At some point in my fifth grade class at a Jewish day school, a teacher explained that there was a predetermined, irreversible, unalterable plan for the world. This aligned neatly with all of our religious studies and we accepted the idea. However, the teacher went on, individuals had the power to choose how the world arrived at that predetermined outcome. We had the free will to influence the path the world would ultimately take.
I was comfortable with this explanation throughout middle and high school and well into college. It fit with my religious beliefs at the time and gave me a sense of agency and empowerment – I could have an impact on the world. Maybe not the world in hundreds, thousands, or millions of years, but the world today and in the near future. My decisions could help people who needed it, impact lives, and transform society.
After college, however, my thinking changed. I grew much less enamored with the religious teachings I’d held in the highest regard, which led to a great deal of questioning that remains ongoing. A much more recent development was a shift in my belief in the existence of free will.
The more questions I asked, books and articles I read, and thinking I did led me to this conclusion: There is no such thing as free will.
Until relatively recently, I was unaware that the existence or illusion of free will was even up for discussion. As far as I’d ever considered, people made choices and therefore had free will (master plan for the universe or not). If someone offered me a chocolate and I declined, I was exercising free will. If I accepted, I was doing the same. End of story.
During the last school year, though, I had lunch every day with a group of science, math, and humanities teachers who made me laugh until I cried, were a bright spot in every day, waxed poetic on everything from the optimal type of sandwich to the size a pool would need to be to fit the world’s gold, and made me ask more questions (both out loud and silently) than any other group of people ever had. Many questions I have been asking recently about compassion, the purpose of education, and the importance of congruence in personal beliefs and behavior stem from discussions with people in that lunch group. I am indebted to them for the evolution of my ideas on free will, too.
Over a year of lunches, we had a series of discussions around the International Baccalaureate’s Theory of Knowledge course, in which students explore questions about what it means to know and the different forms that knowledge can take. As a psychology teacher, I worked with students to understand sociocultural, cognitive, and biological explanations for human behavior, some of which aligned with what they were learning in ToK. What became increasingly clear to me was the misalignment between factual, scientific knowledge and many of the ways we explained ourselves in the world.
A friend once started a conversation by asking me why I decided to have breakfast that morning. After a few question-and-answer exchanges, I realized that I didn’t have an answer. I was hungry for breakfast because I hadn’t eaten since the previous day, but how did I know to define that feeling as hunger? Why did I feel satisfied after my eggs and toast? Had I chosen to feel hungry? Had I chosen to be sated after my plate of food? No.
Ah, but feeling hungry is not the same as making a decision, I figured. But feeling hungry had led to the decision to eat in the first place. I hadn’t decided to feel hungry and yet that sensation led not only to eggs and toast but also to coffee, pleasant conversation, exercise, a healthy meal, and an early bedtime. How many of those decisions was I responsible for? How many had I actually made? Alternatively, to what degree did the firing of neurons determine everything I did?
That’s when I started reading.
One of the first articles that compelled me to actively rethink my understanding of free will was this one from the Atlantic. (It’s long, but I highly encourage a read!) Stephen Cave writes,
The 20th-century nature-nurture debate prepared us to think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control. But it left some room, at least in the popular imagination, for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances or our genes to become the author of our own destiny. The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond.
This was an important realization in my understanding of free will. The brain is the organ that literally brings us to life. It makes us who we are. We can’t substitute it with any of the modern technology that we use when other organs fail. The brain is responsible for everything that we do, whether we recognize it or not. If this is the case, how can free will exist?
I read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris in part because of the summary of Harris’ views that Cave provides throughout the Atlantic article. I was curious and the source was readily available. Harris explains the stimulus-response relationship that influences our behavior whether we are aware of it or not. The brain constantly reacts to stimuli and our actions are a result of that reaction. When you accidentally touch a hot pan, you jerk your hand away. Did you decide to move your hand? No, but your brain did. For the first time, I connected that understanding to free will instead of only to science.
A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, while an involuntary action isn’t. Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms. Our sense of free will arises from a failure to appreciate this fact: we do not know what we will intend to do until the intention itself arises (p. 105-106).
We feel like we have free will once we have choices or situations in front of us. However, we neglect to consider the circumstances under which those situations arose. Hint: We did not create them.
That was the point at which I sighed with resignation and sent a message to a friend: “Everything that I have read over the past many months has led me to the conclusion that free will does not exist. Disappointing, but makes unarguable neurological sense.”
Free will is an illusion. Although I might be conscious that I am choosing between A and B, there are a multitude of nonconscious factors at play that are highly influential when I am making decisions – genetics, data from previous decisions, emotions, my physiological state at the specific moment, etc. These unconscious factors influence the options that my brain perceives. My frontal lobe is responsible for most of my decision-making and it processes information that I don’t even realize I have. Harris explains in The Moral Landscape, “I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware” (p. 103).
And that’s okay.
If I’m not completely in control of the decisions and choices I make, neither is anyone else. The unconscious factors that determine my conscious choices are the same for me as they are for those around me. Therefore, we are all part of the same complex system and working to adapt to circumstances that exist today, and also prepare for what we anticipate in the future. What actually matters is not how decisions are made or what part of my brain makes those decisions. What matters is how my actions and behaviors influence those around me because we are all part of the same complex system.
What becomes important is avoiding fatalism, the idea that everything is inevitable. In many ways, this is the idea that I initially accepted when my fifth grade teacher first inadvertently introduced me to the concept of free will. However, I have now moved past that because I understand that complex systems are dynamic rather than static. Due to basic physics, I know that it is impossible for seven billion people to move about the planet without impacting the future. Therefore, the future cannot be predetermined. As a result, the seven billion and growing people on the plant have a profound and unavoidable impact on every area of our lives. We all impact one another’s realities whether we intend to or not.
My responsibility within this complex system is to help develop a society that is better and more peaceful than the world that we have today. Whether or not I have free will, I have a responsibility to do as much right as I can for as long as I live in order to increase the well-being of all humanity. Part of my role, then, is to educate for peace and for the development of a sustainable world. My job is to provide students with the tools they need to navigate a world that will dramatically change between now and the time they enter the workforce, and then dramatically change again throughout their working lives and my own.
The most I can do is approach each of my decisions as though I have free will in order to make the choice that will be most beneficial for humanity as a whole. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether I have free will or not. Instead, what matters is what I do with the resources that I have in order to maximize sustainable well-being for all people.