The Semblance of Free Will

By: Beatrise Prince S5ENA at EEB2

Most of us have free will. A choice of how to act, what to eat, how to dress. It seems rather obvious, we are all our own individuals, the ones responsible for our actions, the ones “in charge”. Yet, if we break it down, how much “free will” do we truly have? What actually influences us when making decisions? How much of “us” is really “us”?  

There have been numerous studies focusing on how decisions are made, one of the more famous being Benjamin Libet’s experiment (1983), which showed that when moving, an electrical potential called “readiness potential” is present before we consciously think of moving. This would mean subconscious processes are first taking place before we get the conscious idea. Similarly, John-Dylan Haynes’s Neuroimaging Study conducted in 2007 tried to predict participants’ actions based on brain activity. The subjects would have to press a button, and the researchers found that they could relatively accurately predict which button they would press as early as 7 seconds before the “decision” was made.  

There is, however, criticism of this interpretation of Libet’s and Haynes’s experiments, one of them arguing that the experiments show only a glimpse of how the processes of decisions are made, and don’t mean our choices are pre-determined. More recent research shows that the brain activity related to decision-making is active at the same time we become aware of the decision. Furthermore, quantum physics has shown that particles may behave in an unpredictable way, so not everything is always pre-determined.  

Yes, Free Will Exists - Scientific American Blog Network

It still could be argued that we have no free will not only due to subconscious processes, but also due to our upbringing and genes. You would not be the same you if you were brought up by different people. You (ironically) didn’t have a choice in choosing your genes, or the foundation with which the environment formed and shaped you. Our society is mainly responsible for morals – would we have this sense of empathy were it not beneficial or in some way imposed on us? The way we express ourselves is also affected: the way we dress is purely shaped by what we have seen. Our languages have been evolving for centuries for us to make out these noises and interpret them, we look at shapes and see words. Even our own personalities are adapted by what we learned during our first years of life.  

Some might fall into the idea of fatalism – everything is pre-determined by fate and nothing can be changed. They might feel hopeless or a sense of defeat. I don’t believe we should view things this way. We can still affect the outcome of events, motivated by our desires, which might or mightn’t be pre-determined. Our feelings and urges will stay the same, unaffected by the (possibly foreseeable) opinions. Those who don’t feel in control, won’t feel in control, and those who argue free will exists, will think they are the ones making decisions.  

All this being said, even the concept of “free will” is something we ourselves have made. Since it is an idea our own unreliable minds have created, we perhaps shouldn’t put too much meaning to it. Its definition can be malleable. Its presence or rather absence doesn’t change anything but our perception. Even if you were unwillingly born with these specific genes, in this particular time and environment, these random conditions shaped a sentient living person with desires, opinions, biases and thoughts. Maybe all factors affecting you is a part of you, so even if everything is pre-determined, this illusion of free will is what actually is the true free will.