What follows may be conceptionally difficult to grasp. It’s obstruse message is of paramount importance with regards to morality but most of us live our lives believing we freely choose every decision we make. But what if anything would change if we discovered that our so-called free will is nothing more than a useful idea or illusion by which to govern our lives and to run our societies?
Some people argue that our minds are separate from our bodies. And they hold this position because they want to believe their minds are free from cause and effect. But holding this type of position comes with baggage. Most of our thoughts (in order to be considered sane) must follow precise cause and effect rules in order to be coherent. Thus, what appears to be random thinking does not free us from cause and effect, any more than having our thoughts controlled completely by our neurons, does. So, our minds must, by necessity, run along the lines of logical cause-and-effect, in an ongoing cycle of thought-and-afterthought; and to break this chain of causality is to break the very flow of consciousness, itself. In other words, we can’t stop our internal processes while we ponder our free will choices. Nothing in us ever, ever, ever, just stops, unless of course, we’re dead. And we do not author a single one of these million plus brain processes that exist below our conscious awareness.
Think about the above paragraph for a moment before proceeding? Let its juices sink into your pores?
Saying that minds are ethereal, non-physical, spiritual or whatever else one wishes to call it does not grant a person free will. If thoughts are not random, then there must be factors which influence what we think, and what choices we make. We know that most of these factors are purely physical – sex drives, hunger, hormone-driven emotions and the like. And they make no sense without a physical foundation. Our full range of emotions appears to be completely controlled by our biology (hence why brain damage can so drastically alter a person’s personality). Based on the science we know today, there is really no room left for a non-physical mind (or a ‘spirit’ if you will – which is somehow not subject to any internal or external biological processes).
Nonetheless (and for the sake of argument) what if some of our thoughts were/are completely non-physical? What then? The philosopher-physicist, Paul Davies, ponders this in his book *God And The New Physics*, where he asks, ‘what causes the mind to decide the way it does and if these causes originate in the physical world, are we not simply talking about determinism?’
The introduction of a non-physical mind (and this would include the spiritual beliefs of many world religions) according to Davies, is an empty embellishment of the issue at hand, to simply skirt the bigger issue of determinism. If a non-physical mind somehow existed, what rules would it follow? Would it be an example of random chance or possibly the rules of probability might govern it? Or is there some other cause (one we’re unaware of) behind our thoughts which result from purely non-physical causes; and if so, are we any better off with these thoughts than we are with a purely deterministic model – with its endless laws of cause and effect, dictating all of our decisions and behaviors?
Causality plagues both the physical world and the nonphysical, alike; if thoughts are uncaused then they are meaningless, and if they are caused, then there is no free will. There is no doubting the notion that it feels like we have free will. Neurologists have often wondered that as the neurons in the brain fire (caused by cascades of previous firings, and themselves causing others to fire in accordance with the laws of biochemistry) do some neurons fire because of free will? Do we as humans possess free will hormones or free will receptors (in the brain)? Do we have free will molecules?
Every technological breakthrough in science that can be used to study the brain has found itself being used in an attempt to study free will and deliberation. And we now see that more and more neuroscientists are coming to the conclusion that free will (as we understand it to be) cannot possibly exist’ writes Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics, based in New York.
‘It started with the discovery that an overwhelming majority of all the processing our brain does (99.99999%) is subconscious: we ultimately have no idea why we prefer certain particular actions over others. It seems to be that we are observers more than we are the conscious agents of our choices. We eventually become aware of what our brains are thinking but we don’t have any free will to pre-emptively stop the stream of thoughts that present themselves to us, non-stop.’
Kaku continues: ‘This means that, in some sense, free will is a fake. Decisions are made ahead of time by the brain, without the input of consciousness, and then later when the brain receives their messages, it creates a narrative (there is a part of our brain whose sole purpose in life – is to create a story or ongoing account of our existence and to give that existence, meaning). It’s called confabulation.
The brain is influenced by hundreds of thousands of unconscious factors that predispose us to make certain choices ahead of time, even if we think we made them through conscious deliberation. Kaku also goes on to say we are still the ‘masters of our fate’ and are responsible for our actions, which I agree with and there will be more on this later. But if you think about it, even if we don’t have free will, we must act as though we do, correct? For the record, I have not believed in any type of free will for nearly 45 years. But I ack as though I possess same.
Nisbett and Wilson (more of those pesky scientists) go so far as to claim that all psychological activities (including social behavior) are governed by processes of which we are totally unaware. Emotions occur with rapid onset, generated through automatic processes, with no awareness on our part; indeed, we normally experience emotions as happening to us rather than being chosen or created by us.
And this is the single biggest lesson I learned in Vietnam – and that was – I was not in charge of my emotions or my random thinking.
Apart from Freud, probably the most outspoken person to advocate the view that a person is not free is Skinner. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner argues that behavioral freedom is an illusion. Just as Freud believed that freedom is an illusion (to the extent we are unaware of the unconscious causes behind our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors) so too, Skinner claimed that the causes of our behavior are hidden from us and that the myth of free will, is an illusion.
It is the case that our entire mental world is the result of pre-conscious neuronal action which remains hidden to us. When we think of something (when an unsolicited thought enters our mind’s eye) we are the recipients of these thoughts; we are mere observers, becoming aware of them for the first time. And the only reason we, as conscious observers exist, is to explain our own actions and decisions, and feelings to ourselves and others.
It has thus been argued that only after the functioning of our brains has determined what we will do, does an illusion of (choice) arise, along with the mistaken belief that we have made a choice and had control over our behavior. Since 1992 our knowledge of neurology has massively increased, and it is now certain that choices are made subconsciously and in accordance with the rules of physics and chemistry long before we are conscious of them. (Before proceeding, you should probably pause for a moment and let the words above sink in.) I’ve known about this for a long time now, so I’ve had plenty of time to absorb its implications regarding me and my sense of autonomy in the Universe.
This is a heady piece of prose. I’ve already written part two of this essay, but I’ll wait and see how this post is received first prior to submitting it.