Do we have free will?

Free Will’s Freedom

This is sub-chapter #4, of Chapter 1, Science, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Sub-chapters #1, #2, and #3 can be found here, here, and here.

Brief Synopsis:

The book takes twenty seemingly random subjects, attempting however poorly, to thread them together. In the process, attempting to make sense of the world we live in today. It is a very macroscopic worldview as the whole book fits into two-hundred pages, but it aims to tickle the intellects of people just enough so they may go on to study more in-depth any of the subjects of their liking. The narrative really tries to abolish isolatory thinking, i.e., we so often talk, discuss, and debate topics in isolation and assume that the same points prevail in the real world where nothing exists in isolation: such as the relationship between science and religion/society, fission with politics and economics, technology against government, and how they subtly, sometimes drastically, affect each other.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


FREE WILL’S FREEDOM

Free will is a hard topic to approach, as it feels so real to us all. But like all things that do, you must approach it from an objective point of view—not an easy task, in this case.

The concept of free will is that you are the conscious driver of your actions—something that neuroscience is putting serious doubt on.

Elephant…

Now you’re thinking about an elephant. Surprise! Now think about that for one moment. An external stimulus, my singular word, has invoked a chain reaction of synaptic firings and re-wirings in your mind, that then created, or re-conjured from memory, the thought of an elephant, which magically appeared in your brain and without any effort of your conscious mind.

But the underlying mechanisms that created this orchestrated symphony are not, never have been, nor ever will be in your conscious control. They are determined automatically in the background by the mixing of your genes, external environmental stimuli, and the processing capability of your brain (brought into being by genes), which 24/7/365 invoke chemical reactions, electrical currents, and synaptic change in your subconscious and deliver to your conscious brain fully formed thoughts.

No man is an island 

Entire of itself

~ John Donne (Poet)

We are all born essentially tabula rasa, with—seemingly—only four things hardwired into each and every human being: drinking, eating, sex, and being social. Everything else is optional. We have to drink and eat to survive. We feel the urge to have sex, to procreate, as we lack the ability to turn our sex-crazed genes off—as I’m sure most men would agree. And we have the need to keep the company of other people. These are the basic necessities shared by all humans.

Moving into the subconscious: our subconscious minds are essentially tape recorders—does anybody remember these?—recording our every action, inputs, and outputs with the intention of spitting out a desired action absent slow conscious thought when required. This is why practice makes perfect. The consistent act of practicing a skill, be it physical or mental, serves to hardwire the synapses involved in your subconscious so that it can be called on command free of slow, deliberating thoughts.

It’s not like we ever have to think about walking or running, which are actually incredibly complex tasks. We simply think of the destination and our legs take us there. Just going through the motions while we daydream, converse, or take in our surroundings.

Freedom of will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.” ~Carl Jung (Psychologist)

This is an evolutionary mechanism going back far before our lineage. Conscious thought requires energy, and our brains account for twenty-percent of our total energy usage despite only taking up two-percent of our body volume. On the African Serengeti where we evolved, energy was scarce. If we had to consciously think of every action we ever took, we’d have never made it off the African plains all those hundreds of thousands of years ago, and would’ve simply faded into the ether due to this paralysis of thought. Not to mention that something like consciousness does not simply appear overnight, but rolls in gradually over thousands or millions of years, accumulating the genetic baggage of millions of ancestors.

Your conscious mind is merely the tip of an iceberg, blissfully unaware of the multitudes of processes that take place in its subterranean abyss, creating an illusion of free will for you that gives you the perception of control you need to survive, nothing more.

You don’t need to think to beat your heart, nor to force your liver to function, or to tell that same liver to use the donut you just ate as muscle glycogen instead of storing it as fat. Nor do you control your white or red cell count, nor the pleasure center of your brain that addicts you to carbs, coffee, alcohol, and drugs. We don’t control when we get angry, nor at who, whom we fall in love with, or our irrational like or dislike of newly met—or not-yet met—people. We do none of these things, yet presume freedom?

