Do We Have Free Will?
Before we begin to explore this question, it is essential to first discuss how and why we instinctively believe that we are creatures governed by free will. It is well known that our perceptions of the world are always at least partially inaccurate.
Our senses do not need to be perfect, they only need to help us successfully propagate. And so it is important to establish and question innate perceptions of the world. These filters are dangerous because they feel so right we tend not to look at them with a critical eye — unquestioned assumptions.
As children, we all believed we had free will. As adults, most of us continue to. Why is this? Is there some evolutionary benefit to believing in free will? Let’s, for now, assume that there is.
Certainly, not all things that benefit the species benefit the individual. Therefore, you stand to benefit from the unrooting of free will if we discover that a belief in free will makes us less happy than a belief in determinism does.
If you have a free will you are responsible for your actions.
Therefore, any wrongdoing you commit is solely your responsibility and the repercussions you receive are wholly deserved. There is simplicity in this model. Do wrong and you must pay the price. Do right and you will be showered with gifts and status. With this societal structure in place, the individual is encouraged to seek reward and avoid punishment.
In order for this structure to perpetuate, the vast majority of individuals must adhere to and believe it an unquestionable truth. When this ceases to be the case, when a belief system is questioned by the many, the many will no longer abide by its rules. This makes it ineffective for both the believers and the nonbelievers. And then a new system must replace it.
Free Will Makes Things Easy
Free will is surface level. With this philosophy, a person acting is wholly responsible for their action. With determinism, the person who commits the act is not at all responsible. How then do we punish or praise? And more importantly, how then do we create a society that reduces negative behaviors and encourages positive ones — thereby helping to ensure our species survives and thrives?
I posit that the complexity of a deterministic paradigm is the reason it has not seen the light of day. We do not see all light. We do not hear all sound. Complexity is not desirable or required for our survival. We see, hear, feel, and think only what we need to in order to propagate.
But Free Will Just Feels Right!
As time passes, we often come into contact with the harsh realities of our instincts — often this awareness comes from a change in the environment that highlights the deficiencies of a particular instinct.
A fear of the other is inborn. It is remnant of a past in which the ‘other’ was worthy of our fear. But, with the flattening of the world, this fear no longer benefits the advancement of the species.
What once was, no longer is.
Our instincts are extremely slow to change.
What is built over thousands of years cannot be undone in a moment.
As a workaround to unwanted instincts, humans use societal pressures to exact change. As inherently social creatures whose biggest fear (short of death) is ostracisation, we place a great deal of importance on the expectations of the tribe.
And so, the assumption that free will is good and right and true, just because it inherently feels so, is one to be avoided.
A Question of Taste
We all feel like we have control over our lives. I feel like I am the exactor, the executor, the actor, steering my ship wherever I please.
Yet, it is quite easy to chip away at this perception of choice.
Let’s take your sense of taste. You do not decide how refined your sense of taste is. It is merely inherited. And as with any sense, some individuals have a heightened sense of taste and others not so much. Our environment also impacts how sensitive our tongue is to taste and temperature.
Over time your tongue is burnt, taste buds die and your sense of taste becomes less discerning.
If your tongue gets badly burnt as a child, it will negatively impact your sense of taste — and thereby impact the foods you choose to consume and the temperatures you choose to consume them at — for the rest of your life.
We do not decide our senses. They are decided for us by genetics and environment.
We do not decide to like or dislike the taste of Marmite. As the slogan says, ‘you either love it or you hate it.’ That’s it.
You don’t hear people saying, ‘I decided to like Marmite.’
That’s because there is no choice.
Likewise, there is no choice to like or dislike a song. Or like or dislike a piece of art. These things just happen.
And if we agree that all 5 senses are outside of our control, then neither can we control the interplay of those senses.
Our senses impact our predilections. Our predilections impact our behavior. So here we have found at least one aspect of our destiny that is outside of our control. Yes, you may have decided to go to an art gallery, but did you decide to like art?
So senses are outside of our control. And senses are what we use to perceive the world. So our physical perceptions are outside of our control.
