Reading time: ca. minutes



11. Free will

We all believe that we could have done things differently than we did and also that we have a choice about what happens to us in the future. But is that really the case?

The belief in a powerful self is particularly expressed in the magical thinking that by wanting something very much you can force the universe to get you the thing you want as well. Consider such phenomena as "The Secret", "Avatar" and the Natale Institute's "Results Course".

Our belief in "free will" also arises in early childhood by being confronted as a child with making so-called "good" and "bad" choices.

"Furthermore, that child has been indoctrinated about good and bad choices since infancy, both explicitly and implicitly (implicitly because being punished for 'bad choices' logically implies that one could have done differently by willing it). Consequently, the 'myself' of that child has come to take the notion of free will as axiomatic, completely beyond question, so that information tending to confirm and strengthen that belief will be accepted readily, while information to the contrary will be resisted, ignored, or just forgotten. This is the 'confirmation bias'."

R. Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things

Early humanity will have seen that sowing results in reaping. But harvests sometimes fail even though you tried so hard. Maybe you did something wrong after all? Maybe there are other forces at play that you had better keep in good spirits?

Under fMRI

Suppose I decided to take a sip of my coffee. Then what exactly happened? And could I not have done the same? Let's see what science, especially neuroscience, has to say about this. See, for example, the comprehensive article "Neuroscience of free will" in Wikipedia.

One is nowadays able to use "fMRI" to see what happens in the living brain before, during and after a certain action of a test subject, such as making a fist or taking a sip of coffee. Then it turns out that up to 7 seconds (!) before the action is actually performed there is already unconscious activity in the brain, while the thought or feeling to want and perform the action arises later, sometimes even after the action.

See also an interview with famous neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás.

In other words, completely unconscious processes have already determined that I am going to take a sip of my coffee, even before I seem to consciously make the decision to drink. So the so-called "decision" comes afterwards. This also means that once the action has taken place, there is no way it could not have happened.

I also find that I have absolutely no idea beforehand what I will think or do the next moment. Thoughts and actions just happen. The letters appear on the screen. I "hear" the words I want to type in my head. I don't know how they got there. I haven't "decided". And even if I did, who or what decided that a decision should/will be made? That so-called decision also just appears.

And if you think about it, it is also clear that every event depends on and is caused by a practically infinite number of factors (including genetics, nurture, culture, the actions of others, the weather, forces of nature, ad infinitum), which are at play here and now, but which may have an origin in the "Big Bang" and perhaps even deeper.

The feeling of having free will resembles the feeling a child has at the wheel of a vehicle attached to a merry-go-round. It seems that "I", the personality, is steering, but it is the merry-go-round of the universe that determines what happens at a moment and I, as the experience of this moment, am the universe or rather, the universe is me. In other words, the personality, the I, claims steering and says, "I chose that, but I could have chosen something else." But in fact, what happens comes from an interplay of infinite factors. This is not to say that "I" am merely a plaything. I am this whole thing, or perhaps better, this whole thing is doing me.

What happens does not happen because of me; it is me! Decisions are made. By no one. Or, which amounts to the same thing: by everything at once.

My sip of coffee, right now, is inextricably and causally connected to everything that is happening in the entire universe at this moment. In fact, no one is personally responsible for his or her behavior. Not me, not you, not anyone.

"There is no entity, no little 'decider' in my head that stands apart from the incessant stream of perceptions, feelings, and thoughts, to be choosing anything. That imagined entity—the little decider that some people imagine is the 'real me'—is not real at all, but a ghost in the machine."

Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things

We cannot, at any moment, be other than who we are. But consider also that "understanding something" is also something that happens and thus affects everything, including our behavior. So it could be that when it is understood that everything happens when it happens, and that nothing else could have happened - a relaxation occurs, which allows us to embrace whatever happens, also known as our "destiny" or our "life":

"My formula for greatness in a person is amor fati: that one wants nothing else, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely carrying what is necessary, still less hiding it - all idealism is long-suffering in the face of what is necessary - but loving it."

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science