a quantum mechanical split, a whole other universe branch is created that follows those other splits. But to me, it doesn’t really answer that question. The question is, why are we on this branch and not on the other branches?

Zach: Right. It has nothing to do with free will.

Daniel: It doesn’t answer the free will question. It also doesn’t answer, in my mind, the deeper quantum mechanical question of why are we on this branch and not the other ones? To say, “Okay, the other ones also exist,” doesn’t answer the question why are we experiencing this one? Because we’re only experiencing one of them and not the other ones. But anyway, that’s a whole digression into the many worlds hypothesis.

Zach: Let’s talk now about the impacts on our lives from these kinds of beliefs. Because there is a lot of emotion and even anger around these kinds of topics. It’s a touchy subject because many people are depressed and threatened at the idea that there is no free will. The fear is the anxiety that we’re just automatons going through life with no real choice of our own. And it triggers some of our core existential fears, that our lives are meaningless and nothing matters. I’m curious if you agree that that’s why– in a nutshell– that that’s why that idea is threatening to people.

Daniel: I’m not sure I can understand why that idea is threatening to people. It’s not threatening to me. I think it’s fascinating to try to understand the internal mechanism’ how you make decisions, what influences you, what’s going on in your head. For me, it doesn’t change the experience of being who I am. I still decided to have that pizza, or I didn’t decide to have that pizza. Whether or not, there was a supernatural moment when I decided pizza versus, you know, salad. Or whether that was always going to happen because of what happened earlier that day because of what happened earlier that year all the way back to the Big Bang, it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t change the experience of who I am.

Zach: So you still have desires, in other words. You still have desires and you’re still trying to avoid suffering. You still have goals, in other words, and the fact that you can see that as completely predetermined doesn’t change the fact that in this moment in your life, you have desires, you have sympathy, you have emotions, etc, etc.

Daniel: And I still feel joy. I get to experience that pizza, even if I’m not the one who actually chose it. But maybe it’s different because, frankly, I don’t have things I massively regret in my life. So I’m not constantly battled by demons where I’m wondering was this my fault, or was that my fault? You know, for people who’ve had a terrible accident where maybe they’ve lost a child due to drowning because they looked the other way and then they wonder is that their fault, or could they be released from the sort of moral responsibility by being convinced that they are just an automaton and all this was predetermined? I can understand that would be much more of a struggle for folks. But if it’s just pizza versus salad, the moral stakes are pretty low.

Zach: Well, yeah. And I want to get back to that idea because there’s this… You can actually see the downsides of both extreme views. It’s like you said, if you actually believe that you were fully responsible and completely had free will, that can be a tremendous burden and fear. I would argue that that, too, on the opposite end of the no free will spectrum, can create its own set of fears and anxieties and guilt, etc. It’s not like either one relieves you of existential anxiety of various sorts.

Daniel: Yeah. But I think it’s really fascinating to think about how science reveals the nature of reality. And that changes the way we feel about ourselves and our relationship to the cosmos. Because this has been happening for thousands of years, right? Science has revealed that we are not the center of the cosmos, nor are we even at the center of our solar system, and that the universe is much much older than we imagined. That changes how we feel about our place in the universe and the importance or lack of importance of our lives. And so it’s not an unusual thing for science to reveal a truth which changes how we feel about ourselves and how we live our lives. I think there are future discoveries like that ahead of us. Say, we learn, for example, exactly how the universe was created. The actual true factual history of the first moments of the universe. And that was indisputable. That would change how a lot of people feel about their lives. Like, “Oh, it turns out there is a god, or there isn’t a god, or there was a need for some being to create the universe, or it wasn’t.” We have an explanation for how the universe can come out of nothing. That, I think, would change how people feel about their lives and would live them and make their choices. So I think there’s a long history there for science revealing the truth about the universe changing how we feel about our universe and our choices in it. So we should be prepared for the same kind of thing to happen sort of neurobiologically. If we drill down into the mechanisms of the workings of the human brain and one day, for example, you could upload your brain and a computer could predict your choices and your speech, that would change the way you felt about who you are and if you ever even really exist as a person.

