Are we really free?
Ok. If you seriously think about this, it might give you sleepless nights. I am talking about the question of whether we really have free will. A Google search for “define freewill” gives me this definition.
Noun: The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.
Free will essentially means the ability to choose from choices. This is something we do daily. Whether to get up from bed or not, whether to get up now or 5 minutes later, whether to brush your teeth and then look at the newspaper or to do it the other way round, what to make for breakfast, what to wear, which bus to take to work, whether to take the stairs or the lift and so on. We keep making choices every second of every minute of every hour of every day.
Or that is how it seems to us. My purpose of this post is to make you think about this. Are we really choosing? Or is it only that it seems we are, but we actually are not. It could be that even though your brain thinks it had a choice, it really did not have any. Is it possible that given that exact situation, you could not really have chosen anything else but what you have chosen?
If the previous paragraph was too abstract, consider this scenario. On August 5th 2011, at 1.00 PM, you are at an ice-cream shop where you have a choice of flavours you can choose from. You decide to go for the chocolate ice cream at 1.01 PM. Now let us do the thought experiment. Imagine, that by some mechanism, you were again at the ice cream shop on the same day August 5th 2011 and at the same time 1.00 PM. You again have a choice. There is no difference in the way the universe was the first time and the second time. Is it possible that on the second attempt, you would choose a different flavour? Could you have, for instance, chosen the strawberry flavour, instead of the chocolate flavour, the second time?
That is really the crux of the question. Could you have chosen otherwise, given that everything else in the universe is the same? Now that we have understood what the question is, let us proceed.
It might seem a stupid question. You might say “Of course, I choose. I could have definitely gone for the strawberry flavour, but I decided to go for chocolate, since I felt like it. I consciously chose”. That is what we would all feel. But if you look at those words used, closely, you will see that we talk about decisions, feelings, consciousness etc. But where do these things come from? The decisions and feelings are a result of the brain reacting in some specific manner to a given set of stimuli. Consciousness too, as argued earlier, is nothing but the result of the physical processes in the brain. Our brain is like a computer, but vastly more complex. But all said and done, it is a machine.
Look at it this way. The fact that you chose chocolate ice cream, could have depended, for example, on the following facts
- You had chocolate sometime back in the same shop, and you liked it very much
- That previous time, your friend took you there for you to have a first taste of that ice cream.
- Today your wife wanted to have an ice cream and made that suggestion which made you come to the shop, in the first place.
- She saw an ad for it in the newspaper that day morning.
- The weather was hot and so you felt an ice cream could do you some good
- The ice cream shop could have put the chocolate ice cream closest to the place from where you are standing and thus you were tempted
- Or (if you are like me), you would have bought it since there was some discount on the Chocolate flavour
And so on. There could have been a thousand causes, which would have led you to that decision. If you say that none of this mattered, and that the only reason you had chocolate ice cream was because you felt like it, even that “feeling like it” would be the result of the weather, what food you had in the morning, what you overheard some colleagues discussing yesterday and so on. You can continue this all the way back to the big bang of the universe. It is for this reason that free-will is dicey.
Why do we think we make a choice, if we don’t think the computer makes a choice? What is that we have extra that the computer does not have? The computer too behaves differently each time it starts up. Take the browser for example. It shows me my favourites, that I added previously. It gives me a list of websites I visited in the previous session. It takes in any updates it has installed in the meantime, and its behaviour depends on many such factors. But given the exact inputs, it should behave exactly the same way. Granted, that the number of stimuli that our brain takes in is almost infinitely too many. But just because it is complex, does not mean it has freewill. Going by that logic, the stock market should have free will.
Let me give you some examples to support this notion that free-will is an illusion. There is a certain parasitic fungus which infects an ant, enters its body and reaches its brain. Once there, it manipulates its brain in such a way that the ant, instead of hiding under the grass, when sheep come to graze, actually does the opposite by climbing up to the top end of a blade of grass, thus making it susceptible to be eaten by the sheep. The ant does not gain anything from it. It only loses its life. But the fungus gains everything (that is why it is called a parasite). The fungus then enters the sheep to continue with its next phase of life, this time being a parasite to the sheep. Here is a similar fungus, doing a similar thing, but for a different purpose. There are numerous examples of such parasites.
Looking at those examples, you won’t really say that the ants really chose what they did, would you? They were forced by the fungi. But if brain can be manipulated to make the ant do something else than what it would have normally done, what meaning does it hold, to say that the ants really make a choice in the normal uninfected scenario?
If you think ants should not be compared to humans (though I wonder why not), here is an article that completely shatters our myths of culpability. This article, shows, that what we think are voluntary decisions, are not really so. To quote a striking part from the article.
Take the 2000 case of a 40-year-old man we’ll call Alex, whose sexual preferences suddenly began to transform. He developed an interest in child pornography—and not just a little interest, but an overwhelming one. He poured his time into child-pornography Web sites and magazines. He also solicited prostitution at a massage parlor, something he said he had never previously done. He reported later that he’d wanted to stop, but “the pleasure principle overrode” his restraint. He worked to hide his acts, but subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter alarmed his wife, who soon discovered his collection of child pornography. He was removed from his house, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced to rehabilitation in lieu of prison. In the rehabilitation program, he made inappropriate sexual advances toward the staff and other clients, and was expelled and routed toward prison.
At the same time, Alex was complaining of worsening headaches. The night before he was to report for prison sentencing, he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and took himself to the emergency room. He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal.
The year after the brain surgery, his pedophilic behavior began to return. The neuro-radiologist discovered that a portion of the tumor had been missed in the surgery and was regrowing—and Alex went back under the knife. After the removal of the remaining tumor, his behavior again returned to normal.
The article goes on to the question of whether people can be held responsible for what they do. If nobody has free-will, in what sense can we say that somebody is guilty of something. Can he just say that his brain made him do that, and that he (in whatever sense) did not actually choose anything? Was he not anymore culpable than an air-conditioner that has a short-circuit which triggers a fire, thereby killing a couple of people? After all, neither had a choice given the circumstances. But then, they are even tougher questions, which we are not talking about today.
Coming back to the topic, looking at such examples, how do we say we have free-will. In fact, Physics does not give scope for any mechanism that could give us free-will. What I mention here is determinism, which is defined as
Noun: The doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will
By the way, what I am saying here is not destiny or fate. The key difference between the concepts of destiny and determinism is that destiny says that something or somebody knows what is already in store for us. It says that something has already been decided for you, and that you cannot really do anything about it. What determinism says is that what happens next is an effect of what happens now, and what happened a moment back, but nobody knows what will happen next since that is not practically predictable. But you are definitely not making choices.
It is not hyperbole, when I said that this might give you sleepless nights. If you don’t make the decisions you think are making, then what is the purpose of doing anything at all. If you don’t do anything, then it is not because you chose not to do anything, but because there is nothing you could have done. Thinking on these lines, there is really no need to do anything since you anyway don’t have the choice. I am yet to come to terms with the idea. It all seems too pointless. But I still find it easy to forget this uncomfortable question and continue with my life. That does not prevent this thought from surfacing from time to time (Am I free in choosing what to think of). What do you think about this? Do you think we have any more free-will than a washing machine?