Class Warfare Blog

May 18, 2016

A Follow-up to the Post “Free Will and the Perfect Pool Table”

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 9:12 am
Tags: , , , ,

I got many interesting comments on my free will post, including a link to an article in The Atlantic magazine entitled “There is No Such Thing as Free Will.” This reminds me that communications about complex topics, like chemistry and free will, often lag behind the subject by many years. This may or may not be the case regarding free will as many seem to be perfectly happy making profound conclusions based upon simple experiments. I warn my archer students about this failing all of the time: “Beware of conclusions based upon small data sets.” Those students are archers who shoot two arrows, both of which are a tad below the spot they wanted to hit and conclude that “something is wrong.” I, on the other hand point out that those shots are within the typical range of the landing points of their arrows and they may have just come before the higher shots that would balance out their group of shots. There are some archers who can conclude something from just one or two shots, but my students aren’t one of those … yet.

So, while people are going overboard interpreting just a few studies on this topic, I probably err on the other side. Thinking too much and doing too little to make a dent in this topic.

I think but cannot prove that there is another problem with the definition of free will and it has to do with who has that will, or rather what. Throughout Western history, we have cultivated the idea that human beings were “special,” that we had the likeness of a god molded into us and also we had a divine spark or soul/spirit that inhabited us and differentiated us from other animals. In fact, they thought and still think, that that soul is them and it will live on even when their bodies give out.

Scientifically, we seem to be, instead, an organized set of cells of various types, the nervous ones being partly organized into an organ that can think and is self-aware. Your brain is 100 billion neurons and each of those neurons has multiple, often many, connections to other neurons. Also, the brain’s tissue seems to be organized into substructures designed to process certain kinds of information (visual, tactile, olfactory, etc.) plus we have a massive (proportionately) cerebral cortex that seems adept at higher levels of thinking.

The physical bodies that support these brains can be damaged severely without the loss of life. We can lose a finger or a hand or an arm and still live. We can lose an arm and a leg and still live. We can lose both arms and both legs and with assistance from others, still live. But there are critical aspects to this organization. Organs like our hearts we cannot do without. If our brains are severely damaged, we can live on but our life is not necessarily still recognizable as obviously human. We can go on in a vegetative state, again with the help of others.

No divine spark or soul seems readily apparent in this picture. But the idea has a residue. In discussions of free will, experiments show that our genes, inherited from our parents, determine some of our behaviors. Other studies show that our brain’s neurons seem to be acting before we are consciously aware that a decision to act has been made (sometimes by multiple seconds of time!). This leads some to deny free will, saying that we are being “controlled” by our genes like the programming of a robot, or that our brains are responding to some stimulus in a deterministic fashion, indicating behavior that physically or socially is hardwired in. “We” are not responsible for our behavior because of these mechanisms.

Apparently these folks think that “we” does not include our genetic or cultural heritages, that our mental programming is not a part of us. That “we” are somewhere off to the side and these things are controlling us … rather than “are us.”

We now know that as we experience the world outside of us, our brains are restructured. Our brain structures are malleable. That memories are invested in certain neurons and how they connect with one another. That we to some extent create “ourselves” through these interactions with the physical world and other humans.

Personal anecdotes are of little use in such a debate but I will share a couple in any case. My father had a temper that flashed from time to time (he was never abusive, just loud). As I became a young man, I too had a temper, an extravagant one. (I blamed it on my red hair and Irish heritage!) At some point I felt this was inappropriate and decided to change myself, and I did. While I still have an observable temper, it is no longer extravagant. This I did quite a while ago.

While in my 40’s I took some personal transformation courses to heart and in a sit down conversation with my boss he shared with me that I was forcing him to change his viewpoint regarding people (and he was a very astute observer of people). His prior contention was that people never changed, you could always count on them “being themselves.” I, on the other hand, was a counterexample to his hypothesis. He had seen me substantively change who I was. And the changes I went through were small compared to some others I have read about.

It turns out that we have control over bodily processes we though were completely automatic. We have some control over who we want to be. I cannot decide to be taller or shorter, but I can decide within the framework of my physical structure, to be more … or less … kind or more understanding, or a more loving person.

This I call free will. It is not limited by my conscious mind, nor is it based upon some vague notion of who “I” am. “I am” a collection of cells arranged a particular way, dictated by my genetic structure and what I have learned from the world and other people in it. To quote Popeye, “I am what I am.”



  1. Noel’s promised a lengthy reply to your first post.

    Comment by john zande — May 18, 2016 @ 9:51 am | Reply

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