What if you discovered free will is an illusion? How would that change your rationality in any given moment?
The principle of volition and consciousness has been a hotly debated topic among philosophers and neuroscientists for centuries. Its very existence explains why so many of us deeply believe in a higher power, in achieving our wildest dreams, and in finding our soulmates.
Nonetheless, neuroscientific data has consistently shown that the definition of "free will" is, in fact, a causation of past experiences and stimuli. Our brains are perpetually reweighting and rewiring inputs through life experiences that eventually lead to a determined consideration.
Simply put, each decision you make in the present is based on a prior criteria of facts. Let's take a look at a practical analogy of this:
When a train first starts in motion it follows a track. During the train's journey, it will need to make switches onto different tracks to maintain the correct pathway to its future destination.
Just like a train, the communication between your brain cells (which takes place through synapses) are routinely changing their firing networks and global connectivity based on how we react to specific stimuli. Therefore, you could not classify free will as an unexpected, fleeting event of original decision-making. It is fluid, mobile, and boundlessly changing.
Dr. Peter Tse, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, at Dartmouth stated:
"Mental causation is not about changing the physical basis of mental events in the present, which would be impossible self-causation. Instead, mental causation is about changing the physical basis of possible future mental events...This occurs via rapid synaptic reweighting."
As Dr. Tse described, the criteria for what kind of car you purchase at the age of 16 versus at the age of 35 will be different because your free will has dynamically been modified by facts and judgments that you have built for years.
Moral Hypocrisy and Naive Realism
Psychologist Dan Batson at the University of Kansas conducted a brilliant experiment to test whether we, as human beings, are more likely to do as we say, or only appear that way in our minds. Two people were paired as a team. Each person was put in a separate room. One of the experimenters was told that if they answer a question correctly, they would win a raffle ticket that resulted in a reward, and their teammate wouldn't receive anything. The other was told that the decision was based on chance. However, the former teammate also had an opportunity to be fair and flip a coin to decide who should receive the positive task.
- Of the 50% of subjects in the study who flipped the coin to be fair, 90% chose the reward for themselves if the coin was not in their favor
- Of the 50% of subjects who didn't flip a coin, 90% also chose the reward for themselves
Point in case, we are moral hypocrites; a psyche hardwired to "freely" believe our actions and moral character is relentlessly steadfast...and uncompromisingly fair. But, in reality, we aren't even aware that our thought process is inherently manipulated.
Jonathon Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, stated in his book:
"You can't change your mental filters by willpower alone; you have to engage in activities such as meditation or cognitive therapy that train the elephant."
The elephant personifies our primal emotions; the ID of our personality. This part of us is highly persuasive, and is the reason we see everything through rose-colored glass. In essence, an "unconscious overclaiming" of self-seeking biases.
Haidt dives even deeper by exploiting our way of thinking as a place mat for "naive realism": every person believing they are seeing the world for how it truly is; that the facts that we see should be agreed upon by everyone around us because WE see it. What's worse, our view of those that don't agree is that they have yet to be exposed to the "truth".
Yet, as you probably have already guessed, this inherited principle is only further from the truth. To be able to come close to seeing reality--through a polished lens--requires the ability to step back and view the world through multiple perspectives. This is authentic intelligence; a willingness to sustain all sides to an argument in your mind.
"The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are."
- Niccolo Machiavelli
Nobel Memorial Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote a best-selling book in 2011 titled, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
During his social cognition research with a close friend and colleague, the concept of heuristic learning (or learning through experience) became a widely recognized study of human intuition, judgment, and bias.
To summarize a hefty book in one sentence, Mr. Kahneman and friend, discovered that "people tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory--and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media."
We utilize the power of resemblance as a social cue for probability. Hence, further supporting our propensity towards "naive realism". Statistical relevance is thrown out the window when it comes to justifying what we believe as the "right" choice.
"Incidental" Emotional Manipulation
Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks wrote a piece on Emotion and the Art of Negotiation in this month's issue of the Harvard Business Review.
In her tasteful commentary of emotional intelligence, she exemplifies how empirical data from dictator games and behavorial research shows how we make decisions on the basis of transient emotions. Sometimes, the underlying cause of our emotional reaction happens incidentally from external, novel stimuli around us. For example, there are people who become anxious any time they step on a plane. Or, my favorite, when your palms get sweaty and you shake with nerve listening to a horror movie score in a room by yourself.
As Dr. Brooks mentioned, this is also the reason why psychiatric clinicians use a technique called "exposure therapy" to help an individual adjust to a specific stimuli. Experience it enough and the more attenuated the emotional reaction.
So, why is this principle important to understanding if free will exists? It's further proof that our minds unconsciously play tricks on us. The brain region that deals with our emotional responses is at the inner-most, centered layer of our brain. As a result, our decisions are ultimately first emotionally based before our logic/personality kicks in (which originates in the outermost, cortical brain region).
Although will is not quite "free", there is no reason why you should not continue to learn about how your experiences have shaped you, what you can do to better observe your emotional behavior, and why that's important to your personal development and growth. Ultimately, whether we are free or slaves to our consumptive lifestyle, happiness derives from the meaning and mastery of our craft. No matter how far-fetched you dream, an idea from its inception to execution is always possible. The question is, do YOU have the uncompromising will and discipline to MAKE it your reality.
The resources are all there...how you get there...that's real freedom.