Ever since I read The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker I’ve been obsessed with the concept of free will. I’ve read enough books on brain studies in recent years to doubt the existence of free will. Now I’m not saying we’re all robots, but I question whether or not we’re making decisions on our own, as if we were independent souls sitting in our heads driving our bodies around, and making impartial decisions based on weighing all the evidence and facts.
I remember a freshman philosophy course I took in 1969 and my professor challenging us to come up with an example of free will. That class inspired many arguments between me and my friends. Free will is a philosophical concept that few people think about in normal life – mostly because it feels like we do make our own decisions so why even ask about free will.
When Neo makes his choice between the red and blue pill in the film The Matrix, is that an act of free will? If he’s the One, wouldn’t that make him born to take the red pill?
Everyone assumes they have free will and they are acting on their own volition, but the older I get the more I assume that’s just an illusion. So I’ve been wondering if I can come up with a test for free will. I think I’ve found one with dieting. Our bodies and hunger represent the power of nature and the hardwired programming of genes. The need to diet comes from our environment, where we constantly learn that fat is sexual unattractive, unhealthy, and like Pavlov’s dog, we’re constantly conditioned that being fat is bad. Without that nurturing my nature would run wild.
If we have free will we should be able to evaluate all the outside data and decide to diet and lose weight because of its own philosophical merits. Then why do so many people have trouble dieting? Is it because our bodies, genes and physiological wiring program us to eat and free will can’t overcome that?
I started a diet today and at this very moment my body is already nagging at me to eat something fun. “What a puss,” my mind tells my body. I say no, it says yes. If I can keep saying no, is that proof of free will?
Now there are two factors here: free will and will power. Scientists are throwing water on the concept of will power too. And what’s the difference between free will and will power? Deciding to diet might be an act of free will, but failing to diet might be a lack of will power. And if I succeed in losing weight is it really because I have free will, or has outside stimuli overcame my genetic programming and reprogrammed my eating habits? Where is the me in all of this activity?
Or is it a case of “I diet, therefore I am.” (I wish I knew the Latin equivalent to cogito ergo sum that includes the word diet.) Is thought good enough to prove the existence of free will? Without thought I’d just eat anything I wanted and never think to lose weight. However, all those thoughts about losing weight come from the outside world. If I really had free will, wouldn’t it have been my idea to lose weight?
But who comes up with original ideas???!!! Einstein and the theory of relativity comes immediately to mind. Imagining the concept of space-time had to be an act of free will. Do we discount the billions of years of cosmological and biological evolution that produced Einstein as not part of the equation, or is Einstein’s discovery of space-time really the universe’s act of free will? Einstein couldn’t have made his discovery without a long history of other scientists and thinkers.
When I choose to diet, is it my decision, or society’s? Like Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Can we ever separate our will from the world’s? The urge to eat is genetic. How much I want to eat is probably genetic too. Choosing to eat between steak and veggie burgers would seem like a free will choice, but is it? If I had never read about vegetarianism would I ever considered the choice?
That’s the weird thing about asking ourselves if we have free will. Genetics might be our hardwiring, but the environment seems to be doing all the software programming, so where is there room for free will? Would that be self programming? Even if I could write my own personality programming, wouldn’t the “free will” writing the programming been created by outside programming or genetics?
If I really had free wouldn’t even the urge to eat be my choice? Is thwarting the urge to eat free will, even thought he idea didn’t originate with me? Is free will the ability to choose among the various outside impulses we get from society? Society tells me not to eat, but advertising on TV is doing a major brainwashing job to get me to eat. Every time I see a Sonic commercial I want one of their shakes.
Dieting is a test of will power and maybe even an example of free will. It’s a shame I always flunk it.
JWH – 12/15/12