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Choosing Freely – Fiction or Fact?

December 11, 2018


“If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process.”  Sam Harris in Free Will

We humans are supposedly created with free will, meaning that we have significant control over our actions and choices — that our actions and choices are not directed by some other force either within us or outside us.

We are also told that free will is that it is not caused by anything – that it is independent of circumstance, age, gender, culture, brain functioning and other factors.

While that’s what we are told and even what we may believe, I still wonder if there are any limits on our so-called free will.

For example, are there circumstances when our free will seems somewhat less than free?  When our behavior appears to be more compulsive or other-driven than self-determined?

Such a circumstance, in my view, is when someone is in active addiction. While there are those who seemingly laid down their substance of choice without any intervention, there are those that continue to struggle despite repeated, and apparently sincere attempts to get sober, or abstinent. But why?

At least in the case of addiction, I contend that free will is not absolute. For example, addiction affects how the brain works – it changes our neurons and affects our neurotransmitters, which send false messages throughout the neural network, affecting in turn our pleasure centers. Thus, they compromise our capacity for decision-making regarding our use or non-use of addictive substances or activities. And even when an addict of whatever variety chooses to drop their drug of choice, they often go back to it (relapse) or they switch to another substance to get that zap from some other source.

But even outside the arena of addiction, are not our choices and actions influenced by cultural and religious conditioning and expectations, for instance, our choices about career, marriage and friendships?  And even when might think we’re choosing freely, our choices can be constrained or influenced, even unconsciously, by prevailing cultural norms.  For example, our family culture will likely influence how we interact with others, especially, for example, when there is conflict. Also, our cultural conditioning has a huge influence on our perceptions and choices regarding health care – whether we accept a certain modality of care or reject it. So, the prevailing culture’s rules about values and beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong, become imprinted upon us and largely absorbed into our unconscious minds.

And there is now evidence that the brain itself makes decisions in advance of our conscious awareness. Studies involving brain imaging show that the brain actually registers a choice in milliseconds before the conscious mind becomes aware of the choice we are making. Thus, it is difficult to determine whether we are acting freely or simply justifying a choice that has already been made by our unconscious minds.

Of course, I’m not making a case for the negation of moral, ethical responsibility for our actions. What I’m saying is that the matter of free will is a lot more complex than we’ve otherwise been led to believe. It is not straightforward.

That being said, we do have the power of discernment – the power to make the unconscious, conscious. We are able to examine our beliefs, motives, needs and desires along with the possible options there are for action… or inaction, for that matter.

In that way we may be able to make reasoned, conscious choices that serve the highest good in at least some areas of our lives.

“You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.” Sam Harris in Free Will