Most people feel like the complexity of human nature points to something other than the physical processes of their brains. From composers of orchestral symphonies that make the emotions soar, to the charitable who devote their entire lives to help others in need, to physicists who strive to answer questions of our own very existence, humanity seems infinitely diverse, deep, mysterious and complex. In explaining this complexity, the bumbling arrangement of trillions of drifting atoms – each without any awareness, purpose, desires or intentions – can seem grossly insufficient. Do we need something else to explain our species? Many believe we do.
This ‘something else’ has differed widely, based on religion, culture, time in history, and education. Religions tend to refer to a soul; ‘dualist’ philosophers have invoked an abnormal mind substance; in more modern times, people are looking to quantum mechanics and its inherent weirdness. Whatever this something is, it usually has the capacity for free will. True freedom in how we dictate our lives – the ability to choose our own course when confronting each fork in the road of life – is the crux for many when pondering human nature. Free will has appeared to offer a reasonable explanation for our incredible existence and experience.
So what is free will? Free will is the notion that we are free to choose our thoughts and actions at any given moment. It implies that we could have acted differently than we did in the past – not due to some random occurrence, but because we as the conscious authors chose differently. Although you chose to drink a tea this morning, you could have had a coffee. You drove your car to work yesterday, but you could have caught the bus. In addition to this, free will implies that our conscious experience is the governing force when making these kinds of decisions. It certainly feels like this is how we conduct our lives. Cross-cultural studies have confirmed that this idea of free will is a pervasive intuition, an assumption we have all made about ourselves and everybody else. But it’s wrong.
Free will was born in the felt experience of individuals, raised on the bosom of faulty philosophy, yet has since starved by lack of nourishment from advancing scientific knowledge. Those that claim we are consciously free to author our thoughts are in fact invoking a metaphysical doctrine that a miracle takes place every time someone makes a decision. I am not using the word miracle to sensationalise this point, I mean it in every sense.
To possess the common notion of free will is to say the following occurs every time you have a thought;
1. Your felt experience of self, the ‘me’ and ‘I’ sitting inside your skull, intends to author a thought. This has not been caused by anything in prior moments, but comes out of a void of complete darkness.
2. Although you consciously intend to have that thought, you have somehow not thought it yet.
3. Your intent to author this thought, still independent of the brain, then produces the selective firing of billions of individual brain cells.
4. The firing of this network of cells in your head then produces the thought. A thought that you consciously intended in the first place, without the help of your brain.
This miracle apparently occurs every second of the day. Every single mundane thought you have. Thoughts such as ‘I wonder if the new iPhone 6 will fit into these pants’.
You yourself can actually notice the absence of these miracles. For instance, what is the next thought you’re going to have? The honest answer is – you have no idea. Thoughts can do no other than arise in your consciousness. And you can only be aware of them once they do. To argue against this, would be claiming that you can consciously think a thought before you have thought it.
Not only do we not control what our next thought will be, we have extreme trouble controlling when that next thought will occur. Let’s try an experiment. Try for a moment to not to have a thought. How long did you last? Maybe two or three seconds? Try again. And a quick disclaimer, ‘Don’t think’ is itself a thought. As many times as you care to try, you’re unlikely to achieve much more today. Where is the freedom in not even being able to control your next thought?
If not from our felt sense of self, where are these thoughts coming from? The answer’s simple – Our thoughts are the product of the physical processes of the brain. And neuroscience is replete with evidence that points to this. Functions of the mind are correlated with impulses of interconnected neurons, as detected via EEG and fMRI. Psychoactive drugs have specific effects on personality and the content of thought. Damage to the brain via trauma, surgery and tumours can affect isolated faculties of the mind such as speech, memory, emotion and the ability to recognise faces. And there has never been any evidence of a mind operating independent of the brain – like ghosts, auras, the afterlife, or reincarnation.
So it seems our mind is a product of the brain. And with the discovery of the scientific method, we have come to realise that we live in a universe dictated by pervasive physical laws. The idea that our minds could be truly free is squeezed even further when one considers that our brains are part of this physical environment. We as conscious beings cannot step outside of the causal stream of events of the universe. At every instant the state of your brain, and thus mind, is dependent on prior states that preceded it. We could trace this chain of events back, through each moment to moment occurrence – to the previous second, last minute, yesterday, last month, last year, to your birth, and beyond. No one chooses their parents, or their genes. No one chooses the time in history or environment into which they were born. In fact, no one even chooses whether to exist in the first place.
Even if there there is a feature of indeterminism or randomness in the universe, as suggested by quantum physics, this makes no difference. For how could we claim responsibility for truly random processes? Either our thoughts are the products of prior causes, or they occur randomly, or there’s some combination of the two. No matter how you stack the scales between determinism and indeterminism, nothing results in free will that people claim they have. Random elements would not make us any more free, just harder to predict.
The fact is, our subjective experience of free will is an illusion. There is nothing in physics, chemistry, neuroscience or psychology that could even make sense of the claim of free will. There is no ghost in the machine, no little being sitting in your brain behind the eyes, pushing buttons and pulling levers.