I‘m very disturbed by the weight of evidence that leans away from our notion of “free will.” I spend a lot of energy telling people we have choices in how we behave, and we’ll lead better lives if we choose ours actions thoughtfully. I totally believe that, but I’m mostly wrong.
If we do have choice, if there is something called a conscious decision, it’s clearly not what many of us think it is. In reality our decisions are tightly bound by events over which we have no control.
We can, however, wiggle, and I fully encourage all of us to do so.
Free will and personal responsibility
The story I tell myself is one that many of us share. If I want to go to a movie, I pick the movie and I go. I decide whether I stay through the whole thing or pickup partway and leave. I can then go to Mel’s Diner next door. I see they have chocolate cake, and I remember it’s really good chocolate cake. I can then decide, as I stare at the cake and imagine the really good sensations of eating really good chocolate cake, that if I do eat it at 10pm, I’ll get a terrible night’s sleep. I know myself. I’m wise. I choose not to eat the cake because it’s my choice and I’m wise and it’s my choice.
That same free will applies when picking my friends, deciding whether to go to work or call in sick, or voting for a candidate for President.
I was raised with the idea that we are all fully responsible for our actions. As Conscious Agents with control of our behavior, we feel righteous and proud when we achieve our ideals and embarrassed or disappointed when we fail to live up to them. I was also raised to believe that remaining passive in the face of important choices turns us into Powerless Victims. The horror.
So I do my best to learn how to pay attention to what’s most important, especially through my actions, and I try to pass on what I know about it.
That’s that story I tell myself, and mostly it’s wrong.
The quick argument against free will
Did I really choose to not eat the cake? The idea didn’t come to me until I arrived at Mel’s and saw it. Where did the idea to go to Mel’s come from? The idea occured to me without my controlling it. After seeing and wanting the cake, the thought to not eat it appeared in my consciousness without my control, as well. If that thought hadn’t shown up, there would have been no choice but to eat it— or throw it, but I didn’t think of that.
It turns out my “decision” is less influenced by what I think of as free will as all the events that came before my decision. Personally, I have a long, deep history of experiences with chocolate cake, millions of sensations over my lifetime associated with imagining it, actually eating it, and suffering pleasure along with lost sleep. The history of my experiences is a much bigger influence on my decision than the moment at hand.
Then there is the absence of choice in my genetic makeup that forces me to consider chocolate cake a viable option at all. My brother doesn’t even like chocolate cake because he’s a big stupid, but I adore it, and always have. Why is that? Unlike him, I have the chocolate cake gene. My preferences and cravings are hard-wired through my body’s chemistry.
Then there’s the neurology of decision-making. Scientists can now measure the timing of actions and thoughts and conclude confidently that we act on our decisions long before we think we make them. Our consciousness lags well behind our choices. Decisions don’t even occur in what we consider to be our conscious mind.
And so, how do you “make a life you believe in?”
All this free will bashing screws with my head.
If almost everything we do is determined by factors outside the control of our conscious control, then what is left to link what we consider our desires with our actions? How do we make efforts to change bad habits or achieve difficult goals?
We wiggle our way through those giant, circumstantial factors and unconscious, neurological determinants the way an escape artist wiggles out of chains. While our consciousness might not be the governing factor of our decisions, we still have to make them.
That’s right. You still have to choose, and when a choice is to be made it’s still you who makes it, nobody else.
When the choices are big, we make the effort. We consult with friends, we make plans, we set our priorities, and all that effort influences what happens. We watch, we consider, we act. We wiggle. Every day. Every week.
We are wiggling right now, considering our thoughts and what to do about them. You and I are wiggling together as these words pass between us. This effort will have an effect on what you think and do next.
Let’s try something, for the effect, now.
Feel the teeth in your mouth. Move your tongue around in big circles and loosen up your jaw. Breathe through your nose a little more deeply than your last breathe. Feel your belly fill up and fall again. Ask yourself, what is the thing I really really want to do next?
That idea that just came to you, you and I conjured it together.
How does it feel?
Is it time to stop reading and go do that thing you really really want to do?
I hope so.
I’m going to go have my cake now. It’s my birthday today. I have no choice.
NOTE: My recent emergence from a year-long video hibernation led me to Sam Harris and his talk on Free Will. He doesn’t mention chocolate cake in it, but he better articulates these concepts in much more depth.