Free Will or Pre-Programming?

Lately, there have been a number of scientific articles raising the concept that individual free will does not exist, based on, among other things, the scientifically established fact that the body actually begins to react micro or milliseconds before a person “decides” to take an action.  I have some considerable difficulty with this concept, as I suspect is the case among the majority of individuals who regard themselves as thinking individuals, if not among almost all people, not just out of sheer egotism, but out of a few practical considerations, the first of which is that absolute “determinism” or even biological programming doesn’t take into account that, in a myriad of ways, we do not control our environment.

Just take last week in Joplin, Missouri, when killer tornadoes ripped through the town.  The individuals caught in that situation had no control over that situation, nor could they have forecast where and when that tornado would hit.  Nor do we realistically know what events created by other theoretically thinking entities will impact us, or if they will, and when. Computer studies have suggested that the variables involved in directing/predicting events in our universe would require an entity/computer/whatever several magnitudes larger than the universe itself.  To my mind, at least, this suggests that the concept that we’re all directed by an outside force isn’t either practical or workable. 

Yet the scientific evidence remains, and continues to grow, suggesting we act before we’re conscious of deciding.  Is this a lack of free will? 

Or do we act intuitively/emotionally and then rationalize the action/decision?  Even if this is so, and some neuroscientists suggest that such is the case, exactly on what are our “intuitive” or emotional reactions based?

The simplest answer is that they’re based on a combination of nature and nurture, of genetically determined predilections and learned behaviors and reactions. But since societies and cultures have changed, often drastically, over the generations, and since modern societies do exist and function, if imperfectly, and since we have made great scientific strides over the past 10,000 years… something has to allow us the flexibility to change and to make decisions in unforeseen situations and under newer circumstances.

What if it’s as simple as… through our families, our background, our education, and our interactions, we actually pre-program ourselves and then rationalize that pre-programming?

Then… our choices, our free-will [if you will] are not based on the moment, but upon what we have learned and experienced when we were not actively “deciding.”  Yes, I know every action is in fact a decision, but every decision is based in part if not in whole on what we’ve previously experienced.

But then… I’d be the first to say I haven’t the faintest idea where one draws the line, except to observe that, when I’m writing a book, often there are many different ways where I could take the work… and, in looking back on my life, who and what I am now is in so many ways not what I was years ago, while I can see others who’ve changed not at all over the years… and that, at least to me, suggests that perhaps our free will lies not in the decisions of the moment, but in what we do to learn and “pre-program” ourselves.

Just a thought…

4 thoughts on “Free Will or Pre-Programming?”

  1. Richard Hamilton says:

    While in some limited ways, predictions or descriptions of predestination may be true, or even useful, in other and more significant ways, they’re a problem, having to do not so much with ego as with responsibility.

    Let’s say for the sake of argument that we’re mostly pre-decided at any given moment. Nevertheless, our current reactions that we later rationalize are affected by our history of previous rationalizations. So even if what we think we decide _now_ doesn’t so much affect as rationalize our response and the outcome, it still affects future responses and outcomes. It’s still an evasion of responsibility to pretend that predestination nullifies free will.

    One could arrive at the same conclusion if one made supernatural assumptions. Let’s say there is Someone that knows _everything_, is everywhere (and everywhen), etc. That’s not foreknowledge compelling action; that’s existing in (at least one) extra dimension, all eternity in a single instant if you will. It doesn’t compel anyone.

    And all of this neglects the uncertainty principle. Some physicists speculate that there are quantum processes involved in how our brains work; those are affected by uncertainty. If one chooses to go there, uncertainty also allows subtle divine interventions to be done without the need for the sort of flashy miracles that reflect poor design being tinkered with, or that pre-empt free will. (not saying the flashy sort can’t ever happen, but almost by definition, they’d be rare at best)

    So however one chooses to look at it, it’s just more _useful_ to assume that what we think, say, do, and at least _think_ we choose, has some impact on ourselves and on others.

    If nothing else, a variation of Pascal’s wager applies. If everything really _is_ predestined, then nothing we do matters anyway, and even the notion that we exist in any meaningful sense starts to come into question (“Cognito ergo sum” sounds pretty empty if there’s no cognition going on). So at least we ought to believe we can act as if it does matter, just in case it turns out that it does.

  2. Ryan Jackson says:

    There’s also the simple reality that just because we will or won’t do something doesn’t mean we can or can’t do it.

    When I fight I will instinctively and immediately block and incoming strike. It doesn’t mean I HAD to block it. Much like Richard said, I’ve spent years training certain muscle memory and behaviors. I chose to put myself in a place where I instinctively and automatically do something without direct will.

    It’s also true that most of us will never intentionally step in front of a bus and get hit. But that hardly changes rather or not we’re actually capable of it.

    The idea that we don’t have free-will because we will act in pre-determined is a false choice. It’s not an either or, it’s a both simultaniously.

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both.” — Forrest Gump

      Such philosophers we are – look who beat us to it!


  3. Jeh says:

    Leaving overarching philosophies aside for the moment, this is quite frankly a fascinating concept. Given the obscure nature of brain mapping and the absurd time intervals involved, I am skeptical but quite interested. Oh, not in the scientific journals where I’m sure the whole thing is no doubt reduced to unhelpful equations and graphs, but from a conceptual point of view. It could well be that a key role, or even the evolutionary purpose, of the vaulted consciousness is to justify actions that happen independently. That does provide some context toward its adaptability and ingenuity.

    I cannot condemn this theory as the death of free will without falling into the trap of physical hatred Western thought (and possibly Eastern as well, I’m not certain) has cultivated over the millennia. The body and its wondrous functions were once revered and reveled in by all accounts, but with the rise of metaphysical Christianity the non-spiritual universe of which the body was center became evil and to be subjugated. We lost some of the theology but many intelligent individuals still resent the weaknesses of the body and prefer the sublimity of the mind and its precious consciousness.

    But is the Will confined to the consciousness? When it comes from the body we tend to name it instinct or reflex and scoff, but these represent mere labels. The self which makes decisions may not even include the consciousness yet still not be pre-determined in any significant sense. What of the unconscious, some sort of supra or collective conscious, or the things we can’t even name happening in the electro-chemical construct called the brain? Okay, I admit that was a little philosophical, but maybe the fingers typing it had no choice.

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