Do We Have Free Will?

I read something recently suggesting that most of our decisions are made outside of consciousness. This seemed to imply that we don’t really have free will. I disagree with that. What we do have is a big brain designed to enhance our survival by pushing us into doing what we should, according to the wisdom of millions of years of evolution. Much of the time this works fine, but regularly, our brain produces wrong answers. What makes us different from our mammalian cousins is that we also possess a little window of consciousness from which to observe our own thoughts and behavior, along with the possibility of exercising free will when our brain is leading us in the wrong direction. (Photo Alastair Rae on Flickr, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0)

Our mammalian brain uses uncomfortable and painful feelings as markers of what is bad for us. When you have a sprained ankle, this works perfectly. Pain tells you not to put weight on damaged tendons. On the other hand, especially for those who have experienced hurt in early life, the pain of possible failure often leads our brain to avoid taking positive risks. Our conscious mind has to fight the rest of our brain to get ourselves to go “out of our comfort zone” to try something that is almost sure to succeed but is associated in our mind with pain.

This phenomenon is further magnified by uncertainty. Being surprised by pain is much worse than when discomfort is expected and we can “brace” for it. The result is that trying new things that are likely to bring unanticipated results may be avoided even thought a positive experience is at least as likely as a negative one.

Thus, our experience is often characterized by tension between a brain evolved for survival and a mind we think of as our own. I am increasingly feeling that issues like free will are better examined from the point of view of evolutionary biology than through philosophical discourse. Philosophy tends to use rational thought as the starting point, where, in fact, rationality is a footnote, or perhaps more accurately, an addition to our mammalian nervous system. I don’t want to disparage thinking. I depend on it as much as anyone, but I want to put thinking in the context of a survival apparatus that is also very much influenced by emotions, desires repulsions and even ideas that arise from control circuits largely under autonomous control.

Let’s look further into how our cognition can belong either to our survival brain or to the mind we identify as our own. It is increasingly clear that the mind is like an iceberg in that the greatest part of our cognitive activity (thinking) goes on under the surface and outside the limited window of our consciousness. When we “sleep on it,” our brain works furiously all night to solve problems and process issues such that we awaken with a delightful clarity that had eluded us the night before. This important brain functioning is not only there in the service of our rationality. It also serves the survival mind that has its own ideas about what is best for us. Our hidden cognitive functioning is the source of those rationalizations and distorted thoughts that steer us in directions that our brain considers good for avoiding painful feelings but that don’t necessarily promote what we consider healthy decisions.

Where is the dividing line between thoughts that are “ours” and those that come from the brain that wants to influence us? Once again, I think the answer is biological. As long as our comfort-seeking brain and our free will are on the same wavelength, there is no conflict or opposition and the difference between the two kinds of thought is invisible. It is when we disagree with our own brain that we get a glimpse of the dividing line between the survival apparatus and our free will. There are two situations where we can make this observation.

First, our rational mind can use knowledge and reasoning to conclude  that our comfort and pleasure will be better served by going against instinct. For example, evolution says “Stay away from the dentist!” Our conscious, rational mind says, “I will feel better when I am old if my teeth are still in good condition.” We are able to gather information and use it to form predictions about the future. What tells us our choices are free is the conscious experience of hovering between one option and another, aware of our calculations as we decide what will give us the most satisfaction. We experience ownership of our knowledge and reasoning as well as the choices we make.

The other situation where free choice can diverge from survival is where value judgments override instinct. For example, instinct may tell us to avoid the trouble of helping a stranger in distress but our values can make us to stop and offer aid. Here again, when we choose to go against instinct, we experience the choice as well as our values and judgment as free and belonging to the self.

Choices based on values are complex because not all values are experienced as “ours.” The values each of us internalize are generally derived from the attitudes of those upon whom we depend, but they can be, and often are, contradictory with one another. When values conflict, we must choose to embrace one over another. For example, a survivor of early trauma may naturally carry a negative view of the self. Self-harm feels natural and “right.” At some point in recovery, the same person may come to embrace self-affirming actions and values, feeling new pride at choosing to follow a more positive set of values.

In both situations, the key to the experience of free will is choice. It is the conscious awareness that we could go one way or the other depending on perceptions, knowledge, values, and judgments, all of which “belong” to the self. Just as our biology is the product of a long series of complex formative processes, the more or less coherent mental construct we identify as “self” is also the product of an infinitely complex and individual history. Technically, we could say that the end result, “me,” is a product determined by outside forces, but for all practical purposes it is who we are, and is the platform from which we all exercise what we experience as free will to make decisions that belong to us.

Thus, my biological view of free will is that it is a universal human experience in which we make conscious, voluntary choices with a sense of personal ownership. On the other hand, as described in the first part of this post, this freedom is often pitted against a brain equipped with powerful tools and determined to steer us in directions it deems better for us. Living as a human starts with being a mammal, but with added features consisting of a partial window of consciousness, the ability to gather information and see into the future, an evolving set of internalized values, and a mental concept we identify as self. In the end, our experience of life is like riding a horse, a constant back and forth between an independent, biological animal and a free and self-aware rider.


Please find much more on the drama between free will and the survival-oriented brain in both How We Heal and Grow and the E-book, Getting the Most From Your Therapy.

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