Or, The Illusion of Free Will

Over the past five decades, I have reluctantly and sadly come to the conclusion that there is relatively little “free will.” That is a pretty complete reversal of my original beliefs.

While that change of mind will be argued by some as proof that free will has triumphed, actually it doesn’t. After all, I did not say it is non-existent. I have merely observed over the years it is active, if at all, in a surprisingly small percentage of our decisions, at least those big fundamental decisions in our lives.

Take eating. We might choose what to eat, but not whether to eat. Yes, some people do go on hunger strikes and commit suicide by delaying eating until it is too late. On the other hand, that represents such a minuscule percentile of the population, perhaps one in a million, it could even be explained by a typical random mutation in their particular DNA code. Remember, we are not talking about those forced into starvation, just those who supposedly do it voluntarily to perhaps prove their point such as Ghandi or those suffering from something which has a powerful driving force of its own like terminal cancer patients experiencing what is to them unbearable pain. Given the biological (i.e. non-free will) urges of both hunger pangs and instinctive self preservation, we do not really have the free will to not eat.

Even the choices of what we eat as opposed to if we eat seem to be driven largely by something other than pure free will. That’s true even if we leave out examples supportive of the non-free will theory such as addiction to certain substances due to our brain synapses being held prisoner on the molecular level. Our preprogramed biological stimuli such as liking the taste of sugar or foods cooked in fat have a powerful impact. And, how can we discount advertising, let alone monetary, ethnic, social status, education and other considerations, influencing the alleged free will in the determination?

We also have little free will in our food dislikes. Take for instance our repulsion to certain smells which our prehistoric ancestors learned to associate with putrification. Those ancestors who ignored the smells and ate contaminated food tended to end up dead and not pass on their genes. Obviously, that native or inherited impulse to avoid certain “bad” smelling foods can be overcome by us if we are hungry enough or there are peer or other pressures requiring us to do so. Is acting on a “double dog dare” challenge to eat a worm something genuinely a free exercise of will?

I recognize that once others have proven there is no harm from something despite its off putting smell, we do eat what our nose or eyes tells us might be questionable. Nevertheless, as before, the percentage of people who are not starving and still eat food that smells or slimily looks like long dead carrion is relatively small.

We also tend to have what little free will we might be biologically born with stultified by our upbringing or culture. Cats, dogs, horses, snails, and bugs are all capable of safe ingestion by human beings. In one sense, it’s all just protein. In North America however, try to find someone who will exercise the free will necessary to eat one of those if they don’t happen to be starving at the time. The thought is almost horrifying to those raised in this county. Many would not eat one of them even if they were starving. As with everything, isolated exceptions can be pointed to, but aren’t they likely the exceptions that prove the general rule. Do a few exceptions demonstrate that we all have exercisable free will at all times? If it cannot be exercised by us, is it truly free will?

Lest the messenger be attacked for advocating eating Lassie or Fluffy, keep in mind that I would not eat any of those either. I find it hard to even write about despite knowing that other cultures semi routinely eat all those types of animals. My bringing up the point is to simply illustrate the relative lack of power that there is to any free will on the subject.

Some will argue that it is a “choice” not to eat pets. That seems to be a rationalization though. While some would say they are electing to avoid those menu choices because they would not like the taste, how can they know if they had not tried it at least once? Trying something like grilled dog leg and then never having it again conceivably could be argued, albeit weakly, is an expression of free will. Conversely, not even trying it when it has been certified safe for consumption suggests the opposite.

In fact, there is doubt that even the time of eating is entirely free will for the most part. Both hunger cycles and culture norms go far in dictating when as well as whether and what. Same for how.

On a different but related topic, how about our choice of mates? Recent scientific studies are starting to show that we are primarily and, more importantly, unconsciously influenced by how they smell, the symmetry of their facial features, the size ratio between their hips and their waist, and the clearness of their skin. These unconscious preferences, among others, cut across racial and cultural barriers to become almost universals. Again, it is apparently something stored in our ancestral DNA. Those mates who had those particular favorable features tended to be disease free and could give birth to robust children. Those who didn’t tended not to pass their genes on to future generations. Natural selection at work so to speak. Over time, several million years, the cumulative effect tends to add up. How then can it be asserted that we are making a free will choice of future spouses, if we are not even aware of what factors are influencing us.

Body language is another, almost entirely unconscious motivator in pairing off. Lab studies prove again and again that we are reacting to stimuli from others, signals of which we are not aware. In females, hair flips, cocked heads, length of eye contacts, hand locations, body angles, all give messages to which males routinely react even though neither the female involved is aware of giving nor the male involved is aware of receiving. Body language often dictates the choice belying whatever words might have been expressed at the time. While it is possible to deliberately display some body signals, they are almost always being displayed whether we intend to do so or not.