Zach: I’m curious with your work because I know you had a podcast about free will and that involved you talking to students on the campus you’re at, I think. I’m curious if in the various conversations you’ve had, have you had that sense of the idea of lack of free will being threatening to people and seeing it arouse anxiety or even anger in people.

Daniel: I’ve never seen any anger. Most people, when I talk to them about it, they just sort of dismiss it. They’re like, “Of course, I have free will. I’m experiencing it right now. I’m choosing this, I’m choosing that.” And so I think for most people, there’s this feeling like there’s an immediacy of free will. They know it because they feel it, and so it’s like a silly curiosity to imagine you would ever prove free will doesn’t exist. So I don’t think people take it very seriously.

Zach: The other related fear around these ideas is that belief in these ideas, belief that free will is unlikely would cause people to behave badly. It would make us not able to punish people for behaving badly. But we still need laws and we still need punishments. Me believing that someone is not responsible at a core level doesn’t mean that I don’t think we should punish those people. We still have a society that we believe should behave in certain ways. And punishment is about making that behavior less likely. It’s not about saying you are responsible and you deserve punishment, it’s about discouraging people from behaving a certain way. But I think a lot of the fears around these kinds of ideas are related to, “Oh, we will no longer be able to tell people that they’re responsible and we won’t be able to legally punish them.” There’s a book by Derk Pereboom, he’s a philosopher, and he wrote a book called “Living Without Free Will” and it was about how we can still have coherent ethics and punishments, even without believing in free will. That’s an interesting book. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I skimmed it. One Amazon review for his book said, “The idea that humans have no free will and are therefore not morally responsible for their actions is not just wrong in an intellectual sense, it is extremely dangerous.” I think that kind of summed up a lot of people’s feelings around these things. So, I’m curious how you feel about… Obviously, you probably still believe in having laws and punishments, even while not believing in free will. [Daniel laughs]

Daniel: Yeah, I’m not a fan of the purge. I think it’s interesting. I think human society and ethics and laws will have to evolve as we get a deeper and deeper understanding of ourselves and the human mind and all sorts of stuff. But it’s not unparalleled in human history. A lot of similar arguments were made when people used science to challenge theological explanations for the origin of the universe. People were worried, “Well, if you challenge people’s belief in God, then nobody will think that murder is bad. And then everybody just go out and start killing all the time.” And I think that’s silly. We know that we can build a society of laws and values that are not rooted in some creator and some theological mystery, there’s a practical way to construct values in society that let it work and function. That was a big step forward, I think, and it shows that our society can be constructed even as the foundational questions and the ideas which some people think undergirded are shifted. We can still build a useful functioning society. But it’ll be a challenge. If somehow we get a complete understanding of the physical nature of the universe and show conclusively that people are not actually making choices, then we have to do some careful thinking about how to organize our society, how to punish people, what values to uphold. But there’s also some really fun and interesting philosophical experiments about whether people can be morally held to account even if they don’t have free will. And I think that’s pretty interesting. Have you read those experiments? Like the [Frankfurt] ideas?

Zach: I don’t think so.

Daniel: Well, there’s this whole set of thought experiments where people say, “What if you took somebody’s brain and you inserted into their brain a computer? And the computer would monitor their actions, and anytime the brain would make a decision that you don’t agree with, it would influence the brain to send zaps to change their decision. But if that person was going to make the decision you agreed with, then it wouldn’t interfere.” For example, say you met somebody who’s going to vote for Clinton and you wanted them to vote for Trump. So you insert a little thing into their brain and when they go in the voting booth, if you see that they’re going to vote for Clinton, the computer makes a decision and zaps their brain to make them vote for Trump. And if they were just going to anyway vote for Trump, then you’d leave it alone. So, what happens then if that person votes for Trump? Are they morally responsible for their vote because they made the decision? But they didn’t really have a freedom. They were going to end up voting for Trump either way. The computer was going to intervene if they didn’t. And so they’re sort of morally responsible for their vote because they made that decision, even though it was determined from the beginning that they were going to end up voting for Trump. And so you can imagine these fun situations where people are morally responsible for their choices, even if they couldn’t actually influence the outcome.

