Is Free Will an Illusion?

Ken Wilber Art & Creativity, Integrative Metatheory, Perspectives, Psychology, The Ken Show, Video 15 Comments


In this episode of The Ken Show we explore one of the oldest and, in many ways, most profound and consequential philosophical questions in history: what is the nature of “free will”, and is it ultimately just an illusion?

It is an absolutely massive question, with implications that range from philosophy to spirituality, to psychology, art and creativity, neurobiology, evolutionary theory, morality, ethics, and all the way to the very foundations of our legal system. And it is a question that clearly requires an integral perspective in order to even begin to untangle.

The debate between free will and determinism is one that has raged in religious, philosophical, and scientific circles for millennia, and has more recently come under fire from modern thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (Sam’s recent appearance on the Star Talk podcast is discussed in this conversation) who tend to frame “free will” as little more than an illusion, noting that recent discoveries in neurobiology seem to indicate that our brains often know what we are going to do before our conscious mind is able to register the decision. Which seems to imply that our very notion of free will is just a phantasmal after-image produced by the chemical soup between our ears.

And yet, if you have ever painted a canvas, written a novel, named your child, or engaged in any other creatively intense process, the argument for free will seems self-evident.

So what do you think? Are you truly responsible for your own choices, or are you simply following the waves of physical, biological, and/or metaphysical determinism wherever they may take you?

Who is more right, Calvin or Hobbes?

Stay tuned in coming weeks for future installments where Ken and Corey discuss:

  • the many different limitations and constraints on our will
  • practices to help us cultivate and exercise our free will
  • the nature of things like fate, destiny, and synchronicity
  • how spiritual enlightenment influences our free will

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Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.

Corey deVos

About Corey deVos

Corey W. deVos is the proverbial "man behind the curtain". He is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996.

Notable Replies

  1. frank says:

    Wllber keeps claiming that his view is supported by the work of Prigogine and Kauffman. In my opinion he is misrepresenting these scientists and co-opting their concepts.

    Prigogine studied the transformations “from chaos to order” in non-equilibrium situations. Crucial in these cases, and actually the cause of being out of equilibrium in the first place, were energy flows through matter. This is different from postulating an “inherent drive” in matter to transform into higher order structures.

    In fact, the whole notion of a “drive” towards complexity is mistaken. It suggest that when all blocks are removed, complexity will follow on its own. The opposite is the case: complexity is driven by external energy flows through matter. There is no “inherent drive”, let alone a spiritual one.

    Kauffman studied the processes of self-organization as an alternative for natural selection as an explanation for the emergence of complex organisms. This means that part of complexity is caused by self-organization (e.g. soap bubbles forming spontaneously, perhaps proto-cells formed that way). It is not in any way the same (on the contrary) to matter being moved by Spirit.

    “A creative universe” to Kauffman means: our universe can bring forth complexity all by its own. We are “at home in the universe”. It does not mean that Spirit is the cause of this creativity. That is not his view. In fact he says: the mystery of this universe is “God enough for me”.

    So neither of these authors support Wilber’s spiritual view of the universe, nor can he suggest/imply that this spiritual view is somehow supported by their work. It is too easy to say, OK, but they see things from a 3rd person perspective, and Integral Theory adds two other perspectives. Or that even in dead matter strange things happen, so all the more reason to expect them to happen in the realms of life and mind.

    In my opinion Prigogine and Kauffman do away with the need to postulate Spirit, at least as an explanation for phenomna studied in physics and biology.

    The interface between Integral Theory and science is hardly explored or critically reviewed.

  2. Frank, I am not in a position to comment on Prigogine in the context of your claim. However, I do know that Kauffman incorporates the semiotics of CS Peirce in his reasoning. Whether or not this implies a spiritual narrative… it’s not clear, but the semiotics of Peirce introduces possibilities for narrative in that direction. Given this, I suspect that your charges of misrepresentation and co-opting of concepts might perhaps be excessive. I recall that Wilber also subscribes to the thinking of Peirce… in this regard, Wilber and Kauffman share common ground, so they will share some common narrative. Cheers.

  3. frank says:

    Let me put it in a different way.

    Kauffman and Wilber both believe in a creative universe. But the similarity is superficial.

    Kauffmans view is not mystical or mysterious, but physical and mathematical. Wilbers view is mystical and spiritual. Mutually exclusive.

    Kauffman believes nature can do it all on its own. Wilber argues it needs Eros as immanent Spirit.

    From “At Home in the Universe”:

    “I believe that life itself is an emergent phenomenon, but I mean nothing mystical by this… Although life as an emergent phenomenon may be profound, its fundamental holism and emergence is not mysterious… No vital force or extra substance is present in the emegent,self-reproducing whole.” (p. 24)

    Wilber links these ideas to a spiritual mythology of involution/evolution, alien to Kauffman who calls his holistic view “completely nonmystical” (p. viii).

    Now where do we find these nuances in Wilbers reporting on science? Instead, he claims/implies it is a done deal in science there’s an Eros in the Kosmos… This is intellectually dishonest.

  4. Frank, I think I know where you’re coming from.

    “Kauffmans view is not mystical or mysterious, but physical and mathematical.”

    I take it you’re referring to systems/complexity theory, in which I’ve also been involved for some time. But I’ve changed my tune in the past couple of years. The problem is entropy, with emphasis on the tendency to disorder. No, not the over-intellectualized entropy of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but the tendency to disorder as per Shannon entropy. Here is an excellent summary of the entropy issues as they related to evolution by natural selection:

    You get an intuitive appreciation of the scale of the problem from this video, Inner Life of the Cell, which is a simulation of the incredibly complex goings-on inside the cell:

    My beef with the reliance on the complexity/mathematics approach is the persistence of complexity across time. Incredible complexity is one thing. But it is the persistence of complexity across time, despite the forces of entropy arrayed against it, that is the deal-breaker. There’s something else going on, and my thinking relates to a systems application of the semiotics of CS Peirce. As does Wilber’s. And I suspect Kauffman… perhaps he’s also changed his tune on the purely complexity/mathematical approach. At Home In The Universe was published around 1995… that’s plenty of time for Kauffman to do a rethink.

    Intelligent Design addresses the most relevant issues, such as irreducible complexity AND entropy. But then they go and spoil it all with their human exceptionalism. Human exceptionalism is not scientific, it entertains the god-as-skydaddy (man made in god’s image) narrative. So disappointing, as they otherwise showed considerable promise.

    I think there is much more to Wilber’s thinking than he’s been letting on, at least publicly. He’s packaged his thinking for a particular popular market, but he’s demonstrated an astute awareness of more complex issues… for example, in the context of Warren Farrell’s involvement with Integral.

    This is an interesting topic. But I’ve been having technical issues with my Integral membership. My membership expires today, and their glitchy system is not allowing me to renew. Until Integral support gets this sorted out, I won’t be able to post again after today.

  5. This is a frustrating subject. It always seems like you could say “but where did the thought that presented you with options come form” or “but where diid the thought to choose a particular option come from?”. However, I would suggest that there is an activity we call making a choice, whatever the composition of that high level phenomena might be. I can say “engage in the process we call deliberation and make a choice among these options” and you’ll know what I mean and be able to do so.

    I like to think of it as the phenomena of free choice vs. theories about what causes the phenomena - such as “free wIll” theories.

    We might also talk about relative freedom that is agnostic about absolute freedom. We could say, we should make a choice without intentionally applying force to one another - whatever the ultimate cosmic origin of the thoughts we both have may be - and this would be intelligible to one another. Perhaps we could even make it explicit what forms of coercion are not allowed and say that the choice is free relative to those forms of coercion.

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