Yeah, we also look for other things in the opposite sex, sometimes consciously so. Reddish lips are built in biological signs of sexual willingness and the price of the cars the potential mate is driving communicates certain information. At the same time, those “choices” too often are traceable to past pressures on the gene pool. Historically, the male with the most possessions is signaling that he would be a good provider. Even if they are some ostensibly conscious factors in a given selection of a mate, how much weight can be given to the hair color type choices when we are not consciously aware that a balanced face is even a factor? Even hair color selection, to some extent tends to be driven by cultural or other pressures that are not conducive to free will. The phrase “arranged marriage” is a tacit recognition in our language of the long establish lack of true choice.

Look at babies. Aw, how cute. Again, scientists have proven that we are hard wired to like the way babies look. The sight of large heads relative to body size coupled with small ears, noses and mouths triggers flows of endorphins in our brains, whether we are looking at baby humans or mammals of any sort. It makes us feel good due to the flooding of feel good chemicals it generates.

The population members who don’t happen to like the way babies look, once again, tend to not have babies of their own. That is a competitive disadvantage in the long run. No babies - no passing on that mental predisposition if the a pro-baby reaction is genetic as it seems to be.

Even grammar astonishingly may be hard wired into our brains. Some studies of children from different ethnic groups suggests not the particular words, but the structure of language itself may be driven by how our brain is constructed and grows rather than conscious choice.

Gossip seems to have the same status. It is much harder to find those who truly do not gossip especially about high profile members of our society such as celebrities or tribal leaders. The attention to those special members seems to be built in, possibly as a defense mechanism as is suggested by studies of primate colonies. Even those who claim they never gossip do so though they may call it something else. It is one of the ways we, as well as chimps and apes, almost automatically organize our society.

Even heroics, or maybe especially heroics, seems often to be dictated by other things than conscious choice. Those who jump on grenades for instance frequently say that there was little or no conscious thought associated with the act. Training or instinct seems to be a bigger factor. The “tribal” bonding with others perhaps. Almost never is it for flag or country abstracts that consciously dictate leaping on that grenade. Those national “Uncle Sam Needs You” types peer or legal pressures such as the draft adversely affect free will on their own. The individual often feels he had to join the military and that may have put the individual in a circumstance which later provided the sad opportunity to jump on a live grenade. The survivors are thankful and celebrate the sacrifice and declare heroism. Still, few if any contemplate joining the military for the opportunity of jumping on a grenade.

Are even the suicide bombers doing so because of the 76 virgins alleged promised in Paradise? That one is really interesting and where we need the most research. Did they really do it due to lack of choice in their lives or religion rather than choice? If so, free will seems even less likely.

What of the all volunteer Army you say? Perhaps a certain portion, the few rich and famous Pat Tillmans of this world, picked it out of real choice, but how often is it a true choice? True free will at work? How many joined instead because of the complete lack of better job opportunities or inability to afford a college education or family traditions or guilt or a simple jail term as an alternative? If you need proof that the volunteer aspect of the Army might not really be a completely volunteer situation, how many sons of Congressmen or daughters of the President are enlisting, let alone for the combat arms?

Perhaps some might argue that apparent cowardice like the President’s during the Vietnam War is a “choice.” Is it? Maybe cowardice is genetically programed. The “fight or flight” adrenalin pumping our bodies have comes out of the autonomic hormone system. That has little to do with free will or choice.

I have been fortunate to never be in the live grenade or a similar situation where the act happens to protect others. But, I can remember the first time I went to a movie after completing basic training in the Army. The lights when down. The screen lit up with an image of the flag and the national anthem blared. Someone yelled “Attention” and the entire theater audience instantly leaped to their collective feet including me. I cannot speak for others, but I can say I astonishingly found myself at attention without any volition on my part. Similarly, the first time off the base, I was coming out of a restaurant and was halfway into a hand salute having spotted a pair of captain bars on a shoulder of someone entering until I realized I was saluting a state trooper. That was the beginning of my revelation that maybe free will is illusory in most, if not all, our actions.

As to those who would like to prove me wrong, I sincerely wish you good luck and hope you are right. I really do because otherwise, that suggests we will always be stuck with war, hatred, suspicion, intolerance, and the other traits that foul almost all of history. If there is little free will, that probably means we will always have an irreducible percentage of people who will blindly follow their leaders or preachers no matter what disaster they lead us into. If there is little free will, then we will almost always have corrupt politicians almost always selecting their self interest rather than the greater good. I would much prefer a world in which free will existed because then there might finally be hope for some of those problems.

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