Free will: Myth or Reality?

Free will: Myth or Reality?

The religious maintain that faith in God and hereafter lends significance to their lives. The secular profess that individual’s freedom of choice provide their lives with significance. The modern science shows they are both equally delusional as the advances in life sciences now show us that the free individual is nothing more than the incarnation of an interplay of its biochemical elements. Free will does not stand up to hard scientific facts. Science challenges not only our belief in free will, but also the belief in individualism.        

In the past couple of hundred years we have come to regard individual freedom so highly that it is now the received wisdom that humans have a free will. So according to the currently prevalent view the choices of electorates or consumers are neither deterministic nor random. Bestsellers tell us to listen to our heart and do what it says, as only we know how we really feel. They emphasize that exercising our free will infuses life with meaning. This does sound convincing, a realistic depiction of human life. However, while this realistic depiction may have seemed sensible for the past two hundred years, it no longer befits the discoveries of modern life sciences. Instead, there is a clear incongruity between free will and present-day science. A plethora of experiments have repeatedly evinced that there is no single self inside us that makes all our decisions. Often we are torn between choices and most of a person’s decisions in life stem from a scrimmage between diverse and time and again conflicting inner entities.    

Reevaluating Free Will

One pioneering experiment was accomplished by Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and the author of the illustrious book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow.’ Kahneman conducted a three-part experiment on a group of volunteers. In the first part of the experiment the participants immersed one hand into water at 14 C (degree Celsius), which is unpleasant. In the second part of the experiment the participants immersed their other hand into water at 14 C, but after one minute warm water was secretly added to the container, taking the temperature up to 15 C. Thirty seconds later they were asked to pull out their hand. Some participants began with the first part and the others started with the second part. In the third part of the experiment the participants were asked to choose to repeat one of the two parts. 80% of the participants chose to repeat the second part because they remembered it as less painful.

This simple experiment reveals the presence of at least two selves within us – the experiencing self and the narrating self. For the experiencing self it is obvious that the second part of the experiment was worse because it involved exactly the same ordeal as in the first part followed by a slightly less unfriendly, but still anything but pleasant, experience for a shorter duration and adding a somewhat less painful experience to a painful experience does not make the entire episode less painful. However, we tend to not consult our experiencing self when it comes to making big decisions. Our narrative self takes over by creating a narrative that is a blend of memories and stories based on peak moments and end results, often using their average to evaluate the whole experience. In this instance, it chooses to repeat the second part, as driven by the end of the second part it determines the water to have been slightly less cold. This has extensive influence on all our practical decisions. The narrative self uses our experiences as central, but not the only, ingredient for its narratives. These narratives then engineer what the experiencing self really feels. For example, fasting for religious reasons is a totally different experience from going hungry in penury.

This is exactly what sustains myths and fantasies, because the more sacrifices we make for a make-believe story, the stronger the story becomes, powered by our fixation to lend sense to these sacrifices and travails. In 2003 the United States decided to invade Iraq in a war named ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ by its leadership. The US’s stated aim was to ‘save the world’ by thwarting the threat of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that Iraq was supposed to possess. Soon it became clear that Iraq hardly possessed any sophisticated arsenal let alone WMD. The US stated aim for invading Iraq then transformed into liberating the Iraqi people from tyranny and restoring the democracy. The US politicians made fiery speeches in the Congress, vowing to save the world and restoring Iraq to western style democracy and freedom. Tens of thousands of American soldiers were sent to fight in Iraq for the purpose. They thought the people of Iraq would garland them for liberating them from Saddam Hussain. Even though Saddam’s regime wilted in no time, it was anything but a warm welcome for the US troops from the people of Iraq. Extremists, enjoying support in wide swathes of Iraqi population, hurled themselves at the US soldiers. Fine young American men began to die for no purpose as the glorious adventure totally miscarried. The strongest country on Earth lost 4,486 of its finest men, several hundred thousand were wounded – with thousands crippled for life, thousands suffered serious psychiatric ailments, and over $2 trillion of the taxpayers’ money was spent on the war. However, the POTUS and the US leadership who had instigated this war, did not admit their folly because that would have amounted to telling the parents and families of the dead soldiers that their young men perished in vain. The parents were even more firmly rooted in the glory of the adventure because it is even more difficult for the parents to tell themselves that their son died for nothing. And it is hardest for the victims to admit to themselves that they suffered in vain. A soldier who lost his arms would rather tell himself that I suffered for the liberation of Iraq from abominable tyranny than admitting that I paid for the stupidity of an egotistic president and his self-serving generals.     


So, the more people sacrifice for any putative entities, like gods and nations, the stronger their belief in the entity they sacrifice for. Interestingly, clerics had discerned this rule thousands of years before any scientists or psychologists stumbled on it.       

Some two hundred years ago, human being was an enigma whose internal being and its mechanisms were outside the realm of the known. However, in their remarkable journey since Charles Darwin, life sciences have encountered no ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. Instead, they have discovered chromosomes, DNA, genes, hormones, and neurons that obey the universal laws of physics and chemistry, accounting for all human behaviour in terms of biochemicals and genes. The behaviours dictated by biochemicals and genes cannot be free. They have antecedent causes. The electrochemical process in the brain can be caused either by external provocations or random internal biochemical changes. Neither cause allows the room for free will as probabilistic determinism does not add up to free will. This meshing of determinism and randomness responsible for human behaviour does not conform to any notions of free will. Thus free will, like soul or spirit, comes out as a mere speculative idea that abounds in make-believe fictions we have thought up.

