Is Dieting a Test of Free Will?

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

6 thoughts on “Is Dieting a Test of Free Will?”

  1. Well, you know what I think of philosophy, Jim. 🙂

    And free will*… Well, I don’t find the question useful. I’m not even sure the question of “free will” makes any sense. Even if it does, what would the answer tell us? Would it change anything? Whether we have free will or not, technically speaking, we’d still need to act as though we do.

    Regarding free will and dieting, here’s another test you can do: Hold your breath until you die. You can’t do it. If you had an incredible amount of willpower (and weren’t particularly bright), you might be able to hold your breath until you passed out, but then you’d start breathing again.

    So what does that tell you? It tells me that we’re animals, not just a disembodied mind.

    Obviously, it’s not just that, either. Hunger, thirst, sex, drug addictions – all of those urges, and more, are because we’ve got a real, live animal body. You can have all the free will in the world, but dieting will still be hard – and harder for some people than for others, not because they have a deficiency of willpower, necessarily, but because our bodies aren’t all the same.

    When you use dieting as a test for willpower, you think you’re testing your brain, but it’s your body that has to perform the test. Is your inability to run a three-minute mile a failure of willpower? You’re not a disembodied mind, Jim, and you never will be. It’s body and mind together, for better or worse.

    (*PS. And then there’s the religious concept of free will, which is completely ridiculous. Their god is like a mugger holding a gun to your head. “Do exactly as I say, or I’ll burn you in Hell for eternity.” But yeah, when you give him all your money, that’s your “free will,” huh? Heh, heh.)

    1. People want to believe in free will because they want to believe they control their own lives, and other people should be accountable for their actions. When it comes to dieting, I have very little control over my body, maybe more than my ability to hold my breadth, but not much.

      Bill, you and I are atheists, and you’d think we decided to be non-believers because of our rational mind. More and more I’m thinking I was born to be an atheist.

      Since I’m a computer programmer it makes me think about how our brain is programmed. The idea of free will is like a computer that can program itself.

      1. I don’t think I decided to become a non-believer, Jim. I just can’t believe without evidence – good evidence – and I can’t imagine how other people can. That wasn’t my decision, it’s just who I am.

        But you might be interested in this article from New Scientist. It’s about our “second brain” in our gut, which might be responsible for a lot more than just digestion. An excerpt:

        “Your body contains a separate nervous system that is so complex it has been dubbed the second brain. It comprises an estimated 500 million neurons – about five times as many as in the brain of a rat – and is around 9 metres long, stretching from your oesophagus to your anus. It is this brain that could be responsible for your craving under stress for crisps, chocolate and cookies.

        Embedded in the wall of the gut, the enteric nervous system (ENS) has long been known to control digestion. Now it seems it also plays an important role in our physical and mental well-being. It can work both independently of and in conjunction with the brain in your head and, although you are not conscious of your gut “thinking”, the ENS helps you sense environmental threats, and then influences your response. “A lot of the information that the gut sends to the brain affects well-being, and doesn’t even come to consciousness,” says Michael Gershon at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, New York.”

        Free will or not, I wouldn’t claim we’re not responsible for what we do. But I think it’s a lot more complicated than we normally realize. As I say, we need to act as though we have free will, whether we do or not, but I wouldn’t be so quick to blame problems dieting on a lack of willpower.

        1. That’s my point Bill, we’re skeptics because we’re born with skeptical wiring.

          That’s fascinating about the nervous system in our gut. I’ve never heard of that. Are you a subscriber to New Scientist? I always ignore it because it keeps requiring registration. I registered and will have to keep an eye on the site.

          By the way, my second brain really didn’t like my new diet. After two days of dieting I felt like I was having some kind of weird high that wasn’t pleasant. Of course it could have been just starvation, even though I was eating lots of veggies. I ate some carbs and cheese and started feeling better.

      2. Oops! I was wrong, Jim. Although I don’t subscribe to New Scientist, I do get their weekly newsletter of top stories, and that’s where I saw the article.

        I get the other email, too, but I didn’t see that article there. Sorry. I’m so swamped with emails that I get a bit confused sometimes. 🙂

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