Thanks to my philosophy professor and his awesome free-will-themed PHI101 course, I’ve become more conscious of incidents in everyday life that really call into question this “unsophisticated” view of the will, and it’s refreshing to have at least one professor who is a determinist (here’s the blog detailing the view of my other professor who thinks that determinism is largely “out of favor”). Anyways, so now I’m cognizant of these no doubt oft-overlooked events, and I’d like to share a recent example that was rather significant, or at least I thought so.
I was at home the other day and about to do some homework, but realized I had left my books in the car. I headed outside to retrieve them.
My minivan on that day was parked similarly to in the photo below (I staged this for illustrative purposes), so it’s obvious that the passenger door was closest, and thus would require the least exertion in accessing the interior of my vehicle. HOWEVER — before I got all the way to the passenger door, I realized (approximately at Point A below) that all doors except the driver’s side were locked (I knew this because this model has doors that auto-lock when engaged in drive and then only unlock when opened from the inside or the “unlock all” switch is triggered, and I was the only one in the van when I parked it; thus, only that door would be accessible). Simple, concise, “terminate command” orders sent directly to the motherboard — “Don’t bother, it’s locked, and you knew that the whole time but just decided to tell me now!” Curiously, my body kept moving on its original trajectory and continued on to what I have labeled Point B, the locked door. I then proceeded to pull on the handle, a real WTF moment, to phrase it like all those hip kids today. It was only after I had gone through these fruitless motions that I found myself on the proper path, towards Point C, where I collected my stuff and returned inside, slightly baffled by what had just happened. I should note that my backpack was in the center of the front seat, equidistant from either door, so there was no other benefit to retrieving it from the passenger side other than the external convenience afforded by my parking angle.
After this incident, I retrospectively thought of other similar incidents where I had carried out some “thoughtless” action despite a conflicting thought, but this event was a true catalyst in my thinking on this problem, compounded by Dr. White’s philosophical offerings. It might seem to some that I’m just looking way too much into this, but I’d like to preemptively address anticipated concerns that there is a genuine problem for free will here:
1) I was sober, so there was no drunken delayed motor response;
2) I was moving at a casual pace, not sprinting, so forward momentum didn’t prevent me from stopping in time (and if it did, why would I still bother to try the handle?);
3) Even at that casual pace, the time span from A to B in the picture is only a few steps (approximately a second?), and during this time I did not experience any conscious overtly conflicting thoughts like, “Noooo!! Why am I still moving forward? I don’t want to do this!!! Stop it, body, STOP IT!”
It’s almost as though your brain is really in charge and your ‘free will’ is just a post-hoc rationalization — a delusion, almost…This alone is strange enough, but what if we add another twist to the experiment. Imagine I’m monitoring your EEG while you wiggle your finger…I will see a readiness potential a second before you act. But suppose I display the signal on a screen in front of you so that you can see your free will. Every time you are about to wiggle your finger, supposedly using your own free will, the machine will tell you a second in advance! What would you now experience?
Ramachandran goes on to list “three logical possibilities” to what one would experience in that scenario, but I now propose (and perhaps this has already been proposed, or even done? — please point me to the literature if possible!) another modification to the experiment by not only instructing the subject to carry out a simple task, but by then instructing them to disregard the command and instead carry out a contrary action, like a controlled version of what I experienced (and, of course, an externally implanted conflict, unlike the internal “change of intent” that I encountered on that day).
Neuroscience continues to reveal truths about ourselves in aspects that have been debated for millennia, and it seems that we are currently living in a new renaissance with neuroscience and technology producing exponential knowledge, and perhaps moving towards blurring the line between the two.
- Sean Carroll on free will (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Determinism is Not Fatalism
- Contingency, Causality, Determinism, And Free Will (wmbriggs.com)
- V.S. Ramachandran – TED Talk – Mirror Neurons, Eastern Philosophy, Culture & Civilization (catagenesis.wordpress.com)
- Free will redux (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)