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 threatening 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 discoveries 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. In 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!