Do We Have Free Will?
This might seem like a question for philosophers, and in fact it has been for millennia. It really is a question for all of us. Do we choose? Or are our choices chosen for us, perhaps by a creator, perhaps by biology? On Saturday the radio program This American Life aired an episode that focused on will. The will to make a thing happen. Acts of volition. The first couple of segments were stories that spoke to how people exercised their will to achieve or change something. The last segment flipped the thing on its head. In talking with neuroscientists at Harvard and elsewhere journalist David Kastenbaum heard the argument that we, our acts, our behaviors, are the mostly-deterministic result of firing neurons, action potentials, and the electro-chemical currents of the brain-machine.
In short, you think no thoughts that are yours, inasmuch as you cannot anticipate the origin of a thought.
Ok, that sounds a bit crazy. Let me try again. Let us say that you think a thought, like, "I am thinking now.” Where and when did your thought start? We intuitively feel that we are thinking, coming up with ideas, making decisions. Neuroscientists argue that measurements of thought and action don’t support this view. They aregue that to think is to work a biomachine called a brain. But what started it working? Mapping the function of the brain has led scientists to question a fundamental belief of what it means to be human: that we originate our thoughts.
Now that we've mapped this--and I'm not saying anyone claims to understand it--it has become increasing evident that "thoughts" must spring into existence unbidden. A thought had to have been preceded by a prior thought, and so on. The only logical interpretation, these scientists argue, is that at no time have we initiated anything. All thought, all decision, is a burst of neural activity that we did not—even could not—have decided upon beforehand. The implication: We choose nothing. Each of us is a slave to an unfolding sequence of electrical action potentials that snap from one to the other, not always in a straight line, and in fact mostly in bursts, clusters, and linked tracks that would resemble the chaining of a series of fireworks, each burst seeming to set off another burst elsewhere, but none of it truly under our control.
Makes a cool mental picture, but the implications are profound for who we are. Stick with me here. I know this is dense, but I’m going somewhere with it.
One can make an argument based in religion or metaphysics. But metaphysics by their nature are unknowable and therefore untestable. What I'm talking about here neither proves nor negates religion or religious spirituality. So maybe we are aware of ourselves, maybe we have free will, because a god wills it. I'm not equipped to tackle this, and anyway, it's not necessary.
I do think this is a medically important question, and a relevant question in any healing work. Determinism, and that's what we're talking about here, can persuade both the sick and the healthy to decide that there's little that can be done. It induces inertia and guilt. "I am the product of my genes, of connected neural impulses. I have no control." Worse, it suggests that any sense of control is itself an illusion of control.
So back to the radio show.
These scientists were all kind of on the same page. The evidence points in this direction. The conclusion is inevitable. (And if this sounds like kind of depressing, yeah, it is.) But here's what's wrong with this thinking.
We've seen it before. At the end of the 19th century, classical physics had developed to the point to which it was believed possible that we could know everything. They believed the universe unfolded like a clock. It was mechanical, followed rules, and was ultimately deterministic. However, in the background, the math was falling apart, and this would lead to Einstein's and Planck's theories in the early 20th century. Those theories, later experimentally validated, suggest that the very small world of atomic physics is full of things that wink into and out of existence, and perhaps even travel backward or forward in time. Weird stuff.
The guests on TAL acknowledged the random, probablistic nature of quantum physics, as perhaps the origin of something, maybe thoughts, maybe consciousness. One guest posed the "quack like a duck" argument. We know free will exists because it seems like it does. "If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck." It just seems intuitively right that we have the will to choose.
Yet their digression at that point only serves to underscore my own argument. Why must the physiology of the brain necessarily point to only one possible conclusion about where thoughts come from? Earlier I proposed that this is "machine thinking", that the human body is a machine. The brain itself is a machine. This has implications that reach deeply into our conception of self, and touch upon something that is profoundly reassuring to all of us. If we are machines, then we can be "fixed". Everything can be fixed, if we just understand how the machine works. This is important, because the notion is framed by our shared sense of the tools we feel we have available to us: drugs, surgery, counseling and behavioral therapies, physical and occupational therapies, prosthetics, and so on. These available tools fit with a machine-based conception of human life very well.
This way of thinking about human consciousness is quite binary. We have free will or we don’t. We are machines or we aren’t.
We love binary choices. Nature versus nurture. Determinism versus free will. It is essentially a mechanic's choice. How to fix the world? Turn a screw here. Add some some solder there. Connect a few wires. It's done, and we can cure diseases, increase our food supply, and clean our world. It is the conceit of people who need to know there's an answer that they are equipped to understand.
I believe this is a fundamentally faulty approach to the question of consciousness. My proposition is based on the idea that we don’t yet know what we don’t know. We therefore choose to frame such questions in terms of only what we know now. That doesn’t make the unknowable less real, just farther out of reach. The experimental evidence suggests to some that “thought” is a sequence or cascade of spontaneous “origin thoughts” that we don’t come up with on our own. We behave, in a sense, like animals. I argue that we should be more imaginative about these findings.
What if free will is the aggregated electrical impulses of spontaneous “origin thoughts” but then these coalesce into a “consciousness experience” that is both intuitive and creates feedback that can control the general direction of subsequent thoughts? This would violate neither the sense that we can think and choose, nor the experimental evidence about how brains function in real time.
It could be that. Or it could be something else. In either case, it is the failure to step outside of classical frameworks of scientific understanding that hold us back. This failure leads to really interesting findings in the physical world of experimental study becoming very limiting philosophical conclusions that solve nothing. In medicine, a more imaginative view of this evidence can lead us to more imaginative conceptions of health and disease. For individuals, we might recognize that we are at once subject to spontaneous impulses that arise from the deep recesses of our brains, but at the same time, this activity itself creates a field effect, a force, or self-regulating effort that returns to us some control, some will.