The concept of free will – the ability to make our own choices – has occupied me on and off for some time. Recently, my interest has been reignited by Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Research seems to point towards the idea that awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. In other words, wanting to do something seems to occur n parallel rather than as a cause to it happening. There are a variety of experiments to support this. The explanation in Crash Course rather elegantly shows that there aren’t many arguments to support free will other than the fact that it just feels like it’s there.
In this context, it’s interesting to consider the instinct to reproduce. While planning a child involves conscious cognitive effort, instinct is a big part of the process. This instict is far more subtle than let’s say the instinct to eat when one’s hungry. This doesn’t mean it’s less strong. We are pretty clear that the need to eat is largely outside of our control or free will – it’s just there and we work around it. If I had to make a decision as to whether children were a product of a cognitive decision making process or an instinct – I would have to choose instinct. However, that’s not how it feels. It feels like one made a mostly cognitive decision to have a child – rather than the feeling of a mostly instinctive decision to eat when one’s hungry.
So if it possible to have a child and think that you consciously decided to do so, what’s to say that everything isn’t driven through instinct.
Of course, one can argue that free will has the potential to override instinct. However, even in that case, free will only gets to speak after the instinct made itself known, adding to the conditionality and frailty of free will.
It is quite conceivable to look at a cat and explain all of its actions through instinct. Or a dog – does a dog love its owner so unconditionally because it is a better creature – or because we relentless bred it into them, by getting rid of all the non-submissive dogs in a given breed? We are obsessed with explaining how we are different from animals. Maybe, the distinction is blown out of proportion.
Alerting someone to their breath is usually quite fascinating (unless they are used to it through mindfulness or have a healthcare background). People usually have this slightly blunted uncanny realisation in their eyes – “what, I’ve been breathing all time? Yes, naturally I have, but… Anyway, play it cool.”
I am sure, if someone randomly asked me: are you in charge of our own breathing? Without much thinking, I would say, yes.
We can, to some extent, override our respiratory drive, alter our breathing pattern, etc (at least that’s what we think tudum-tshh). However, the bottom line is that breathing happens because it has been hard wired genetically. The temptation though, is to say we control it – probably fuelled by the fact that we can “control” any of it. I wonder what else happens that way: how many of our choices and thoughts happen just like the breath? We breath when we sleep – we think and feel while we sleep too, we call it dreams. Buddhists see thoughts as something external – they are like clouds that come and go. So who’s actually in charge?
One of the reasons why it feels so… eery and empty to think about our lack of free will is that we are no longer in control.
Being in control is central to motivation – according to pretty much any study ever done on it.
Taking the lack of free will argument a step further, it is also possible that this sense of control is wired into us because it propels us forward. Most commencement speeches that get millions of hits on YouTube boil down to the same message: we have more choices and power than we realise. This feel good message is, in a sense, the opposite to the thought that there’s no free will. However, if free will doesn’t exist, by writing this, I -and countless people before me, prove that it’s possible to at least contemplate its lack. It’s possible to have insight, at least, even though it doesn’t feel good.
Maybe, this feeling of control is just like hunger and thirst – it is a drives us to accomplish, regardless of whether we have any choice over it.
There’s still hope…
That free will as we know it does exist.
Just because some actions occur without free will as evidenced through neurophysiology experiments, doesn’t mean that all actions occur this way.
… And if these bone fide free willed thoughts and actions exist, it is possible that they influence the will-less, or the subconscious, whatever you want to call it – just like you can teach your respiratory centre to stay quiet while diving for pearls for minutes at a time. This would mean that while decisions are made subconsciously, there is still a way to make them yours – and not predetermined.