I have now read two articles by two well-respected men of science–evolutionary biologist and author Jerry Coyne, and neuroscientist, author and one of the Four Horsemen, Sam Harris—concerning the matter of free will. Both articles ultimately take the position that we in fact, do not have free will. That it is nothing more than an illusion.
I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but generally I can grasp concepts, even difficult ones, with patient and diligent study. I’ve been teaching myself evolutionary biology and genetics for example, and am making good progress (physics is an altogether different beast where I struggle with comprehension). But I have been unable to make heads or tails of this discussion and re-reading it hasn’t illuminated or enlightened.
Last year I read Consilience by biologist Edward O. Wilson (wonderful book by the way) and he has a chapter on The Mind. Mr. Wilson writes beautifully and thoroughly and carefully lays out what we know about the physical properties of the brain. The fundamental properties of the elements responsible for the mind—neurons, neurotransmitter and hormones—are fairly well known and understood. Where we still have large gaps in our knowledge is around the holistic process of cognitive function that creates perception, awareness and knowledge. There’s no consensus as of yet regarding a unified theory of mind, but Wilson lays out his ideas based on areas where scientists generally agree:
- The mind is a stream of conscious and subconscious experience; a coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imagination of sensory impressions.
- The information is stored and retrieved by vector coding, which denotes direction and magnitude. Consciousness consists of the parallel processing of vast numbers of such coding networks. Firings of nerve cells link them, and real impressions are combined with recalled memories that create scenarios.
- Nothing is controlling these streams of consciousness, there’s no CEO or other executive in charge. There are multiple streams of activity, self-organizing to contribute to consciousness and then phase out.
He quotes biologist S. J. Singer who alters Descartes to more accurately depict the brain’s process: I link, therefore I am. He summarizes thusly:
“So there can be no simple determinism of human thought, at least not in obedience to causation in the way physical laws describe the motion of bodies and the atomic assembly of molecules. Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted, the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will. And that is a fortunate circumstance. Confidence in free well is biologically adaptive. Without it the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate. Thus in organismic time and space, in every operational sense that applies to the knowable self, the mind does have free will.”
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is not a science book, but a guide or means toward finding inner peace and happiness. If that sounds like spiritual mumbo jumbo, I understand, as it’s what I thought as well. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I did finally start it at my wife’s urging as she swears it has helped her immensely. It’s pertinent to this topic; at least I think it is, because one of Tolle’s main points is that you are not your mind.
Let’s consider your mind as the conscious part of your brain that you use for problem solving, for work, for conversation, for reading this article. You brain has other areas that have evolved into functioning autonomously to keep you alive. You don’t have to remember to breathe or to circulate your blood or to tell your liver to metabolize fats, etc. The thinking part of your brain is what allows you to replay conversations you’ve had, imagine ones you’ll have in the future, regret the past and worry about the future. It’s hard to shut the thinking mind off and according to Tolle, that constant state of perpetual thinking can lead to suffering, anxiety and misery.
Scientists have recently discovered that people who meditate do manage to “shut off” the thinking portion of their brain as evidenced by MRI measurements. I’m not a big fan of “evidence” from personal experience, so I won’t bore you with my wife’s experiences with Tolle’s teachings or mine, but when science weighs in and can measure the results, it’s something we should pay attention to.
So perhaps, in the sense that the brain functions autonomously in some areas, and that our thoughts are flowing continuously from the stored memories and inputs we take in through the senses, we don’t have total control of our minds and actions. But in terms of making choices, like my decision to write this essay, or my decision to have chicken for lunch, or to apply for a promotion at work, these are choices I make freely, with varying degrees of analysis based on the complexity of the decision. I cannot comprehend, at least not yet, how those decisions, those choices, those willful choices, do not reflect the exercise of my own free will.