Are we free thinking beings with the ability to determine our own destinies or merely biochemical machines cognizant of our actions. The debate over free will is not new. It has been the subject of philosophy, religion, psychology and law. But does it actually exist?
Back in March Physorg.com writer Lisa Zyga wrote an article about research conducted by Anthony Cashmore, a biology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, essentially refuting the notion of free will.
He premisses that people are biochemical machines whose actions in a given situation are predetermined by their genetic and biological history. Simply, the influences that define our personality, be them nature or nurture, dictate the “choices” we make. Ultimately, he posits that it is our awareness – or sentience whichever term you prefer – that creates our illusion of free will, but like any other machine, we are unable to deviate from actions not inherent in our programming.
Obviously, this is a notion that many will find impossible to accept (especially the control freaks among us). What will make it a concept so difficult to believe is the shear number of decisions a person makes in a single day. I mean, when I have a burger and fries for lunch could have I not as easily had a salad? If I went back in time 100 times, would I eat that same burger every time (assuming I could do so with no knowledge that I was returning with the intent of not eating the burger)? Now stop pointing at the screen and screaming that I have just proven free will exists by suggesting that if I knew I was going back in time to eat soemthing other than the burger that I could. A little later on I will explain why it proves nothing.
Cashmore’s assumption that humans are merely sophisticated machines is a good one. When we consider our brain’s programming it is important to remember that the software is dynamic. We receive updates and patches almost every day. We learn and adapt and some of that information dictates how we live our lives.
The question is: Do we choose our life’s path or not? Let’s consider the trip back in time to change my dietary choice for one meal on one single day. Assuming that all factors remain exactly the same would Cashmore’s theory mean that I would enjoy a burger every time? Now, change a factor, make me aware of my intention to eat, say a salad; would the fact I was able to eat something other than the burger disprove the theory?
Personally, although I do cling to my notion of free will, I think both situations can be argued more easily in Cashmore’s favour. As the notion of free will has been part of my environmental programming for so long my biochemical reaction would expectedly be to reinforce the illusion and therefore I would choose to eat the salad. Unfortunately, then the question would become could have I chosen the burger.
If you think your choice for lunch is too trivial to matter let’s consider drug addiction. Is the fact that some people can quit evidence of free will? It must be. The fact a person can choose to put themselves through the hell of withdraw or worse yet choose to do it more than once, proves free will, right? Or, maybe, the simple truth is certain influences resonate with every individual differently. The influences that may trigger a software update in one brain may not in another. Like I said, the brain is dynamic. Some may look at smokers who puff through the holes in their necks and say ‘some people never learn.’ Maybe they do, maybe there is an influence in their past however that was more influential on their programming than the pain and suffering they are inflicting on themselves.
As the article suggests the theory, if ever proven, will most significantly impact our judicial system. How will we handle crime and punishment if we discover that we are not responsible for our actions. Will it be chaos? But wouldn’t chaos prove free will? Or, is law more influential than desire to most people? I think proving this theory will require an understanding of the brain that we are long way from achieving. We will need a way to map the brain in such away that we can determine what factors are most influential on any given individual. If that is possible, it may mean a revolution in treating mental illness, addiction and criminal rehabilitation. For the more Orwellian among us it also may be the key to breaking the human mind and create a method to turn us all into brainwashed slaves. That discovery may aslo prove free will. We may not be able to deviate from our programming, but maybe we freely choose how we are programmed by giving some influences more hardrive space than others.
But, really, the worst thing about this debate is, after today, am I ever going to be able to eat lunch again?