Grant and Theresa's Life Prep

Making Plans and Achieving Goals

Why I “Choose” Free Will

Free will is simply our ability to choose the actions that we take.  Free will is a human characteristic and touches on so many distinctly human things.  Morality, laws, sin, religion, politics, guilt, punishment, and reward are all tied to the concept of free will.  Most of the articles I write are about making better choices.  I have written about how to lose weight, pay off student loans, get stronger, choose the right major, etc which all rely on free will.

However, a few months ago I saw a video by Sam Harris talking about the concept of free will.  In the video, Sam argues that free will is just an illusion and that our entire lives are predetermined.  This got me thinking and I quickly found myself going down a rabbit hole of researching this concept.  I even read Sam’s short book on the topic, Free Will, which further clarifies his views.  This idea was both new to me and disturbing to me.  I actually didn’t sleep well for a few nights because I was spending hours researching and thinking about this idea.  Is it possible that I have no ability to choose what my next action will be?

Determinism

According to the concept of “Determinism”, everything you do in life is predetermined and there is no free will.  It means you are simply a robot, running a program or a character in a book who’s author is Time.  According to Determinism, if you roll the clock back a billion years and start it again, you will always end up in the same place, every time.  You are simply a collection of atoms, genes, and experiences, and for every event that happens, it is the only possible event that could have happened.  It means that you are simply bound by the physical laws of nature, just like everything else.

Determinism says that you have no more control over your next action or thought than you do for your heart to beat.  Everything is cause and effect.  It only seems like you are making choices out of free will because you are conscious of your surroundings and you are watching the story unfold.

Neurophilosophy

“Neurophilosophy” is the study of the brain as it relates to philosophical topics associated with the mind.  Part of this field involves studying free will.  Multiple studies have been done, but perhaps the most famous study is the “Libet experiment”.  This study had participants randomly flick their wrist while measuring brain activity.  They would report the time when they “decided” to move their wrist.  The study found that there was a build of electrical signals about a half second before the participants “decided” to move.  They concluded that the decision is made on a subconscious level first before the “decision” becomes consciously aware.

Other studies have been done since then with similar results.  They show some lower level brain activity happening before you are consciously aware.  These studies are not perfect, of course, and have received criticism in the science community.  Others, however, have proclaimed these studies as hard evidence against free will.

Honestly, there isn’t a lot out there that can prove free will exists.  Logic and science would lead you toward it not existing.  Thoughts, preferences, likes and dislikes all seem to come out of nowhere.  For every effect (a thought) logic would say there most be a cause.  If we have no control over the cause how could we claim to have control over the effects?

Implications

If free will does not exist, it destroys some of the basic pillars of society.  Religion could no longer exist.  God or a god would know you had no choice and could therefore not punish or reward you for your actions.  The justice system, as we know it, would no longer exist.  It would be hard to punish someone who ultimately could have never made any other choice but the one they made.  Successful or not, good or evil, rich or poor, hard working or lazy, all of it goes away.  Everything would just come down to the luck of the draw.

In Defense of Free Will

The first issue I have with determinism is the idea that you can roll the clock back a billion years, let it go, and we all end up in the same place as we are right now.  Science suggests that there is some level of randomness in our environment.  The Uncertainty principle declares that there is a degree of indeterminacy when trying to locate electrons and very small particles.  We cannot predict things that exist in fields or clouds. This means that even though it is very tiny, seemingly insignificant randomness, it is still random.  Think about the butterfly effect and the drastic changes which come from small changes to initial conditions.

Now, this does not give us free will, though, it just introduces randomness.  Whether I eat the donut or not essentially comes down to a coin flip.  This hardly sounds like free will to me.