Zach: To me, it almost seems like some of our ideas around this are overly complicated and in the future, we’ll look back and be like, “We were asking such weird questions.” [Daniel laughs] Because some of these questions just don’t make sense if you do view the world as an unfolding and a reaction. Some of these questions just seem extraneous to me, maybe because I’ve lived so long with the idea that free will is unlikely. It almost seems like we tend to overcomplicate it. You can imagine flashing forward a hundred years and having the way people talk about things will be completely different than how we talk about them now. We get so in the weeds of these things that we instinctually believe are true, but may not be.

Daniel: Yeah, I think that’s fascinating. I love seeing how questions evolved through time. People are asking one question then later realize that was totally the wrong question, we should have been asking this other question. Or when you make some big discovery and you realize the universe is different from the way you imagined it, and that brings up all totally new questions. I would love to read a children’s book about science from the year 3000 just to get a basic sense for what questions are they asking. What are they wondering about? Could I even understand the questions they’re asking in a hundred or five hundred or a thousand years?

Zach: Yeah, I’m reading this interesting book now. It’s called “Philosophy in a New Key” and it’s from the ’50s or ’60s, I think. But it talks about, yeah, we are restrained by the questions that we ask by how we frame the questions. And a lot of times philosophical shifts are taking the form of looking at the world in such a new way that the questions they ask spark whole new lines of thought, and that’s why things can happen so rapidly because we just start looking at them in a completely different way. Getting to the other side of things, maybe the positive aspects of not believing in free will. There was a 2017 study that showed that people who read content that was critical of free will ideas were then shown to be less punitive when asked to mete out rewards for people’s transgressions. Actually, and interestingly in that study, it was apparently only the women that that had an effect on, which is a whole nother topic. So in other words, it seemed that thinking about how humans are such a product of the forces around them makes people less judgmental. And I feel that’s true, for me, and I’m curious if you can relate to that.

Daniel: Absolutely. And I think we’ve seen a lot of that this past year, where somebody, for example, has been shot by police. And then how you frame that person’s life story really affects how people view them and whether they were at fault for that. Is this somebody who’s had a difficult life and has a lot of things go against them in life? Or is this somebody who’s trying to take advantage of the system? And so I think putting people in context definitely changes how you feel about them and the judgments you make about them. I think it’s really interesting to imagine making judgments about people when you feel like they can’t make judgments. Like this whole question about moral responsibility in the case of free will. If you don’t believe in free will, then why are we worried about making decisions about people? Because we’re not making decisions if there isn’t any free will. Right? The whole thing is sort of moot. It makes us sort of like observers in the world. We’re just watching the world unfold, as you say, and we are part of that story. But if you don’t believe that free will is a thing, then you shouldn’t worry so much about how to handle it or how you are going to decide how to respond to your lack of free will. Because there is no decision in that case.

Zach: I really liked that biblical quote– I don’t think it was actually in the Bible, actually– but, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Because I think that sums up… To me, I really do believe, as someone who finds the idea of free will very unlikely, I really do believe if I was in another person’s shoes fully, like if I had their upbringing and their experience and their genetics and the random whatever that they’re going through, I would truly be that person. And that idea that compassion comes directly from the idea that I think free will is very unlikely and that we are just the product of everything that has come before.

Daniel: Yeah, I agree.

Zach: I also think, relatedly to that, I think it also leads to a lack of pride and accomplishments, which I think some people might view as a negative. My wife has sometimes scoffed at me when we talk about me being proud of something I have done and I’m like, “I’m not really proud.” I don’t pretend I’m not human, I am proud of some things, I have the feeling sometimes. But mostly, I think those kinds of things don’t really resonate with me because I do feel that I am a product of everything that’s come before me. I’m curious, does that affect your life? Do you feel like it’s affected your sense of pride and accomplishments too and your ability to take pleasure in such things?

