In Part I, I hoped to get you into a relaxed frame of mind as you consider the possibility about the existence of free will. That perhaps our subscribing to free will is more trouble than it’s worth and that life can be no less wonderful without it. So here is the way that I like to look at our ability to make choices.
In a previous blog post I talked about the fortunes of life perhaps depending on the choice between Pepsi and Coke, so let’s stick with soda (or pop if you
prefer) to start our little thought experiment. Let’s say you live in a world in which there is only one beverage you know about, and that beverage is Coke. When you are thirsty and you need something to drink, there is no decision to make it is going to be Coke. Free will does not enter into the decision.
Now this is not particularly realistic. So let’s add a choice like Pepsi into the mix. They taste different, but both can quench your thirst. Which one do you choose? Well let’s see what might go into making a decision. You are at the store that sells the only two beverages that are available and which one do you choose? Likely your choice will come down to statistical probability. If you absolutely had no preference, your decision would simply be random. Over the course of your life you would probably have picked Coke 50% of the time and Pepsi 50% of the time, provided you had a choice. Nothing in your life that you have learned has caused you to lean one way or another, there are only two choices, and thus your choice is limited and can be simply equated to flipping a coin.
You might say at this point, wait, I can choose to pick Coke or Pepsi more often. Okay then, but why would you? What particular reason would you have for choosing one over the other? This question is particularly devilish so I’ll get back to it later. As for now, you have no reason to choose one more than another, and so quite simply you wouldn’t; it’s a flip of the coin, which isn’t free will. Generally people don’t do anything without a reason.
Now let’s throw in a reason. Your mother who you revere and think is wonderful always brought you a special souvenir coke when she’d go away somewhere, and so drinking Coke sometimes reminds of that warm feeling. This is an influence that impacts your decision making. All of a sudden your preference for Coke perhaps goes to 60% (40% Pepsi) because when you’re thinking about your mom you’re in a mood for Coke, taking away from it always being a completely random decision. Now since Coke is a little less sweet, perhaps your blood doesn’t react well to too much sugar, a genetic trait running in your family, and you can’t tolerate Pepsi as often and all of a sudden you’re at 75% Coke, 25% Pepsi. Then you find that the makers of Coke are a little more efficient at running their business and are able to have more sales on their product. As someone who is money conscious all of sudden you are buying Coke 85% of the time, Pepsi 15%. A really hot girl or guy is in the Coke commercial – 90%/10%. Finally your Dad is a mean person who beat you as a child and he always drank Pepsi. All of a sudden you are only drinking Coke again. Your choices are a function of the things that influence you.
For every answer there is a question. You’re money conscious, but where does that come from? Perhaps your father despite being abusive was very disciplined with money and so you gained that skill from him. What if you decide that you aren’t going to let your father’s action impact your decisions and
get a Pepsi out of spite. Great, but what would cause you to be so defiant and rebellious. Perhaps your mother showed that trait. Perhaps you were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. that you learned about in school. Perhaps you were inspired by the movie Braveheart. There may be many possible influences, the point is that you believe that defiance is a positive way of dealing with such childhood trauma and that idea had to come from somewhere. Many people do not have such boldness. Perhaps that is not a weakness, perhaps they just feel the best way to cope is for them to completely dissociate themselves with their Pepsi drinking dad as way of staying stress free and peaceful. They learned this from a self-help book that they read on letting go of the past.
Now going back to an earlier question, what prevents you from just preferring one drink over another for no reason? People seem to do things for no reason all the time, and I would have to agree. But doing something for the hell of it is also a trait. There are people who will never be like that all their lives. Some people say, I’m just going to be a Coke drinker even though I like both of them well enough, because hey why not, I’m a wild and crazy guy, and I just want to be on team Coke. Where does this spontaneous side come from? An aunt you love and revere whose always taking chances and is a thrill seeker? A friend you went to college with who just loved to be spontaneous? But if your spontaneous next year you might just be on Team Pepsi.
The reasons for our decisions are so varied and complex that such a breakdown for why we make the decision we do is not always clear, but it is clear that we are conditioned by multiple influences over different scales of time to reach those decisions. Your choice of beverage might really be something like this:
Coke 70% – Tastes better, grew up with it, family drank Coke
Trying something new 10% – Your mom always encouraged you to try new things and that variety is important so you aren’t afraid to take a chance when something catches your eye
Dr. Pepper 10% – You also like the taste and it reminds you of your years in grad school when you and your friends used to always take a break from studies and get a Dr. Pepper
RC Cola 5% – They were out of Coke, you wanted a cola and you hate Pepsi
Tolerable Beverages 5% – when your favorite choices aren’t available you can tolerate maybe an Orange Crush, Fanta, or Root Beer because it’s better than any of the other choices you’ve been given.