Is a suffering addict exercising his free will of trying to quit when he relapses due to the overpowering impulse every cell in his body is sending him? He is merely the recipient of pain and overwhelming sensory information that is weakening the finite amount of will he has left—and will (i.e. the will to do things), believe it or not, is a finite resource. When he broke down, it’s not that he wanted to break down; he couldn’t help but break down. This happens to everyone at one point or another. In point-of-fact, salesman and supermarkets use similar tactics explicitly to exhaust your will so that you break down and buy more stuff, higher priced stuff, or higher-margin stuff in the supermarket. Ever wonder why milk, the most popular food-staple, is always in the back corner of every supermarket? Hint: so you have to walk past aisles of sensory-assaulting, not too mention, higher-margin goods.

Think about your current thoughts, whatever they may be. How did they get there? Did you think them up, carefully constructing them neuron by neuron so that you can make a decision or compare it to another thought that you constructed, or did they merely pop into existence? Because if it were the former, then you would have thought of them before you thought of them, as Sam Harris, author of Free Will, writes. They just popped into your conscious mind and you suddenly became aware of it. And it happens so regularly that we never think about it. A paradigm, by any definition of the word, and we all live in our own little paradigmatic universes.

From the day you were born to today, the thought processes in your head and subconscious were and are merely acting in response to external (environmental) and internal (genetic) causes, themselves recipients of bygone causes in minutes/days/weeks/years past. These provoke sets of electrical-chemical reactions that trigger dormant thought/s that interact with other thoughts in line with your bio-chemical makeup, which then coalesce into a grand mosaic of whatever it is you were thinking about at any given moment. We have no control over any of this.

In a 2008 experiment at Stanford University, a group of students had to decide whether to push a button with either their left or right hand upon seeing random letters popping up on a screen.

With complete certainty, scientists could say when the final decision toward action with which hand had been made and it was always before the student was consciously aware of the choice being made, in some cases by seconds. In seventy-percent of the cases, they knew which hand the student would use to push the button before the student was even aware they’d made a choice. That’s seven out of ten times that the scientists could say which hand a particular student would use before the student made the choice, or rather, before the students realized they made the choice, as it was already made and given to them—wrapped and presented in the illusion they consciously made it themselves.

It remains to be seen if this experiment can be replicated in everyday life as opposed to a binary simulation, but those results are so very convincing. The characters hadn’t even appeared on the screen when the subconscious decision for which hand to use was made. So when it appeared on the screen, the student felt like he or she was exercising free will to choose, but alas.

It’s a remarkable aspect of our brains that the multitudes of information, both external and internal, constantly bombarding our senses every second of every minute of every day can make us feel as if we are the conscious driver, and that we have some semblance of control. A beautiful illusion, and fortunately so, for we would all be literally insane were it not the case.

There is the defense that even though we do not control the full thought process of our brains that we can still deliberate, make choices, and determine actions from the thoughts that are presented to us. And that is true. Is this a small slice of free will? Perhaps. But then, considering that this is a tiny sliver of the cognitive processes that continuously occur in our minds, we’d need to redefine the definition of free will. Then again, locking someone in a distraction-free room to make a decision free of external influence does not negate the lifetime of causes that created the internal processes that shaped that person’s brain and behavior with which they will use to decide. So can it still be considered free? I say it doesn’t…but what do I know?

It’s remarkable that it escapes us all on an everyday basis. I am sure that when I have finished writing this chapter, I will go back to my delusion of being totally free, as I have so often in the writing and editing of this chapter. This is the power of, well, my brain at least.

Why did I write this book? I think I have some idea, but I’m pretty sure that idea is oversimplified and not indicative of the real reasons, but this is what I think it is. One day, my brother wrote a book; I felt strangely jealous and seeing how easy it was to self-publish. I had a thought to base a book on some of my blog posts, modified into book form, with additional content to turn it into a real book instead of a collection of boring posts.