Daniel: [chuckles] I do sometimes feel like my life now is at the mercy of decisions that I made 20 years ago. And boy, those decisions mystify me. Like my kids ask me, “Why did you become a physicist?” And I try to explain, but I don’t even really understand the choices I made. And the story I have about the choices I made doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. For example, they ask me, “Why did you become a physicist?” And the story I have in my mind is that I just started taking physics because it seemed like the hardest class and I figured well, I’ll just try the hardest thing and see how that goes. Then I just kept doing it and dot dot dot, here I am a professor of physics. [chuckles] That doesn’t really make any sense. That means that either I made those choices really kind of stupidly, or there was something else going on that I wasn’t really aware of, which I think is more likely. There was some satisfaction I found in succeeding at those classes, or I was enjoying it in some way that I couldn’t really put my finger on or that didn’t get incorporated into my narrative. And I think, to me, that reveals a lot about how choices and free will work. It’s mostly we are building stories about what just happened, trying to integrate them together into an understanding of our experience. There’s no actual moment of choice. It’s just like, “Hey, this just happened and here’s how I’m going to try to understand it. And that just happened and here’s how I’m going to try to understand it.” And if you don’t spend a lot of time on introspection, then you don’t really have a sense for how things happened and whether they made any sense. Sometimes they just don’t. And so yeah, I think about my accomplishments in life and my failures in life and I wonder could things have gone differently? But I don’t really have access to the person who made those decisions. I can’t call up 20-year-old me and say, “What are you doing? Why aren’t you take in more art classes? Why don’t you go into more parties? Why are you doing so much homework all the time, you big nerd?” I wish I could talk to that person. But I wonder if I would even really recognize them or know them.

Zach: Well, yeah, to your point. Sometimes I don’t even understand the decisions I made an hour ago. [Daniel laughs] I really feel that in my life. We want to perceive ourselves as these coherent beings. I mean, I really feel the chaos in my life personally, and I think thinking about these ideas maybe opens you up more to the kind of randomness in your own mind and life. But yeah, I definitely relate to that. You open up an interesting line of discussion there because there is a lot of research around our narrative-building and our confabulation, really, about what our own drives and desires are. There are really interesting brain studies by Gazzaniga involving people who had had their left and right brain split. The experiments involved people whose one part of their brain saw something on one side of their vision, but the other side of the brain wasn’t conscious of it. And what would happen was people would confabulate and make up stories, even though part of their brain knew what they had seen, but the other part of their brain was creating a narrative for why they said what they said without being consciously aware of what they said. And these kinds of experiments. There’s other experiments like that, too, but the gist of it was we have these confabulatory centers in our brain, and Gazzaniga caught this part of the brain that he thought did this. He called it the interpreter, which was a place where we would interpret things that happened to us or things that we did, and put them into a narrative of what made sense for us. But in a post hoc way, like after the fact, we would create these narratives.

And I think that is a big part of being human. We put all these things that are going on into this narrative structure. Creating stories is a big part of being human and I think it’s at a more core level than I think people realise. It’s from a second to second level of like, “How can I put this into a framework that makes sense, even if the things that led to me doing that were completely beyond my control?”

Daniel: Absolutely. We are building these stories and telling these stories to ourselves and believing them, right? And you’re totally right. I think storytelling and building narratives is really the foundation of human thought and consciousness. It’s the basic element. You can imagine how would you want an intelligent creature to evolve. Well, it should learn rules about the universe it finds itself in, and then use those rules to try to manipulate its environment and improve its chances of success. It will do that best if it can find patterns and tell little stories, you know? Stories about how to find food in the winter or how to hunt game or whatever. These stories we tell are really just little proto-scientific explanations of how to describe what we’ve experienced and how to predict the future. That’s why science is so focused on cause and effect. That’s a story you’re telling about something that occurred and then happened. So I think it’s absolutely foundational. I think storytelling is the way we think. I don’t know if you have kids, but I see this in my kids also. I’d say, “Well, why did you just do that?”

