A cat deciding whether or not to jump, also considering the existence of free will

How Do We Imagine The Mirage of Free Will?

Humans are just meat robots. Our bodies are complex machines governed by the laws of chemistry and biology, sculpted by experimental chance over millennia through evolution. Our brains are computers, executing instructions and behaving in a deterministic way. If we had perfect information about every atom in the world and how the brain worked, we could make an exact replica of a human being.


Humans are a unique animal in the universe. We are social and intelligent, and the amount of processing power we possess allows us to develop a property called consciousness. This property is the knowledge and feeling of being ourselves, and has been called many things over millennia — a soul, a self, the ego, “I”. An animal simply is. A conscious animal ask whether it should be.

Or does it?

As you may be able to tell, I’ve been reading the Sequences from Yudkowsky (“Y”). You can get all 1700 pages of hyper-rationalist clean thinking and training on how to do this for yourself for free here. One of the questions Y poses is about the question of Free Will. The question is not “Do Humans Have Free Will?”, but what drives us to ask this question. And without compromising the question (i.e., this is a stupid meaningless question), to understand what purpose the asking implies.

At first, I found this frustrating. Isn’t this just reductionist blah blah that gets nowhere fast? But this is part of Y’s point. The query is presented in a sequence about arguments and definitions. When we disagree with someone about some statement, often it is not the underlying fact that we are arguing, but rather different underlying meanings of different questions. Were we to be more precise with our language and have separate definitions, perhaps we would have merely two true statements, and not one argument.

A disagreement between sentient animals

Imagining The Self

So I started to think about how I feel, when I question if any of my decisions are free or truly chosen. And I feel kind of offended. Of course they were chosen! I made them. As an example, I was hungry. I went to a deli and chose between a ham sandwich and a BLT. I prefer the BLT, and so I chose it, purchased it and ate it. If that’s not free will, then …

But let me break that down. First, my nervous system sent signals to my brain that my body would benefit from calories. Nothing really happened, other than signals being dumped from a physical self into my active thought process. Based on this new information, I evaluated an algorithm — what should I do to deal with my hunger pain — and modeled in my mind’s eye several options. I could eat leftovers, I could go to a deli, I could keep being hungry. Much of this was processed quickly and subconsciously, but in that process an “I” was projected into various mental models of solutions and environments. The output of this algorithm instantiated me in a deli. That deli had a menu, whose existence can be traced to a series of but-for events from economics to social standards, which led me to an arbitrary choice to satisfy and remove a physical discomfort.

Could some massively smart AI that knows all my Google searches and credit card transactions predict with 85% certainty that on a Thursday at 12:45PM I would have had a sandwich? I mean, we’re pretty good at modeling ant colonies, so I don’t see why not.

Stupid ants, we can model your behavior

In that example, I keep getting caught on the following idea. In order to solve some problem, our brains role-played a character called “I” with attributes determined by memory and current neural input and then simulated that character into multiple situations. We imagine what it would be like do (a) or (b) or (c) and then we figure out our preferred path.

Think about being 5 years old, playing with Legos or Dinosaurs or <insert blank>. In those sessions, your mind was practicing reality simulation, imagining situations into which your avatar was being placed. And such situations changed, and warped, as did your flexible identity. This is called an imagination.

As we get older, as teenagers, we start to cement our identity and form social, cultural and emotional attachments to that identity. And soon enough, this identity, which is a character in our modeled mind’s eye, becomes a shortcut for ourselves. We begin to live our lives through the imagined well being of a modeled rational actor, whose utility function we attempt to maximize through various decision trees.


The feeling of free will is there so that we can roleplay ourselves through the mental models we build of the world. Otherwise, how could we make any decision about how we want the character to behave in our mental calculations? In reality, however, our behavior is a bit more predictable.

I choose you, delicious sandwich, in my mind’s eye, on the Internet

Framing the Self

So if the feeling of free will is a byproduct of a functioning human brain, which needs to be able to move through multi-step decision optimizations, and thus needs a modeled “self” and a modeled version of the world through which to apply choices for maximizing evolutionary fitness, then all this navel-gazing or stressing is just the feeling of our brains working.

I started thinking about other lenses and intuitions where this is reflected more casually.

How about the ego — it’s a pretty helpful archetype or shorthand that fits with this framing. It can be narcissistic, self-centered, overly demanding, self-damaging, and proud. It can be fragile. When we tell people to “get out of their head”, don’t we mean to stop imagining situations through which their ego is getting dragged and damaged, leading to neuroticism? I.e., stop glitching out and wallowing!

Or what about the inner child? If we push aside the particular avatar of the rational ego, we find the original modeled-self that is capable of imagination and role-play. The inner child has a “true” set of preferences, and to satisfy it we must satisfy more basic, early needs in a comforting way. Put another way, a different self-model that’s optimizing for a different imagined environment.

Or even the physical self. We know of issues like phantom limb pain, fibromyalgia, and other neural glitches that create chronic pain in a body that does not exist. Our minds create a map of the physical self, which is in fact distinct from the physical self. When we feel pain, that is a signal that the brain thinks something is wrong with the model it has of the body. It could be mistaken about the reality.

Why again does the brain do all this modeling? To improve our (i.e., the organism’s) actual chances of living, reproducing and thriving. It’s a rough hack at making it in the world. And on average, it works.

