There are certain experiences we view as quintessentially human – grieving the loss of a loved one, preferring a certain genre of music, feeling sexual attraction, and other classic clichés. They seem to be intricately linked in our conception of ourselves as individuals, unrepeatable beings with unique hopes and desires, whose actions, emotions, and thoughts are all results of conscious choices. I rebuke this notion. Free will does not exist. Consciousness – as the agent of all our thoughts – is merely an illusion. These processes happen on a purely neurobiological level, and then our brains alert our conscious mind to them.
There is strong scientific evidence against the idea of free will. Benjamin Libet’s seminal 1983 experiment found that “readiness-potential” for an action, that is, recordable neurological activity, begins about seven seconds before subjects consciously “decide” to undertake the action.[i] Therefore, the choices we believe to be voluntary are actually precipitated by unconscious cerebral calculations. Libet cautiously concluded that “[t]his introduces certain constraints on the potentiality for conscious initiation and control of voluntary acts.”[ii]
I would take this further: if actions are actually insentiently generated responses to external stimuli processed by the unconscious, which the conscious mind takes credit for, how can we limit this idea to basic movements? Certainly part of the problem lies in the nebulous definition of consciousness as our awareness of ourselves and our control over our mental processes. However expressed, this process comes after the neurological processes to undertake an action have been activated. How can we claim any sort of agency beyond neurobiological processing if we are not even aware that a decision has already been made when we think we are making it?
Physiology has long been understood to heighten emotions, their “primary effect being the organic changes in question,” and the conscious experience of emotion as the effect of these changes.[iii] In anger, for example, the adrenal gland releases cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline; blood diverts from digestion to the muscles; while heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and respiration increase.[iv] It has been agreed that the experience of emotion is a cycle of the brain consciously registering an event and deciding to be angry, fueling these biological effects and resulting in full cognitive awareness and the experience of anger.
In light of Libet’s experiment (and following corroborating studies), how can we argue that the decision to become angry begins consciously and that bodily reactions follow? It seems that the brain registers an event and calculates how it should react. Only then does the physical response and conscious experience begin. How much does awareness add to the experience? If Libet’s conclusions are accurate – that our body reacts to stimuli before we become aware – then humans, on an individual basis, are apt to become angry under certain conditions and not under others. Our brains know when we will or will not become angry, given the context of our biologically-rooted personality and the environment at a given moment. The brain alerts us to this result after it has been chemically prescribed, and we can relish in our conscious experience of the fundamentally physical process of anger.
It is a redefinition of the boundary between body and mind: if the brain’s processes are actually physical, rooted in neural firings, how can we argue that this type of biological reaction is special in the context of the brain? If cutting my leg causes a chain reaction of neurons to inform the brain of the injury, where does the division occur between bodily systems and the functioning of the mind?
The mind is thus relegated to a role outside the body. The mind and soul seem to share a metaphysical space, while separate scientific processes govern the brain and body. The mind and soul are both intangible executives of the human experience…or are they? Perhaps there is only the physical world, and both mind and soul are oeuvres of the brain, once again, tricking us into the belief in free will and personhood to reinforce our pursuit of other goals. The brain creates this sense of consciousness to help us with our sense of purpose, to give us a reason to live, and to further inspire our efforts to reach objectives that we may not even be aware of.
So does consciousness matter at all? If ideations that do not lead to actions or tangible physical effects (such as conceptions of ethnicity or opinions on the dog v. cat debate) are generated by the same neural firings as actions, how are they any different? Just as the brain registers input from the external world and reconciles it with stored knowledge in order to undertake an action, this same process applies when we experience emotions or form opinions. This is where the lack of free will seems to be the most troubling. Yes, perhaps my brain is more efficient at registering a simple event and electing an action, fine. But shouldn’t it be a matter of conscious choice who I believe I am on my most intimate level?
What does consciousness change, anyway? Does it matter whether our thoughts are the result of a purely scientific process embedded in our neurology, or occur on some higher plane? Certainly at issue is the ambiguity of the conception of consciousness. It is defined as awareness, a sense of selfhood, intertwined with the soul and other intangible elements of humanity. Consequently, the attribution of all brain functioning to neural firings seems to revoke that sense of humanity by reducing the consciousness to a mere observer, rather than director, of not only our most basic but also our most valued acts. It is a direct attack on our integrity as persons to say that we are essentially highly complex machines, processing inputs and reacting to them without making any choices.
Yet we do make choices: our bodies take the inputs of our biological makeup, our memories, and the given external stimuli and make decisions – many more than they bother to inform us of. Consciousness is some added benefit that seems to take place in the brain and along the same pathways as thoughts with consequences, but may actually happen on a different, more ethereal level. Does it matter whether this indefinable idea of the conscious brain makes the decisions, or if it merely becomes aware of them to enrich our experience of our lives?
Could a formula explain this process? Theoretically, there could be some sort of mathematical process to understand every action you undertake and predict the future. I postulate that there could be a way to provide for the input of every variable in life – a person’s genetically rooted personality, the way their environment has shaped their neurological development, and the given circumstances – to predict with absolute certainty the way that the brain will process and react to every situation.
What are the implications of this? Immediately, there aren’t any. We’ll all go on living our lives, thinking we control our decisions and actions, and our neurological processes will go on interpreting stimuli and acting for us. Ultimately, we don’t lose any sense of individuality, as all brains act differently due to both genetics and experiences. Furthermore, if my consciousness has no actual effects, then its importance to my being is dramatically reduced, and there might be any number of processes and goals that my brain is actively pursuing without my conscious knowledge. That is an exciting idea –my brain lives a dual life without “my” involvement!
However, in the long term, the implications of not having free will are enormous and terrifying. Already, the Human Genome Project is mapping the location and function of all the genes in human DNA. If this is possible in the 21st century, it seems not only plausible but also likely that by the 47th, or even 22nd, century, an equation could be discerned, with the appropriate variables for genetics and environmental factors, that could predict the most insignificant and, collectively, most grand movements of humanity. Following this trajectory could have any number of outcomes, but what I see as most likely is the psychological removal of personal accountability (“I can’t control what my brain does”) and the subsequent degeneration of human society – an alarming thought, indeed.
This is perhaps a disturbing idea, but I suppose it is comforting that the sensation of feeling “disturbed” about this fact is simply a neurological process created by our brains in response to the given input of this essay.
Frankenhaeuser, Marianne, and Ulf Lundberg. "Sympathetic-Adrenal and Pituitary Adrenal Response to Challenge." Biological Psychiatry, Higher Nervous Activity, 1985: 699-704.
James, William. "The Physical Basis of Emotion." Psychological Review, 1894: 516-529.
Libet, Benjamin, Curtis Gleason, Elwood Wright, and Dennis Pearl. "Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential)." Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 1983: 623-642.
[i] (Libet, et al. 1983)
[ii] (Libet, et al. 1983)
[iii] (James 1894)
[iv] (Frankenhaeuser and Lundberg 1985)