Freedom of Will: Illusion or Reality?


Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction.

He is former Visiting Professor of Psychology, Southern Federal University, Rostov-on-Don, Russia and Professor of Finance and Psychology in SIAS-CIAPS (Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies).

He was the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb, and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101. His YouTube channels garnered 20,000,000 views and 85,000 subscribers.

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*Previous interviews listed chronologically after interview.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We will likely encounter moments of repetition in this session, in question and response.

What is free will? What are the ways in which “will” has been defined?

Prof. Shmuel “Sam” Vaknin: Free will is a useful fiction, akin to god or the afterlife: only agents with free will can be held morally responsible.

Free will comprises three conditions:

  1. The ability to choose and act otherwise;
  2. Having control over one’s choices and actions;
  3. That the choice or act are rationally motivated.

The very concept of free will is founded on convenient delusions such as time or causation. Whereas teleology is prohibited in all sciences (we do not attribute purposeful actions to objects and animals, for example), it mysteriously permeates philosophy and more specifically the field of ethics.

Jacobsen: What are the ways in which “freedom” or “free” have been defined?

Vaknin: Both the external world and our internal one serve as constraints. We cannot choose or act contrary to Nature or to our individual nature. What we call “change” is merely a transition between different constrained systems. So, ostensibly, free will is a myth, there is no such thing.

But this (nomological) determinism is merely optical (compatibilism).

First: there are always other options. If someone puts a gun to your head, you are still possessed of free will: you can choose to die (in Judaism, one is instructed to choose death over certain transgressions).

But, much more importantly, in complex systems the number of probable pathways is so enormous that for all practical purposes we can never specify all or even most of them (chaos theory, quantum mechanics). So, these systems, as far as we are concerned appear to be either random (libertarianism) or subject to free will (agency).

Jacobsen: What definitions of “free”, “will”, and “free will”/“freedom of the will”, simply exist in the realm of fantasy, magical thinking?

Vaknin: Free will is a conscious, introspected experience of the degrees of freedom in systems (such as the brain or society). It reflects the fact that our ability to know the world is limited by our finitude and mortality. Our descriptions of reality – including psychological reality – will always be subject to uncertainty, indeterminacy, and apparent randomness.

This is a terrifying realization which produces anxiety (angst in existentialism). It implies an external locus of control (our lives are determined from the outside by forces and processes we will, in principle, never fathom).

We defend against such helplessness and lack of autonomy and agency by deceiving ourselves into believing that we are exempt from the laws of nature and can alter the ineluctable course of events.

But this is a useful bit of self-deception and should be perpetuated, for two reasons:

  1. Owing to our inability to secure all the information about reality, free will feels real!
  2. The concept of free will guarantees the acceptance of moral responsibility and the reactions to it: desert, blame, guilt, and restorative justice.

Jacobsen: Apart from simplistic considerations of semi-dismissal, as in it is fantasy or magical thinking, is free will a complex illusion of human perception and cognition, even a non-conscious mental trick bundled in the languages – everything: semiotics, semantics, syntax, etc. – used to speak about it, a mistake of intuition of sorts?

Vaknin: The BELIEF in the freedom to choose and do otherwise – regardless of whether such liberty is merely an illusion – is the foundation of human civilization, its core.

Free will is an article of FAITH. It is not a fact or a hypothesis or a theory. It has no truth value (it is not true or false). It has no ontological status, only an epistemological one.

Jacobsen: What forms of free will, if it’s to exist at all (or, indeed, not), would fit the modern scientific universes of discourse for plausibility?

Vaknin: None., Modern science is dichotomous: determinism vs. randomness (probability). In both approaches, there is no place for free will (the intelligibility problem). If the universe is preordained and predestined (by god) then, of course, individual agency is counterfactual. If, on the other hand, events are random, there can be no will, choice, or even action, all of which imply intentionality.

Some would say that Man converts the random into the structured, is an agent of increasing order in the universe. Humans, in this view, are AGENTS of determinism, the shapers of reality.

But this is just kicking the can down the road: we are still faced with randomness when human decisions and actions to increase order are undertaken.

