I was a believer in free will until I found myself addicted to prescription narcotics. Everyday I counted out the tablets, everyday I promised to cut back the number I took the next day, and everyday I failed. The demoralization was staggering.
This was a blow to my cherished belief in Free Will. I had always decided what I was going to do, when I was going to do it, how I was going to do it, and where I was going to do it. And so could you. And if you didn’t exercise your free will and make the right choices, you were responsible. Having “free willed” my way out of my turbulent past into medical school and a successful surgical career proved it, right?
My thoughts about free will were also challenged by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher. In his book Free Will Harris suggests the following thought experiment. Sit and think of a movie, any movie. Now think of another movie. Now think of a third. He points out that there was no free will in the “choosing” of any of them. With over 100 billion nerve cells and 100 trillion connections between them all, the thoughts just appeared from the depths of the neurologic galaxy lodged inside your skull. Perhaps one of these shooting stars of “choice” appeared because you happened to be talking about that movie last night with your loved one. But let’s take the movie Spider Man. I doubt it appeared as a “choice” even though you know for sure that Spider Man is a film. Why not? That is the point, you didn’t choose any of the three that you ‘picked’. We don’t choose our thoughts. Ever. They just appear based on prior conditions (genetics, environment, etc) and randomness.
In my last post, What Is Your Unique Personal Operating System (OS)?, I proposed that at any point in our lives our personal OS is a result of a similar turbulent sea of forces outside of our control – genetics, family and workplace culture, major life experiences, and pure luck. We are born into this sea of forces and we do our best to swim and keep our heads above water with the tools we have. And the tools are your genetic makeup and the habits borne of being cast into your particular body of water. As David Foster Wallace notes:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water? And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ”
Thus, we swim along in life with our unique personal OS, either completely unaware or at best in a cognitive haze about its how it works or if it is the best one to get us to a beautiful reef.
Thinking about this in my own life certainly lends weight to the idea of a lack of Free Will. My mother was Norwegian and an alcoholic, my father was jewish, and I was illegitimate, poor, rambunctious, and impulsive by nature, driven to the streets by my home life, and over time with luck (some might call it destiny, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from) I was fortunate enough to be exposed to people and places that had a massive influence on my life, none of which I chose. In aggregate, at any given point in my life, it all added up to a set of habits – mental, emotional, physical – that made up the Michael Maddaus OS.
Now, you may be thinking, “yes of course but you made choices based on free will along the way too” and of course I did make choices. At any given moment in time, when faced with a choice about anything, you do have the freedom to choose. Or do you? If you are debating about which of two movies to see, and you choose one, it feels like free will. But where did the intention to choose Terminator 3 over Love Actually come from? You could say its because you like Arnold but then why do you like Arnold. Is it because he has an accent, or because he is an an American success story, or because he has large biceps. Well perhaps you like bodybuilders. Sure. But why do you like bodybuilders. Because you were skinny and picked on as a kid. Sure. But why do some kids that are skinny and picked on end up liking bodybuilders and others don’t? Like a little kid who pesters you with “why, why, why, why….” it virtually impossible to trace the origin of liking Arnold’s biceps deep enough, down into the primordial neural galaxy of coded experiences, mental habits, neural circuits, proteins, and genes active in your brain that led you to Arnold’s biceps. One can never really know the genesis of the why behind the intention to choose one thing over the other. There are just too many layers of the cognitive onion to peel, and we don’t have a peeler for such a task.
In my case, whenever I think about the reason why I made certain choices at various points in time, I have no idea. Why did I “choose” to shoplift the first time I was arrested at 13 years old? I have no idea. Other kids in similar bad circumstances don’t. By the 24th arrest, my bad choices had become a habit, despite the consequences. And why did I later make a single key choice that so profoundly benefited me? I have no idea. A pediatric surgeon, Stacy Roback, suggested I take a vocational interest test to help me figure out what to do with my life. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I was at his kitchen table. After he suggested it I sat silent for a minute, and said sure. The test said I should be a doctor. Why I decided to take that test is a mystery. Other socially disadvantaged kids whom I have since mentored and provided similar options to have not made similar “wise” choices.
We are really never in control of the origin of the neurologic waves that brew under the surface of our ocean of awareness. They arise from the combination of external stimuli and internal processes that create a disturbance deep inside the ocean of our minds and end up eventually rolling up onto the shores of our conscious world like a tsunami in the form of thoughts, emotions, moods, etc. And we think we are in control of it all. The cumulative effect over time of all these mini tsunamis is the creation of habits that ends up being our personal OS. As William James said:
“All our life, “so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
Hence the epic and ubiquitous struggles we all face with eating junk, not exercising, our harsh internal critic, sex, drugs, iphones, anger, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, depression, suicide, meaning……. Free will, if it exists, doesn’t seem very free.
Two important principles come out from under the rocks of this line of reasoning.
- Seeing human beings in this light gives much more space for genuine, heart felt compassion, towards yourself and others, no matter how challenging you may find the behaviors (remember, compassion does not mean acceptance of what is wrong).
- When we are faced with options in our lives brought to light by the external world or our internal primordial neural galaxy we have a choice. We may not know the root cause of why we will make a given choice, but the choice is there. As Victor Frankl said – “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Once you are aware of the water and know and the direction you want to swim in, you have the power to create new habits and upgrade your personal OS.
Harris, S. Waking Up: A Mindfulness Meditation Course, version 1.3.4. Waking Up App Sam Harris