25 January 2012


Truth - always liberating, not always comforting. No matter how alarming [truth] turns out be we should never turn away from what nature has to shows us,... we should never pretend we don't see it -- Janna Levin

We do many things at our will... simply decide to raise our arm or make lifetime choice or choose between right and wrong. But, is it freewill? If so, what do we mean by that? Do we choose/decide with full freedom and control?

As far as we can see, our known universe follows certain simple laws that can be described with few simple mathematical equations - including galaxies, stars, planets, life and mind. Does this mean that the universe is predetermined and the future can be predicted, at least in theory? (by taking current conditions and applying to the laws that describe the universe). If so, what kind of freedom of choice we have? At more fundamental level, as per quantum mechanics, our universe has certain random nature and it can only be predicted in probabilistic terms. So, it is possible to conceive that the universe may take one possible scenario out of many possibilities within the limits of the laws. But, how does this random possibility might lead to a determined freewill?

Our behavior, will, decisions, choices and actions are determined by our genes, our environment/experiences (learned) and some randomness. It is easy to write a simple computer program that learns from its environment and makes choices. We do have many sophisticated computer programs now, for example stock trading programs that can learn and make complicated, intelligent choices. What do we do that is fundamentally different from these computer programs? Is that we do so with our consciousness?

(Color of A and B are exactly same. Take a printout of it, then cut the two areas and place them side by side to check it)
Just because, we know this fact consciously that they are exactly same color (see picture above) or know the reason behind why we perceive the way we do or understand the neuronal circuitry behind its functionality - is not going to change the way we perceive! With our self control, we can only do what it is designed to do! - nothing more, nothing less. When comes to our emotions*, for thousands of years, people talk about them, write about them, study about them, research about them, sing about them, play about them, dance about them... yet, when it happens to us now, it is as joyful or as painful as ever!

Just stop your breathing - how long can you do it? Why not more? Just try to stop your heart beat for few seconds or change the heart beat speed** at your will - why not? Obviously, our brain is evolutionarily designed such a way that our self control process (process = sub-program or sub-routine) only has certain access to other processes in the brain. What we do...what we think we do...what we can do...what we think we can do - are the only things we are designed to do and we will do!

Some famous experiments related to our perception of freewill:

=> In an experiment***, the subjects are asked to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while the associated activity in their brain is measured - the readiness potential signal. To determine when the subject felt the intention to move (not the physical action which comes later), the subjects are asked to watch the second hand of a clock and report its position when they felt the conscious will to move. It is found that the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his or her wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that she or he had decided to move. This experiement has been repeated many times by many researchers and in many different ways. Using techniques such as fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) and measuring signals directly from a single neuron, the subjects' conscious decision can be predicted up to 10 seconds before!

=> In another experiment, the subjects are asked to choose between their right and left hand. By applying TMS (Transcranial magnetic stimulation) pulses over left or right brain hemisphere, the subjects decision can be influenced by the external force. Yet the subjects think they choose with their own freewill.

=> There is the party game study**** in which a subject is seated in front of a mirror while someone behind him extends his arms under the subject's armpits and moves her arms around, making it look as if the subject is moving his own arms. If the subject hears a tape telling the person behind him how to move (wave, touch the subject's nose and so on), he feels as if he is actually in command of the arms!

Though we still do not fully understand how our brain constructs consciousness, these and many other experiments, many other evidences and theoretical frameworks suggest that subconscious processes make decisions and perform actions and our conscious part of the brain just seem to witness them afterwards! We may need to fully understand the brain architecture to know how much and what kind of control we have with our decisions and actions - but with our current understanding and evidences, definitely not as much as we think so! Deep down, we may know this fact. That is why, we are desperately drawn towards many mind altering substances (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, LSD, etc.) and methods (music, prayer and meditation, etc.), though some are so dangerous!

Achilles: If there is no freewill, people may not take personal responsibility for their actions.

Tortoise: Our environment... our social expectation does affect our behavior. In all practical purposes, we should expect responsibility from people's actions. We still need law and punishment for crimes in our society. But we can be more sympathetic to the people who commit crimes and perhaps our jail system should be a correction facility.

Achilles: It may even affect people's moral and ethical behaviors.

Tortoise: There is a study that shows people who believe in freewill seem to help others more than people who do not believe in it. But I think, people with proper information would behave better. We all have capacity to suffer, capacity to understand sufferings of others and capacity to do something about it. In any case, as we undetsand more about ourselves, we will find better ways to live with it - as knowledge is power!

Achilles: We cannot change our genes and past our environment/experiences easily. Often we are victims of our past! Is there any natural way to escape from our past?

Tortoise: To get exposed to a totally new environment may offer some possibilities. Reading books, learning new things, meeting new people, traveling new places, trying new things, etc. may open new possibilities!

Achilles: Let our adventurous journey for new possibilities begin! Let's go and explore! :)

Also Read: Mind Game

* Emotions can be modulated from high level thinking part of the brain. Often we learn to control different part of the brain indirectly. That is why we apply many self-motivation and self-deceiving techniques.
** Using biofeedback (imagining different situations/events), it is possible to change the heartbeat speed indirectly.
*** Benjamin Libet, first conducted these experiments. 
**** The psychologist Dan Wegner studied it

For further reading:


Anonymous said...

"There is a study that shows people who believe in freewill seem to help others more than people who do not believe in it. But I think, people with proper information would behave better"

May be it's my lack of understanding. Shouldn't this be the otherway around?. People who know there's no "freewill", have a better understanding about the concept of mind?

CorTexT said...

"People who know there's no "freewill", have a better understanding about the concept of mind?"

Perhaps they think they do :) I think, it is more of a belief than actual understanding. There needs to be more studies with their actual understanding background.