The one study that gives us hope and reason to believe in free will is the 2015 point of no return study.  The study pits humans against computers.  In the experiment, participants wait for a green light to come on and then they can press a button. If the light turns red before they reach for the button, they had to immediately stop what they were doing.  What they didn’t know is that the red light was triggered by the same electrical brain signal found in the previously mentioned Libet experiment.  The results showed that people still had Veto power even after the subconscious brain signal was triggered.  If the red light came on 200ms before they started to reach for the button, participants were able to stop.

The “point of no return” study does not prove we have free will but it does prove we are not complete victims to our subconscious brain firing.

Personal Thoughts on Free Will

Now, this is going to sound more like religion than science, but that’s okay.  I “choose” to believe in free will because I believe it is the most moral decision I can make.  I find it depressing to imagine that we are all just pre-programmed robots.  If people thought they had no control over their lives, I believe, they too, would have much less motivation.  You could even justify doing immoral things as you could fall back on, “well I had no control, anyway”.

It also feels like we have free will.  I know feelings and science don’t go together but it should count for something.  Perhaps there is more going on in our bodies and mind than meets the eye.  I mean, we let astrophysicists get away with their dark matter/energy to explain the universe, so why can’t there be something like that going on in the mind?

Do I think that a fly or a dog has free will?  No, I don’t.  The reason is metacognition or the ability to think about thinking.  Humans are unique in their ability to go to this next level of thought.  Lots of the things we do are the result of programming.  Our daily habits, bodily functions, random thoughts, and instincts.  But, if we “choose” to, we can become the programmer.  We can run simulations of future events and consequences based on possible decisions and choose the best path forward.  This uniquely-human ability is something I don’t think can be explained by the simple mechanical interactions between neurons and synapses.

Closing Thoughts

While I do believe that free will exists, I must acknowledge the big impact that our environment has on people.  During my research, I have developed a deeper level of empathy for my fellow man.  I have found a much greater appreciation for all that I have received in life because I realize I could have easily not been so lucky.  In spite of free will, there are other things outside of our control that affect us and our decisions, and because of this, we should be slow to criticize and quick to help those who haven’t had the same fortunes as us.  I believe we should all “choose” to believe that we have the power to rise above our environment and that hard work and good choices can be made by everyone.

-Grant

PS – My apologies to any of the philosophers or experts in this field if I have made any critical misrepresentations of the facts.  I wrote this article in an effort to move on from worrying about it.  I would love to get the thoughts from the readers, too.  Where do you stand on the subject of free will?  How did you come to your conclusion?  

 

12 Comments

  1. Sam Harris can be convincing in the way he writes. But, if you really take the time to dig into what he is say, oftentimes you can see that he is largely emoting. He presses emotional buttons and pushes philosophical theories. Those theories aren’t any more (or less?) valid than theories of any other perspective.

    As for free will… I don’t see how a subconscious trigger conflicts with the idea of free will. I’m not sure if the words “decided on a subconscious level” are yours or from the study but use of the word “decided” there points to free will.

    It’s an interesting topic for sure. I find myself going down these bunny trails often also. I’m a big fan of apologetics and digging into the logic, reasoning, facts, and data behind things… whether financial or spiritual. 🙂
    Brad – MaximizeYourMoney.com recently posted…Here’s how much you’ll have if you max out your 401k planMy Profile

    • He is certainly convincing. I told my wife all the reasons I disagree with him but then followed it up with “but I would never want to debate the man on any of it.”

      Yes “decided on a subconscious level” was from the study. As stated the moment the participants reported “deciding” was about 500ms after this subconscious brain activity. The conclusion being you felt like you had “decided” but it was 500ms after your brain had already decided for you. My opinion is there will always be proceeding brain activity before any movement or decision but who is to say you didn’t trigger the brain activity. Kind of chicken or the egg type thing.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting on this unusual topic.

  2. But what if we were living in a simulation? =) 1 in billions probability according to Elon Musk! We might be just NPC’s in a Sims type game. If I am just an NPC, I want to be one of the more interesting NPC’s so I can make it a bit more fun for the main character. Maybe Elon is the main character in this iteration? Shrugs.