That’s the extent of the causes that I am aware of, yet I can say with near certainty that it is much deeper than that. Why was I jealous of my brother’s brilliant book The Favor Men? Biased though I may be on the subject, I can’t say why; I just was. I was proud of him, I was happy for him, but I felt incomplete in a way, under-accomplished and outdone. Call it what you will. Without his book, I probably would not have written this book. That a-ha moment was planted in my brain by my brother, not by me; it interacted with a mosaic of other causes that produced effects that became causes in my brain, and this effect (book) was born.

I am the conscious driver in writing the book, influenced as my agency may be, but the inception of the idea was external to my brain. Had that external cause not happened, I may not have written this book, and you may not have bought it. Are you free to choose that which does not occur to you?

Why did I write this chapter? Well, in the process of writing this book, I read Sam Harris’s excellent book on the subject, Free Will, and while I was already of the persuasion that either we had no free will or it is extremely limited. I had blissfully forgotten that for many years until I stumbled upon Sam’s book. Imagine that! My brain did not remember that I knew that I didn’t have free will—awfully convenient.

We all know on some deep level that the Universe is run and ever affected by cause and effect. Every person knows that a door handle must be turned to open, a button pushed for it to function, and putting one foot in front of the other carries you forward. Yet we presume our physical brains, which function according to known physical processes (namely, electromagnetic and chemical), rises above this four-dimensional space-time, and are therefore not governed by it, rendering us essentially as gods.

Even if consciousness is more than the sum-of-its-parts, as I believe it is, does not necessarily make it free. For it is always at the mercy of the individual parts, as then seven-year old—now eight—Enna Stephens found out, when after having a tumor removed from her brain, could not stop giggling at everything, whether or not it was funny—everything became automatically funny and she could not help but to laugh. The manner in which the separate parts of the brain interact, both internally, and externally, from which the phenomenon of consciousness arises, does not allow causal escape.

Such examples of this causation—and/or correlation—include the presence of blue light decreasing suicides to zero at Japanese train stations. Does a blue light consciously make that Japanese citizen think that today is not the day to jump in front of a train? No…well, I hope not.

In some depressing statistics: some seventy percent of juveniles in reform institutions, seventy-two percent of adolescent murderers, sixty percent of rapists grew up fatherless, and teenagers from single-parent homes are 1.7 times more likely to drop out of high school.

Does a child abandoned by his father decide to consciously become a murderer or a rapist out of spite six to seven times out of ten? Hardly, it seems more likely that he or she loses the influence and guidance needed to make different choices that might have kept them in school and out of crime, of which they would have been simply been riding a different wave of causation.

In any case, it is not a one-to-one correlation of any of the above statistics that makes it seem so cut and dry, and there are always exceptions to the rule. They are merely examples and correlations. The variables, be they mental, physical, or external, number in the trillions, if not trillions of trillions, and there are any number of combinations that they could take. On this subject, so my intent is not taken out of context, children who grow up in gay households end up no statistically different from children who grew up in heterosexual households. It seems to be the absence of a father figure.

The fact of the matter is our brains lie to us. A simple fact of life if you are a human being (and I’m sure for any other creature with a brain). Here are but a handful of ways your brain tricks you:

  • Cryptomnesia

The inability of the brain to remember where an idea came from, so it pretends it’s your idea; quite possibly done several times in the making of this book.

  • Blind Spot

Everyone has a blind spot in each eye that the brain fills in, either with information from the other eye, micro-saccades, or with a best guess from the blind spot’s surroundings. Micro-saccades are the back and forth darting of your eyes accessing your surroundings (it does this several times a second, yet you never realize that either)

  • Social Conformity

Your brain reprocesses your memories to match present social pressures. In other words, it changes your memories to better fit in with your peers today, and neglects to let you know it has done so.

