Free will is a figment of our imaginations

Neuroscientists, stop reading now. All this is old hat to you. But it's new hat to me, and fascinating new hat, and liberating new hat. And I think I'm going to wear it, or at least try it on for size.

But first an apology. A month or so back a gentleman emailed me about something I'd said on the radio. He wrote, and I quote, "free will is a childish delusion".

"Scoff," I wrote back. "Pooh pooh. I have free will. My free will is writing this email. Without free will we are automata."

Since then, however, I have been on a wee journey and I would like to retract my scoff and pooh pooh. But I have forgotten the gentleman's name and deleted his email. So if you're reading this, sir, sorry. You were right. I was wrong.

The change of mind followed last week's column about the mutiny of the body. In response I got several emails directing me to some neuroscientific research. It seems that neuroscientists have been nibbling at the idea of free will for years without telling me.

For example, they attached electrodes to people's skulls and then asked the people to click a computer mouse at a moment of their choosing. The boffins found that when people decided to click the mouse, their brain had already begun the physical process of clicking. In other words, the decision to click had been made before the people realised they'd made it. The click was already going to happen.

There were numerous similar experiments. They all suggested that when we think we decide to do something of our own free will, our consciousness is merely catching up with a decision that we have already made. We are rationalising after the fact. We are deluding ourselves into thinking we are in conscious control of our actions. It's a nice, consoling delusion, but a delusion nonetheless.

In another experiment two people sat at a ouija board and put a finger on the glass, with instructions to move and stop the glass when they felt like it. But there was a trick. One of the fingerers was a stooge. He'd been told to do nothing at all, to be passive. The only person moving and stopping the glass was the other chap.

After the experiment this other chap was asked how often he had made the decision to move or stop the glass and how often the stooge had. He said it was roughly 50-50. Even though he made every decision himself, he ascribed half of them to his passive partner.

He saw the glass stop or start and guessed who'd done it. He didn't know when he was making decisions. He just made them. Conscious free will doesn't exist.

Still disbelieving? Still scoffing and pooh poohing? Well so was I, sort of. But then a while later I was in the shower singing You'll Never Walk Alone. It's a splendid shower song, a tap rattler and a tonic on a weekday morning. But when I asked myself at what exact moment I'd decided to sing I realised I hadn't consciously decided to sing. I'd just started singing.

Since then I've been paying close attention to myself. Getting up to make coffee, to check the mail box, to play with the dog, all these things just happen. I must decide to do them, but I am not aware of the decision until I find myself doing them.

None of which is surprising. We don't decide to breathe, or dream, or digest food, or move our feet when we walk, or be scared during earthquakes or squeal with delight when a televangelist gets caught in a whorehouse. We do these things and millions of other things without conscious decision, without free will. So why not all of them?

Acknowledging the absence of free will does not diminish us. We continue to make the same decisions as we made before. We just recognise that we are both machine and driver and that they are one and the same thing and they go where they will go. There is no point in beating ourselves up about it or trying to affect it. And thus we lose the false constructed self who imagines he's at the wheel. And with him go those twin bogeys of self-love and self-hate. Try it. It's most refreshing.

And now, having spent the morning piggybacking on neuroscientists whose findings should enrage bishops, bugger judges and make people happy, I'm going to spend the afternoon finding out how I've chosen to enjoy myself.

Waikato Times