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?
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” 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?
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.
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.
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?