Free Will Illusions

In a previous post, I looked at a talk given by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins where they talked about how science has “torpedoed the notion of free will”.  When I first wrote that post, I argued that our ability to plan and our ability to influence our sub-conscious left room for free will even if we accepted their interpretation of the scientific evidence.  I also did some hand-waving about my experience as a software engineer and asserted that our understanding of neural systems was not advanced enough to draw any conclusions about the existence of free will.  After thinking about it a while, I decided to remove my hand-waving argument from the previous post and discuss the idea of what I am going to call “free will illusions” at greater length here.  We will begin by considering the phenomena of “optical illusions”.

Optical Illusions

Now it may seem to you that when you look out at the world you are “seeing” raw data about light gathered by your eyes.  As science has shown, this is an illusion.  In fact, what you “see” is the product of an enormous amount of neural processing.  This neural processing:

  1. Inverts the image which starts in your eyes “upside down”.
  2. Allow you to perceive motion.
  3. Allows you to perceive depth.
  4. Allows you to recognize shapes.
  5. Allows you to determine spatial orientation.
  6. Filters out useless information (your nose etc…).

Because this visual processing system uses certain assumptions when processing the visual data, it can be fooled through the use of certain techniques into giving you false information that we call “optical illusions”.  Magicians and pickpockets use these techniques in order to make their living and there are a good many of these techniques that are known.  Take some time to do some internet research and see these various kinds of optical illusions for yourself.  It is great fun and a learning experience.

A Multi-Threaded Process Explains the Libet Experiment

Now with my experience as a software engineer, I am going to propose a mulit-threaded processing system that allows for the creation of “free will illusions” that are analogous to the “optical illusions” that we know very well.  This multi-threaded processing system will simultaneously allow conscious control of the various components of the system while at the same time explaining the findings of the Libet experiment that motivated Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to claim that science has “torpedoed the notion of free will”.

  1. Conscious thread receives message from audio input processing thread:  “The research assistant has requested that we move our finger and when we are consciously aware of having moved our finger we note the time and tell him.”
  2. Conscious thread sends message to involuntary movement thread, “Move your finger at a random time and notify me when you are done”
  3. Involuntary Movement thread waits a few seconds, moves finger sends message to conscious thread.  “Movement complete”
  4. Conscious thread sends message to visual system thread, “Tell me where the second hand is on the clock”
  5. Visaul thread observes time sends message to conscious thread, “The second hand is pointing at 27”
  6. Conscious thread receives message from Visual thread, sends message to vocal control thread “Tell the research assistant that we moved our finger at 27 seconds”

As I have gone over the Libet experiment, this extremely simple multi-threaded process outlined above seems to explain the experimental data.  At the same time, we see that the conscious experience that we have is somewhat “illusory” in that the lags and delays in the system would make us say that some events occurred simultaneously when in fact they did not.  We might call this illusion of simultaneity a “free will illusion” that is analogous to the “optical illusions” we discussed earlier.

Examples of Multi-Threaded Processing

So if “multi-threaded” processing can allow for “free will illusions” in this way, what evidence do we have for “multi-threading” in our cognitive functions?  As I think of it, there are a couple of examples that come to mind.

As I am getting older, I am losing my hearing.  As I talk to people, it is occasionally the case that I hear them say something, but I cannot quite make out what it is.  Because I hate having to ask for clarification or repetition, I will nod pleasantly and pretend that I have heard what was said.  As it happens, I have sometimes had the experience where later on in the conversation I suddenly, without consciously thinking about it, “realize” what it was that person said earlier.  This seems to me like evidence of the kind of processing we are talking about.

A second example of this kind of processing from our everyday lives concerns our problem solving skills.  When I am stuck on a tough problem at work, I will often familiarize myself with all the different aspects of it and then go home for the night.  Without consciously thinking about the problem at all, I come back to work the next day and find that a number of solutions have occurred to me in the meantime.  It seems to me that I have been subconsciously “thinking” about the problem.  I do not seem to be alone here?  When you are stuck on a problem, don’t other people advise you to “sleep on it” or “take a break from it”?


The visual system is highly sophisticated and provides us with essential information about the reality that surrounds us.  For all of its sophistication, however, the system is fallible and can provide us false and misleading information through “optical illusions” that are artifacts of the way the system processes the information gathered by the eyes.  Does the existence of these “optical illusions” completely invalidate the reality of what we see?

In just this same way, I would argue that our conscious perception of choice is a useful representation of reality.  Though this representation of reality is undoubtedly flawed and there will be many forms of “free will illusions” that are discovered by neural science as our tools increase in sophistication, the fundamental reality is that we have the ability to influence the world around us through our conscious decisions.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Atheist Arguments, Free Will and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Free Will Illusions

  1. Pingback: Everything from Nothing | A Thoughtful Christian

  2. Pingback: Free Will Arguments | A Thoughtful Christian

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