How Much Free-Will Do We Really Have?

This might seem like a strange (and rather pointless) question, as you probably feel like you’re making free-will decisions all the time, from the moment you wake up and decide what to wear, to what you will cook for dinner, to what movie to watch before you sleep. But do you really? Are all these decisions really made with a conscious free will?


I should point out before I elaborate on this seemingly ridiculous premise, that I am not talking about a higher power here. Whatever your beliefs are, I am not suggesting that a Supreme being of some description has decreed that you should have lasagna over stew. I am sure he would have much better things to do.


I am also not suggesting that it is all fate. I certainly do not imagine that the stars could care less if you watch Braveheart or Babe, and I doubt very much that the Universe had preordained that you should wear plaid.

I am in fact not talking about any kind of metaphysical or supernatural force that is denying free-will through the application of fate or destiny, but am suggesting something far more simple and personal.


What I am suggesting (or at least discussing) here, is the idea that it is our unconscious minds that often make the decisions for us based on it’s wealth of pre-programmed data, and our conscious minds simply take the credit. Our unconscious mind is the big brother looking after us—constantly trying to prevent us from doing stupid things and always on the look-out for possible threats.


Of course, sometimes big brother goes a bit overboard and his constant big-brothering makes our life more difficult rather than easier. This is certainly the case with anxiety disorders, as they can make us act in ways that do not seem to match our conscious and rational minds and are in no way helpful to us in the current situation. This is when big brother is looking out for us but is doing so on data that he gathered when we were six (e.g. caught rescuing an errant football from a neighbours garden) and applying it to board meetings or interviews. Nobody would consciously choose to blush and stutter and talk endlessly about their missing cat in an interview would they?


Okay, so sometimes the way we act in certain situations is governed by our unconscious and not our conscious minds. But this doesn’t include our decisions surely. I mean you know that you purposefully chose to have tea instead of coffee yesterday right? That was a conscious free-will decision.


Or was it?


What made you choose tea over coffee? What makes you decide to eat a particular food? What makes you choose a particularly orange hat? Is it taste? Is it mood? Gut feeling? I would suggest that most decisions that we make are based on a multitude of data based on previous experience, applied to the current situation and cross referenced with our current biological state, or mood.


So for example, if I am thinking of what I want to eat for dinner tonight, I would try to think about what I feel like eating—what  particular food sounds the most appetizing right now. But what is it that makes one food more appealing to me than another at any given time?


Well, my unconscious mind would scan my current environment, my mood, the time of day, the company I am keeping, the weather, my energy levels etc, and compare them to previous situations in my life. Then it would recall a food that I enjoyed once, on a day very much like today, and throw that food into my mind as  “what I feel like”. I would then go ahead and cook this food and enjoy it like the good automaton that I am.


This is of course a gross simplification of possibly the most complicated Google search ever, but it just shows you what goes into every single one of your “simple” decisions.


And all that just to come up with “brisket”.


The fact is that you didn’t really choose to have tea over coffee yesterday, your unconscious mind just decided that tea was a better option for you in your current situation, and mood. And it was right, I’m sure. It usually is.

And although that orange hat might be questionable in everybody else’e mind, I am sure it is “right” for you.


Of course this does not mean that we do not have free-will at all. We always have the freedom to choose to do something completely new and different, and override what our body “feels like”. We can make the choice to jump out of an aeroplane for the first time if we wish, or eat sauteed sheep’s stomach instead of pizza.


But for me, the most convincing argument that we have free-will is the ability to break habits. Habits, after all, are our unconscious minds coercing us to do things on autopilot just because we have done them so many times before and they happened to feel awesome. But too often of course, just like anxiety disorders, habits are not good for us at all, and our unconscious mind, like that big brother that tells us to “stop hitting ourselves”, is misguidedly leading us down a path that is not in our best interest.


So although most of the decisions we make may actually involve little to no free-will at all, the free-will is there, waiting; waiting for us to become tired of the mundane, bored of the inevitable, and ready to turn our lives around; then it will jump into action and help us beat those bad habits once and for all.

About Neil B

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