Why did you do that?

child uncertaintyI’m not sure whether there are more strange things happening down here in Cornwall than in the rest of the country, or whether I’m just noticing more of them since moving down here a few months ago. Either way, my local on-line rag, the Falmouth Packet, while rarely covering events of earth-shattering significance, is often an amusing source of the bizarre. This morning for instance, the following headline caught my eye:

Falmouth man who drove into River Fowey has ‘no idea’ why

From reading the story, at least part of the reason seems likely to have involved alcohol, a theory strengthened by his subsequent refusal to furnish a blood sample upon being admitted to hospital. However, this once again got me thinking about the whole knotty problem of Free Will and why it probably doesn’t exist – at least not in the sense that most of us feel it does.

We’ve all been there, in childhood at least if not more recently. We’ve all suffered the shame of being asked why we did some unfathomably stupid thing and then finding it hard to respond with anything better than an, “I don’t know.”  As parents, some of us may have asked the same question to our own children, perhaps followed by, “but you must know why you did it!”

After all, are we not the conscious authors of our own actions?

Intuitively, it feels as though we are, and yet an ever-increasing weight of  evidence from studies in both psychology and neuroscience, seems to indicate that this feeling must in fact be an illusion.

Many people, when first confronted with this highly unsettling notion, flatly refuse to believe it. Some find it mildly puzzling, but don’t believe it matters one way or another, while others find it highly depressing. After several years of thinking about this from different angles, I am now convinced that free will, as most of us think of it, is indeed an illusion, and although I passed through all of the stages just described, I actually find the thought quite liberating now.  Since I don’t believe there is any one argument that will take someone to the same point in a single blog post, I’ll just list the key steps (though necessarily simplified)  in my own journey.

  • Our mind and sense of self, come from the brain. Otherwise, how could drugs, disease, tumours and injury be capable of altering that sense of self so dramatically – to the point where personalities change causing people to commit acts (sometimes of violence) inconsistent with their former nature. e.g. Phineas Gage, Charles Whitman.
  • Our thoughts, however complex, are the result of (relatively well understood) electro-chemical changes in our brains. Quite how conscious thought emerges from these small but innumerable events is the focus of much study and speculation, but emerge it does, and with no additional help from outside, it would seem.
  • I long ago discarded the notion of mind-body duality and the existence of some noumenal entity – the soul – which was somehow separate from the laws of nature. I see this as a throw-back to an age before we knew what brains were for. (And as an aside, even if such a thing did exist, how could it possibly influence the physical entity which is our brain.)
  • The universe appears to be deterministic at any scale which is likely to effect our brains, which means that each of the electro-chemical changes underlying conscious thought, must be determined by their previous states.
  • The states of our brains arise from a combination of genes and past experience and nothing more. Following this idea to its limit, I conclude that every decision ever made since birth, assuming identical genes and experiences, could not have been made differently.
  • Even if Quantum uncertainty plays some role in the firings of our neurons (something which is thought unlikely by most respectable scientists), it is no more allowing of free will. It would just mean that your decision was based on sub-atomic random events rather than free will.
  • Brain-imaging studies have shown that the outcomes of simple decisions can be predicted several seconds BEFORE we are consciously aware of having made them. e.g. Benjamin Libet et al.
  • The world is full of examples of our decisions being influenced by factors of which we have no conscious awareness – e.g. the fact that trading volumes on the major world stock exchanges are statistically significantly higher on sunny days than on cloudy ones – something few if any of our highly paid traders would ever be likely to admit.

For me, the above realisations and others, combined with various books on the nature of consciousness and free will, have helped me come to terms with the illusory nature of the latter, and far from finding it depressing, or something of mere philosophical interest, I believe that for reasons of morality, social justice and criminal sentencing, it is both vitally important and something which can lead us all to a better world.

So next time your child claims not to know why he did that naughty or seemingly irrational thing, don’t automatically assume he’s lying. Very likely, perhaps just like the gentlemen who drove his car into the river Fowey, he really has no idea why the thoughts culminating in that action actually occurred. And even if he does know, he probably couldn’t have acted differently given who he was at that precise moment in time.


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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. I think the disconnect comes from the concept of “I”. The “man drove into the river” , however , viewed from inside his head “I did not decide to drive into the river” … the man and I are not synonymous. When I walk around in the world , folks see a person. I fool myself into thinking I AM that person, whereas I’m simply a subsystem , holding conscious state , general intent, the odd bit of conflict resolution (red or blue?)and post rationalising “that was what I intended”.

    1. Very good point, Graeme. I think that is exactly where the disconnect is. And I think that “post rationalising” as you put it is something we probably learn as small children.

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