Will Wilkinson writes on one of my favorite topics
Some say our sense that life means something is an illusion, or that it would be an illusion if there were no god. Some say free-will is an illusion. These claims confuse me.
The water I seem to see on the hot horizon is an illusion. The bend in the stick in the water in the pond is an illusion. These claims have sense because I know what it is to see water, am acquainted with the sight of a straight stick. But how does free-will really feel? What is it like for life really to mean something? These questions smack of nonsense. What is the genuine article against which to compare the alleged counterfeit?
"That four-sided triangle you saw was an illusion." Does that make sense? No. A four-sided triangle is impossible. There is nothing it is like to see one. There is nothing it is like to seem to see one. The can be no counterfeit of an impossible original. (But what is this an illusion of? Is there really an illusion?)
"That free will you thought you felt, that was an illusion." What? How would you know? Maybe you have a theory that says every event is necessitated by the laws of nature and the prior history of the universe. In such a world, can there be something it is like to experience the absence of necessitation?
There are at least two issues here. One, under what conditions could we meaningfully call something an illusion. Second, does free will fit those conditions.
Will suggests that we would need the familiarity with the genuine experience to meaningful suggest that something seemed to be it, but was in fact an illusion. However, I don’t think that’s quite right.
Suppose that Will came to me announced that last night he had seen the Ghost of Christmas Past. First, it would make sense for someone to argue that this must have been an illusion since ghosts do not exist.
Moreover, if I then showed him a system of mirrors that I had used to create an image of a translucent person, Will could sensibly say, “Oh now I see it was only an illusion.”
This is because despite never have seen a ghost and it arguably being impossible to see a ghost we nonetheless have a consistent notion of what it would mean to see a ghost. If we have an experience that we believe to be consistent with that notion but then is latter shown to be inconsistent with that notion then we can say the previous experience was illusory.
Now, in the case of free will I think we do have a consistent conception of what this means and moreover we can show that there are experiences which are inconsistent with the notion.
There are a number of these but the most convincing to me go as follows.
First, we set up a video camera. Then we open Will’s skull. Then we sever the corpus callosum. We then place a divider between Will’s right and left eyes. We then post a message seen only by the left eye that says “Touch Your Nose”
Will will likely touch his nose.
Then we ask Will. Why did you touch your nose. He might say something like – I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t paralyzed me yet.
We say thank you very much. We sew Will back up and then we play the recoding for him.
Will then sees that while he believed the touching of his nose to be contingent on a process he was consciously aware of, this was not the case. Specifically, it seemed as if the act of touching his nose was contingent upon his wondering whether we had paralyzed him. Indeed, the act of touching his nose was not contingent on that act of wonder.
Because of this we can meaningfully say that Will experienced the illusion of free will.