In fact, you were always going to read this article.
A few billion years ago, there was a big bang that created the Universe and everything in it. Skip forward until a few seconds ago and you just clicked this article and started reading about free will. It’s possible that right now, you are thinking about turning back and not finishing this piece. Or maybe your interest has been piqued just enough to read on. There’s no way that the Big Bang and the actions you are about to take in regards to completing this article are related…or is there?
Have you ever sat at a restaurant browsing though the plethora of items available for your enjoyment, unsure what to pick when in the middle of making your decision the server comes up and asks what you’ll have? After a little hemming and hawing, or if you are like me, an incredibly funny, well-rehearsed joke, you make a decision and put in your order. Whether anyone asks about your choice or not, your brain has already made up a story about what lead you to pick the fish tacos.
But what if what we call making decisions, is just your brain attempting to justify an outcome that was determined approximately 13.7 billion years ago?
Free will doesn’t exist. And your decision to ask for extra hot sauce wasn’t really yours. This idea immediately makes most people scoff. How could it be possible that everything, down to the tiniest of eyebrow twitches, be predetermined? It just doesn’t make sense and I feel like I’m in control.
Even though there is not full consensus among the scientific community on whether or not free will exists, and just thinking about this idea drives me mad, the more we explore decision making, the more it seems like there is only one possible outcome. That all of our lives, actions, thoughts and emotions, are nothing more than a mechanical chain reaction. Without invoking magic, following any decision back to its roots seems to only have one destination, the creation of the universe.
Leading neuroscientist and proponent of the non-existence of free will, is Robert Sapolsky. In an interview with This American Life (which I highly recommend listening too), Sapolsky, when asked about why he doesn’t believe in free will, responded with this simplified answer about tracing back a muscle movement:
A muscle did something. Meaning a neuron in your motor cortex commanded your muscle to do that. That neuron fired only because it got inputs from umpteen other neurons milliseconds before.
And those neurons only fired because they got inputs milliseconds before and back and back and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that, from out of nowhere, decided to say something that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe, and ions, and channels, and all that sort of stuff. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will. And there is no such neuron.
Although the idea that your muscles moving without intention may seem harmless, it has pretty big consequences for free will. There was a controversial study by Benajamin Libet in 1983, indicating that decisions were made in your subconscious before you ever consciously became aware of them. This was done using subjects, hooked up to brain activity monitoring devices, being asked to press a button whenever they felt the urge to do so. Because this test required the subject to tell the scientists when they felt like pressing the button after the test, it was faced with some backlash about quality control.
However, Chong Siong Soon and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute, have updated the experiment and appear to have taken the concerns about quality out of the equation. With more studies showing the subconscious making decisions before the conscious brain is aware coming out, it does seem to be that our idea of decision making is incorrect.
So if all of our perceived decisions are actually justifications, is there any point to caring about our life?
Yes! Because even if the course of your life isn’t altered by your individual choices, it is still unknown to you. And that feeling of how things are going to unfold is exhilarating.
I’d also argue that not having free will is liberating. Sure, you may not get to take as much personal credit when things go your way, but you can start letting go of the guilt and frustration when mistakes are made. Your trajectory has been predetermined so there’s no point getting hung up on how things unfold.
In, “The Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz explores the idea that having too many choices is actually a debilitating problem. If too much choice causes you to stand in the cereal aisle, unable to decide between the latest fibre infused cereals to add into your diet, imagine how stressful deciding what you want to be when you grow up can be? No matter how old you are!
But, since free will doesn’t exist, you can sit back and enjoy the ride instead of always worrying about outcomes. Let the options come flying at you, because your decisions are already made and the outcomes are heading your way.
Now, we do live in a society that has rules. So unfortunately, though the universe does not have any concern for consequences the people around you might not agree with the universes choices. And this is where it becomes really difficult to accept that your decisions aren’t actually your own.
But, if you take a global approach to thinking through this, it actually provides a fairly optimistic viewpoint on the future of our world. For instance, although there are people who commit heinous crimes, the universe seems to be pushing humanity through socially destructive times into more pleasant ones.
Steven Pinker in, “Enlightenment Now”, spends chapter after chapter providing scientifically backed arguments about how the world is becoming a better place to live. So, although there are still acts being committed that we deem unbefitting of society, as a whole, our Big Bang produced trajectory seems to be heading in a direction most people would agree is a good one.
Many people believe they abstain from deviant acts through their own decisions. It feels comfortable to be in control of your life. It also allows people to separate themselves from the idea that they could ever do something morally reprehensible. However, like being born into a first world country with wealthy parents, provides you opportunities that others may only ever dream of, your propensity towards socially acceptable or socially deviant acts seems to be more a luck of the draw, then an act of free will.
If your brain is spinning right now, you are not alone. Writing about the lack of free will does not mean I fully understand it or am comfortable with the idea in respects to my own life.
But then again, I never really had a choice in writing this, did I?