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Philosophy

Free Will: The Illusion and the Reality, and How Our Minds Rule the Day

If asked whether humans possess a free will, most everyone would respond of course, yes. Yes, humans, if not under duress, can freely choose their actions.

Our own daily experience supports this. Each of us makes free decisions all the time, from the mundane daily decisions of what to wear and what TV show to watch, to the larger questions of what candidate to vote for and whether and what car to buy.

But is our experience valid? Is our sense of free choice an illusion?

When we dwell on the question of free will, what appears as common sense gets tricky. Our world is governed by cause and effect, so how do human break the chain of cause and effect, and generate decisions with no causes? How does our mind overcome the physics and biochemistry that determine the operation of rest of our physical body to create an effect free from the laws of nature?

How does the mind do what just about everything else in nature can not?

Let’s step through the thicket of complications, and see if free will can emerge liberated.

The Illusion of Free Will

Though we may sense we are exercising control over our decisions, we could be mistaken.

Certainly at the level of reflexes we agree. If a bird darted in front of us while we were walking, we would duck and cover our faces, automatically. No free will would really be involved, nor would we care much.

But research has intimated that even apparently willing choices are decided subconsciously. When asked to push a button with either the left or right hand, volunteers, in a number of experiments, exhibited brain wave patterns corresponding to their arm movement before they reported having made the decision on which hand to use.

A conclusion is that some subconscious process made the choice. Some part of our brain not under our immediate control made the choice, and our conscious state afterward acceded to the decision, and incorporated the decision as if we had freely made the choice.

Okay, we might say, in the experimental world of decisions happening within a few seconds, free will may be obfuscated by subconscious processes. But that is not the core of our decision making. Most decisions take place over more than a few seconds, and the critical ones can span over days and weeks.

But even here, we are all familiar with theories about how our background and our genetic legacy influence our decisions. Many would claim, and research would support, that our accumulated experiences, combined with our hereditary predispositions, highly constrain, and even dictate, what choices we make.

The Exercise of Free Will

Great athletes perfect their skills through exercise. The term exercise is often associated with the term free will, but not in the same sense. To exercise free will often implies to use it, or apply it, in the situation at hand. The exercise related to sports generally implies to practice and hone the skill prior to the application.

But that sports connotation can apply to free will. Our faculty of choice must be practiced, and its use approached with discipline, to be most effective. Let’s examine this by looking at choices that might be made, that turn out poorly.

  • We order the meal pictured on the front cover of the menu at a restaurant, but when delivered find it contains ingredients we don’t enjoy.
  • A mail order piece of clothing arrives, but despite the item being a size we normally wear for another clothing brand, we find the clothing too small.
  • On vacation, we select a rental car from the line of available cars, but later find the car is bottoms out and scraps on the back country roads in the area.

In each case, we thought we exercised what we thought was free will. But the poor outcomes indicate our decisions didn’t match our expectations. We may have just made poor decisions, but otherwise still made them freely. But we could also argue that the poor outcomes occurred due to subconscious, unknown and/or predetermined factors that dictated, or at least influenced, our decisions.

But let’s reflect on this.

Though we could agree that the poor outcomes indicate a poor use of free will, we would likely not agree the poor decisions prove the absence of free will. Just like an athlete through training and exercise can build superior performance, I would strongly argue that humans, through intellect, reflection and forethought, i.e. the equivalent of sports training and exercise, can achieve superior use of our free will.

Exercising (strengthening/sharpening beforehand) our free will allows us to exercise (apply in a current situation) our free will freely, overcoming the momentum of our past and our heredity.

Higher Order Free Will

Okay, that is a clever play on words. How can humans do that? The key is this. We have free will over our free will. We have free will not only to make decisions, but about how we make decisions. We can loop around and control the forces that might control our decisions.

That higher order ability, I would argue, allows our mind, when properly focused, to navigate free of influences that could skew our decisions.

What does that look like in practical terms? If we exercise free will (as in practice) what does that enable.

An available set of criteria – Free will is to choose among options, and a well-developed free will involves having a well-developed list conditions that we can bring up in different situations. In the restaurant situation, in the merriment of the moment, such a developed list of conditions would permit us to bring up those factors to be balanced in our menu choice, e.g. what we ate recently, calorie counts of the menu selections, ingredients we don’t like, the potential for soiling clothes we have on, and so on.

Variable decision heuristics – Free will, one that overcomes those objections that free will is an illusion, involves not just a choice of outcome, but a choice of how to get to the outcome. To extend our restaurant example, we may be facing a menu with a 100 items across appetizers, side dishes and main courses, and we may be under time pressure since in a party of twelve we received the menu last, and the first person has already made their selection. We thus don’t attempt to scan everything, but narrow our look to a category, say chicken dishes/no red sauce/under 600 calories. Now a more comprehensive heuristic may provide a more optimum choice, but perfection vs. speed enters. The “best” menu selection compared a “good” selection will have no overwhelming impact. We are under time pressure, and the goal is to avoid a “bad” selection.

That might not be the case in say a decision on which suit or shirt to buy, so if we were under pressure from a spouse to hurry up as we stood at the mirror, we might not succumb to that pressure. “Best” vs. “good” in the selection of a piece of clothing might make a more significant difference, so we would bring to bear a more discriminating decision approach.

Forward visualization – Once the decision is made, a well-developed free will then circles around and envisions what the decision will look like. Humans possess a strong ability to visualize hypothetical futures, and that ability provides a strong review of whether our tentative choice went astray.

Check of Decision Process – Just like we would visualize the decision, a disciplined free will involves stepping through how we made the decision. Let’s leave the restaurant (remember we decided a “good enough” decision is okay, and with that might skip so much checking of the decision) and now review a selection of college. We might have set up an elaborate rating scheme, and come to a decision, and even visualized that decision. But we are wary of unexamined influences. Why did the rating scheme rate the requirement for being in a dorm so negatively? Is it some fear, of ridicule of our personal items by a dorm roommate? Is that limiting our choices to our detriment?

Now, some may view this list of decision making skills as something they might find in a self-help book, or a Reader’s Digest article. What I have done here might be less an exercise in philosophy, and more an exercise in common sense.

That may be the case. But common sense, and self-help, and Reader’s Digest articles, don’t need to be exclusive of philosophy. All of those can point to the key human ability underlying a well-exercised free will. And that ability is higher order self-reflective processes. We can be conscious of our conscious, we can take action on or against own actions, we can observe ourselves as we observe others. What this means is that we can loop back and use our intellect to control the application of our intellect.

The Apparent Illusion of Brain Activity

Let’s go back to the experiments where subjects are asked to pick a hand with which to push a button. A simple demonstration of free will involves our deciding as the experiment was described to us, that as we reach out, two inches from pushing the button, we would stop. We would then tell the experimenter we don’t want to push any button (or something else of our choosing, like we want gas money for driving here. This would be our choice; this is about free will after all.)

The experimenter would say that is not allowed. We would say this is an experiment on whether I have free will, and I have just given you a piece of experimental evidence to use in your determination.

Is this a factious example? Absolutely not. Is it in fact the essence of this discussion, i.e. that humans can exert higher order control over the lower level choices, and the degree to which experimentation finds those lower level choice bound in some way, humans still have a higher level ability to be conscious of and exert control over the bounds on the lower level choices.

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