Something New on Free-Will

There is no such thing as free-will?

For the last few years I have reluctantly agreed with popular scientific opinion that there is not such thing as free-will. I read the literature and was convinced it was true. But, it was still hard to accept the fact that I could not make a conscious decision and I was not the creative person who I prided myself to be. Many skeptics still refuse to accept the contention there is no such thing as free-will, but I was not one of them. It’s best to accept science until it is proven wrong.

But, I was bothered by the question, if I don’t make decisions, who or what does? Who decided to go to college? Who decided to enlist in the army? Who decided to marry my wife? I thought I did all these things, but I guess not. Those decisions were madein my unconscious mind before I knew what I was going to do. Unconscious workings of my brain weighed the evidence for me and made the decision for me. It’s like one of those little magic 8 balls that you shake and the answer comes up without you doing anything except the shaking.

Who am I to question the experts? Neural testing indicates that our brains make a decision a fraction of a second before we are aware it has made a decision. Facts are facts. How can I contest scientific evidence? I finally had to admit, humans probably don’t have free will or original thoughts. Instead, our neurons swap and evaluate electrochemical messages and make decisions for us. For example, we wake up in the morning with a solution to a problem we were unable to solve the previous day, like remembering a name, or discovering a good ending to a fictional story. Our brains did the work for us without direction from us. It sounded believable?

Recently, I was pleased to find out that the matter is not totally settled. Even the most cherished and long held scientific beliefs and theories remain on the reviewing block. It’s the scientific way, and is as it should be.

So now, here are a few arguments (not mine) on the side of free will and original thought.

Before I report on some relatively new developments in the field of free will, I need to review some old truths. I had almost forgotten about the concept of “body-brain”. Our brains and their neural attachments from toe to finger to gonads all combine together and become a “body-brain”. The brain by itself is useless without its neural sensory/feedback hook up to the rest of our body.

That being said, I would now like to summarize a New Scientist Magazine article, “Free Will Unleashed” by cognitive neuroscientist, Peter Uric Tse. Basically, he claims that individual neurons and their networks don’t have dogmatic marching orders and don’t cannot make decisions for us without our direction. They do not operate independently of conscious input. Instead they continually change their functions and networking as they are stimulated or directed by us. They join and resign from millions of neural networks like I switch TV channels. The same neurons are members of many networks and perform many functions. If we think of an object such as a banana, its data sheet in not stored in one file somewhere in our brains. Banana information comes from multiple areas of the brain. The millions of neurons may play a role in millions of networks that tell us about a banana’s color, its shape, its taste, its feel, its smell, etc. Neurons are versatile little buggers. The brain (mind) appears to be even larger and more complicated than I thought. It is like a tree-dimensional movie marquee with multiple light bulbs. The same light bulb lights up for every different picture or word but in different sequences and combinations. But, this marquee needs directions fed into it. It needs a program or a criterion to direct it.

As Tse explains it: the brain works on its own but needs direction. An architect can type in the data but the computer puts it together, makes sense of it and prints out the blue print. If we are planning what to serve at a dinner party, we must first set criteria, one of which might be, “All guests should enjoy the meal.” But, if one guest is vegetarian, then we consciously decide we cannot serve steak. A new criterion must be formulated that excludes meat. Spinach lasagna comes to mind because it will satisfy all dinner guests and has no meat. Our brain searches its memory banks and by pure luck, finds spinach lasagna (if we did the search again we might have come up with spaghetti and veggie meatballs). However, if we knew one of our guests did not like spinach, we would have to set up another criterion excluding both meat and spinach. Tse claims, “Your brain fully willed the outcome of spinach by setting up specific criteria in advance, then playing things out. The internal deliberation of setting up a criterion is where the free will action is, not in the resulting and repetitive or automated motor acts.” “This means our thoughts and actions are neither utterly random nor predetermined, and counters arguments that free will is an illusion.” So says Tse.

Tse’s arguments seem believable, at least possible in my humble opinion. After all is said, we may not be zombies acting without free will. All things may not have been predetermined when the life first appeared on earth. Free will may have had a role in guiding our decisions and even evolution. Humans, and perhaps other animals, might have evolved differently by chance mutations or by the volition if that animal had an advanced body-brain trying to make the best choices in order to survive. Some animals make good decisions and survive; some make bad decisions and become extinct. Our body-brain set up the criterion; it plays out events internally; it chooses what seems to be the best option at that time; it then acts upon that option and presto, we get a flash of realization. Tse concludes, “And it could have turned out otherwise.”

So, It appears nothing is written in stone. If we consciously set criteria, and then allow our neural networks to search out the answers like a search on a computer, we are in essence, exercising our free-will; we are directing our computer brains to come up with original thoughts and conclusions. We play a major role in decision making after all, and just maybe, we really do have original thoughts… at least I think we do.

Do our brains, when not cluttered by everyday tasks, have the potential for original thought? Maybe, as this poem suggests.

Between The Worlds

Between the worlds of dreams and wakefulness there lies a fertile realm,
a time in which the mind can soar and hardships overwhelm.

The greatest triumphs and smallest pleasures, from this time, are born.
Use it wisely at every chance, and let it not adjourn.

For in it lies a world of hope, potentialities unlimited,
of problems solved and visions uninhibited.

So before you fall asleep at night or just before you wake,
explore this world of possibilities and see what you create.


About cgosling

I am a retired medical/scientific illustrator and creator of patient teaching simulators, who has given up illustration to write about science, superstition, and secular humanism. I consider myself all of the following: atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, and nature lover. I have several published books but the mass of my writing is unpublished. I write children's fiction, poetry, essays, and several plays and radio theater shows, that are available as free downloads to be used on secular podcasts and meetings. They can be heard on Indy Freethought Radio or on YouTube “secularradiotheater”. I hope some of my writings will be of interest to like minded freethinkers who I cordially invite to respond. I am also a Darwin impersonator. I invite readers to listen to and use the Darwin script for secular purposes.
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2 Responses to Something New on Free-Will

  1. Vickstar says:

    The main argument is that neurons don’t just make each other fire, the way billiard balls make each other move, deterministically. Rather, neurons change the parameters or conditions placed on inputs that will cause neurons to fire or not in the future. The physical mechanism is rapid changes in synaptic weights. This effectively allow the brain to harness chance at the level of uncertainty of spike timing to satisfy these parameters in unforeseeable ways. To really understand the deep implications of this idea you would have to read “The neural basis of free will:Criterial Causation” but the comments on amazon are a good place to start. There is also an interview with Tse on a PBS TV show that is good, which you can find by googling “Closer to Truth Tse”

    • cgosling says:

      Vickstar – Yes, Thanks for your explanation. You know more about it than I. Intuitively, most of us want to have free will so we cling to that hope in the face of neuro-research to the contrary. This latest research gives me hope I have some control over my actions. I’m just trying to spread the news. Thanks for reading and your comment.

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