Vinod Kurup

Hospitalist/programmer in search of the meaning of life

Thoughts on Free Will

Time for some pop philosophy. I’ve never thought too deeply about the concept of free will. Of course we have free will! I chose to live my life a certain way. I could choose to live a different way. It is my free will to choose how I live. I’ve never thought about it more deeply than that.

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein and I was forced to think more deeply about free will. The biography is excellent. It gives more depth to Einstein, who, despite his flaws, is still a heroic figure. One day, I’ll do a proper review, but the piece that struck me the hardest was Einstein’s views on free will. He didn’t believe that free will existed, and not only that, he didn’t even to seem to think that this was a controversial position. It appears that Isaacson didn’t either, because he didn’t spend much time on that part of Einstein’s character. But, it seemed so strange to me, since I assumed that we all have free will.

So, I read Sam Harris’s e-book Free Will, in which he concisely explains why free will is a myth. Take any conscious decision that you might make. Let’s say you choose at this moment to go eat a pizza. Do you have the free will to make that choice? Well, you certainly can go eat pizza, but the question is if you had the free will to do it. What were the steps that led to making that choice. Somewhere in your brain, a certain set of neurons fired to trigger the idea in your mind to have a pizza. How did those neurons fire? Either there was a conscious decision to have that thought, or it was an unconscious decision that you didn’t control. And if it was a conscious decision, then you can take that back a step further and ask how that decision occurred. Eventually, you will have to start at some unconscious (or subconscious) event which triggered the series of events which eventually led to your decision to have a pizza. No matter how far back you can track the conscious trail that led to a pizza forming in your mind, eventually you are left with an unconscious starting point. Certainly all of these thoughts are heavily influenced by your life experiences. If you’ve never seen or heard of a pizza, there’s a zero percent chance that you’ll think of a eating a pizza. But all of those life experiences are themselves the result of conscious and unconscious decisions, all of which we ultimately have no specific control over.

Every thought you have is the only thought you could have at that moment. It is the result of all of the life experiences and thoughts that you have had up to that moment. If you consciously try to “create” an original thought, just to prove that you have free will, well… you can’t. Because that decision itself originated from somewhere in your subconscious, and is therefore something that you don’t have conscious control over.

In addition to this theoretical rationalization against the concept of free will, Harris describes multiple studies from neuroscience which show that neurons fire in our subconscious well before we develop the urge to act. Examples:

Bottom line: I’m convinced that I don’t have the free will that I thought I did. The question is how this should affect my life. It could be depressing. If every thought of mine originates in a way that I don’t control, then am I just being steered through life? It makes my accomplishments in life seem less “worthy”. On the other hand, it can be quite freeing. My path through life is determined. Perhaps I shouldn’t be worrying so much about every decision, because I know that they’re not really “my” decisions to make. It can also give you more empathy for others, knowing that they also have no will do anything but what they are doing.

It’s still a confusing topic, because I “feel” like I have options in life and I “feel” like taking different options will change my life. That part is true. The part that isn’t true is that I have any control over the range of available options, nor over the specific option that I choose. Even Harris seems to be a little conflicted here:

Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic—in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically transform one’s life.

The question is how do you accomplish a ‘creative change of inputs’, if you don’t have the will to do so? I guess the idea is that while I don’t have any control over the thoughts that arise in my brain, I do have perceived control over my decisions. With whatever power my conscious brain has, I can choose things that will improve my life, with the hope that exposure to new experiences will ‘change the inputs’ to my subconscious brain. Ugh, just thinking about how this all works makes my brain hurt. I guess this is why I never studied philosophy before. :-)

Free Will is short and cheap and I highly recommend it.