Did you freely choose to read this blog?

If you are reading this blog entry, clearly, you made a choice to do so.

My question for you is, “Did you freely choose to read it?”

Unless someone is holding a gun to your head, holding your family hostage, or    thC2CAA889-979E-BACC-B8467A9CA1C4FA51_1reatening to blow up a government building if you don’t read it, then most of you would likely reply, “Of course I freely chose to read your magnificently insightful words of wisdom and enlightenment.”

That is the most common meaning of the phrase, “doing something of your own free will.” We simply mean that we are not acting under external coercion. In that sense, most of us in the western world make the vast majority of our choices of our own free will.

But let me ask the question differently.

If we could rewind time to the point at which you were just about to make your decision to read this blog entry, could you choose differently this time?

To put it another way, do we possess ultimate free will — what Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism likes to call, “contra-causal  free will,” making choices that are uncaused by any internal or external influence?

I would suggest that in this sense, we do not have free will. In other words, if we were to wind time backwards, and then let it resume, you would make the very same choice again. In this ultimate sense of the phrase, free will is a myth.

When you make a decision, how do you do so? What is involved in the the decision-making process?

Modern neuroscience is making many exciting discoveries about how our brains actually work. One of the areas where this is true concerns decision-making. A great overview of these decidediscoveries can be found in Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide.

It is clear that our decisions emerge from activity in specific regions of our brains. There is no evidence whatsoever for some non-corporeal entity, such as a soul, that is standing above the workings of our brains, making decisions in some unknown manner. Decisions which are separate from our genetics and our environment. Yet, that is what belief in free will requires.

Most of us know that our decisions are shaped, driven, or motivated by both internal causes (such as our personality type, our character, our upbringing, our beliefs, our values, etc.) and external causes (our friends, our upbringing, our job, our circumstances, etc.). But the vast majority of North Americans believe that there is some other entity — the real me — that may be influenced by these factors, but ultimately has the freedom to do whatever it chooses, even if that is diametrically opposed to all the internal and external influences.

Even many of us who are thoroughgoing atheists resist the idea that we do not possess contra-causal free will. We want to believe that we are truly free, able to make decisions separate from all influences. We want to believe that if the clock was rewound, we could very well have chosen not to read this blog.

But everything that neruoscience is discovering says it ain’t so.

The best evidence tells us that the decisions we make are fully caused. And if they are fully caused, you could not decide to do anything other than what you did.

As this blog entry is getting pretty long I will stop at this point. neurons_aboutIn the next entry I will discuss the curious case of Phineas Gage and what it show about how our mind is simply what our brains do. Then, in the entry after that, I will look at some of the common objections/concerns to the idea that we do not possess ultimate free will and some of the positive implications of this view.

But until then, I welcome your comments. Especially if you disagree!



Filed under Athesim

6 responses to “Did you freely choose to read this blog?

  1. I completely disagree that free will requires a belief in the soul—or other non-corporeal entity. If human beings are integrated systems then our mind is an aspect of our will.

    The argument that our minds are somehow separate entities in control of our thoughts and actions assumes that there must be something beyond the mind that the mind is controlling–right?

    If you took all of your readers back in time and provided information as to the cause of their behavior then they might choose differently. For example, if you turn the clocked back and told all of your readers that if they clicked the link your blog would recieve more traffic than usual and your ego would continue to grow at an abnormal rate—allowing you someday to take over the world. Some of your readers might choose differently.

    • theformerfundie

      But if I tell them it’s to drive up the stats on my blog, then it’s not the exact same situation as the first time. I have added a new piece of info. If it is exactly the same situation, then what would cause someone to choose differently than they did the first time?

      And by the way, I am already well on my way to world domination. : )

      • My point was having the situation the exact same doesn’t prove determinism. I don’t think people that believe in free will would argue that the past is not already determined. Free will is about authorship. We create our future by making decisions within current reality. I don’t think the notion of reliving past events differently plays in to free will.

      • Scott Campbell

        I think you and I are pretty much on the same page. I am sugggesting that present decisions (and future ones) are also determined. Free will suggests that I am free to decide whatever I want to at the time. I am saying, no, I am not. I can only make the decision that the combined impact of all influences (both external and internal) lead to. My decisions are fully caused.

        The point of my allusion to the past was just to say that at the time you chose to read this blog, you could not have made a different choice. Sent from my iPhone

  2. Gerry Robert

    Scott, I’m so glad we are friends. Your intelligence raises my IQ through osmosis. Great article. Did I freely choose to write this comment?????

  3. Pingback: The Curious Case of Phineas Gage « The Former Fundie’s Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s