“I don’t know.”

And I’m like, “What do you mean you don’t know?” You know, they haven’t developed sometimes this [crosstalk] knowledge, or this is still storytelling where they can access that and be like, “Well, I think I wanted the cookie and so I took the cookie.”

Zach: “My sister made me do that.” [laughter] They’ve got to create the blame, you know? [Daniel laughs]

Daniel: Yeah, it’s fascinating to see that develop.

Zach: I want to get back to some of the anxieties and fears people have because I thought this would be beneficial to people listening to this that are kind of threatened by these ideas. I’m going to go through a few of these ideas and why they don’t actually bug me, and I’ll kind of spark your feedback as I go.

Daniel: Sure. Sure.

Zach: Let’s look at the first one I have here. Let’s assume for a moment that we don’t have free will. It’s hard to imagine how having free will would look much different than what we currently have. So even if we don’t have free will, we’re still obviously very complex entities that can process a lot of information. And for all intents and purposes, we make choices, even if those choices may be the result of all sorts of complex processing and dynamics beyond our control. That’s kind of summarizing one reason why these ideas are not that threatening to me because I’m on a very human level, which is all we have access to– a human level– that we still have these choices for all intents and purposes.

Daniel: I suppose so. I mean, you could also imagine asking a Tesla, “Why did you choose to change lanes?” Well, it certainly made a choice. It had some data, it had an algorithm. It made a choice. I don’t know if you could then hold the Tesla responsible for its choice and make it feel like to blame for changing lanes or not changing lanes or not stopping when it hit a pedestrian. So I think that you can have systems that make choices, even if they have really no opportunity to make other choices. They still are making choices. Maybe that makes people feel like they have some influence, but I’m not sure that making choices necessarily means that you have any sort of options.

Zach: An outcome of that kind of thinking is it’s hard for me to imagine how if we had free will, say we learned we definitely had free will that transcended physical laws, it’s hard to imagine how much different it would be. It’s almost like it’s such a weird question to ask. It’s hard to even imagine how that would even manifest.

Daniel: Well, I guess you could do the thought experiment of fast-forwarding a thousand years into the future and imagining that science has now been able to model the human brain at the truly microscopic level and understand how it works. If you are not making choices, if there’s no free will, then in theory, your brain could be predictable. Right? If we managed to overcome the barriers of chaos theory just by sheer power of quantum computing or something crazy, then it’s possible that we could predict your choices. We could scan you and mimic you and predict exactly what you would do in various circumstances. I guess that would be different. It’d be shocking to see yourself and all of your choices predicted.

Zach: Right. I guess it just seems so distant a concept, and I guess, for people that are bugged by these ideas, I guess to me the point is like, “Well, from a day-to-day perspective, can you even imagine it being much different whether we had free will or didn’t?” Because it seems like even say you had free will, it would seem like you would still be impacted by the past and by your experience. You wouldn’t just be this free-floating godlike entity able to choose of your own accord. It seems like it’s such a weird thing to dive into because it seems like well, what would the difference really be like, for all intents and purposes?

Daniel: Yeah, and I think it’s also important to separate two connected concepts of free will and consciousness. Whether or not you have free will, you do still have a first-person subjective experience. You are living your life. You are inside your mind.

Zach: Which is amazing.

Daniel: Which is amazing and totally not understood, and I think an even harder and deeper problem in philosophy and science. I don’t even know if it is a scientific question. Because can you even prove it? Because you can’t ever step out of your subjective experience. But if you are shown to not have free will, it doesn’t strip away your conscious experience. You can be conscious without free will. So, you are still having that pizza or driving the Tesla or arguing with your wife or whatever. That doesn’t change your life. It doesn’t disappear in a puff and now you are like the mental equivalent of a Tesla which doesn’t have a first-person experience. It doesn’t strip away that most essential part of being alive.

