Do we have free will? The ability to make decisions and act them out? The ability to choose what to do? Or are we simply automata where all of our actions are predetermined by a chain of cause and effect?
This debate has been raging for thousands of years and shows no sign of abating. Within philosophy, this topic breaks down into sub-branches including hard incompatibilism, which suggests that free will is totally impossible in this purely deterministic universe.
So do we have free will?
Or is every thought and action pre-determined?
Which side of the fence do you sit on?
And did you actually choose that side of the fence or was it preordained?
The topic clearly spans spiritualism and philosophy but it also is a topic of keen interest in psychology and neuroscience. And you may be wondering if there’s an experiment to prove it one way or the other?
In the 1980s, the scientist Benjamin Libet and devised and conducted a series of experiments that set out to prove if free will exists or not. These experiments involved things as simple as flexing their wrist or pressing a button. Surely we have free will over that you might think. What he and his team observed was that the brain “registers” the decision to make movements before a person consciously decides to move. The participant’s brain activity was monitored by EEG (electroencephalogram) and asked to record the moment at which they consciously made the decision to move. Libet’s experiments appeared to show that there was unconscious brain activity, on average, around half a second before the person recorded that they were consciously aware of their choice, something Libet called “readiness potential”. The implication was that our unconscious brain was making the decision and that we experience it as being a conscious decision. This appears to support the free will as illusion argument.
So what do you make of that? Fascinating stuff.
Well, Libet’s experiments are not totally conclusive. Participants were required to record the timings associated with being conscious of a decision and this was subject to delays and imprecision in recording the actual time. And could this “readiness potential” be associated not with the intention to move but with closely paying attention or even imagining the move before it happens? These are some of the challenges been made and explored experimentally.
So what does this mean from a Zoomological perspective? How should we approach the notion of free will as a Zoomologist?
Well let’s start with a core Zoom-Out Principle:
All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful” – Zoom-Out Principle
No one has yet proven categorically if free will is fact or fiction. Whether it is real or just a very powerful illusion. If I have missed this earth-shattering event in human history then do get in touch and let me know.
So neither perspective at this point in time can be said to be correct, definitively. So both are wrong until one is proven right. Right?
The question then becomes, which perspective is most helpful?
<o> Do you take the perspective that free will is indeed very real and cultivate yourself and conduct your life accordingly?
<o> Do you take the perspective that free will is indeed an illusion and cultivate yourself and conduct your life accordingly?
There’s another potentially helpful perspective:
<o> Both free will and determinism rule our lives. That is, it’s not either-or, but a mixture or the two – a spectrum. And that the amount of free will we can exercise at any moment varies.
To quote the Neuroscientist Christoph Koch:
“Freedom is always a question of degree rather than an absolute good that we do or do not possess.”
With this perspective then the question becomes how do we make the best choices for ourselves and others and how do we optimise our ability to make such choices at the optimal time?
OK let’s assume we are both an automaton and have varying degrees of control over this automaton. Metaphorically speaking, we have an inner robot that doesn’t always listen to what we want.
Viewed this way, we can utilise strategies to maximise our control over our inner robot. We know we are dominated by automatic routines and habits. How many times do you see yourself acting out some action, big or small, that you don’t want to do, that you know is not in your best interest but you are powerless to intervene at that moment? This may be eating that piece of cake, sitting and watching a crap movie for 2 hours, or listening to those career-ending words as they leave your mouth and enter the ears of your boss.
If we acknowledge that at times we are just a robot, and our living experience is just along for the ride then the question becomes, how can we reprogramme the robot? How do we remove these ‘circuits’ from the robot so it does not behave or respond in a way we do not like in the future? Note that this is a very different approach than simply trying to maximise your ‘willpower’. If we see that free will is actually limited to non-existent, then we naturally take a very different approach so self-cultivation, goal seeking and generally living out our lives.
We will explore various methods and tools stemming from this perspective in a future article.