Free Will? Is It Real, Or Is It An Illusion?

I rose from the ashes of 24 arrests as a teenager to go to medical school and become a Professor of Surgery, and I did it through what seemed like sheer will power, hard work, and of course a lot of fortuitous concatenations. It has seemed axiomatic to me that I have made all the choices and decisions and done everything based on my own Free Will. For me Free Will has always been the name of the game. I decide, God Damnit, what I am going to do, when I am going to do it, how I am going to do it, and where I am going to do it. Simple and straightforward. I have proved it works in my life, again and again. Haven't I?

My thinking about Free Will has been challenged recently by Sam Harris in his Waking up course, a meditation app. It is a great app with some outstanding lessons from Sam Harris. And one of the lessons is about Free Will. He also has written a book on the topic with the same title.

Harris suggests the following thought experiment. Sit and think of a movie, any movie. Now think of another movie. And then a third. He points out, correctly, that there was no free will in the choice of any of them. They just appeared. Perhaps one of them appeared because you happened to be talking about that movie last night with your wife. But let’s take the movie Rambo. It is unlikely Rambo appeared as one of your “choices” even though you are almost certain to know that Rambo is a film. Why not? That is the point, you didn’t choose any of the three that you “picked”. He makes the point that we do not choose our thoughts. Ever. They just appear in consciousness based on prior conditions (genetics, environment, past experiences, recent events, subterranean associations, the boogie man, etc) and randomness.

I found this a bit disconcerting at first. If I buy into this idea of having no Free Will, it means that my life has been driven by a host of forces that are the culmination and expression of my genetics and imprinting and environment. Which I of course believe in, in general, but…..so, at any given time, I appear to be doing things that are the output of all those forces. Like it or not. It is just happening. My life has got a life of its own.

Like a chunk of gristle, it took me a good while to digest this, as the concept was so counter to my perceived agency over my life, “proven” over a lifetime of outcomes related to my agency. In my little essay on Urges, I tried to show how we are driven day in and day out by a host of forces that we are unaware of. And there are millions of these, in our brains, and in the outside world.

Where I got into a mental wrestling match with this no Free Will concept and its broad applicability is in the realm of intention and voluntary actions. We all do a lot of things unintentionally, like grabbing the phone from my pocket at the urinal. Our days are dominated by such actions, as they must be, to allow us to function. But what about if I sit and think about what I would like to do in the next hour, and after careful consideration of my “self-generated” list of options — lets say rake the yard, type this drivel out, do some biceps, take a nap — would it not appear that I have agency over myself and therefore Free Will? Sure seems like it. But then I realized that the things that came into my head as options, just as with the movie exercise, were the things that came up, involuntarily, predetermined by all the prior conditions in my brain or the randomness of the outside world knocking at my mental door. So I made the voluntary action to work biceps, but not because I, the “Thinker”, came up with the idea.

So, after I masticated the shit out of the gristle, I swallowed the whole idea of Free Will. The way I put this together is:

Thoughts in our brains arise based on prior conditions and/or randomness. We have no control over what shows up in our heads (if I could type out the manuscript of all my “thinking” from just one hour I could absolutely prove this to be true). But because we THINK we are THINKING UP THOSE THOUGHTS, because we THINK THERE IS A THINKER, WE THINK we are in control and that we have Free Will. But there is no specific thing that is a THINKER who has set up shop in a nice little comfy house inside your brain. It is your brain coming up with the thoughts based, once again, on prior conditions and randomness. Ok, so lets get to the next part of this puzzle; voluntary action entails making decisions about what you intend do with the involuntary shit that comes up in your brain, i.e. the platter of hors d’oeuvres your brain has served up at that moment. And even your choice of which hors d’oeuvre is driven by those same set of prior conditions and randomness. And the choices we make end up saying a lot about our character.

I know, it’s a lot to digest.