Zach: That’s what it gets down to me, too. Even if these ideas are theoretically anxiety-producing, they just seem so distant to me. Because at a very human level, like you said, consciousness experience is amazing. Even if we can debate what the causes of our choices are, we still experience the results of all the things that we call choices and we still live this life. This may be a good segue into… There’s that fatalistic nihilistic response to some of these ideas. And I would say that it’s not entirely related to the idea of free will because there’s nothing stopping us from being fatalistic and existentially depressed, even if we were 100% sure we had free will. So we can imagine someone proving to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that our brains are special and that they’re operating in some magical way that allows us to transcend physical laws. And even with that knowledge, we could still easily find existence completely meaningless. Right? It’s almost like we desire something special to be granted to us. And we think that that will give us the ability to find meaning in our life. But I would argue it’s a separate topic because it’s almost just pushing the question farther away. Because you can imagine being an entity with completely free will and still be like, “Well, there’s still no meaning in the world. What is the point of all this?” [Daniel laughs]

Daniel: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. It’s hard to imagine what that’s like.

Zach: There’s other kinds of questions like that that I feel are kind of similar. Like the idea of God or a higher power is also just kind of pushing the question one step forward too. It’s like, “Well, there’s a God or higher power, I don’t have to think about the idea that the universe may be meaningless.” But in a sense, you can imagine believing that there is a higher power that created us and still wonder, “Well, what is the point of that entity existing? I haven’t really solved the underlying concept of what is meaningful or what’s not meaningful. I could have been created by God and all of this could still be meaningless.” I don’t know. Some of these questions just seem like they’re… We want some concept of our specialness. It’s really what we want. We want to be granted some special privilege and that will alleviate some of our existential angst, it feels like.

Daniel: Frankly, I’ve never really understood how people think about free will if they also believe in an all-powerful God who’s essentially directing everything. How can you still be morally responsible for your choices if there’s an all-powerful being that set everything in motion and some grand plan? I don’t really understand.

Zach: That’s a tough paradox for a lot of religions, I feel like. And I feel like Christianity addresses that a bit where they’re like, “It’s the paradox of God having a plan and us having free will.” But it’s not really an answer, they just acknowledge that it’s a magical paradox or something.

Daniel: Yeah, and there are a lot of these questions that you’re just not allowed to ask because the answer is beyond human understanding. I think that’s something wonderful about science, it’s the ego to imagine that maybe we could understand the universe, maybe we could build a model in our heads of how things are working out there and use it to make progress and reveal more truths. So that’s something that’s very attractive about science.

Zach: I’ve also had people that respond when I talk about these ideas, they respond in ways that are belittling the idea that I could have ethics or believe that things are right or wrong, or why I would even care if I didn’t believe in free will. And I think that that’s getting back to these fatalistic ideas of what’s the point of doing anything if I don’t have free will? But I would argue we still have these drives, and I can still… If there’s anything I’m sure of, it’s like the Descartes’s idea of I think, therefore I am. I do exist and I believe other people exist and I believe suffering exists. And I could use these kinds of ideas to give up, but at the end of the day, we obviously do have the power to change things, even if we can debate what that actually means at the core of it. But obviously, I can pick up a pencil right now, I can try to relieve someone’s suffering right now, even if I believe that those are all the outcomes of previous things. But I feel like some people use these ideas to be like, “Well, what’s the point? I might as well do horrible things or do whatever I feel like.” But to me, it’s some of the core aspects of life where I believe suffering is bad and I believe suffering exists and I believe in relieving suffering. And I know that that is in my power to do that, even if I don’t believe in free will.

