Born Free?

Contrary to popular misconceptions and a best selling book by Sam Harris, you have freewill.

Over the past decade, there’s been considerable debate on the nature of consciousness and freewill. Leading thinkers, such as Sam Harris, have somewhat predictably advocated for a purely materialistic view of freewill because of the religious/mystical implications of concepts like “spirit” and the “soul,” and with good, logical reasons. Whatever the soul is, it clearly resides in the brain. If the brain is a material object, then so is the soul, and freewill is simply the exercise of a complex (and arguably predictable) physical system.

Freewill, in this scenario, is an illusion, and our actions are predetermined by a complex series of physical constraints—genetics, exposure to parents, friends, even harsh/kind physical environments. The thinking is that if could these be exactly replicated down to the last possible detail, then so could you.

At first, you might be tempted to think, “That’s ridiculous, of course I have free will. I am me.” But stop and consider this: if time could be rewound to the point of your birth and replayed without your knowledge, would you be the same person you are today? Would you make the same choices? At each point in time, are you free to make a new decision, or are you channeled and directed into making exactly the same decisions by your genetics, your circumstances and those around you?

Extend this to its natural conclusion and you end up with statements like this from The Atlantic magazine:

…the brain [is a] physical system like any other, and [this] suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable.

It’s not difficult to see the debate around freewill as the atheist’s verision of the predestined theology of Calvin. The wonderful irony in the debate over freewill is only those with freewill can debate whether they have freewill.

By the way, we have rewound the evolutionary clock and replayed it…and it produces slightly different results! Professor Richard Lenski is in the midst of conducting a multi-decade experiment on the evolution of E. coli and every 500 generations he freezes a clonal sample, effectively giving him a living fossil, capable of being thawed and revived. As he’s observed different traits at upwards of 30,000 generations, he’s been able to go back and thaw out a particular cell line and replay the evolution that led to the formation of that trait. The result? Not as predictable as you’d think. Sometimes the trait reemerges, but not at the same point, sometimes it doesn’t. And remember, this is conducted under strict laboratory conditions where every possible variable is meticulously controlled.

Replaying biological processes isn’t nearly as neat and as predictable as we think. Life is not a binary program in a computer. If replaying the growth of something as simple as bacterial clones kept in controlled laboratory conditions leads to variation, what about replaying your life choices? Would you really be compelled to make the same choices over and over again, or would you be free to choose each time and possibly come up with different selections? Chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla?

As you can see, the debate over freewill is not nearly as clear cut as it at first seems.

How can I be confident that both you, and I, and Sam Harris have freewill? Strictly speaking, I can’t, but I can point out the folly of trying to make such a dogmatic claim without evidence.

For me, this debate is grossly premature. We have such a poor understanding of how the brain works that it is conceit to make such confident claims without clear evidence.

In many ways, the argument is akin to those who categorically state there’s no life in outer space. The evidence just isn’t there to draw any conclusions either way. In regards to SETI, the advent of instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope give us a very good chance of detecting life beyond our star, but at the moment, we’re not even sure if there’s life elsewhere in our own solar system. We can’t categorically say whether there is or there isn’t. There may well be subsurface microbes on Mars. Certainly, there’s unexplained methane production on this geologically inactive world that leaves us scratching our heads. What about the low-level hydrogen anomaly on Titan? Or Europa? Or Enceladus? The point is, we need to explore to find the answer, and not make categorical statements one way or the other until the evidence is in.

We simply don’t have enough evidence to make a call in regards to freewill. The evidence we do have suggests freewill is real. One study exposed participants to optimistic and pessimistic views about freewill and then observed freewill choices being biased by that exposure, with those that thought there was no freewill being more likely to use their freewill to cheat!

The human brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons, with upwards of a trillion connections running between them. As astonishing as it may seem for something that’s roughly the size of a football, the brain is the single most complex structure ever observed anywhere in the universe.

How close are we to being able to map the human brain? We’re not even close to starting. As of 2016, the European Union has spent over a billion dollars on the Human Brain Project (which started in 2005 as the Blue Brain Project) and yet scientists from around the world are calling for it to be scrapped as it is grossly premature given our current technology.

How can we draw conclusions about the inner workings of an organ we don’t understand?

Ah, but is it simply a case of processing power? Is it simply that we’re not ready yet, but perhaps could map the brain and understand its deterministic patterns in 2020 or 2030? No. I suspect there is no underlying deterministic model for one simple reason: quantum mechanics.

Einstein was uneasy about the concept of quantum mechanics, the idea that at a subatomic level, energy is comprised of packets, as it introduces a level of uncertainty that isn’t simply related to our measuring instruments but is part of the very nature and fabric of reality. Quantum mechanics effectively negates the Newtonian concept of a clockwork universe which can be rewound and replayed verbatim, dismissing the notion of hard determinism.

One exciting field of scientific research I’m following with keen interest is quantum biology—the idea that evolution has developed biological processes that exploit quantum mechanics.

Birds and insects use a concept known as magneto-reception to navigate long distances, something that appears to rely on quantum entanglement at a subatomic level. Photosynthesis is remarkably efficient, so much so it seems to derive at least some of that efficiency from quantum tunneling. While even our sense of smell, and that of dogs, may be so remarkably sensitive due to quantum factors.

Quantum biology is an emerging field, and the science isn’t settled, but it appears to answer a number of questions about the animal and plant kingdom and may well explain natural physical phenomena like consciousness and freewill. The recent discovery of quantum vibrations in “microtubules” inside brain neurons is reviving a controversial theory that consciousness may in part be the result of quantum effects—something that would support the concept of freewill as it suggests that our conscious awareness is an ongoing, vibrant, non-deterministic process.

But as I noted above, the evidence is not in yet for either camp in this debate. There is no reason to jump on the deterministic bandwagon. But, hey, you’re free to make up your own mind 😉


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