Jacobsen: A bit of a longer question narrowed more within tighter philosophical and natural philosophical terms. In a prior session, you spoke on Kant, free will, nomic causation/causation by laws (of nature) versus causation resulting from free will, and a god. As has been phrased by others… “ultimately, of what is the will free?”

Vaknin: Every single philosopher I ever heard of grappled with the question of free will and tried to square the circle.

Ultimately, it is just a question of frame of reference and level of description. The same substance can be described as 2 atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen – or as wet, cold water. Both descriptions are valid statements about the reality of the substance – and yet they have nothing in common.

From a fine-grained point of view of the world, free will is a confabulation. But from a human being’s perspective, free will is a very useful organizing and explanatory principle. It helps to make sense of life and provide one with self-efficacious guidance.

Jacobsen: Apart from the above mentioned considerations of the arguments, switching more to a personal voice, you have a ToE in Chronon Field Theory (CFT). Does free will exist in CFT?

Vaknin: Moreso than in any other theory I am aware of. The Chronon Field Theory is all about Time as a field of potentialities. As some of these potentials materialize, they constitute input – but not to any deterministic process! They feed into other probable processes or events. “Choice” and “action” easily fit into this view of the world because our brains are just another such superposition.

Jacobsen: With everything, and the stance on free will, any final words of anxiety and discomfort if not anguish and torture?

Vaknin: I don’t do comfort. But thank you for giving me the opportunity. Every thinker whose work I have read has miserably failed in tackling the thorny topic of free will. Even the most rigorous amongst them made fools of themselves in plain view.

Don’t go there. There is a thin line separating overthinking from inanity and overanalyzing from stupidity. Don’t cross it.

Free will exists the same way Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes most definitely exist. It is real. It is a force to reckon with. It shapes our minds and lives. It exerts a huge influence on multiple spheres. What more do we need to know?

Shoshanim: Thank you, Doc.

Lily’s Lily: You are very welcome, survivor!

Previous Electronic ‘Print’ Interviews (Hyperlinks Active for Titles)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Narcissism in General

(News Intervention: January 28, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Cold Therapy (New Treatment Modality)

(News Intervention: January 30, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Giftedness and IQ

(News Intervention: February 2, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Religion

(News Intervention: February 11, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Science and Reality

(News Intervention: April 30, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on the Gender Wars

(News Intervention: May 21, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Psychological Growth

(News Intervention: May 24, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Structure, Function, Society, and Survival

(News Intervention: May 26, 2022)

Prof. Vaknin on Chronon Field Theory and Time Asymmetry

(News Intervention: May 28, 2022)

Prof. Vaknin on Genius and Insanity

(News Intervention: June 1, 2022)

Prof. Vaknin on Freedom of Expression

(News Intervention: June 10, 2022)

Prof. Vaknin on Misogyny and Misandry

(News Intervention: June 20, 2022)

Prof. Vaknin on Victimization and Victim Identity Movements

(News Intervention: July 27, 2022)

Prof. Vaknin on Gut Feelings and Intuition

(News Intervention: August 9, 2022)

Previous Interviews Read by Prof. Vaknin (Hyperlinks Active for Titles)

How to Become the REAL YOU (Interview, News Intervention)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: January 26, 2022)

Insider View on Narcissism: What Makes Narcissist Tick (News Intervention)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: January 29, 2022)

Curing Your Narcissist (News Intervention Interview)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: January 31, 2022)

Genius or Gifted? IQ and Beyond (News Intervention Interview)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: February 3, 2022)

Thrive: Your Future Path to Growth and Change (News Intervention Interview)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: May 25, 2022)

Previous Interviews Interpreted by Prof. Vaknin (Hyperlinks Active for Titles)

Your Narcissist: Madman or Genius? (Based on News Intervention Interview)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: June 3, 2022)

Thematically Associated Content Produced Near Previous Interviews by Prof. Vaknin (Hyperlinks Active for Titles)

Hypervigilance and Intuition as Forms of Anxiety

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: August 7, 2022)

Image Credit: Sam Vaknin. 

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