There is an ongoing PBS TV series (also several books and also a website) called “Closer To Truth”. It is hosted by neuroscientist Robert Lawrence Kuhn. He’s featured in one-on-one interviews and panel discussions with the cream of the cream of today’s cosmologists, physicists, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, etc. on all of the Big Questions surrounding a trilogy of broad topics – Cosmos; Consciousness; Meaning. The trilogy collectively dealt with reality, space and time, mind and consciousness, aliens, theology and on and on and on. Here are a few of my comments on one of the general topics covered, the subject dealing with the concept of free will.
What is Free Will?
Free will would appear to be the ability for a living organism, not just of necessity a human, to decide between the various options open to it when presented with an either/or intersection. However there is not such thing as infinite free will. The choices available aren’t endless. One option not available to you on your commute to work is to flap your arms and fly. A bird on the other hand doesn’t have the choice of driving a car when heading south for the winter. The laws, principles and relationships of both the physical and biological sciences restrict your free will options. Your innate abilities restrict your free will. Your free will option says you can hit a home run out of Yankee Stadium. The opposing pitcher says otherwise. Your society and your culture also places restrictions on your free will. You just can not do whatever you damn well please. Okay, so at best you have only a quasi free will, but as long as you have two achievable this or that options you can argue that you have the sort of free will that’s defined as an ability to decide between those this or that options. Whether or not that is an illusion might not be overly relevant as long as you truly believe you actually have free will. If you really believe that your choice of dinner tonight was 100% your own decision, then you’re a happy camper, ignorance is bliss and let no one rain on your free will parade.
Do Humans have Free Will 1?
Humans may have free will, but there are many, many aspects to your existence in which you had no say-so whatsoever, aspects in which you would have sold your soul to the devil for the chance to have had some free will choice in the matter. I mean you had no free will about being conceived and born at all. You had no choice, no free will options as to who your parents were and what your ancestors were. You had no free will options about your family – brothers and sisters – and where you stood age-wise with respect to them. You had no choice about your sex, your IQ, or about your race or about any other aspect of your genetics which might have included some sort of deformity or being prone to certain diseases. You had no option about the historical era you were hatched into, or the society, culture or nationality. You probably had little free will, if any, about what religion (if any) you were brought up in. In some cultures in some eras you probably had no free will about who you were to marry or your status or caste in the community. In short, for all the talk about free will, there are many, many facets of your life that you had absolutely no free will control over. That’s a bummer!
Do Humans have Free Will 2?
Here’s another everyday common example of your lack of free will. How many of you have experienced hearing some stupid advertising jingle or insipid pop song that just keeps on keeping on rambling through the recesses of your mind? Have you ever been able to free will it away? Probably not. You usually need to be externally distracted by something else which causes the irritation to retreat into the far background (only to arise again at a later date).
Do Humans have Free Will 3?
Prior to your conception you had no free will on the obvious grounds that you did not yet exist. Between conception and your birth, and for some days, weeks and months thereafter, you had no free will. You had all of the free will that your stomach has which is bugger-all. If that’s the case, and it is had to argue otherwise, what makes you believe you have subsequently acquired by some either physical or nebulous process the concept we call free will? Is acquiring free will somehow akin to acquiring the traits you acquired when you reached puberty? If so, what’s the biochemical process? Further, the acquisition of free will would have to be a continuum. It’s not likely to be the case that one day you had zero free will and the next day a fully-formed ability to exercise free will in all of its diverse forms.
Philosophy of Free Will
According to legend, God gave us free will. Let’s say for argument’s sake that there’s an afterlife and that we go to Heaven. Do you have free will in Heaven? That is, could you, of your own free will, commit a sin in Heaven? How’s that for some heavy philosophy?
Mysteries of Free Will 1
The mystery of free will is how free will can manipulate electrons and atoms and molecules that are part and parcel as being physical substances of the brain (hereafter called brain chemistry) that collectively construct brain structures, into seemingly separate and apart movements of the body that otherwise wouldn’t of happened. Free will would seem to use existing brain chemistry to initiate an action in one place that causes reactions in another place. Any free will decision-making must involve some sort of action if concepts are to be turned into reality.
The first mystery is the conscious thought that you think that indicates you might want to do something, say, “should I raise my right arm”. Where did that first conscious thought about the possibility of raising your arm come from? Did it appear as if by magic fully formed out of the ether? Probably not. You had to have subconsciously formed the thought (a thought which is a physical thing requiring matter and energy) out of your reservoir of brain chemicals before you can even consciously think the thought. Quite why your subconscious should have come up with such an idea in the first place is yet another puzzlement.