A Fly on the Wall Look At Free Will
Most of us can agree that a fruit fly doesn’t have free will. It is driven by a need to propagate its genes and nothing more.
We don’t look at a fly crashing into a closed window for the 400th time and wonder what its take on the meaning of life is.
Despite this, the fruit fly has a great deal in common with homo sapiens — namely, a desire to propagate. This desire creates in both the fly and in us a desire to survive, for without survival there can be no propagation.
All other behaviors seen in the fruit fly and seen in the human are simply strategies for achieving survival and propagation.
Sure, the fly is a simple organism and has simpler strategies for survival and reproduction. Conversely, the human is incredibly complex and has an almost exhaustive list of nuanced strategies available to him.
But fundamentally the aims are the same.
If we agree that a fly has no consciousness and yet still has strategies to avoid death and reproduce, then we must also accept that the fear of death and the desire for sex in humans is not a choice, but instead an instinct.
Evolutionary psychology would have us believe that all decisions come back to reproduction. Love playing music? You are just trying to woo people into bed. Passionate about accounting? You’re simply trying to gather the resources necessary to attract a high-quality mate. Helping an old granny across the street? You’re signaling that you’ll make a first-class parent.
I want to avoid diluting our discussion with a debate about the validity of evolutionary psychology, and so have gone with an interpretation of evolutionary psychology I think the vast majority of people can agree with this:
At least some of our behaviors are decided exclusively by or influenced heavily by sexual desire. A great many other behaviors are at least somewhat impacted by this instinct.
If we can agree on that, then we can agree that at least some of our behaviors are outside of our control. And there are a great many more where we have less control than it would initially seem.
The Gut-Brain Connection
There is a great deal of science coming out around the gut-brain connection.
The gut is considered the second brain. It has more nerve endings than any other part of the body. And these nerve endings heavily influence the brain.
If you’ve ever experienced butterflies you can attest to the effect your gut can have on your thoughts and your actions.
When I’ve done the terrifying thing of going up and chatting with a beautiful woman on the streets of London, I have no control over more physiological reactions. I don’t control my heartbeat. I don’t decide to have sweaty palms and a shaky voice. But I get them nonetheless. And they impact my ability to think and to perform as I want to.
Sexy, I know! 😉
This radical form of surgery has shown impressive efficacy over the last few years helping people lose weight, overcome depression, and gain energy.
There is plenty of evidence showing that the recipients of fecal transplants may take on the traits of their donor:
“There’s even been reports of some people who have never been depressed getting a transplant from someone who’s had depression and ending up with their first episode of depression after that.”
So our gut influences our mental health.
Or more precisely, the bacteria in our gut influence our mental health.
And our mental health is at least somewhat responsible for our actions.
I think it safe to say, we don’t control our gut bacteria. If anything, they control us.
Considering that we are more bacteria than human, this shouldn’t be too surprising.
We all know someone with depression. The person or people you know with depression will exhibit long-lasting unhappiness and have a tendency to turn toward dark, harmful thoughts.
And these thoughts influence their actions.
I’ve had depression. I felt like someone else was inside my head tapping away at the control panel and making me think and do things I really didn’t want to do.
I felt like I had no control.
I think most of us have advanced past the ‘just shake it off’ mentality. We do not think depressed people can just choose to be happy. There is a chemical or environmental imbalance that must be changed in order for behaviors to change.
But really the only difference between someone with a mental illness is the amounts of certain chemicals that are released. Dopamine doesn’t give us control. Neither does serotonin. When our brain chemistry is balanced, we release these things and they impact our thoughts, feelings, and actions without us doing anything in particular.
So we don’t control the release of chemicals in our brains, but chemicals effect us. Ok.
In recent years, privilege has been a major topic of discussion. White privilege, male privilege, wealth privilege, education privilege etc. etc.
Of course, privilege is complex. There are many things that provide privilege. And it is impossible to say what type of privilege is more valuable than all others.
But if we accept that there is privilege, and we also accept that a lack of privilege impacts our ability to have success in the world, are we not also agreeing that our genetics and environment are deciding our level of privilege and subsequently dramatically impacting our ability to achieve the things we would like to?
