Home > Brain, Uncategorized > Are we really free?

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

  1. You had chocolate sometime back in the same shop, and you liked it very much
  2. That previous time, your friend took you there for you to have a first taste of that ice cream.
  3. Today your wife wanted to have an ice cream and made that suggestion which made you come to the shop, in the first place.
  4. She saw an ad for it in the newspaper that day morning.
  5. The weather was hot and so you felt an ice cream could do you some good
  6. 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
  7. 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?

  1. R.Shiva
    August 6, 2011 at 20:06

    Seriously a GOOD one 🙂 nejamavey digest agala innum 🙂 Totala alambi vita mari iruku 🙂

    But should say that hasn’t shaken anything primary in my head 🙂 Will try a serious reply for this for sure 🙂

    When i connected this one the previous one you gave ( That Two or One thing , ennamo lobotomy panna mari onnumey puriyala ha ha) Yeah seriously try that you will feel the same way 🙂

    But then don’t ask me were that answer came to me from and are we one or two 🙂 🙂 🙂

  2. August 6, 2011 at 23:22

    I think the washing machines are catching up. Like the washer we always have someone pushing our buttons. =-)

    Like the washer we have a context that frames and limits our choices. Like free will in an election… a choice between dumb and dumber, both on the take from big biz, isn’t really freedom of choice. It is sort of like that for the conscious mind. We are presented a situation by our environment that requires certain choices be made. Our subconscious makes the choice based on its own internal understanding of the situation and then lets the conscious mind take the credit. Free will is there, but it isn’t what we normally think it to be. If the conscious mind wants to exercise free will, it has to prepare and train the subconscious with the desired response. It has to expand the contextual limits before the situation arises. Otherwise, the knee jerk takes over and the conscious mind pretends to make the choice.


    • August 8, 2011 at 10:19

      If you say the sub-conscious exercises free-will, then it still needs to be explained as to how it exercises free-will. Dont you think that just saying sub-conscious brain does it, is only postponing giving a solution to the the problem, rather than the solution itself?

  3. R.Shiva
    August 7, 2011 at 19:04

    I thought a lot about this before i get into a sleepless night 🙂 I guess the design is so intricate and very closely integrated you CANNOT really answer for sure whether we are ruled by Determinism or Free Will . As mentioned in the post if determinism is result of Cause and Effect we should be able to predict the future . I mean you should be able to tell the effect when the cause is committed . If that can be done then determinism wins hands down.

    ” 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.”

    I guess the answer lies in the last line of the above piece which i had extracted from the post.

  4. August 8, 2011 at 10:30

    I would like to answer your question of “you should be able to tell the effect when the cause is committed” with two points:

    1. There are scenarios where though you theoretically can predict the effect of a cause, practically it is impossible. Take an example of emptying a kg of sugar from a packet into a container. Suppose before emptying the packet, you numbered each granule of the sugar and noted down its position. You also know gravitation, friction and all the other necessary details. But there is no way in which you can predict, which granule will end up where in the container. That is why I added the word “practically” before “impossible” in my sentence. You might also want to have a look at this link.

    2. The second point is that at the level of subatomic particles, prediction becomes even theoretically impossible since, quantum uncertainty kicks in. At this stage, all you can talk about is probabilities and not certainties.

    It is for the above two reasons, that I feel, that the fact that we dont have freewill, does not mean that the future is predictable.

  5. August 8, 2011 at 19:36

    When we look at the information processing going on at the cellular level we find the fundamental activity is to produce output based on input compared to memory. This is true of stem cells, bacteria and all agents, large and small. They all choose their output. No it isn’t free, as in wild and uncontrolled, but it is the fundamental intelligence in action. It is the same kind of free will that we have. We really can’t choose behaviors that are not in our memory. However, j. Cairns experiments with lactose intolerant e.coli, found that genetic information was reorganized when confronted with only lactose for food. I think that is as close to free will as you will find in biological systems.

  6. August 8, 2011 at 19:38

    Lose sleep over it? Not me. =-)

  7. August 12, 2011 at 20:42


    Free will is incompatible with both a deterministic universe as well as an indeterministic universe.

    If everything is causal, you could not have chosen strawberry, as the causes would have to lead up to the very same result of you electing chocolate. And such an election stems from causal events that are entirely out of your control. Events prior to your birth even.

    If there are acausal events in the universe, an acausal event could have (theoretically) pushed you to choose strawberry, but such an event could not have been “willed” by you. It was an entirely spontaneous event that was entirely out of your control, therefore you choosing strawberry that second time would be entirely out of your control.

    I am currently writing a book on this tomic where I take the hard incompatibilist stance, that being that free will is (logically) incompatible with both a deterministic universe as well as an indeterministic universe. This means it is logically incoherent and we need to abandon it. I also explain why it is important for people to begin to realize this fact. A number of important social, economical, political, and philosophical issues have their base on the false notion of free will. A base that causes a number of problems, including an egocentric point of view of being able to blame others or deem oneself as more worthy than others, the way we run our justice system, and so on.

    Anyway…I could go on and on 🙂

    Take care,

    ‘Trick Slattery

  1. January 8, 2012 at 20:48
  2. May 6, 2012 at 11:11
  3. September 14, 2013 at 09:06

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