Do any of us actually have free will? Are we totally responsible for the decisions we make? If you get to work an hour late tomorrow morning, are you truly to blame for your poor timekeeping? Historically I’d have said yes but there’s a philosopher called Sam Harris who thinks otherwise. He says that none of us have free will and that irrespective of what we might like to think, we’re little more than incredibly sophisticated robots running biological programs. And you know what? It’s pretty hard to argue with when you hear him explain his argument.
Here’s his basic point
Nobody who’s reading this, not me, or you, or your girlfriend, actually chose our brains. We didn’t pick our intelligence levels, we didn’t choose the particular assortment of synapses and neurons we have buzzing inside our heads and what they might predispose us to. We didn’t select our genes, and we also didn’t pick the environments we grew up in. Hell, even if you believe that we each have an immortal soul that dictated all of the above then we didn’t pick that either.
The question of what makes a person who they are always falls down to nature versus nurture but neither is anything that we originally had any control of.
Scientists have done experiments that have conclusively proved that the choices we make don’t actually come from the conscious part of our minds that we’re all aware of, but the subconscious part that runs silently in the background.
Experiments that prove that we don’t actually have free will in the way we’d like to think.
They took volunteers and hooked them up to EEG and FMRI machines to monitor their brainwaves and then asked them to perform simple tasks like choose between lifting up a cup or a plate. What they also did was have them look at a specially designed clock that displayed letters and numbers on screen while they made their choices. The point was that the subjects would decide what to do while looking at the clock and then tell the researchers what they could see when they consciously decided to go one way or the other.
But here’s where it gets crazy
What the researchers found was that even though the subjects consciously made decisions at specific times, their brainwaves had spiked for those actions up to seven seconds earlier. This basically means that while they were sitting and deliberating over one choice or the other, a deep part of their minds had already decided what they were going to do. They consciously thought they were still thinking about it but subconsciously their minds were set.
According to Mr Sam Harris, this isn’t just the case for inconsequential things but for every decision we make, no matter how big or small. Apparently, everything we do comes out of an ether that we have no real say over. The conscious parts of our minds that we see as the authors of our decisions are really more like an assembly line factory worker who follows the orders of the subconscious CEO.
Look at it like this; I’m writing words to you right now, but I have no idea where they’re coming from, I’m just slamming my fingers into a keyboard and hey presto, fully formed sentences are coming out. But there’s any particular combination of words I could use to get across exactly the same point, so why the hell am I using these particular words and not any of those?
If you stumble while speaking a sentence, you have no real idea or control over whatever happened in your brain to cause that fuckup. You just know that it did indeed happen and have to accept the fact that you now look like a mild jackass.
But here’s another example:
Think of a famous film, any film in the world. Got one? Bellissimo. Now I’m not in front of you so you can’t tell me which one you chose, but you probably had a number of different movies pop into your head before you settled on one, but can you really say why?
You might have had Independence Day, Rush Hour 2, and Ghostbusters in your head; but why not Pulp Fiction, Terminator 2, and Sex & the City? You could then say that it’s because you saw them advertised recently but that’s an external stimulus which you didn’t choose. Also, let’s say that you finally picked Rush Hour as your movie. You might say you did so because it’s a film you like but why do you like it? It’s highly unlikely that you trained yourself to like the films you do. And even if you were crazy enough to do that, what possessed you to train yourself to like those particular movies? Why not others?
In any event, you just happen to have the right combination of genes and life experience to make the films you like appealing to you. But you didn’t actually choose your preference.
And like I just said; even if you did choose your preference, you didn’t choose your preference for your preference; no matter what you might prefer to think!
Also, what about the movies that didn’t even occur to you to choose, like Suicide Squad, or Bridesmaids? If they didn’t even pop into your head then were you really free to choose them?
Like I said before, according to Mr Harris (and others like him) this pattern of us making conscious decisions which are really governed by subconscious processes we have no control over, which are in turn governed in part by genes, life experiences and possible immortal souls that we also have no control over is just how life works.
It’s why we like certain genres of music and not others, are attracted to certain types of people and not others, choose to work certain jobs but not others, and also break certain laws but not others.
To know more about Sam Harris and the free will argument, go here.