  • Confirmation Bias

A tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses:

“Confirmation bias is often described as a result of automatic processing. Individuals do not use deceptive strategies to fake data, but forms of information processing that take place more or less unintentionally.” ~ Robert MacCoun (Psychologist)

  • Motor Sensory Recalibration

Artificial delays were injected into a cause-and-effect study where a person had to push a button and observe a flash on a screen. The brain adjusted for the slight delay between the actions, making them appear simultaneous. Once the delay was removed, the subjects believed that the flash came before the button push. They’d time-travelled inside their own heads. The external event was perceived to have occurred before the physical action!

  • Memory Reconsolidation

The act of calling up, or re-accessing a memory changes it. Of course, your brain doesn’t tell you this. This is because your brain doesn’t record all the details of an event, merely a loose collection of thoughts and images that are re-stitched together when needed, thereby altering its loose initial configuration in light of present information—similar to social conformity.

  • Event Erasing

The act of walking through an open door can, in some cases, erase the cause of why you walked through that door, i.e., you want a glass of milk from the kitchen, and as soon as you walk through the kitchen door, you forget why you’re there. Your brain has decided for you that the separation of the two rooms nullifies any connection between them.

“I have by every thought and act of mine, demonstrated, and does so daily, to my absolute satisfaction that I am an automaton endowed with power of movement, which merely responds to external stimuli.” ~ Nikola Tesla (Inventor)

Our brains lie to us every moment of every day, and the world we see is pre-filtered, censored, watered down—and for good reason. If it didn’t do these things, we’d be crazy.

As Sam Harris writes in his own book on the subject, a book I highly recommend since he’s not an idiot like me (and he’s actually a neuroscientist), is that the first response to the above, at least at the dinner table, is that if I don’t have free will, why don’t I just lay down all day and do nothing? Well, go ahead and try, and see how long you last—keep in mind, all you’re doing is reacting (effect) to the person, or this book, telling you that you have no free will (cause)…

On the subject of crime, as it is often the second thing brought up at the dinner table, neuroscientists from Harris to David Eagleman, make the rather obvious point that it would not be something that would be tolerated if we all became aware of this illusion, and I am, for what little it matters, in agreement here.

Prisons would still exist, and criminals would be put there who pose a harm to others, but instead of using jail as a one-size-fits all approach for crime, rehabilitation would play a far more prominent role than the small role it plays today. Half of the US prison population are mentally ill (1.25 million people), compared to only forty-thousand patients in mental hospitals.

If we took account of this, our prisons might begin to look more like those of Norway, where they actually attempt rehabilitation of their prisoners instead of punishing them. Prisoners sent there have among the lowest re-offending rates (known as recidivism) in the world, at just twenty percent, as opposed to the rest of Europe at seventy percent, Australia at sixty-four percent, and sixty-seven percent in the USA. You can choose to punish people for their crimes or rehabilitate them, but to do both, seems to be asking too much of human nature. The former results in more crime…the latter in less.

“We still have to take people who break the law off the streets to have a good society, so this doesn’t forgive anybody. But what it means is we have a forward-looking legal system that just worries about the probability of recidivism, or in other words, what is the probability that this person’s behavior will transfer to other future situations? That makes a forward-looking legal system instead of a backward-looking one like we have now, which is just a matter of blame and saying, “How blameworthy are you and we’re going to punish you for that.” ~ David Eagleman (Neuroscientist)

It would seem that free will is illusory and for us mere mortals, it always was and is a cascading waterfall of causes and effects stretching back to conception that changes our mental and bio-chemical make-up, in turn affecting our physical and mental actions. And from all this, our brains simulate order out of chaos, giving us biological machines, a sanity that seems devoid in most other creatures that roam this little blue planet, providing us with the incredible gift of clarity. Look at that, the illusion of free will is a gift, and one that allows us to think and reason; well, that last part is my opinion, so you probably shouldn’t take it to heart.

