My Observations on Free Will

If you read my previous post about why I have been taking cold showers for the past two months, you saw me say this:

“Other living organisms are driven by urges they cannot control. Down to the cellular level chemical imbalances drive molecules to bond and break in search of equilibrium or ‘comfort.’ Most living things feel and then act. There is no thought; just stimulus and reaction. No real free will. Humans are not all that different.

Even as humans, many of the things we do day-to-day are habits (unthoughtful behaviors) with no real choice or exerted mental effort. Humans are mostly driven by stimulus, but we (unlike most living things) can make some truly free choices. Our ability to make free and thoughtful choices can only be strengthened by repeatedly exerting that ability.”

In this post, I want to explain my rational for believing that free will is only partially present.

About two years ago, I was at an training exercise in the California desert. I tend to work late, so when I left my workspace to walk back to where I slept, these black California desert beetles all gathered in the light of a nearby floodlight.

-Gif from Silver Meridian Photography

They would be there at all hours of the night “stuck” in the light coming from the floodlight. Sometimes, I would stop to watch them to see if there was any pattern to what they were doing. I wondered why they stayed in the light. As they wandered around, their antenna moved back and forth and they moved in erratic directions. To this day, I don’t really know what kept they wandering aimlessly in the light at night as they never appeared to find food, but the thought occurred to me that the beetles didn’t really have a say in the matter. Once they were in the light, they couldn’t leave.

In college, I took a decent amount of chemistry and material science. I’ve always found the topic interesting. As you study chemistry, you learn that an atom or molecule’s structure influences it’s “behavior.” The structure impacts what the atom will bond with, not bond with, and how the structure reacts to the other things in its environment. The individual atoms and molecules don’t think, but they have “wants” and things that they “don’t want.”

Martin Hanczyc, a chemist who is trying to create life by mixing basic molecules, argues that we currently think about “life” wrong. He asserts that maybe instead of thinking of life as living and non-living, we ought to think of things falling on a spectrum from non-living to living. In his Ted talk, he refers to the example of viruses which are not categorized as living because they rely on other living things to reproduce and evolve. He further goes on to display the characteristics that qualify something as “living”:

I highly recommend watching the whole video, but you can fast forward to 5:15 to see the point that I am trying to illustrate.

Watching these protocells dance, fuse, move, find “food,” and even replicate potentially shows us something about the nature of living things. The simple chemicals mixed to create these protocells have varied “behaviors” based on their structure. The protocells act in these various ways because of how their structure interacts with the chemicals in its environment and because there is energy in the system. Humans and the chemicals interacting inside us are much more complex; however, they follow the same laws of nature just on a larger scale. Our behaviors and choices are still impacted by chemical interactions, the code of our DNA, and the stimulus in our environment.

This might seem like a stretch, but ask yourself… why can’t you stop yourself from eating that cookie? Even though you know you probably don’t need another. On the other end of the spectrum, can you really outright say that all of the “choices” you make are free and unadulterated by something outside of your free will?

Studies on identical twins separated at birth show us the impacts of genetics on behavior that transcend free will. The three brothers featured in the documentary “Three Identical Strangers” all “shared the same exact mannerisms, even sitting the same way. They were all wrestlers, liked the same colors, had the same taste in older women, and even bought the same brand of cigarettes. Each also had an adopted sister, and all three sisters were the same age.” You can find countless stories similar to this about identical twins separated at birth.

In one of my previous posts about time pressure, I talked referenced the Princeton Seminarian Study conducted by John Darnley and Dan Batson. In the study, the researchers took seminary students and asked them to prepare a sermon about the “Good Samaritan” (a story from the Bible, where “holy” individuals pass by a hurt man in need, but then a “lowly” Samaritan stops to help the hurt stranger). The seminaries prepare the sermon in a lecture hall and then are called in one by one to the delivery the sermon before a panel using one of three “hurry” prompts: low, immediate, and high.

After the hurry prompt, the student left the lecture hall and walked to the evaluation room, but just before the doorway leading to the evaluation room, there was a man slumped on the floor moaning and coughing. The proportion of seminarian students who stopped to help drastically declined as they felt more time pressure from 63% stopping to help in the “low hurry” group to 11% stopping to help in the “high hurry group.” All this happened despite the fact that these were men studying to join a profession of helping others and they had just prepared a sermon about helping strangers. You could look at whether or not these men stopped to help as a matter of personal character, but what we’re really seeing is that the situational factors (time in this case) can narrow our cognitive scope. Like a horse with blinders, we only see the track ahead. We see less and think less when we are under significant time pressure. Our peripherals fall out of view and you don’t see the man in need of help.

If we had full control over the choices we made, there wouldn’t be a 52% difference between those who stopped to help and those who didn’t simply because of how the seminarian was prompted.

The point I’m trying to prove is that our decision making and choices aren’t as free as we think. Our genetics, chemistry, and environment influence our choices whether we like it or not. To clarify, I am not saying that there is no free will.

Free will is seen in defying the odds. Free will is the 11% of the seminarians who did stop to help. Free will is someone deciding to change their life for the better. Free will is overcoming our biology and environment. Free will is the effort it takes to overcome the forces exerting influence over our choices. It’s taking a cold shower even though its unpleasant or holding your tongue when you could lash out at someone. You feel and exert free will each time you stop… think… and then act.

Keep trying to be your best you and share your thoughts in the comments.

2 thoughts on “My Observations on Free Will

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