“And this is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it. We fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense. It is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely… out of control.”
– The Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
My History and Systems of Psychology professor posed an interesting question to my class the other week: you arrive home and surprise your girlfriend with a large and expensive bouquet of flowers, but how does she react? Does she run up to you with tears of joy in her eyes, and hug you with all the love in the world? Rather, does she react with scorn, convinced that you’re fruitlessly trying to repair your damaged relationship through presenting something as meaningless as a bouquet of flowers whose colors she finds ugly?
Context could help with predicting her reaction. If the relationship was healthy, then she would be more likely to give you all the love she has to offer. Alternatively, if the relationship was on the verge of its imminent dissolution, then she would be more likely to kick you out of the bedroom and force you to sleep on the couch for the night! Even if there is no context to clarify her reaction, no matter what, she is going to react one way or another.
The flower bouquet scenario was brought up in regards to a class discussion on explanatory reductionism, a set of philosophical ideas that states all universal phenomena, from the stars in the sky to the deep blue seas, can be explained by breaking them down into readily understandable terms. According to this paradigm, elements are broken down into molecules, which are broken down into atoms, which are further broken down into protons, neutrons, electrons, and a nucleus. Reductionists argue that by reducing complexity down to its simplest form, we can understand virtually everything in the universe, including free will.
At the same time, there is something deeply unsettling about explanatory reductionism. If we were to assume that, for instance, free will could be broken down and summed up as nothing more than an illusion the brain constructs for itself to reconcile a startling lack of control, then what does that say about us as a species? If we could use explanatory reductionism as an avenue toward perfectly predicting how our girlfriends would react upon the presentation of an expensive bouquet of flowers, then one might argue that it would take away a lot of the luster—the charm and the mystery—that make life worth living in the first place.
Consider the difficulty of describing a long walk on the beach with a beautiful woman you are maddeningly attracted to, sipping on an apple martini and sinking your toes into the sand as a gust of refreshing cool air brushes your face and the sun sets in the distance. As uniquely placid such an experience of consciousness may be, it therefore cannot be reduced to a few paragraphs in a science textbook that you would read once and take a test on the following week. But if a reductionist’s approach can be taken to the stars in the sky, the deep blue sea, and the molecules that constitute an element, what is to stop us from taking it to the mechanisms behind human consciousness and for the purposes of this article, free will?
Free will has always been a sensitive religious and spiritual subject because people despise being told that they do not have it, and they will go to great lengths to convince themselves that they are somehow special for having it. “Well, of course I have free will. After all, I chose what I wanted to eat for breakfast this morning, and I chose what I wanted to wear to work.” But rarely do they ever stop to consider where their choices come from, and how they are made.
The issue of free will became apparent to me after watching HBO’s critically acclaimed Westworld (2016). In Season 1, Episode 10 (“The Bicameral Mind), one of the hosts, or synthetic humans, discovers that what she interpreted as an awakening of self-awareness was yet another behavior that somebody had preprogrammed into her. Despite having thought she was in control the whole time, it turned out that control was simply a string of computer code. Aptly, the host snatched the tablet out of the programmer’s hands, and broke it, content with perpetuating the lie that her choices belonged to her and nobody else. Maybe the lead writers of Westworld were trying to communicate something about humanity’s own understanding of power, control, and freedom. If we discovered that our choices were under the control of something more powerful than ourselves, we, too, might react in the same way. As the Architect puts it in The Matrix Reloaded, a movie that’s received heavy scrutiny for preaching determinism every five minutes, “Denial is the most predictable of all human responses.”
Whatever the case may be, I do not argue for free will because if there is no such thing as a “higher” or “lower” species, then there is very little to separate us from a spider, dog, chimpanzee, or rhinovirus. And yet, we never say that spiders, dogs, chimpanzees, or rhinoviruses possess free will—only that there is something special about the human being that endows him or her with the fantastic ability to choose. Why, then, must we always assume that our choices have any more weight to them than those of other species on the planet?
If you look at the animal kingdom, a lion’s life is essentially on rails from birth until death. The lion will hunt, look for food, and procreate, but nothing that the lion ever does will deviate it much from evolution’s prescription of its behavior. And if we happen to intervene on a lion’s hunt for its prey, we’ll take a step back and affirm that “it’s just nature. Let the lion do its thing,” as if to say that humankind should refrain from obstructing an animal’s lifestyle because unlike animals, humans benefit from being able to choose everything.
I’m not saying that humans are by and large incapable of choice because that’s a tough pill to swallow. To a certain degree, denial of the relative impossibility of free will is necessary toward maintaining sanity. What I am saying is that the decisions we make but that we think aren’t automatic are automatic, and the work of Ivan Pavlov would concur.
Ivan Pavlov was the first physiologist to systemically uncover the origins of learning. He discovered dogs that had been conditioned to associate the ringing of a bell with the presentation of a bowl of food would produce significantly more saliva than dogs that had not made the association, and thus even when the bells were rung but the food was withheld, the conditioned dogs would salivate anyway. This was considered a landmark study because it demonstrated that learned behavior can occur involuntarily when the subject is conditioned into pairing a stimulus with a physiological response to that stimulus.
I remember learning about classical conditioning in high school and thinking about how cool it was to catch myself in the middle of an automatic behavior. For example, I clean my retainer every morning by placing it into a glass cup, filling the cup to the brim with hot water, and letting a dissolvable antibacterial tablet eradicate all of the plaque while I take a shower. One day, I happened to leave my retainer in the cup without cleaning it, so I never stowed it away into its respective plastic case. Before going to sleep, I then reached for the case and opened it, and curiously, it was empty! “Oh… That’s right,” I reminded myself. “I forgot to clean it today.”
A second example of behavioral automaticity from my experience comes from routinely charging my smart phone, as its battery power does not last long. I spend a large portion of the day sitting at my desk writing articles, completing homework, and editing YouTube videos, and thus I look behind me quite often to see if my phone has received any text messages or Facebook notifications. However, when I unplug my smartphone to listen to Pandora and type a paper, I still check behind me to see if I have received any notifications, even when my phone is sitting on my lap. I’m sure you’ve experienced a similar phenomenon: you experience a mini heart attack when you can’t find your car keys, only to discover that they were in the palm of your hand the whole time. How silly of you!
Above were two rather mundane representations of what a lack of free will might look like, but they get you to contemplate the extent to which behavior is rhythmic, especially since most of our days consist of a pattern in that we wake up, attend to school and work responsibilities, and go to sleep. Everything in between—brushing teeth, eating breakfast, and watching Netflix—is on autopilot. If we make even the slightest alteration to our schedules, like going to the bar instead of watching a television show on Netflix, we exhaust many cognitive resources adjusting to it. After a while, however, it just becomes another box that we check off before the next day kicks in, and we don’t waste time on giving it a second thought.
Next, consider the science behind dreaming versus wakefulness as it applies to the debate of free will. We still don’t know how and why we dream, but we can be confident that dreams occur in REM sleep, or deep sleep. Dreams have also been speculated as protective mechanisms against the overwhelming bombardments of stimuli that we take in every day. In other words, the brain staves off information overload by taking these stimuli, including people’s faces, music lyrics, and smells and tastes of Chinese food, and weaves them into cohesive narratives that the hippocampus goes on to convert into memories. If dreams are therefore an unconscious response to the stimuli that the brain has encoded in the past 8 to 10 hours, our behaviors are likewise generated in large part by the unconscious mind, and everything we do, from going on a blind date to eating a slice of pizza at two in the morning, is nothing more than a story that’s been written out well in advance but that the brain has to “act out” by virtue of the vast amount of information that it sorts through for the sake of its ongoing survival. But if wakefulness cannot function without a certain amount of sleep and dreaming, who is to say that we have any more control over our wakeful states than we do over our dreams?
Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) might be able to answer that question. They wanted to test the lag time between when the brain consciously intends to move and when movement is actually carried out, hypothesizing that if the conscious intention to move is what supposedly generates the movement, an action they referred to as “movement genesis,” then the movement should occur after the conscious intention, and not before it.
In Matsuhashi and Hallett’s study, participants were instructed to randomly perform brisk finger movements every time they heard a tone, and refrain from expending mental energy by counting the number of movements already made and planning when to make the following movements. They made sure to only move their fingers whenever a thought of finger movement had precipitated it. On occasion, a specialized stop signal was played that informed the participants of their intentions to move and thus signified to them to immediately cancel finger movements thereafter.
A graph of tones documents two key test conditions: (1) before participants are made aware by the stop signal of their conscious intentions to move their fingers, and (2) after participants are made aware of their conscious intentions to move their fingers but cannot cancel their movements because the stop signal was played too late. One subject yielded a lag time of about 1 second between his conscious intention to move and movement genesis, that is, he moved his finger 1 second before even thinking about it. As such, Matsuhashi and Hallett concluded that movement genesis occurs on multiple levels of the unconscious mind and is not as simple as thinking about when to move first, and carrying out the movement itself second. The evidence indicates that a movement is carried out well after any thoughts of movement have been created.
Obviously, there is more to be said about the topic of free will—about its philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience—but with what little evidence we have at our disposal thus far, there is a lot going on beneath the surface of every decision we’ve made and are going to make.
Maybe our minds just have minds of their own.
Matsuhashi, M., & Hallett, M. (2008). The timing of the conscious intention to move. European Journal of Neuroscience, 28(11), 2344-2351.