Anyway, the next step is to take the concept that you might want to raise your right arm and then apply an apparent free will decision making exercise into an either/or choice. That involves another thought – “will I, won’t I” – which again doesn’t manifest itself out of thin air. That “will I, won’t I” is being pondered by the subconscious while your conscious mind is dealing with the idea that you might want to perform the arm-raising action in the first place. There’s lastly a third thought which is either “I will” or “I won’t”. That action then translates into a reaction.
The implication is that before you can think any fully-formed thought you have to first form the thought at a deeper unconscious level. You can’t consciously think the thought before you subconsciously first think the thought. If your subconscious came up with the idea first before being elevated into the consciousness arena, then you have no free will.
Just to re-enforce the role of the subconscious, most of the time when you move your arms you are not aware of it and thus are not making conscious free will choices. Watch someone in a conversation, even people being interviewed here on “Closer to Truth” and they are usually gesturing and flapping their arms around (for no apparent reason and to no apparent purpose). They are not making each and every gesture deliberately in a fully self-aware and in a free will mode. Nearly every movement you make is not anything that can be related to free will. Say, as a common event, you get up out of your chair and walk across the room. Did you consciously decide which foot to step off on? I think not. Another common saying is how people often open up and engage their mouths before they engage their brain or their mind.
And isn’t it amazing how brain chemistry translates all those thoughts within your mind into your native language, or more than one language if you are bilingual. How does brain chemistry become language inside your head? That translation has no free will connection.
Okay, some questions arising: How does your mind take brain chemistry and turn chemistry into thoughts (and in your native language no less)? How do those thoughts end up converting the original set of brain chemistry conditions into the chemistry that actually raises your right arm? It’s an entirely physical process from one to the other – brain chemistry – thought – action – but the mystery is how your mind has the ability to somehow drag up and arrange and rearrange those physical bits that will comprise the subconscious thoughts that you must have first constructed before you actually have those thoughts consciously. This would seem to be a case of mind over matter, a psychic phenomenon rather discredited.
Anyway, the bottom line is that it is the subconscious that rules the roost, another case in point being the content of your dreams, and that doesn’t require free will.
Mysteries of Free Will 2
If there is such a thing as free will, why is there such an obesity epidemic? You’d think one of the last things people would want to look like is blubber personified. Free will there might be, but will power is lacking! But what do I know? Maybe roly-poly is the latest in body fashion statements! Still, IMHO obesity is a mystery if people really have free will and control over their own impulses.
Physics of Free Will 1
Free will seems to be a variation on the theme of mind over matter and we know how badly the physical evidence for that is. Mind over matter is something that has yet to be established as part of the physical realm that’s been peer-reviewed and adopted by the sciences. If there really were a physics of free will, then one might assume that free will would be exhibited when it comes to the things that matter most, like making decisions that gives rise to avoiding or negating pain, disease, ageing and death. If there was free will that operated via some physical mechanism(s) then no one need suffer from migraines, the common cold or flu, cancer and heart disease, getting grey hair or wrinkles, and of course kicking the bucket. Were it not for accidents caused by external happenings (including getting pregnant), free will could just about put the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies out of business, but probably not undertakers since eventually an accident would happen that would be fatal.
Physics of Free Will 2
It seems strange that you have free will to say raise your right arm and you can in fact raise your right arm after you decide to; you have free will over some other bodily functions and those functions respond in kind after you so make the relevant free will decision (say body building or achieving new and improved mental skills), yet your free will over your own body with respect to pain, disease, ageing and death absolutely fails. This is not a question of “you may not succeed” rather that you WILL not succeed. You also have no free will control over say your hair growth, not just some of the time but all of the time. Either you have free will over your own body or you don’t. It appears you don’t, at least when it comes down to what’s really fundamental. So why free will over some things and not over other things? In conclusion, IMHO, there’s something screwy somewhere.
Physics of Free Will 3
Connection between A and B is not control of A over B (or B over A), but you have to have the connection before you have the control, and the brain-body connection is well established. That the brain rules the body’s roost is not in dispute. In fact the brain is the one organ that cannot be replaced. In theory, the brain could exist without the body (as in the brain-in-the-vat scenario or the mind could be downloaded into a machine), but the body cannot be a viable entity without the brain. So, what does that tell you about the brain-body connection and what organ is in control? Did I hear you say the brain?
