Free will, on a human level at least, is a mind-bending and difficult subject. From our perspective, we actively control our future through our own choices. But there are many other areas where our perspective is an illusion. From my perspective, “up” is nearly the opposite direction as it is for someone in Madagascar. On a cosmic scale, there is no up or down. They’re illusions caused by our experience of gravity–which is itself a sort of illusion.
The question posed by general relativity, then, is whether the future and the past are also illusions. How do our choices actually effect change through time? Are they truly choices in the sense that our consciousness is solely responsible for their origin, or is choice another illusion caused by our experience of the chemical reactions and electrical signals that comprise our body and brain?
Since it is well-established that what we believe can have a physical effect on our bodies, and we have a spectacular ability to believe just about anything we want, I think there must be a basis for some sort of free will. Consciousness is poorly understood, but it seems possible that there is a way in which the collective force of our brain cells is capable of thwarting chemical reactions and electrical signals that would otherwise have happened.
As far as my own knowledge of the subject goes, it’s still an open question. What I want to talk about, though, is the phenomenon of belief. So let’s assume for the moment that we really do have free will, since we do experience it whether it’s an illusion or not.
We tend to be very good at ignoring cognitive dissonance and believing what we want. I’m sure I could, over time, make myself believe almost any religion. Of course, I would have to be intellectually dishonest, ignore a lot of evidence, and essentially give up on rational thought, but those are things at which humanity excels.
However, an interesting thing happens when you set out on an honest search for the truth. If there is such a thing as “absolute truth”, free will goes out the window. Not in the sense that you lose the ability to make free choices, but in the sense that you no longer have a choice about what you believe. You essentially choose to give up your free will in the area of belief, in favor of truth.
If it hasn’t quite clicked in your mind yet, think of it this way: If you believe truth exists and can be known, then in order to know it you must put your beliefs at the mercy of forces beyond your own mind. If evidence establishes a truth, you must accept it. I don’t get to continue believing free will is real if it’s proven to be an illusion, unless I break away from my honest search for truth.
It can be a disconcerting or even frightening position. Human nature seems to gravitate toward firm and unchanging belief. And yet on a cosmic scale, we know so little that we are constantly facing new discoveries that change what we thought we knew. Since it’s so difficult to remain uncertain, we tend to look for a balance between standing on established “truth”, and remaining open to new ideas and discoveries. Some people lean heavily toward the former (we call them conservatives), while others lean more toward the latter (the progressives).
I know my beliefs will change in the future because I’ve given them over to objectivity, logic, and evidence. I’m at the mercy of humanity’s future discoveries about the universe we live in, and while it may be uncomfortable, I prefer it to the cognitive dissonance of trying to hang onto outdated beliefs that have been proven wrong.
We’ve only gotten as far as we are by changing the beliefs of humanity en masse through scientific discovery. Each of us must choose between retaining control over what we believe, or pursuing truth. We can’t have both.