A path to fitness, on average

Keeping a Nourished Self

So does this mean that both our realities and our “selves” are just an organic version of Minecraft, and nothing is real? Does nothing matter? Are we, like, in the Matrix?

Jim Carrey has been going through an identity crisis over the last half decade. In Man on the Moon, he stars as the comedian Andy Kaufman and inhabits the role. Jim and Andy — the Great Beyond is a documentary about the making of this movie. In it, Carrey talks about the complete loss of his identity, and that Kaufman “lived” in him for the duration of the movie. In coming back to his own life after shooting completed, Carrey felt crushed, weighed down by his old personal self. Did he need to take up his old self, after inhabiting (or being inhabited by) someone else?

In his most recent reflections, the actor talks about how no identity is real, being attached to the self is a mistake, and free painting and expression are the connectors to happiness.

Well, maybe.

Others agree with Carrey. If you jump into the world of meditation, the first steps are often to observe the physical body. Observe the breath and the physical senses (i.e., the physical model), then move on to observing the process of thinking (i.e., the ego model), and then move on to observing the self in the process of observing. This leads to relaxation because it is like lifting an impingement from a sore lesion to air it out. It is like getting a massage of tired muscles full of trigger points. Shutting up the ego is momentary bliss.

These sensations sit squarely in other religious practices, but muddied with moral philosophy and socio-cultural norms.

A quicker way is to drop some acid. And then build Apple Computers.

So does this mean we would want to permanently dissolve this ego, this internal tyrant that can get lost in battle plans? No. That would be like ending the massage by cutting off all the muscle. We might be free of muscle spasms and nervous breakdowns, but, you know, being brain dead (i.e., not using the capacity of thinking) and in poverty (i.e., not pursuing some survival optimizations) may not be everyone’s idea of evolutionary fitness.

You are the lake, and also the person on the cliff, and you are meditating but don’t fall off

How many of me?

This also made me think of schizophrenia. I am obviously not a trained *anything* in discussing these ideas, but it does seem like the mechanism by which we model the self and the environment is glitching out in humans that model too many selves and incorrect environments.

Further, most human organs are adaptive systems, not binary systems. For example, when we get a cold, the body first tries to fight the invading organism with inflammation and fever, and then with the manufacturing of white blood cells. The right mix between the two is a well functioning equilibrium. All the way to extreme (a) or extreme (b) means dysfunction. This is my hypothesis about mental health too. We do not want to over-optimize our visions, to “live in our head”. But we also need to have a head in order to make decisions that allow us to function in a society of other rationalizing monkeys.

And, to reference Yuval Harari’s Homo Sapiens, we can infect the mental models of other people with our own memes. Some memes, like corporations or capitalism or Bitcoin, can persists as cultural attributes that we all render together. And that’s a uniquely human thing.

One odd aspect of this, as I was going down the rabbit hole, was social media. Imagine that you create an online profile, and this profile is just some fake troll account, and you put it up on Twitter and it immediately gets attacked by some other troll. Sorta fun, if you’re into these things. Now imagine this being your Instagram profile, your authentic self that reflects years of curation. And the same troll shows up and keeps saying derogatory mean things about you. And you’re also 15. Hurts your feelings, doesn’t it?

Isn’t that incredible? That some abstract collection of information, stored in a database in a server farm thousands of miles away, when combined with some other information from some other imagined identity can in fact cause people to release poison stress chemicals into their bodies? Can drive people to self harm? All this because we tie the ego into ourselves with massive ownership bias, rather than observing it to be like an organ — a heart, a kidney, or a muscle.

A strong avatar that does not care about mean people on the Internet

Self-Acceptance and Flourishing

Should we then take the Swiss Army knife approach and have 1,000 selves for each occasion? Don’t people talk about putting on different “faces” or “masks” for the outside world? This is like putting 1,000 engines in one car. We might be able to squeeze 2 or 3, and wipe some legacy identities in the process. But there is a physical limit to managing multiple identities. I struggle being a visual artist and a finance entrepreneur. Give me 10 more, and I’d crash.

So my advice then would be to integrate the things you want to care about into a mega-identity and be aware of it, and care for it as a whole. That’s like having a really suped up engine in a Prius. And that’s about the best we can do. Connecting the different facets of who you think you are in your model of the world creates mental health. A strong, rational, grounded, healthy ego creates a happiness of journey. A splintered, weak, unstable, fragile, defensive ego leads to malfunction and a lack of mental health.

And observing the self observing the self, perhaps with love and not perfectionist destruction, is a quick path towards recognizing that we need to keep the brain in equilibrium. Because as we lift the constructed identity off the reality model, the reality model can flow more freely, like a spinning bicycle wheel where the chain has been disconnected. But we want to ride the bicycle in the end, not to watch the free spin of its one parts.

Or worry about free will or anything like that.

Thanks for reading. I am using Medium as a place to explore non-conforming thoughts. For more professional Fintech and Crypto content, see LinkedIn or Twitter.

Clap, share, critisize and debate. I promise my constructed identity can handle it!



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Lex Sokolin

Lex Sokolin

Entrepreneur building next-gen financial services @Consensys @Autonofintech @Advisorengine, JD/MBA @columbia_biz, editor and artist @inkbrick