Daniel: Yeah, and you can ask those folks, “Well, why aren’t you doing bad things right now? What’s preventing you from doing that?” It’s the choices you’re making and your empathy and your concern for other folks. It’s not like we are purely calculating robots all the time. Even if you believe that everybody out there is just a machine following some deterministic laws, you still care about people. Right? It’s not like I am totally driven scientifically to make every decision. It’s not like every choice I make is perfectly rational. If I was perfectly rational, I would have doubts about whether or not anyone else around me was even conscious. I could be a [unintelligible 00:45:54] and say, “I am the only being in the universe and everybody else is a zombie, and so I might as well just go out and take whatever I want.” That would be a rational conclusion, but not something I do. Because I feel for people. I have empathy. I feel their experience in their bodies reflected in my own mind. That’s not rational, it’s not scientific, but it’s the way I live. And so I think that’s an artificial argument people make. It’s just like when people say if there’s no God then anybody would go out there and murder as much as they want. I’m like, “Well, I’m currently murdering exactly as much as I want, which is zero. [Zach laughs] And it’s not because there’s a God or not a god, it’s just I don’t want to murder anybody.”

Zach: And to that point, even believing in free will, these don’t save you from antisocial ideas. You could be entirely believing in free will and still be a complete monster. I feel like these ideas get conflated because they all do relate to our fears of meaninglessness and our fears of isolation and all of these existential fears. But to me, there’s quite a variety of separate topics there. And I’ll use this as an opportunity to plug one of the most meaningful books I’ve ever read, probably. I would call it the most important book I’ve ever read. It’s called “Existential Psychotherapy” by Irvin Yalom and it’s about all these existential fears that we all have and how existential psychology is about how these basic fears that we all have as humans, even as just entities existing in the world, lead to various anxieties and fears and sufferings. I’d just recommend it greatly. I’ve bought it for so many people I know. So if anyone’s interested in that kind of stuff, it’s a great book.

Daniel: It sounds cool. I’ll dig into it.

Zach: Oh, yeah, I really recommend it. I’ve spent several hundred dollars buying it for people I know, so I definitely recommend it. Getting to the end of this, we talked a little bit about how it increases our compassion and empathy for people. But on a broader sense, I feel like these beliefs and thinking about these things makes me feel more connected to things almost— you could call it from a spiritual sense, too. As opposed to feeling like I’m separate from things, I feel like I am part of things in a very real sense. I’m curious if you can relate to that in your life.

Daniel: Yeah, once you start digging into this question of cause and effect and how things turn from one event to another, you realize that there are a lot of artificial distinctions that we’re inserting into these questions based just on our experience. Like the distinction between my body and the rest of the universe, right? Like, where does my body end? Is it the outermost set of particles and electrons? But there’s like a frothing mess of particles there at the interface, you know? And so the definition even just of what is me or who am I from a physical universe point of view isn’t really clear, it’s totally arbitrary. Is it my brain? Is it my body? Is it some volume around my body? And so from that point of view, it becomes very clear that we are just part of this huge frothing mass of particles that are swooshing in and out of existence, and that we’ve sort of drawn a dotted line around some of them, but that dotted line is not even very well defined. So yeah, absolutely, we’re all just part of this big ocean of particles smashing into each other constantly.

Zach: When I think about what I am, this concept of I, whatever I am or my consciousness is, it’s some mysterious force. It’s some force of the universe that has come to be that is beyond my understanding, beyond my control, and beyond anyone’s understanding right now. And when you think about what that force is and those things that have led to us having this experience, is that what God is? Is that what a higher power is? Something that is beyond our control that has led to us having this experience? And I think a lot of times people have nihilistic views of these thoughts but to me, it opens up theoretically a realm of spiritual inquiry too.