Body parts can be replaced. You can have prosthetic limbs and bionic eyes and ears. You can have an artificial heart and exist in a iron lung. Your kidney functions can be replaced by a machine. You can wear a wig! You can be fed via a tube. You can be fitted with dentures. There’s even artificial skin available for serious burn victims. But you can’t replace the brain or at least the contents of the brain. The buck stops with the brain. Your brain is the most fundamental structure you have. No brain; no you. No big toe? You are still you.
How Free Will Probes Mind and Consciousness
One connection between free will and the mind and consciousness is evident when it comes to dealing with illusions. We have all seen optical illusions and may have experienced auditory and tactile illusions too. Experiments have been conducted on subjects that on the surface would seemingly make the subject the victim of some act of physical violence. But that seeming act of violence is an illusion and the subject knows before-the-fact what will transpire and that it is an illusion, but reacts anyway as if they are about to subjected to violent trauma. In the case of the standard set of optical illusions, even though you know it is an optical illusion, your mind, your consciousness cannot help but see the illusion. In other words, your alleged free will cannot override the mind, your consciousness and prevent the conscious mind from seeing what really isn’t there or what really isn’t happening. Your free will is a non-participant when it comes to the “reality” of illusionary phenomena. A common example is the size of the Full Moon on the horizon compared to when it is high in the sky. The Moon on the horizon appears much larger than when it is overhead. It’s an illusion. You know it is an illusion. Your free will tells your mind and your consciousness that it is an illusion. Your mind and your consciousness tells your free will to go to hell!
Free Will and Decision Making 1
For all the hype about free will and decision making, there are an awful lot of extremely relevant facets to your existence, your life (and death) that you didn’t and won’t have any say about. You had no choice about when you were hatched, no say in your ancestry, no free will in determining your genetics. You have very little free will over many of your daily bodily functions. You can only go so long when you decide to go without breathing; without eating or drinking; without sleeping; without blinking your eyes. You have no decision making control over the biochemistry that rules your roost. You can’t free will your toenails to stop growing for example. You have no free will control over all the myriad of microbes that make up most of you. You cannot free will away the ageing process (despite millions of claims to the contrary from cosmetic companies, plastic surgeons, vitamin manufacturers, various food and diet promoters, fitness gyms, and meditation gurus – their motivation is making a buck, not stopping you from ageing). Time may only be a concept, a mental abstraction, but the ageing process is real enough. You have no free will over your eventual and inevitable demise and no free will over what happens after that (as in “life” after death). You probably have no free will over most things that can or do affect you like the weather or getting hit by a stray bullet. Shit happens and all you can really do about it is just go with the flow. So, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t have free will when you make some of life’s choices, but you certainly don’t when it comes down to what’s really important about your life and death.
Free Will and Decision Making 2
Presumably you are compelled to believe that you have free will because you can make decisions without fear or favour. If you want fish for dinner you can decide to have fish; if you want chicken for dinner instead, you can decide of your own free will to have chicken.
I would suggest that you need to also assume that your companion animals have free will since they too have the capacity to ponder and think and make decisions and act on them. I normally see my cats ponder over and then decide whether to eat this food in the bowl on the right or this other food in the bowl on the left or maybe a bit of both or maybe stick their nose up at both options. The saying that a cat is always on the wrong side of the door seems true enough. If the cat is outside it decides to come inside. If it is inside it decides to go outside. Cats can change their inside/outside preference a dozen times over in an hour. They aren’t being forced into making these choices; they do so apparently of their own free will.
Presumable one could attribute free will not only to the mammals (like cats), but the birds as well, and it doesn’t stretch things too far to accept free will as a given in reptiles, amphibians and even in fish since these broad divisions too of the vertebrate kingdom have exhibited decision-making qualities.
But what about the invertebrates? There would seem to be little question that some of them, like the octopus, exhibits decision-making behavior. But what about ants and termites? What about clams and oysters? What about earthworms and millipedes? What about microbes and bacteria?
The point is that there appears to be a natural line drawn in the sand somewhere between what species make decisions based on thinking through the options and then picking and choosing between them, and those that ‘decide’ based on raw instinct. Where that line is actually drawn, and the mental attributes, physiology and anatomy of the brains that are examined of those on either side of the line, might then give us a better handle on the mystery that is free will, assuming free will of course. There are many compelling arguments that free will is illusionary.
On the other hand, the entire free will/decision-making apparatus within the animal kingdom could be just one long continuum from maximum to minimum without any absolute fixed line in the sand. Even if that’s the case it would yield clues as to what’s required for this or that amount of free will.