We do decide where we are born, yet where we are born will have lasting implications for our ability to acquire wealth and resources, attract a mate, and live healthy, long lives.
We do not decide our intelligence. Yet, the smarter we are, the higher our salary is, on average.
We do not decide our nursery. We do not decide our primary school. We do not choose our parents or our siblings or our household or the food that we eat. During the most pivotal and influential period in our entire lives, we have no choice. Our brains are shaped and molded in ways we cannot control.
As we age, our brains change less and less. What was instilled in youth, becomes mostly permanent.
David Buss, arguably one of the most prominent psychologists of the 21st century, believes that after age 30 change only comes about through extreme trauma:
“The bottom line is that global personality traits tend to remain very stable over time, and certainly from age 30.”
As our personalities solidify, the list of possible actions we might take shrinks. From an infinite number of possibilities available to us, we get a small number of options we might take.
Bringing This All Together
Ok, so we have no free will in regard to our senses. We do not decide to fear death or to desire sex. We don’t choose our gut and the bacteria inside it. We don’t decide our sex, or our sexual orientation. We don’t decide our race or our IQ or our height or our attractiveness.
Nor do we choose our level of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extroversion, or openness. We don’t choose our parents or our siblings. We don’t choose our mental health. We don’t choose our school or our home.
Our genetics were given to us. Our environment was forced upon us.
We don’t even control our thoughts.
And everything begins with thoughts. If you can’t control those how can you hope to control anything else? After all, our thoughts create our behaviors.
Studies have shown that, with the help of FMRI scans, scientists can predict what action you’re going to take — sometimes as much as seconds before you even have the thought. So whilst you’re tossing up between option A and option B, your subconscious has already decided.
“We think our decisions are conscious, but these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg,” says neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes.
If you believe you do control your thoughts, try out this little thought experiment:
Become aware of your next thought. And then ask yourself what you did to create that thought.
Almost certainly, you’ll find that you were not the trigger of the thought. You saw something, heard something, felt something, smelled something, tasted something that triggered the thought. Or it just bubbled up into consciousness with no discernible trace. Just handed to you by your subconscious — ‘here, play with this.’
Let’s say you decide to prove me wrong. You say, ‘I’m gonna make myself think of something super random to show that I have full control over my thoughts. Imma think of a… YELLOW…BELLIED…TORTOISE…DOLL! Ha! You see, full control. This guy is a fool!’
Amazing. You thought of a yellow-bellied tortoise doll. And you could probably get quite a vivid image of what that might look like. You feel like you have control. But what made you choose yellow and bellied and tortoise and doll?
You might also argue that if free will doesn’t exist, if determinism is actually real, why am I trying to convince you of it? You can’t decide whether you believe it anyway.
This is true.
You can imagine your life like water running down a mountain. The water is moving but not of its own volition, but instead because of gravity and momentum. The running water will always find the path of least resistance on its journey. If a boulder is dropped where the water was heading, it will adjust its path. But the water didn’t decide to adjust its path, it just did it.
Our desire to procreate drives us as gravity drives the water down the mountain. As things come into our environment making procreation easier or harder, we adjust, always looking for the path of least resistance that is still available to us.
So other people are merely boulders or mountains. They either progress you toward your overarching goal or get in the way of it.
This is how your environment influences you.
This post will either make you abandon the idea of free will for determinism, or it will make you even more certain that free will exists. You can read here to learn more about how people confronting your core beliefs often cements them even further. But the point is, whatever you choose is not a choice any more than you choose how you feel about mayonnaise, Kim Kardashian or the sounds of rain.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave them in the comments below and let’s create a discussion.
To hear more from me, check out The Good Life Guys podcast. There my co-host (Stephen) and I explore a whole host of psychological and philosophical questions in the hope of helping people live more of the good life.
What distinguishes us, is our unwavering honesty. We do not put on a facade of perfection. Instead, we reveal all our embarrassing and annoying and troublesome habits and addictions so that those folk going through similar journies of personal acceptance and development can be inspired by the likeness.