Daniel: Absolutely. That’s one reason, for example, why I’m excited to meet intelligent aliens and ask them if they have similar questions. You can imagine different biological constructions might lead to very different relationships with the physical universe. For example, we tend to think of ourselves as individuals. Like, I am one, and you are one. And that probably relates to our whole idea of integers, you know, mathematical numbers between the real numbers that are these whole units. Because we think of ourselves as individuals. You can imagine another kind of species where the boundaries between individuals are sort of fuzzy. They may be more blobs and they exchange bits more easily and they’re just part of a larger mass. And maybe they don’t think of themselves as individuals and don’t even have the concept of integers. It’d be fascinating to see the universe from a totally different perspective biologically and see if that influences how you see these foundational physical concepts. But of course, we can’t step out of this human experience until we meet and talk to the aliens and get to talk to them about science.

Zach: One thing I want to get back to—I mentioned it earlier, I might as well throw it in here—is the idea that if we were completely responsible, like say we had complete free will somehow, there’s theoretically a lot of anxiety there too. Because a lot of anxiety people have can be centered around fear of our own freedom, fear of making the wrong decision when we have so much choice, fear that we failed ourselves, fear that we’ve done so many things wrong. There’s some trauma models of psychosis and schizophrenia, especially more catatonic aspects of it, that center around fears of people affecting the world, fears of being responsible, and fear of making the wrong movement. These kinds of theories of these experiences centered around fears of impacting the world, you know? So I would argue there’s just as much to be scared of on the opposite end of this spectrum in that regard. There can be a lot of anxiety about being completely in control, and it’s not clear that the only anxiety is around us being basically objects on the other end of the spectrum. We have this fear of freedom, which can be intimidating.

Daniel: Yeah, and choices don’t always make people happy. There are those fun experiments where they give people an option between a cookie and a brownie, and they have another group where they just give them a cookie. And the folks that just got a cookie and didn’t get a choice tend to be happier with their cookie. Then the ones that chose a cookie are like, “Mhh, maybe I should have had the brownie.” So, choice doesn’t always make people happy. I think we also see that politically in some people’s preference for autocrats. They want somebody who’s a strong leader in charge to make these choices for them. They don’t want to feel like they are responsible for the outcome of their lives, they want somebody out there with a guiding hand to to be in charge and to release them from the responsibility of choice.

Zach: Right. And they’re threatened by ideas in the sense that all of these different philosophies could be true, so they want someone to just nail it down and be like, “Here’s what to believe.” I think that is a big part of things. Finally, I want to say, if you’re listening to this and these kinds of ideas do bug you, at the end of the day, no one’s going to prove this anytime soon. So it shouldn’t weigh on you too much. [Daniel laughs] Because who knows when we’ll ever solve it or that we’ll probably destroy ourselves as a species before we ever completely prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you don’t have free will. So I just want to end on that because I’m positive. [crosstalk] Yeah, that’s my tip. Life tip. So, go about your life is what I’m saying. [laughs]

Daniel: We’ll probably kill ourselves before we prove that you’re a robot. [laughs]

Zach: Yeah, there’s some positivity in that. Is there anything you feel that we’ve missed along the way?

Daniel: No, I think this is a lot of fun. There’s so many other little alleys you could dig into and explore for years and years and years and I think this is why this has been a topic people have been talking about literally for millennia. And I think it’ll continue to be a question we ask for quite a while. But I think it’s also exciting the exponential rate of progress in science and in understanding. It means that potentially in five, ten, fifty years, we could learn something about the brain or the nature of reality, which does fundamentally alter this conversation and the way we view these questions. So I’m looking forward to that.

Zach: Yeah. And I’ll say, too, to the point of people talking about of since the dawn of modern intellect there were fatalists a couple of thousand years ago, and in Greece when they were doing their philosophical discussions and people were saying, “Well, might as well not do anything if there’s no free will.” You know? So, this has been a topic of discussion for thousands of years. Thanks a lot for coming out, Daniel.

Daniel: Thanks a lot for having me on, really fun to talk about this stuff.

Zach: One area in this interview we didn’t get much into was the idea that a disbelief in free will makes people less moral, makes them lazier in a fatalistic what’s-it-matter way. There are some psych studies around this topic that I should have found more time to work in. If you’d like to learn more about these, I recommend finding the blog post for this episode at my site and looking at the resources I have there.