    • I love Elon Musk. Never afraid to think out of the box. I’m just not sure that people in the future will be interested in running simulations of the past. If technology has advanced to the point where it possible it seems it would be equivalent to us running a cockroach simulation.

      Also, If we are just a simulation being ran by humans in the future does that make humans God to us now?

  3. Awesome, Grant. I believe there is free will and here is my reasoning: As a Christian, I often find myself getting off track from how the Bible asks me as a Christian to live. I get self-centered, self-focused, and more concerned about my worldly goals than what God has asked me to do here, which is share the Gospel and the love of Christ with others.

    When I hear the Holy Spirit speak to my heart about this, I feel convicted and then realize I have a choice: I can draw nearer to God and put my focus back on Him and His Word, or I can continue down my path of self-focus.

    When I choose to re-focus on God (and that isn’t always choice I make) I feel such a peace and joy – which is what the Bible promises I will gain if I get my priorities in line with what I “choose” to believe – the Bible.

    When I choose to keep focusing on me, myself and I, I feel a continuous, underlying dissatisfaction. But the choice is mine. 🙂

    Does that make any sense? It does in my head but I’m not sure it does on paper. 🙂

    • Hey Laurie, thanks for sharing!

      Yes, it makes perfect sense. You are repeatedly faced with following God or the world. Depending on your decision your inner well-being is either improved or harmed. That sentence that I wrote about “maybe there is more than meets the eye” was my way of alluding to God.

  4. Alex @TheDetectorist

    July 11, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Hello Grant,
    That’s an interesting debate on the free will, I think that it exists and at the same time that it doesn’t.
    I’m going to explain why I’m thinking that way, for example on a local scale we have a free will, but all our options are limited by time. On a global scale, it may not count at all. So even if we will take every possible decision, it’s going to be limited.

    Imagine for a moment that we are able to pick every decision in a different universe, it’s still going to be limited because of time. If we could do the sum of all our “free decisions” we’ll still be limited in the end by time itself.
    Maybe one way or another, it will get the same global results.

    What do you think about this type of free will decision?

    • Hey Alex, sorry for the delay replying but you got flagged as spam for some reason.

      I am not sure I follow you on your logic. It sounds like you are saying we have free will but it is limited by space and time. I would agree with this but I don’t think it matters. Limited free will is still free will.

      If you can clarify further I would love to hear it.

  5. Great article. This is a very interesting topic for me. I’ve given this some thought and I have two issues with those that don’t believe we have free will.
    1. Love presupposes free will. Without free will we can’t have love so if you truly believe free will doesn’t exist you can’t love or be loved. I don’t see people operating their lives like this.
    2. Without free will, from an intellectual perspective, you shouldn’t ever show emotion about anything. You should be completely indifferent about all action because they are predetermined. Again nobody operates life like this.
    The intellectual dishonesty of determinism is apauling. I suspect it’s because of an alterior motive to not be responsible for ones own actions but that requires further study.

    Tom @ HIP

    • Hey Tom, thanks for commenting.

      I didn’t consider love and emotion when thinking about this topic. Love would become completely bland and meaningless if there was never any choice anyway.

      I’m not sure why there seems to be people pushing determinism. I suspect some of it is to discredit religion. Perhaps others are just trying to excuse themselves and all others of all actions.

      Like I said even if we don’t have free will why in the world would you want to believe that or want others to believe that.

  6. Great thoughts here and a well presented argument
    But do you think there might be some sort of balance between free will and determinism? Perhaps some kind of pull between the two that goes beyond our comprehension?
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  7. Hey Dan, I think you might be correct. In fact, there is a set of people that believe in what is called “soft determinism”. My personal view is that a lot of the choices we make just happen out of routine and habit. We didn’t really make a choice to eat the chips we just started mindlessly munching. I believe if you wake up to the choices you are making then you are free to choose differently.

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