We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it.- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
The idea that we are robots - nothing more than machines automatically carrying out pre-programmed instructions - has to be one of the most difficult concepts for the human mind to accept.
After all, if there’s one thing that appears to be perfectly obvious about being human it’s that we’re free to make our own choices, free to do what we like with our lives...
The Mystery of Free Will
Usually science solves mysteries. But when it comes to the concept of ‘free will’, our expanding knowledge of the world seems to have created a bigger mystery than any that it’s solved.
For thousands of years, philosophers and scientists have debated whether humans can really have the freedom to choose what to do with their lives. For a discussion to remain entertaining and unresolved for such a length of time requires both sides to be highly persuasive, and indeed they are – both arguments are so convincing that it’s hard to imagine a weakness in either of them. And yet one of them must be wrong, because they are direct opposites, incompatible.
- On one side is our personal experience of being human.
- On the other side is… ‘science’.
Our personal experience tells us that we are ‘free to choose’ – free to choose our religion, our politics, whether or not to commit a crime.
Whereas science tells us that we are ‘bags of chemicals’ - our bodies and brains composed entirely of atoms…. and nothing else. Inside each of us, these atoms react together to make the body function; from the contraction of the muscles to the cleaning of the blood by the kidneys, it all comes down to a series of highly complex – and highly ordered - chemical reactions.
There is, of course, no ‘freedom of choice’ in a chemical reaction: when two atoms react together they do it instantly and automatically. They don’t think about it, or wait for instructions from the brain, they just do it. Which is just as well, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to build helicopters and mobile phones, or to get up and walk around the room with quite the confidence that we can now: when we tell our leg muscles to contract, they do so because they are comprised of chemicals whose behaviour is entirely predictable, dependent only on the laws of physics.
So how can we possibly have free will?
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?
Astonishingly, we have absolutely no idea how the human brain could ever have achieved the ability to control its own atoms. No scientist has yet been able to find any evidence of a mechanism by which this ‘free will’ might work.
According to everything we understand about the nature of the physical world, our whole lives should be nothing more than an inevitable cascade of chemical reactions, beginning at the moment that our father’s DNA met our mother’s… or, to be more precise, beginning billions of years ago with the ‘Big Bang’, at which point all the future movements of every atom in the universe were determined.
No one has a problem with this ‘determinism’ when it’s used to forecast the weather or to calculate the precise time of the next solar eclipse… but what about when it’s applied to the life of a human being?
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
If you apply the laws of physics to your own life you have to conclude that it’s been inevitable since the dawn of time that at this precise moment you would be reading this sentence.
The idea is absurd. Impossibly bizarre. Of course humans are much more than the chemical reactions that make them up. Of course we human beings are free to make up our own minds… It’s quite obvious that we are genuinely able to decide what to do.
But… how? How can we possibly have this ability?
If we really do have the freedom that we’re so convinced we have, then the human brain would be the only structure in the known universe that has the ability to gain control of the chemical reactions that make it up.
It’s a problem that continues to baffle philosophers and scientists: our perception of being able to choose is so powerful that we look for gaps in our knowledge of physics to explain how our freedom came to exist. “We know we’re free,” we argue, “so there must be a scientific explanation that we’ve yet to discover.”
But what if it’s not the science that’s wrong, but our personal experience? Rather than overturn the laws of physics, wouldn’t it be simpler to challenge our experience of free will?
After all, we’ve never measured this freedom scientifically, never proven it, just assumed it.
What if our ability to choose is an illusion? What if it could be shown that when we think we’re making a choice, we’re actually following pre-programmed instructions… wouldn’t we have solved the age-old mystery?
The Illusion of Free Will
This book will ask you to take a closer look at what happens when you make a decision. Not the scientific process of neurones firing and electrons whizzing round inside your brain, but rather your personal experience of what you do when you make a choice.
By examining the process you go through when you decide to change the TV channel or to murder your spouse, it becomes surprisingly easy to see that all you’re doing is following instructions.
Then, by examining where these instructions come from, and how the instructions got to be written in the first place, we can make a direct link to the cascade of chemical reactions that began with the Big Bang.
And thus we can see how a collection of entirely automatic and pre-determined chemical reactions can become so complex that it can worry about the size of its backside.
And we can begin to face up to the idea that we are robots.
Conscious robots, but robots nevertheless.
Well, of course it does.
But consider how your ancestors might have reacted if they’d been standing in the Acropolis 2000 years ago, while some Greek mathematician tried to convince them that the world isn’t quite as flat as it obviously must be… but is actually a giant ball floating in the infinite void. Or that the stars are so far away and their light takes so long to reach us that when we peer up into the night sky we’re seeing a picture from millions of years ago… and that for all we know those stars disappeared with the dinosaurs.
Seeing ourselves as robots doesn’t sound like the most promising route to a better understanding of what it is to be human. Nevertheless, observing the mechanism by which our choices are controlled provides a new insight into the problems and frustrations of daily life: perhaps the reason it’s so difficult to be lead the happy and contented lives we’ve always promised ourselves is because humans simply aren’t designed to be happy and contented for very long.
Fortunately, understanding the mechanism by which we’re controlled also reveals a weakness in that mechanism… a weakness that we will one day exploit in order to improve our lives to an extent that we can currently only dream of.
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