Will Still Exists Even if It’s Not Free

October 15, 2015

Last time I was talking about the paradox of free will and how the whole concept of free will seems incoherent and absurd. When people hear this kind of thing, they typically go bonkers and wonder how we can ever have a will at all. How can we want anything then? How can we feel love or pain or any of those kinds of emotions?

Don't believe in love cartoon

Panel from Zach Weinersmith’s SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) series. (Source)

In this cartoon panel, for example, the man says he doesn’t believe in love, and he’s assuming that love must somehow be more than “just” chemicals. But why? Why do people think love must be more than chemicals? I wonder if anyone can give a coherent answer to this question.

Most people don’t appreciate the many magnificent properties of chemicals. Maybe people get too narrow a concept of chemical reactions from their high school lab experiences. They think chemicals are mostly just sitting there in bottles, or turning different colors when you mix them in a beaker. Obviously these people are underestimating the awesome grandeur of chemistry.

OK, but how can mere chemicals, magnificent as they are, ever fall in love? How can mere chemicals ever want anything at all?

Well, I’ve already explained that wanting is like inertia. It’s like a physical force pushing you in some direction. The will is like a flowing river, pulled downhill by gravity. The river does not choose freely to flow this way or that, but it certainly does flow! This is what I mean when I say there can still be will even when it’s not free.

In the IC chips of a computer, the will is electrical voltage. In our own human brains, the will is neuro-electric charge flowing through the myriad connections among our neurons. It’s very complex and microscopic, of course, but we could boil it all down quite simply and say that the will is energy flow.

Does this mean a river literally “wants” to flow into the sea? If we’re all just physical things, how can we humans want any differently than an inanimate river? This will be my topic for next time.