Nathanael Garrett Novosel, November 2 2022

Neuroscience and Determinism

Possibly the most surprising, amazing, and contentious finding in the last 20 years of the study of neuroscience is the idea that the brain’s decisions might be made up to 10 seconds before person is consciously aware of it. The most famous popular psychology assertion on the topic of free will comes from Sam Harris, who stated that free will is an illusion because two people with the exact genetic makeup and circumstances would have to make the same decisions and, therefore, there is no free will. So why are members of the media and scientific community so adamant to conclude that there’s no free will, and is it as decisive as they claim?

Let’s do a quick summary of the argument of free will vs. determinism: it is similar to a nature vs. nurture argument where people are trying to understand how much of a decision or an action taken by a person is influenced by their biology and their environment. The only difference is that it’s an argument of whether nature and nurture are the ONLY two things affecting a person vs. someone’s own ability to control his decisions and actions to perform activities that nature and nurture wouldn’t dictate. The answer is that any living organism is constrained by its genetics: a human can’t flap his arms and fly, for example, because arms are not wings and so the physics do not work for that to be possible. Similarly, a person cannot wear a fur coat in 130-degree temperatures without likely dying of heat stroke because the environment is dictating what is possible for a person to do in that situation.

However, humans can make various choices within these boundaries. In the desert example, a person can migrate to a cold environment where he would need a fur coat. In the wings example, a person has the mental capacity to design airplane wings that will allow for human flight. So while nature and nurture do have a strong influence on human decisions, people have the ability to make choices and take actions within those constraints. A good example is how identical twins do, in fact, turn out to be similar, but they also have differences in their personalities and behaviors despite being genetically identical. So there is plenty of evidence that differences exist even when the genetics are identical and the environment is very, very similar (obviously, you can’t make two people’s environmental factors for their whole lives identical).

Now, there are people with less physical and psychological capabilities and, therefore, less control over themselves as others. People without working legs need more support than others, and people with damaged frontal lobes have weaker impulse control. So when a Sam Harris points to a person with those issues (e.g., a tumor, brain damage), he is correct that that person did not have the same ability to control his actions as the average person. This is why our legal system has a plea option of mental incapacity so that they are treated differently than someone who would have controlled his actions.

So, with that background, it is clear that there are controllable and uncontrollable factors in someone’s reality, and the debate is how much is controllable vs. uncontrollable. That line will never be definitively drawn because it varies so much based on each person’s capabilities, but we still have to treat people consistently under the law for the purpose of fair application of rules. It is also clear that the unconscious mind helps out the conscious mind to make decisions, so it is processing a mountain of information and helping a person make rapid decisions that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to make with only conscious processing. But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as free will just because there are constraints and some people have less free will than others.

As we know in science, we have to try to disprove hypotheses vs. trying to confirm them, as people are doing by taking this research or taking anecdotal examples and drawing deterministic conclusions. And there is plenty of evidence of self-control and self-determinism:

So even if you unconsciously make many decisions 10 seconds before you consciously realize them, you can buy insurance, exercise regularly, move to another climate, research in advance, or a variety of other actions to determine your own destiny. It is absolutely constrained by genetics, the laws of physics, and past/current conditions, but it is not all but determined from the outset. As long as you are not under duress or have some sort of condition affecting your brain, you can control your decisions and actions. If you don’t like where you live or cannot find a job in your local area, you can move. If you can’t resist eating cookies that are in your pantry, you can choose not to buy them at the store so you don’t indulge at home. If you are genetically prone to alcoholism, then you can choose to never drink so you don’t risk it.

So don’t let recent neuroscience findings or popular philosophers turn you into a fatalist. There is plenty within your life that is within your control. If you choose to allow that information to influence you, then you will try less hard in life and become a victim of your life circumstances. If you choose to allow that information to better accept what you can’t control and focus more on what you can, then you might try harder and have more success in your life. So that in and of itself is strong evidence for self-determination: how you choose to interpret the information influences the outcome. So even if that decision could only be made because you have certain genetics, that does not mean that, therefore, it’s inevitable for you to make that decision. It just determines whether those options are possible. And if those options are not possible, there are always other options to choose from. Make them, and don’t worry about things that you can’t control once you’ve identified that you can’t control them.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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