If we can let ourselves be amazed at the fact that our non-material ethereal mind can really actuate things in the physical world, we will find ourselves wondering — do we really have free will? If free will is merely a pattern in the electrical activities in our brain, how can such a pattern cause changes and rearrangements in the physical world? Could it be that this pattern is really causing an illusion of free will?
Logic in the form of Occam’s Razor should direct us to the latter possibility. But logic doesn’t apply to many or most of the fundamental hypotheses of life, which answer to a different set of rules. They answer to the mythos, the sum total of the intangible knowledge and wisdom passed down from the past, from the ancient, forgotten masters talking to us through our teachers and folklore, through the structure of our languages and the backdrop of our thoughts, and through the very foundation of our sense of being and consciousness. The mythos tell us that we do have free will, and the logic that came later is powerless to break this notion. So it may be that these words that flow out of my pen into this notepad and later to your computer screen were all predetermined and I had no choice but to write then down. But it certainly is not the way I feel. I do feel as though I can delete any word here. Heck, I can delete the whole post if I want to.
On the side of logic, I will describe an experiment that casts doubt on our notion of free will. From neuroscience, we know that there is a time lag of about half a second between the moment “we” take a decision and the moment we become aware of it. This time lag raises the question of who is taking the decision because, in the absence of our conscious awareness, it is not clear that the decision is really ours. In the experimental setup testing this phenomenon, the subject is hooked up to a computer that records his brain activities (EEG). The subject is then asked make a conscious decision to move either the right hand or the left hand at a time of his choosing. The choice of right or left is also up to the subject. The computer always detects which hand the subject is going to move about half a second before the subject is aware of his own intention. The computer can then order the subject to move that hand — an order that the subject will be unable to disobey. Does the subject have free will in this case?
In fact, I wrote about it in my book, and posted it here some time ago. In that post, I added that free will might be a fabrication of our brain after the real action. In other words, the real action takes place by instinct, and the sense of decision is introduced to our consciousness as an afterthought. Some of my readers pointed out that being unaware of a decision was not the same as having no free will over it. For instance, when you drive, you take a series of decisions without really being aware of them. It doesn’t mean that these decisions are not yours. Good point, but does it really make sense to call a decision yours when you don’t have any control over it, even if you would take the same decision if you did? If something flies into your eyes, you will flinch and close your eyes. Good survival instinct and reflex. But given that you cannot control it, is it a part of your free will?
A more elaborate example comes from hypnotic suggestion. I heard this story from one of the lectures by John Searle — a man was hypnotically instructed to respond to the word “Germany” by crawling on the floor. After the hypnosis session, when the man was lucid and presumably exercising his free will, the trigger word was used in a conversation. The man suddenly says something like, “I just remembered, I need to remodel my house, and these tiles look great. Mind if I take a closer look?” and crawls on the floor. Did he do it of his own volition? To him, yes, but to the rest, now.
So, how do we know for sure that our sense of free will is not an elaborate scam that our brain is perpetrating on “us” (whatever that means!)
Now I am actually pushing the argument a bit further. But think about it, how can the spaceless, massless, material-less entities that are our intentions make real changes in the physical world around us? In writing this post, how can I break the laws of physics in moving things around quite independent of their current state just because I want to?
Is free will an epiphenomenon — something that emerges after-the-fact? A good analogy is that of froth riding on the waves on a beach. The froth may be thinking, “Oh my god, what a tough life! I have to haul all these big waves back and forth. Every day of my life, no break, no vacation!” But that is not what is going on. The waves are just sloshing around, and the froth just happens to emerge. Are our lives just moving along on their own preordained paths, while we, like the epiphenomenal froth, think that we have control and free will?