Our knowledge of science tells us that the behaviour of any atom or molecule is entirely automatic, dependent only on its physical properties and the laws of physics. So how can it be that when you put a billion entirely automatic atoms together to make a human… you create something that can do what it wants with its life?
It’s a question that has always baffled philosophers and scientists. How do 'we' get control of these automatic atoms of ours, if 'we' are nothing but atoms ourselves? For us to have free will, wouldn’t there have to be a part of us that isn't made of atoms; a part of us that’s free to tell all the atoms how to behave? But if so, then where is it - this non-atomic corner of our brains? And what kind of ‘stuff’ is it made of… if not atoms?
Of course, despite the brutal logic of this argument, free will springs back to vigorous life the moment the philosopher takes a break from his deliberations and has to make the difficult free choice of whether or not to have a Danish pastry with his coffee.
Or as science writer Matt Ridley puts it:
“I am quite capable of jumping in my car and driving to Edinburgh
right now and for no other reason than that I want to....
I am a free agent, equipped with free will.”
- Matt Ridley, Genome
Free will prevails the moment we leave the classroom and step back into the real world.
But then along comes Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, and suddenly free will’s in trouble again: forget the atomic level – it seems we can’t be free at the ‘whole creature’ level either.
"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed
to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
The idea that evolution could create an animal that has the free will to do what it wants is like suggesting that water could run uphill. Even if a ‘free will gene’ could have been created by the chance mutations that created our eyes and ears, this ‘free will gene’ would simply never have been ‘naturally selected’ for. Natural selection, by definition, can only select genes that improve their own survival chances. ‘Doing what you want with your life’ is the evolutionary equivalent of a blind lion triumphing over a sighted one: it’s like being born with an insatiable desire to drink poison and jump in front of freight trains.
“The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate”
- Stephen Hawking
So what’s going on?
It makes no sense: how can there be such a gap between our scientific understanding and our personal experience of what our lives are all about? On the one hand, we know that we’ve got free will, while on the other hand we know that every time we exercise this free will of ours, we must be overcoming not only the laws of physics but everything science has taught us about the way that human beings came into existence.
What’s the answer?
Can we reassure ourselves that one day we’ll uncover the gaps in the laws of physics? Or is it time to start thinking the unthinkable about ourselves?
What if we don’t actually have the ability to jump in our cars and go to Edinburgh whenever we want to? What if we don’t really have the freedom to choose whether or not to eat that Danish pastry?
Could it all be just a delusion…?
“Free will is a delusion caused by
our inability to appreciate our true motivations.”
- attributed to Charles Darwin
Could it be that we’ve been fooled into thinking that we’re making our own choices, when in reality we’re just being told what to do by billions of years of natural selection?
Next: How we make a decision
Or, for a summary: The Story of the Conscious Robot
Or go back to the home page to see all the pages