I have been fascinated with the idea of free will for a long time. Questions like, “What is it and does it exist?” go through my head regularly. During college, I felt as though free will must surely exist, but that evil didn't necessarily spring from it as many religions or philosophers seemed to believe. People often think, largely because of the bible, that if we have free will, then we have choice. That choice can be good or bad, as illustrated in the bible by Eve’s decision to eat the apple in the garden of Eden.
I never saw it that way. I assumed that free will did exist, but it was not responsible for good and evil. Instead, if anything was considered “evil”, it was simply an act committed by a person that was either ignorant or insane. Even with the person’s free will being exercised, I never put responsibility of malice or evil intent on them.
I still believe that ignorance or insanity are the two reasons for any sort of act that causes another person pain or suffering. I simply do not believe that people act maliciously. To me, insanity means lacking any ability to empathize or reason due to genetic disabilities in your brain or intense emotions like rage and jealousy - both of which are outside a person’s control. The first is a lifelong problem, whereas intense emotions are temporary. Ignorance, on the other hand, simply means lacking the knowledge needed to empathize or reason properly, but having full control over your emotions. Since college, however, my understanding (read belief) of free will has changed as I've learned more about the world, especially neuroscience.
History of Free Will
The idea of will goes back a long way. I am not going to attempt to trace it to its origin. What’s important in this conversation is that traditionally the idea of free will is largely linked to the idea of a soul separate from the body and intimately connected to reason.
If our soul is disembodied from our flesh, emotions, and feelings, then reason can reign undisturbed by our environment. It is ethereal and acting solely of its own logic, without interruption from our unconscious brain or the influence of external stimuli.
This belief seems pretty untenable at this point based on the evidence coming out of the field of neuroscience. Naturally, nothing has been proved or written in stone, but the probability is getting smaller and smaller and if I were a betting man, I would definitely not put any chips down on a disembodied soul or mind.
As mentioned in my recent post on dress codes, research by people like Eagleman, Churchland, Lakoff, and Damasio points more and more strongly to the fact that reason is not unconnected from our feelings, brain, or environment. In fact, multiple cases like Phineas Gage, a man with a brain injury that no longer allowed him to experience normal social emotions, show that without our feelings we are incapable of making even the most mundane decisions. We need emotion to reason. If this is true, then what does it mean to have free will?
Meaning of Chaotic Will
Chaos theory is the idea of the butterfly flapping its wings in India and a hurricane forming in the Caribbean as a result. It means that small events can have exponentially larger consequences. It also means that we can’t predict the future very well because of the non-linearity of a chaotic system. It does not mean that there is no reason or cause for an event, just that we can’t easily predict it.
The best example I’ve seen to explain this is the idea of filling a bucket up with ping pong balls and dumping it upside down. You would have an almost zero percent chance of predicting where one particular ping pong ball would finally come to rest and if you did happen to get it right, it would almost assuredly be from luck. Even with that being true, there are obvious causal factors that determine where those ping pong balls come to rest. We know enough about physics to understand that gravity, friction, potential and kinetic energy all exist and they impact where each ping pong ball goes. We just don’t have the mental computing power to put all that knowledge to use in predicting where an individual ball will go. When we dump the bucket upside down, it looks random, but we know it’s not. It’s all a result of physics.
This is what the idea of a chaotic will looks like to me. It might look like I have free will because I seem to be making conscious choices. That is simply an illusion though. Most of my decision making ability is being carried out subconsciously in an area of the brain I have no conscious control over. This nonconscious activity is calculating all sorts of knowledge and data I don’t even know exists. It’s taking into account things such as past decisions and their outcomes, my current needs and wants, my current physiological state, my emotions, my genetic predispositions, and a million other aspects outside of my conscious choice.
We can think of all of this as the physics of the brain. The biology that we have been endowed with via evolution has given our brains a million deterministic factors for our choices. What looks like free will is really just all the physics of the brain doing its thing behind the scenes. Of course, our conscious brain likes to believe it is in control. So when we are asked why we made a certain choice, it will come up with a simple reason. “A led to B, and B led to C.” Obvious.
This is all a logical fallacy of the post hoc variety. Assuming we decided something because it happened after something else. It’s just our conscious brain’s way of believing it’s in control when really the majority of decision making is happening beneath the surface.
That’s my current understanding on free will. My current belief is that it’s largely an illusion. We may appear to have it, but really it’s just an amalgamation of our genetics, environment, and past experiences and that most of our decision making ability comes from subconscious brain activity.
You don’t need to trust me that this is true. Think about it for yourself. When was the last time you made a decision and not your emotions? I ran through this question with my wife not too long ago just to illustrate the point to her.
She said she makes decisions all the time. For example, she decided what we were going to eat for dinner. I then asked her how she did that. She said she wanted something healthy. Lean meat and vegetables. How does she know those are healthy? She read a book or saw a TV show. How does she know those are trusted sources? She believes them because of their credentials and converging evidence. Ah, belief. That is a feeling and not something you control. At the end of the day, you simply feel something is right. Even with all the converging evidence in the world, you can’t be sure. Nassim Taleb has written about this extensively and uses the examples of black swans and turkeys.
Everyone in England thought all swans were white until they went to Australia and saw black swans for the first time. All turkeys think they have the best life in the world and that it will continue to be so until Thanksgiving day comes around and it quickly turns for the worse.
Even with all that, there is still a part of me, deep down, that simply believes free will must exist. It has to, right? How else can we better ourselves or reach for a better world. I’m not sure. The evidence I’ve seen suggests free will doesn’t exist, but I deeply hope it does. I don’t want my life to be completely at the whim of my genetics and desire to reproduce and adapt to the environment. But if that’s all there is, who really cares anyway? I'm just lucky to be alive and somewhat conscious for most of it. Lacking free will wouldn’t really bother me all that much.