And then finally you might have a special category of beverage you’d hate and never choose unless you had been in the desert a real long time and had no other choice.
In our minds we think about all the things we have drank and see them all as choices and feel like we are consciously making the choice with our free will, but the truth is that we are conditioned into those choices and if we really thought about it, we usually do get a Coke, and the other beverages are choices but low probability ones.
Can our lives really be predicted so easily? Our decisions already pre-determined? The answer, of course, is “no”, because life is full of unexpected events. Even if everything that occurs is deterministic you are an incredibly small part of everything and cannot follow the chain of events. And perhaps your penchant for trying new things leads you to a beverage you love more than Coke. Perhaps you fall in love with a girl who loves Dr. Pepper and that becomes your preferred drink since you both like it and it’s something you can share.
Life is full of events that we don’t know are coming and it is those intersections that throw us out of our comfort zones and give us new experiences that shift the probabilities and possibilities of choices we can make in any given situation. Whether you are open or closed to new situations also depends on the various things that can influence us as human beings. We are animals born with a unique mixture of genes, in a part of the world we had no choice in, raised by people who we had no choice over, while our senses feed us information every day we exist to a brain that has been conditioned over millions of years to process all that information amazingly well and do its best to help us survive. Yet most things we will never know or understand fully, closing off an entire range of possibilities that we might choose from. And so what if we are not consciously making our choices? We are a complex mixture of nature and nurture and in such a symphony who wants to pick out a single note from a single instrument. Just sit back and enjoy the music.
13 thoughts on “How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part II”
Call me a fool, but I read both part I and part II 😛
I’ll preface this by stating that I really have no stake in the outcome here. Whether or not we have free will or not doesn’t change the quality of my life and it doesn’t change my objective reality. Now, that that’s out of the way.
Is the argument here that one will never be able to rise above the influences in their past? That, given the sum of my experience, I have no choice but to make a certain decision? If so, then I would have to steadfastly disagree with that premise. I’d even disagree–although to a lesser extent–that we cannot overcome genetic predisposition or chemical/hormonal influence. Admittedly, neuroscience is not really my area of expertise. But I think that off the cuff I could come up with at least a few instances or examples of people resisting personal experience, genetics, and/or chemical influence.
Of course even if I’m correct, that doesn’t mean we have free will. It strikes me that it’s almost impossible to prove whether or not we actually have free will. I’m not sure how one would actually test or quantify that. Or if it’s even possible to do so.
Interestingly, I think that if we ever proved that there are parallel or alternate universes that that would spell the end of “free will” as we think of it. If parallel universes really do exist, and they really are infinite, then you’ve already made every choice possible. I guess it would be impossible for you to make any other choice than the one created by your singular universe, since all of the other options and scenarios are being played out individually over an infinite number of universes.
Clearly theoretical physics isn’t my strong suit either lol. Now I’m the one rambling. Anyway, interesting post! Lots to think about, as usual. Thank you!
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Thanks for your comments as always Ryan. I don’t think I was exactly saying that we can’t overcome our past only that the vast array of influences on us are what give us our choices to begin with so that free will in that we simply have the ability to choose whatever we want is limited by a combination of influences ranging from genetic, cultural, societal, educational, and those in our lives, especially those who raised us. And that those influences range over different timescales. You could have read a book today that completely changed your mind about something and made you aware of not only a new choice, but one that is more probable for you to make. The reason you look for answers in books is perhaps because of your educational background, or because your parents were avid readers. The reason why you are willing to change your position on something may be related to education, a professor or teacher you revered or whatever. I meant simply to make the case that the decisions we make are a result of conditioning through various influences both in the present and in the past and we do not choose to do something that is beyond or knowledge or beyond what is in our nature to most likely do. If you rise above let’s say some past trauma it is because you know that it is possible, you know that it is beneficial, or more importantly you are trying to stop feeling perhaps some pain that you feel. Thus making the choice more like an action to survive. Thus making it not a choice of free will, but an action you see as what you need to make to stop some pain. If you are hungry and you only know that you can eat bread to satisfy hunger, you are going to look for bread first. When there is no bread, you will keep waiting until you are desperately hungry before you grasp for anything hoping it provides sustenance. Maybe you find an apple and it’s tasty and you don’t feel hungry anymore. Now you know when you’re hungry you can eat bread or an apple. Your preference will be influenced by availability and nutritional needs. You might think you are consciously making a choice to eat bread or eat an apple, but you are not. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel does a very interesting look at how agricultural and other food practices developed as a result of the nutritional needs that were available. In islands where there was cannibalism there was literally not enough protein there and such practices were developed.
Most people will not just up and quite their job and move to Zimbabwe and become a goatherder. If they do, it is because it is in their nature to make impulsive decisions. There could be an impulsive gene, they could have had an impulsive parent that they revere. There could be many other answers, I’m just saying that we have a range of choices, with a range of probabilities that we’ll make them, and our brains analyze which is the best choice given a particular situation, and we make that decision as a result of the many things that can condition us.
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So would it more accurate to say that it’s less about the ability to choose and more about the way choices arise?
Yes I would say so. I mean one could argue that we have free will for the choices we can actually make with some choices simply being less appealing or more appealing based on the influences that make us who we are.
Ooh, well that changes my understanding then lol. Carry on 😛
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It also means I need to become a better writer since you are smart and I was not clear!
I think the who we are is the sum of our life experiences, plus a little bit of genetic influence mixed in.
As to the choices we make in life, call me a free will holdout. I feel like yes there are many influences that direct our decisions, but I still feel that right up to the nanosecond before we take an action, based on our decision, we are still open to other options, even if they may be few. Once the action is taken, the course is set there is no going back, and that action triggers a future set of circumstances we cannot fully see or predict when we took that action. Making for the chaos we call life. Each decision that leads to an action, has a level of uncertainty in probable outcomes.
Which requires more decisions. etc etc.
I think I would tend to call it a conditional free will. I am agreeing with your claim that experiences do temper our decisions, but that we ultimately have the capacity to change our minds, change course, right up to the point that we act on that decision. Once we have acted upon it, it sets its own course of probablities.
I think I may have repeated myself there, but it made sense in my mind when I was typing it.
Hmm. This takes it even further. I am sorry, I cannot agree with you here because you are virtually saying that everything is pre-destined. Now, pepsi and coke have not been around forever, so somewhere, someone made the choice between the two with free-will.
(Yes, I know that you have only used this as an exaggerated example. So have I).
I am not sure I understand your counter example.
Again I did not say we do not have choices, I simply said that our choices are governed by first of all what we are aware of (we cannot make choices beyond what we actually know about the world), and that among the choices that we are aware of those choices cover a range of probabilities which are determined by the various influences in our lives. And since the future is not completely predictable we don’t know what new things will come along and influence us.
Just knowing a choice is available doesn’t necessary make it a likely choice. The heroin addict knows that heroin is not a good choice, yet still makes it. Studies of addiction show that addicts have their thinking altered to justify their behavior, partly because of the effect of an addictive drug, partly because they never learned better ways of coping with their problem.
I encourage you to read some books on how the brain works. I recommend “how the mind works” by Steven Pinker, and The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. In addition Sam Harris’ short book on Free Will is also worth a read. My arguments here are posed in a philosophical fashion, but new technology called fMRI allows us to see what areas of the brain activate under different circumstances and studies show that we actually make decisions before our consciousness becomes aware of them also supporting the idea that our freedom of choice is more of an illusion because of how evolved our conscious mind is.
Thanks for the response. I understand where you are coming from now.
I have read quite a few books on how the brain works (including a 700 page textbook on brain injury) and I will check out the ones you have referenced. Thanks.
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I recently read the book Propaganda by Edward Bernays – it was really great in terms of understanding all the forces at work and kinda makes you realize how illusory free will actually is. I love this point because it’s a subject that a lot of theologians struggle with and it ends up defining their entire systems of belief.
Thank you for your comment Rebecca. I find people extremely uncomfortable with the idea that their might not be free will, or that it might not be as free as we think it is. Yet it is pretty common among neuroscientists and cognitive scientists who study the brain that free will is an illusion. I am a fairly well read person but when I started learning about the brain, I was shocked at how much we know about it. A lot more since we started being able to do fMRI imaging. There have been incredible advances within the last 20 years and the next 50 they are talking about being able to completely map all the neural pathways of the brain and even possible be able to build the first truly artificial intelligence. There is an element of fright to this too, but I think it should be a much bigger part of education even at the K-12 level to teach students more about how the brain works and to see at as a physical organ rather than teaching the more commonly held notion that mind and body are separate.
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