Is Free Will an Illusion?


Originally published at:

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?


Great discussion. Here’s my 2 cents. The question of free will is a question of ontology… a question of “knowing how to be.” From this perspective, is it reasonable to conjecture that every holon has free will, because every holon has to “know how to be”? Every holon makes choices from its contexts, just like people make choices from their cultural contexts. It is “instinct” that is the illusion, a rationalized construct of the materialist paradigm. There is no such thing as instinct. What many interpret as instinct is the illusion that is attributable to a holon’s reduced horizon of options. The narrower a horizon of options, the more reflexive (instinctive) behavior appears to be… but it is still, regardless of its simplicity and predictability, ultimately choice-based. A virtual particle in the quantum void has to make the right “choices” before it can become a particle that persists in time and space.


Very helpful – thank you!

I look forward to the future installments on this topic.


This was a prime discussion, very substantive, highly vibrant, and I in fact felt lit up like a rainbow. And nature seemed to have a similar response, as after the program, I went outdoors to see two gorgeous rainbows, one atop the other, the bottom one touching ground to ground, one end of its arc being near enough to my yard that I could actually see rainbow light sprawling on the ground. Stunning. Of course, I like rainbows so much that I once (unconsciously) conjured one. It was so “real” that I didn’t realize I had conjured it until I started walking to get a better view, and the rainbow walked with me! I felt silly, but trans-rationally magically powerful too.

From this discussion on free will or “the unmoved mover” (a phrase I love and which will probably show up sooner or later in one of my ‘lousy little poems,’ to paraphrase Leonard Cohen) I now understand that most likely the interiors of quarks lack intentionality; prehension only. Ken’s comments about being a “pan-interiorist” (and all that that means) were reinforced when I read a particularly long end note on the same subject matter just a day or two later in “Integral Psychology.” For anyone who wants to check that out, it’s End Note #15 for Chapter 14: The 1-2-3 of Consciousness.

And the brief comments on morphogenetic fields reminded me of reading Rupert Sheldrake years ago, an article in which he wrote that when a snowflake melts, the field is just waiting for the right kind of conditions for another snowflake to manifest in the same spot. I believe that’s what he was saying. Later, visiting my mother, sitting in her backyard looking at the iris stalks in her garden whose blooms had already passed and been cut back, and thinking about Sheldrake’s snowflake, suddenly in just a flash but definitely there, blooms appeared! I felt I was seeing the morphic field of the the iris blooms; maybe I’m wrong, maybe that’s not what a morphic field is, and maybe someone reading this will correct me.

Regardless, Reality truly is wondrous and inspirational. Thanks Ken and Corey for helping to make it so.


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.


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.


Thanks for your reply. What i do know is that Wilber tends to replace careful summaries of a given field of science with easy statements like “Prigogine’s order out of chaos equals Kauffmans self-organisation equals Eros”.

He has a tendency to claim support from authors that don’t share his views. Not only Prigogine and Kauffman but even Mayr and Lewontin. But when pressed he will concede they are all materialists. So? No support after all?

In the field of Big History these sources are covered in much more detail and in a purely naturalistic manner, without the spiritual overlay. That was quite an eye opener to me.

In any case, a topic worthy of clarification!

Wilbers argument in a nutshell “something other than chance pushes the universe” leaves out so many obvious candidates for the explanation of complexity (gravity, cooling, electromagnetism, natural selection) that a spiritual agenda is obvious to me.

We endlessly hear “how did dirt rise up and write poetry”, but never get any interesting details about how science slices that trajectory in manageable parts. See Tyler Volks “Quarks to Culture” for such a naturalistic approach.

Wilber clearly isn’t really interested in what science has to offer. Nor is he willing to consider challenges to his spirit-mythology. His audience is just not scientifically literate enough to spot it.


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.


I believe that free will is indeed an illusion. However, people typically misunderstand the meaning of both “free will” and conflate and confuse “determinism” with “fatalism” when in reality they are two very different things. I can recommend the following section from the online self-help book Psychological Self-Help which provides the clearest explanation of free will and determinism that I have found to date:


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.


Frank, further to my last point… there is something going on that really does not resonate with existing mainstream paradigms. Refer to this video clip below that has researchers scratching their heads. My own hunch is that DNA entanglement (nonlocality) might have something to do with this.

The entropy problem needs to be taken seriously. And mind stuff… e.g., entanglement, imitation… might be the way forward.

Nonlocality. Is the self nonlocal? I have reason to suggest that it is.

It has now been confirmed that experience changes our DNA (epigenetics).

It has also been confirmed that experience “wires the brain” (to quote Norman Doidge’s term wrt neural plasticity).

We now know that the number of galaxies in the universe is of the order of trillions (at least 2 at last count). With billions of stars per galaxy, that’s a lot of possibilities for a nonlocal self to be reincarnated into.

Is DNA the key to understanding the relationship between culture, personality, reincarnation, karma and heaven and hell? Oh how little we know. So much to wrap our heads around. So much paradigm to shift.

To an extent I agree with you… I wish Ken would take a more scientific emphasis. I’m not a fan of the woo that dominates most contemporary consciousness narratives, and would love to see consciousness-science become more scientific. There is an opportunity here that might pay for Integral’s management team to take a look at. No woo required.


I have a comment on the third part of the discussion: Ken said:“In many important ways we don’t choose our thoughts, but in many important ways we do choose our thoughts,” Is this true? Can I really choose my thoughts? No I can’t! Why not? Because this “I” is also a thought, that appears as a result of the whole evolution before. As Krisnamurti put it: "The thinker is the thought or there is no thinker, only conditioned thinking.


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.


weini1501, can you elaborate a little on what you think Krishnamurti meant by the statement you’ve quoted? Thanks!


If you watch your thoughts carefully and ask where do my thoughts come from, and see, if you can predict your next thought, you will find , that you do not think up your thoughts.
They just come on the scene unannounced and unpredicted all by themselves.
There is no thinker only thinking: The thinker is the thought.