The illusion of Free Will is one of those remnants of philosophical thought from centuries ago that isn’t easily going away. Mainly because the concept of determinism and effects (such as our deeds and thoughts) needing causes is somewhat counterintuitive and hard to grasp, and also because people have a certain tendency to want to hang on to the illusion that they are free in what they do, think, believe, decide or love. A lot has been said and written about this topic, so instead of rehashing what has already been mentioned and explained somewhere, somehow a million times over, I thought I approach this issue in a slightly different manner.
So what I’ve done here is that I have collected quotes on the topic of Free Will from scientists, philosophers and authors from all over the net (and from some books on my bookshelves). I’ve (hopefully) picked quotes that convey important and central information about the illusion of Free Will in a condensed and easily understandable way. I hope you may find them useful.
“When a man acts in ways that annoy us, we wish to think him wicked. We refuse to face the fact that his annoying behavior is the result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth, and therefore to events for which he can’t be held responsible by any stretch of imagination. When a motorcar fails to start, we don’t attribute its annoying behavior to sin. We don’t say, you are a wicked motorcar and can’t have any more gasoline until you go.”
“When there are two desires in a man’s heart, he has no choice between the two, but must obey the strongest, there being no such thing as free will in the composition of any human that ever lived.”
“Men believe themselves to have free will because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.”
“Man is a masterpiece of creation if for no other reason than that, all the weight of evidence for determinism notwithstanding, he believes he has free will.”
Georg C. Lichtenberg
“Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The idea that our behavior is caused by the physiological activity of a genetically-shaped brain refutes the traditional view. It makes our behavior an automatic consequence of molecules in motion and leaves no room for an uncaused chooser.”
“Since no set of causes we select as the determiners of human action can be complete, the feeling of freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes. To that extent, we may act “as if” we have free will.”
“Free will carried many a soul to hell, but never a soul to heaven.”
“Our actions should be based on the ever-present awareness that humans in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free, but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion.”
“Our behavior is not random, so it must have a cause. And if behavior has a cause, it must not be free.”
“God, our genes, our environment, or some stupid programmer keying in code at an ancient terminal – there’s no way free will can ever exist if we as individuals are the result of some external cause.”
Orson Scott Card
“The vast majority of persons experience a ‘feeling’ of free will when making a choice, like choosing vanilla ice cream over chocolate. For them, making choices proves a person has free will. No proof could be more obvious. But are choices ever completely free ? That question we can answer easily: All human choices are constrained by many causes.”
William B. Provine
“Either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them.”
“The biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of the immortal soul.”
“Once you understand someone’s behavior on a sufficiently mechanical level, it’s very hard to look at them as evil. You can look at them as dangerous; you can pity them; but evil doesn’t exist on a neuronal level.”
Joshua D. Greene
“Our will, quite the opposite of being free, is steady and stable, like an inner gyroscope, and it is the stability and constancy of our non-free will that makes me me and you you, and that also keeps me me and you you.”
“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have said : ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’”
“We are mere machines. And machines may not boast, nor feel proud of their performance, nor claim personal merit for it.”
“The mind is what the brain does.”
“We don’t so much make decisions as our brain makes them for us. When we claim conscious ownership of the actions performed by our brain, we act like the proud parents of a gifted child, taking credit for the child’s brilliance even though we only provided the necessary conditions for that brilliance.”
“You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing.”(sometimes this gets condensed into “Man can do what he wants, but he can’t will what he wants”, the original German reads “Der Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will.”)
“It [free will] is an illusion in the sense that the experience of consciously willing an action is not a direct indication that the conscious thought has caused the action.”
“The brain itself is Headquarters, the place where the ultimate observer is, but it is a mistake to believe that the brain has any deeper headquarters, any inner sanctum arrival at which is the necessary or sufficient condition for conscious experience.
Let us call the idea of such a centered locus in the brain Cartesian materialism, since it is the view one arrives at when one discards Descartes’ dualism but fails to discard the associated imagery of a central (but material) Theater where “it all comes together”. Once made explicit, it is obvious that it is a bad idea, not only because, as a matter of empirical fact, nothing in the functional neuroanatomy of the brain suggests such a general meeting place, but also because positing such a center would apparently be the first step in an infinite regress of too-powerful homunculi. If all the tasks Descartes assigned to the immaterial mind have to be taken over by a “conscious” subsystem, its own activity will either be systematically mysterious, or decomposed into the activity of further subsystems that begin to duplicate the tasks of the “non-conscious” parts of the whole brain. Whether or not anyone explicitly endorses Cartesian materialism, some ubiquitous assumptions of current theorizing presuppose this dubious view.”
“The will is never free — it is always attached to an object, a purpose. It is simply the engine in the car — it can’t steer.”
“Life calls the tune, we dance.”
“In fact, if you are faced with the prospect of running across an open field in which lightning bolts are going to be a problem, you are much better off if their timing and location are determined by something, since then they may be predictable by you, and hence avoidable. Determinism is the friend, not the foe, of those who dislike inevitability.”
Daniel C. Dennett
A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.
The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”
The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: “‘Twere wise to change my course.”
With equal power they contend.
He said: “My judgment I suspend.”
Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”
“First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.
Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
You’ll have no hand in it at all.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary