The Science of Free Will

istock photography: ER09

As a writer, one of the things I am most fascinated by is human behavior, the choices we make, why we make them, what calls or pushes us to one action and prevents us from making another. What drives the human psyche?

Because the truth is, our preciously held and highly valued ability to make free, independent decisions might not be as clear-cut as we thought.

Wikimedia commons

For the longest time, human actions and choices were viewed in the simplest of terms: good versus evil, right vs. wrong. To early church fathers, free will was a hotly debated topic. If all events had been predetermined by an omnipotent god, how can our wills ever be free? In medieval thought, a human’s will was very much a battleground between God vs the Arch Fiend as they wrestled for a man’s soul–and the ability to make his choices for him. During the Reformation, Martin Luther declared free will a fiction as all human actions were predestined by God.

In the 20th century, our understanding of will took on entirely new layers and complexities with the birth of psychology. With the work of Freud and Jung, much of what had once seemed like willful bad choices or evil, now had an explanation in the intricacies of the human mind: unconscious, subconscious, repression, and transference, not  to mention the id, ego, and super ego.

But modern sciences have come to shed even more light on an already vastly complex subject. It turns out that our wills are not nearly as free–or as independently minded–as we once thought. Highly complex creatures that we are, we are subject to a host of signals, input, feedback, and influence that we never suspected.

Wikimedia Commons Wapcaplet

We now know that we are greatly influenced by the people around us; their actions affect our actions in ways we are often not even aware of. In a famous experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1963, test subjects were required to administer electric shocks to various learner’s when they failed at their tasks. The willingness of people to do what authorities told them to do, regardless of the perceived harm, showed just how susceptible we are to authority figures and the need to conform.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book BLINK, the author brings us even more subtle ways in which this sort of influence takes place. In the book he ably dissects gut reactions and our concept of instinct and exposes the sometimes unpleasant underbelly of what goes into our ‘gut’ response and shows us just how subject to undue influence we can be. It turns out we humans can easily be conditioned and primed by the environment around us. In experiment after experiment, people were shown to be primed. Tall men were often found to be positively associated with leadership roles and consequently achieved higher positions within companies and earned more. Even more disturbingly, these sorts of influences aren’t limited to how others see us–they can greatly influence our self perception as well. Gladwell cites another experiment conducted by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. When African Americans were asked to identify their race before taking a difficult, standardized test, their correct scores were cut in half. James Whittaker

The choices we make can be radically different when we are surrounded by groups of people. Whether this is due to the contagion theory or collective effervescence,  the phenomenon of mob mentality has been with us for a long time. People will often act differently in a crowd, often in irrational, sometimes violent ways. Even matters of taste and artistic preferences are influenced by others–and not merely in the form of highly respected cultural reviews. Our taste in these things can be influenced by even anonymous opinions. Experiments have shown there is a cumulative advantage when judging creative merit–the opinions of others is often a huge factor in whether or not we ourselves like certain music, books, and art.

And as if all those behavioral and psychological components weren’t confusing enough,  neuroscience and genetics are shedding light on an already highly complex dynamic. More and more scientists are learning that our brain makes decisions before we are even conscious of them, questioning just how ‘freely’ we make those decisions.

Wikimedia commons Dennis Myts

As they continue to decode our genes, scientists have made some interesting discoveries. In addition to a handful of inheritable diseases, there are more and more seemingly random diseases for which people carry a genetic predisposition, illnesses like cancer, obesity, infertility, or heart disease.

And what are we to make of cellular memory? Some think it is a pseudoscience at best, and yet what about the inexplicable events and choices we seem to have no power over, that are seemingly made for us? In one family I know, a shocking number of members have died just after turning fifty–but from a variety of causes: a railway accident, artheriosclerosis, a car accident, cancer, a heart attack. No where near enough of a pattern to be able to attribute it to health factors, but a very strong sense of predestination overshadows that family. In another family, a startling number of them have married perfectly healthy people, only to have those spouses develop major, chronic illnesses. Situations like this often have me pondering the idea that we are destined to live our lives over and over until we reach a state of enlightenment that takes us to the next level. But what sort of enlightenment is required to stop unknowingly marrying sick people or avoiding premature death?

However, even with all the neuroscience and genetics and psychology, there is still something fundamentally unknowable about where our deepest decisions and truest choices come from. Behavioral geneticists attribute only about 40% of our behavior to actual genetics, with 10% attributable to a shared family environment. That leaves up to 50% of our behavioral tendencies to an unshared environment, and that’s where the truly interesting stuff happens. What causes one sibling who has suffered abuse to perpetuate that cycle of abuse, while another is able to stop it? What part of their environment was different enough to give one person the strength to choose a different path?

The truth is, I don’t have the answers. For me, it’s asking the questions that has value. Being aware of all the factors that go into our choices makes us all the more able to strip away undue influence or hidden pressures so that our will can be as freely ours as is humanly possible. I suspect there is no definitive no answer and our understanding of all the factors will be in a state of flux and discovery for generations to come. Human will defies theologians’, psychologists’, sociologists’, and even neuroscientists’ explanations. We are more complex than that. We encompass all those aspects–and more. Each decision we make, each choice we act upon is a complex alchemical* brew of social, neurological, genetic, and, psychological processes, stirred together with a heavy dose of The Unknowable.

Which is what makes us such fascinating beings. And something I’ll try to keep in mind the next time one of my kids gets in trouble.

*For you science purists out there, I am kidding. I only ever use alchemy to turn my surplus lead into gold. I would never use it for something as important as making decisions. For that I always read entrails…

Get the GeekDad Books!


The GeekMom blog is captained by Jenny Bristol and Corrina Lawson, and supported by a brilliant team of writers. Since launching in 2010, we’ve created a robust community of writers, readers, and media geeks, dedicated to the vision of creating a smart, savvy, social online experience for geek parents everywhere.