The arguments that claim “there is no free will” use experiments like this: Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the brain causes involuntary movements, such as twitching of a finger. Now, I enjoy a good non-sequitur as much as anybody:
I took my friend Elmer out to the airport. I showed him how, by hacking into a certain relay on an airplane, I could get one of the wing flaps to lower.
“Woah!” he said, “This makes it impossible to believe there was ever a pilot in control!”
“Yes,” I replied, “That’s the only logical conclusion.”
“And,” as he thought further, “There’s no such thing as flight!”
“Quite correct,” I agreed.
“Oh, and…” Now he was holding his head, and swaying, “So my memory. Of my vacation to Brussels, where I traveled by air… Was a complete delusion!”
“The obvious truth,” I admitted.
Sorry. Yes, I know it was a failure. It falls short of funny. It’s stupid. Sorry.
But that is evidently the chain of conclusions that leads from these trivial neurological demonstrations to the sweeping philosophy “There is No Such Thing as Free Will.”
We find ourselves in a world built from ideas, created by decisions. Yet, there is no mechanism that turns those decisions into reality?
We find ourselves in a world where all sorts of things fly (bugs, birds, airplanes). It’s obvious they do. There are ways to stop them flying, like a flyswatter. Sometimes the wind is too strong for birds. Yes, terrorists crash planes. But it’s obvious, things fly.
The fact that a system can be sabotaged, hobbled, and hacked does not prove there’s no such thing as the system. Instead, it’s good evidence the system is the main event. The fact that flight can be thwarted doesn’t prove there’s no flight. The fact that free will has limitations is no proof it doesn’t exist.
By the Theory of Relativity, you can hold the perspective that an airplane did not fly from New York to Seattle. Rather, the craft remained stationary while the rest of the universe shifted around it. All the physics works out. But the stationary-airplane reference is useless, except for demonstrating the Theory of Relativity. For aeronautical engineering, you use a frame of reference where the plane flies.
Maybe there is another possible reference system than individual free will, such as that All That Occurs is the will of All. But still, intent creates reality.
We have a number of built in — I won’t call them “delusions”, rather “conveniences”. Cases where what we think our brain is processing, is different from what it actually is.
In vision, for example, our impression of smooth continuous motion. Certain people have a neurological breakdown, called “akinetopsia”, such that they lose this impression of continuity, and see only a series of snapshots. If you think about it, between normal blinking, eye-shifts, and perspective changes, that’s about all that’s coming in. So, we think our brain is processing motion, but it’s actually synthesizing it for us.
We develop a sense of familiarity about things. This goes so much without saying that we never notice until it glitches. Déjà vu, that sense of familiarity, yet somewhere we’ve never been. Or the opposite, jamais vu, loss of that sense when it should be there. What is “familiarity”? Memory, surely, but with a sense of time, memory-of-memory, a conviction that “this was this way before”. We know full well that most things were there before we saw them. But this fabricated sense-of-familiarity, in its normal working, gives us a convenient comfort that “this was this way before, for me.”
When we are enjoying a conversation, we sense it as a flow, happening in real time. We are not aware of the processing lags, both to decode speech and create it. We are not aware of processing at all, until we stray beyond a language we’re fluent in.
Incidentally, the case of not being able to choose not to understand speech in your native tongue is thrust up as “proof” there is no free will. I’m sorry. Limitations don’t disprove free will. Free will is not the same as godlike (or diabolical) omnipotence. You don’t have the “free will” to levitate a book by telekinesis. You don’t have the “free will” to hold your breath until you die. More’s the pity.
These examples, of visual smoothing, déjà vu, and conversational speech, all bear on how our minds play with time sense, so life works better. The no-free-will pundits make hay the most from some hair-splitting experiments in a similar vein. Supposedly, your impression of when you decided to take some action, like lifting your finger, occurs up to several seconds after the internal brain waves started, which lead to the action. Ok. So? It’s one more example of how our minds masterfully play with time, so the world makes more sense. We “backdate” our impression of when we decided, but still we decide.
Professional baseball players, with the highest batting averages, go up against a women’s softball pitcher — and she strikes them out! How? It turns out, one of the strongest predictors of success in pro baseball is simply — exceptional eyesight. The pro batter, without ever realizing it, has trained himself to read the body language of the pitcher. The batter knows how the ball is going to go before it ever leaves the pitcher’s hand. Indeed, it’s easy to show that, at the speed the baseball flies, there is no time to visually process its trajectory anyway. Yet, the batter swings, and a good percentage of the time connects. At least until he’s facing a pitcher with different body language.
So, because the batter used his well-trained neurophysiology, rather than conscious thought, to hit the ball, he never “willed” to hit it?
Another irrelevancy brought into the no-free-will harangue deals with that pesky time lag. Researchers introduce a time lag between the sound and the motion in a movie. Subjects shown the movie find it very annoying, when the mismatch is even a fraction of a second, much less than the delay between the brain waves that herald a decision and the impression of having made that decision. This is supposed to prove something.
This proves nothing, except we are used to how things work. First of all, it’s unlikely audio and video actually arrive in our brains simultaneously. We conceptually stitch them together, after allowing for processing delays.
You can perform the thought experiment of watching an unsynchronized movie, and easily imaging how irritating it would be. But imagine this. You are spending a relaxing weekend at a cabin on a lake. It’s mid-morning, and you are enjoying coffee, or the libation of your choice, on the porch by the lakeshore. You casually become aware of an interesting person at another cabin across the water. For convenience, I’ll say “he”. He’s splitting firewood. His big shoulders flex, and the axe comes down. The wood splits with a satisfying crack. The knock lightly echoes off the hills. You watch, cycle after cycle, and you do not find it irritating at all.
But wait. The other cabin is 1000 feet across the water. Sound travels about 1000 feet per second. So there is nearly a one-second delay between his muscular exertions and the resultant sound. Why no annoyance? Because you know from a lifetime of experience that’s how sound works, including the echo. In fact, the time delay contributes to the languid sense of space and atmosphere in the scene.
Ok, it’s my turn to fabricate neurological theories on that time lag between brainwaves and the sense of decision. I speculate that, like sound and echo in a tranquil forest, its purpose is to give a sense of light and space in the mind, the hallmark of a comfortable decision.
“Proof” does not consist in mashing together tenuously related concepts. Déjà vu does not prove, or disprove, past lives. Akinetopsia does not prove that existence is a puppet show. Neurological time lags have nothing whatsoever to say about free will.