This is not to say that we don’t experience and feel joy and anger, because we do all these things and more. We do have that sliver of choice, heavily influenced as it may be; it’s just not free. A choice, if already chosen by our subconscious (as shown in the Stanford experiment), is automatically accepted by us as if we did choose it! So saying that you have no free will, does not make you a robot, though on paper it seems too. These influences of ours are unique to each and every person, and give us the individuality that is inherent in all humans. I believe this is what makes us human and separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

“Men are deceived if they think themselves free.” ~ Benedict Spinoza (Philosopher)


Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress. At the conclusion of the twenty chapters, I may throw up a post with all hundred-fifty+ sources, but the final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.

13 thoughts on “Free Will’s Freedom”

  1. Personally I think this chapter is too ambitious. You’re ramming in so many ideas that the narrative becomes confusing and whatever point you were hitting at lost.

    I found the bit about why you decided to write really interesting. Those personal stories/reflections are little gems. That’s your narrative strength. You have an honesty in sharing these stories which really engages the reader.

    1. If you keep this up, You’ll be a coauthor of this book. Haha. In all honesty, I really appreciate your feedback. Where do you think I can trim? You know how it is to be a writer. To me, it all seems relevant but I have not the objective eyes that you see it with.

      If you think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here. Wait for the next two chapters. 🙂

      1. I think trimming is the exact opposite of what you need to do. I think you could find another 1,000 words and turn this into two separate issues. There’s freewill, and then there’s our brains lying to us.
        Within the context of knowing our brain lies to us there is a lot to be said for and about rationality and being aware of these issues in order to combat them.

          1. Your book has such a broad topic range that I’m sure you could keep splitting passages into two. But this one I’m sure needs to be separated out more before you tie them together.
            All the best of luck!

      2. 🙂

        Fourat, glad to help… if you can call it that. I’m no expert, have never had anything published, but I think your writing strength is more in those personal stories than in the big-ticket items. The problem with the big-ticket items is you need a PhD after your name to gain traction in the crowded marketplace. Sure, it’s not a pre-requisite (you clearly know your stuff), but it certainly helps. You seem to be trying to do too much, to write a manifesto of sorts, and that’s a really hard thing to make relevant to an outside audience.
        However, like I said, there’s an honesty that comes through when you touch more on your personal stories, and that’s a very rare talent. Just reading your work I can even feel a more fluid penmanship when you get away from the huge subjects and zero in on the intimacy of your own experience. Now, that’s not to say to jettison the big-ticket items, but rather recast how you approach them.

        I found this book, Redneck, Blue Collar Atheist (link below) earlier this year and it blew me away in how simple and yet brilliant it was. He hits the big ticket items but from a very personal angle, and it works. Read his Forward.

        http://www.amazon.com/Red-Neck-Blue-Collar-Atheist/dp/0615429904

      3. Let me clarify something… I love the big-ticket items, but as Allallt alluded to, to truly explore them you need to dive even deeper. These are big subjects.

          1. Fourat i’ve been feeling terribly guilty since commenting on this chapter. What came out wasn’t right, but I’m not entirely sure what I was trying to say. Commenting on another person’s work is fraught with all sorts of dangers. I apologize sincerely if I left you more confused than anything.

            Hey, if you’re not already aware of it, Bill Bryson wrote a book (last year I think?) titled “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” In this he follows a very similar path your undertaking… at least in these opening chapters you’ve shared with us. Worth a look if for no other reason than to see how someone else (someone certainly more qualified than me) approached the same theme.

            J

            1. Nonsense John. Take your guilt…and change it to something else, I don’t know what. Hehe. In all honesty, the feedback was received rather well and exposed a flaw that will, in correcting, only make my book stronger. Besides, I now know my strengths better. I was debating whether to leave in that personal anecdote, but now I know I should and I can clean up the chapter dividing cleanly the free will, then building the case even more with ‘our brain lies to us’. I thank you for your feedback, and hope there is plenty more of it to come.

              Yes, I did read that book back in 09. Loved it and been meaning to re-read it.
              Cheers mate.

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