The theory of evolution was where it all began to change as natural selection could not have fashioned a species that were free because if an animal could freely choose its food, residence, and mates then natural selection would have nothing to do. Instead, evolution is shaped by the choices animals make by cause of their genetic codes. The genes tweaked by these choices in a lifetime are then passed on to the next generation. Like many other people, you can dismiss these scientific arguments, claiming that you enjoy freedom to do as you want. In that case what you assert is right, but you are missing the point. Verily, humans act according to their desires, but then so do monkeys, horses, elephants, and many other animals. The free will is not about acting according to our desires, free will is about being totally free to choose our desires. Desires are the feelings created by the biochemical processes in our brain. As we saw above, these processes can be either deterministic or random but not free. In fact, the biochemical pursuit of happiness (drugs) is the single biggest cause of crimes in the world.

The study of evolution has shown that feelings actually are intricate procedures instructed by evolution to assist animals in making the right decisions. Thus, our feelings are neither accidental nor unformulated, they represent millions of years of applied knowledge. That’s why following our feelings was very often the best alternative because they have been programmed by millions of years of survival. However, now we are developing processes utilising hitherto unimaginable artificial intelligence that are superior to feelings.

These are no longer just hypotheses. We can already use brain scanners to foretell people’s predilections and choices well before they are conscious of them. For example, in one such study, people are put in a large brain scanner, and are asked to hold a switch in each hand. They are told to press one of the two switches whenever they want to. Scientists monitoring neural action in the brain can tell which switch a person will press before the person does so and even before the person is aware of their own choice. Neural actions in the brain start before the person becomes aware of their intention. The choice to press either the right or the left button represents the person’s free will. However, the will involved here is not as free as it seems because it is a biochemical chain reaction that makes the person want to press a certain button. And knowing this biochemical activity helps correctly predict the person’s decision before the person is aware of it. We do not create our desires; we only feel them and act likewise.

It is pointless to ask whether we choose our desires randomly or freely, because, in reality, there is only a flow of consciousness and desires spring from and pass within this flow. Mistrusting free will is not just a theoretical exercise, it has applied inferences. It means that we can influence and dictate organisms’ will through drugs, genetic engineering, or other means for manipulating brain. There have been numerous experiences that involve imbedding electrodes into the sensory areas of an animal’s brain and then choreographing the animal’s behaviour by remote control. For instance, rats implanted with electrodes are already used to find survivors stuck under fallen buildings, to detect bombs and land mines, and to chart subterranean tunnels and caves. These rats enjoy the experience as the electrodes work the reward areas in their brains and they don’t feel being controlled or coerced to do something against their will. These rats will tell you that they have free will because they turn right when they desire to turn right, turn left when they desire to turn left, and jump or climb when they want to, but, in reality, this shows that our desires are nothing but a scheme of animated neurons.

Unveiling the Illusion of Free Will

The conventional wisdom requires that we listen to our inner being, show courage to recognise our authentic voice, and then obey its commands despite the challenges. Technological development has different plans, though. It has no interest in heeding to our inner voices, it only wants to control them. To do so it wants to understand the biochemical interplay engendering those voices so that it can play with the control buttons to make life easier and happier. We are already witness to how the right dosages of the right chemicals have vastly enhanced the wellbeing and life of millions. The modern psychiatry has shown that many of the so-called ‘inner voices’ and ‘epiphanies’ are nothing more than the creation of biochemical disproportions and neurological illnesses.     

Experiments performed on humans have showed that, like animals, human will too can be influenced, as kindling the right spots in the human brain can produce or eliminate even compound feelings like love, hate, fear, envy, and depression. Successful experiments have already been conducted where implanting computer chips in people’s brains cures problems like post-traumatic disorder or depression. However, intrusive procedures are used only in extreme cases and most such experiments are performed by using non-intrusive devices, such as fitting a helmet with conductors that stick on to the head from outside. It generates feeble electromagnetic fields and points them at specific areas of brain to rouse or hinder certain brain actions. Among others, the American military trials with such helmets with the objective of enhancing the concentration and improving the performance of soldiers. Results of numerous studies have suggested that these can be useful in improving the mental abilities of personnel whose jobs require them to be extremely alert for long periods of time. However, the technology is still in its initial stages and may take a while to mature.

As these scientific insights are transformed into everyday technology, we are not far from the day when mature technology shall be available to control our inner monologues and to control the brain’s electric arrays. Then people will be able to influence their brain’s electrical charge in order to enhance their focus, mood, or performance. Once people can invent and reinvent their will, we will not be able to see it as the definitive basis of all meaning and authority. Instead, when our desires become uncomfortable, technology will bail us out by transforming what our will says into something else. We are on the verge of experiencing an influx of highly handy contraptions and tools that do not take into account the free will of individual humans. When that happens, free will shall be another product available for purchase. 

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