banner by Matthew Stoss

Free Will

by Jordan Myers

“You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.”

– Dr. Sam Harris

Most of us feel as though we are the authors of our thoughts and actions and directly shape our lives in ways that we freely choose – this feeling is known as free will. We decide what time to wake up, how to dress ourselves, what to eat for lunch, how to treat the people around us and what brand of shampoo to buy at the store. Or do we? Of course, voluntary actions can be distinguished from involuntary ones, but what does it mean to choose your actions at all? Subjectively, it appears that I can choose to do whatever I please – I could have written this sentence differently had I wanted to. However, upon closer inspection, this illusion quickly vanishes.

Our subjective experience is the feeling of riding around inside our own heads, like a man inside a horse drawn carriage. We feel as though we reside behind our eyes and inside our skull, and control daily operations from within an encased command center. However, this feeling – our subjective experience that we call “I” – is unaware of most of the brain’s activities.

Our neurological wiring is the first indicator that free will may not exist.  In a study at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) performed by Dr. Benjamin Libet in 1964, participants connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine – a device that measures neural electrical patterns in real time – were asked to push either a left or right button at random. The moment they chose left or right, they looked at a clock with changing symbols, such as a yellow square, blue triangle or green “X”, and noted what they saw. The time at which they actually hit the button was not consequential to the study. The key information was the time elapsed between when the EEG machine registered an electrical spike in the brain and when the participant decided what button to hit, as indicated by their noted symbol shown on the clock.

The results reveal that our sense of self-control may be an illusion. The decision to select left or right was preceded by brain activity in the secondary motor cortex – which controls voluntary movements – 300 milliseconds before the decision. That means the brain had a buildup of electrical activity 300 milliseconds before the participant was aware he or she had made the decision to act. As of 2008, more refined neuroimaging studies have been able to detect similar electrical buildup as many as seven seconds in advance of the conscious action, revealing that the unconscious brain makes its decision well before its subjective host (you) is aware of it.

These studies substantially weaken the idea of free will. If your subconscious brain decides to act before your conscious self knows it, in what sense are you, the subjective experiencer, in control of your brain? Can you decide what to subconsciously select before consciously realizing it? No: your brain makes decisions that you subjectively experience several seconds later, totally unaware of your brain’s subconscious machinations.

A subjective exercise may exemplify this.  Think of a city. Take a much time as you need; you are free to choose any city. Okay, have it in mind? Choose a second. Now really pay attention to how you make your decision, and pick a third. Now say the three cities out loud.

I was thinking of Baltimore, Moscow, and Dublin. I assume most readers did not select these particular cities. You know of these cities, but did you think of them? If not, were you free to choose that which did not occur to you? No, of course not. Likewise, for the cities you did choose, you were not free to decide on them either. Remember the experience of picking the third city; it merely appeared form the darkness of your mind. You can tell yourself a story about why you chose it, but you cannot know why the city affected you to the degree that it did, or why you did not select another city. You could have deliberated for ten years if given the chance, but the inner workings of your decision are a mystery to you. Moreover, as we saw from Libet’s study, we could watch your subconscious brain decides what city to choose before you have the experience of thinking it inside your head or saying it out loud. While your life consists of far more complex decisions, there is no neurological reason to suspect the point of decision is content dependent. That is to say, neuronal decisions seem to occur in a similar manner, regardless of their contents or complexity. Choosing a city or choosing to marry your high school sweetheart happen at the same level in your brain, even if their effects may have differing importance in your life.

Moreover, we find that practical reasoning can lead us away from the notion of free will. You did not choose your brain, your genes, the environment in which those genes were expressed, or to what degree your environment shaped them. If you believe in an immortal soul, you did not choose that either. There is no more of you left; free will cannot be hiding anywhere else. There is simply no room for free will to arise; you had none from birth and cannot acquire it from factors which you did not choose in the first place. Dr. Sam Harris, UCLA educated neuroscientist and author, packages the thought neatly: “You can do what you decide to do – but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.”

Although this evidence disproves the concept of free will, it does not degrade our standard of being. In fact, our lives retain all the purpose they had previously, while rendering hatred and retributive punishment abhorrent.  If we are merely a byproduct of our inputs, does hatred of others make sense? Does unnecessary, vengeful punishment make moral sense? It may appear that this argument removes all meaning from our lives; however, this could not be less true. The things we do still matter – if I did not write this article, it would not have been written. This is true for all the things we do and feel; pain is still pain, anger is still anger, and love is still love. We can still strive to improve ourselves and those we love while knowing that none of us author ourselves. Although it is impossible to know what improvements in brain scanning technology will bring, the illusion of free will is one we need not hold onto.