Whether we have free will or not is a surprisingly controversial topic. It seems obvious that we do this from our subjective experience, but it is possible to show that there are often times when we think we are behaving voluntarily, but in fact are simply following conditioned responses. I admit that, but I think the crux of the matter is: do we always behave like this? There is a good overview of the topic here.
One of the main arguments against free will is that in a deterministic universe as predicted by classical (Newtonian) physics, everything is predestined. An incredibly fast supercomputer, knowing exactly how the universe began in the Big Bang, could basically calculate the entire future of the universe, including all of our actions. But even if the universe were completely deterministic, science is now aware of the phenomenon of chaos, where small changes in the initial conditions of nonlinear systems (the universe is most certainly nonlinear) cause large changes in the outcome. This is illustrated by the saying “a butterfly flapping its wings in China can change the weather of the next day in Brazil”. And then there’s quantum mechanics, which introduces inherent randomness, at least at the subatomic level. This may provide some leeway for free choice. A good review for non-scientists is in the book The Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by physics professors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner. The authors point out that there are many popular nonsensical pseudoscientific notions about quantum mechanics, so they try to explain the science while still showing some of its puzzling implications. Many neuroscientists argue that quantum mechanics doesn’t affect how consciousness works in the brain because it’s a “hot, wet environment,” but the authors provide arguments as to why it might still be relevant. Two recent scientific papers here and here also have interesting evidence on the subject. Finally, I came across this interesting discussion about why modern physics and biology contradict the no-free will prediction of classical physics.
However, there are a number of other important reasons to doubt free will. The first goes like this: I think I choose, but in fact there is no ‘I’, it is an illusion. In particular, what psychologists call the “self” or “ego” or what neuroscientists call an “executive control module” is an illusion. Evidence for this is that brain fMRIs, which indicate which regions are active, do not show a consistent result as we think or act. Instead, it seems that “coalitions” are constantly being formed and dissolved between multiple brain regions. Interestingly enough, on the face of it, this argument seems to agree with the claims of some spiritual traditions, such as the Buddhist doctrine of ‘no self’ or the Hindu concept that of a ‘false self’ that we must transcend to find our ‘true self’. to discover. †
But these traditions don’t stop there. They go on to say that when we quiet our minds and move beyond the “false self,” we discover our true nature. Spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran explained this as follows: : Many people know the famous quote from Descartes Cogito Ergo Sum, translated as “I think, therefore I am”. But you are not your thoughts, you can learn to observe them during meditation. And as you gain experience of this, you notice that in the silence between the thoughts there is still a passive observing ‘you’. So as Easwaran put it, maybe it should be “I stopped thinking, therefore I am”. I discussed neuroscience’s recent finding about the brain’s “default mode,” from which much of our constant mental chatter stems. This mode can be calmed down and your mind will become a lot calmer. But there is still a “you” there.
A second argument against free will is that we often act instinctively and later rationalize our actions. Like ‘I wanted to eat that cookie, even though I said I wouldn’t eat any more cookies. For once it was fine because I went for a run earlier today.” This argument about our rationalizing behavior is then taken to the extreme that we never make rational decisions, we are driven by our animal instincts and then rationalize. All the time. The famous experiments of Benjamin Libet in the 1980s are often cited as proof of this. These seemed to show that the electrical signal to the subjects’ muscles came before their conscious decision to move. Problems with these experiments and their interpretation are discussed here. But whether or not the Libet experiments prove anything, I’m willing to admit that there’s plenty of evidence that we often behave as if we were automatons. For example, how about if you are driving on your day off and out of habit you automatically take the exit to go to work? Psychologist Daniel Wegner was able to show different situations in which subjects thought they were making a conscious choice when they were not. This is discussed in detail here, but does not prove in my opinion that it always happens. So I’m not willing to admit that there’s evidence that we never act of our own free will.
There is a very good discussion of this in the book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley. dr. Schwartz works with patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He explains how this stems from faulty circuits in the brain. OCD patients feel helpless because they know they are engaging in compulsive behavior but are powerless to stop it. But nevertheless, through heroic effort, they can learn to cure this behavior, using a kind of mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy. Essentially, by consistently “putting their minds on it”, they can change their brains. In my opinion, this is a great demonstration of free will.
Even those of us without OCD can often behave compulsively. Eating junk food when we know it’s not good for us is a good example. So I would like to admit that when we give in and eat the junk food, we behave without free will. But when we resist temptation, we use free will. That’s where I got “but it takes willpower” in the title of this post.
dr. Schwartz gives a fascinating theory of how this works, based on the work of physicist Henry Stapp , with whom he has collaborated: Free will requires us to focus on what we are trying to “want”. This causes a phenomenon called the “quantum Zeno effect” (which is like “a watched pot never boils” to the quantum realm). When this effect works in the brain, it causes the right neurons to fire or not. Whether or not this particular theory is valid, I do believe we can have free will if we “commit to it”. And as noted here, Benjamin Libet himself suggested that our consciousness of willpower arises in time to veto actions.
This is intuitively known in popular culture in several ways, for example when we are taught to avoid a “knee jerk reaction”. Or to avoid reflexively saying something we might regret, we “bite our tongue.”
This amount of free will is more than enough to allow us to change for the better. This is the foundation for self-transformation, which I believe is the key to true happiness.
Easwaran, E, The Bhagavad Gita For Daily Living, Nilgiri Press, 2010.Stapp, H, Quantum Theory and Free Will: How Mental Intentions Translate into Physical Actions, Springer, 2017.
Published by BionicOldGuy
I am a mechanical engineer born in 1953, Ph. D, Stanford, 1980. I have been in the mechanical CAE field for decades. I also have a lifelong interest in outdoor activities and fitness. I had both hips replaced and a heart valve replacement due to a genetic condition. This blog describes my adventures to stay active despite these bumps in the road. View all posts from BionicOldGuy
Published April 14, 202213 April 2022
This post We Have Free Will (But It Takes Willpower) – BionicOldGuy was original published at “https://bionicoldguy.home.blog/2022/04/14/we-have-free-will-but-it-takes-willpower/”