Is Free Will an Illusion 1?
Free will is indeed an illusion, IMHO. At the moment that our Universe had an origin, typically considered to be the Big Bang event, all of the laws, principles and relationships of physics were set in place. Further, IMHO, causality is absolute. Causality rules. So everything that has transpired starting at less than a nanosecond post Big Bang was already determined, and in theory predictable by those fixed laws, principles and relationships of physics, physics which begot chemistry of necessity which begot biology of necessity which begot mind of necessity. It’s a clockwork Universe just like Newton and Einstein believed. However, either Newton nor Einstein could have conceived of another scenario, but one which also leads to the illusion of free will. That scenario is that we exist as virtual beings in a Simulated (Virtual Reality) Universe. As the products of already written software, an alternative version of those laws, principles and relationships of physics, we just dance to whatever tune the software dictates. That could suggest that whoever programmed the Simulated (Virtual Reality) Universe is just sitting back and watching to see how it all turns out, or he / she / it might be taking an active role like a player in our video games who manipulates the characters in the game such that the characters have no free will but just dances to the player’s tune. In either scenario, Big Bang or Simulated (Virtual Reality) Universe, there’s no free will. I’d personally desire that conclusion to not be the case. I’d like to think I have absolute free will, but one goes where the logic leads.
Is Free Will an Illusion 2?
If you subscribe to the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Physics (not that I actually do), then you have no free will, only the illusion of free will, in that in one universe or in another universe all of your possible free will choices are realized or acted out. You have apparent free will to turn right or to turn left at Oak Street, but it’s an illusion because in one universe you turned left, but that universe immediately spawned another universe wherein you turned right. You think you made a free will choice, but you actually didn’t. Curses, foiled again!
Is Free Will an Illusion 3?
You are a part of life, the Universe and everything, or, to shorten things, a part of Mother Nature. Mother Nature operates on a select number of non-negotiable laws, principles and relationships, starting with the most basic of elementary particles and forces and working on up the line. No correspondence will be entered into or answered by Mother Nature. As such, you dance to Mother Nature’s tune. Do not attempt to change the tune and adjust reality. She controls the horizontal; She controls the vertical; She controls all that you see and do. Mother Nature is a bitch, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Free will – myth busted!
But, and there’s nearly always a ‘but’, while ‘free will’ may well be, and probably is, an illusion (or delusion), it does have practical applications in the real world (like forcing one to be accountable for their actions) and thus is a concept unlikely to bite the dust any time soon. It’s akin to the notion that God may not, and probably does not exist, He still forms a useful function in society by keeping a lot of people here on Terra Firma employed!
All Reality Consists of What Things 1?
Symbolic processes, like language, aren’t material. How much does language weigh? How much volume does it take up? Does the French language react chemically with the German language? What colour is it? Is it solid, liquid or a gas? What are the material properties of language? Well, well, so you do believe in the existence of the non-material after all. But I still can’t figure out how a not-thing, a symbolic concept, like free will, can physically raise your right arm upon command. It’s akin to suggesting that language can chop wood and saw logs!
All Reality Consists of What Things 2?
Now let me explain why one can’t adequately explain free will.
If one, by one’s own admission, is a materialist, presumably one must believe that one’s free will is something material. So, what is it? What is it composed of? What is its chemical composition? Where is it located in your body? If free will is material it must be located somewhere. Presumably free will could be isolated and extracted and analysed in the lab. How does it work? Does it work on electromagnetic principles? Does it operate at the quantum level?
If one now says that one’s free will isn’t material, but a nebulous thing, a non-physical thing, then one has negated one’s claim to be a materialist. However, the final nail in the free will coffin is that no matter which way you slice and dice it, any non-physical free will is fundamentally just another example of mind over matter, albeit in this case the matter being your own body.
In fact free will only makes sense if it is a physical thing that can be isolated and poked and prodded and examined on the slab in the lab. Physical things can interact with other physical things: Cause and effect; action and reaction. However, not only don’t I see free will explained in the physics textbooks, I see no mention of it in the chemistry, organic chemistry, or biochemistry texts. It rates no mention in biology texts or in anatomy or physiology texts. When it comes to science, free will is conspicuous by its absence.
And finally, why have free will at all if your autonomous body systems, your subconscious, and your innate instincts are more than adequate for survival? Free will is surplus to requirements.
I conclude that the free will debate will drag on for quite some considerable time yet, despite any valiant efforts to explain all.