You are reading a particular chapter of the

book ‘The Purpose of Life’.

Reflection – Free Will

Let me confess — so far I have tried to avoid the topic of who’s really in ‘control’ — is it the genes, or is it us? Clearly evolutionary psychology paints a picture that the genes are much more in control than we think. So then are ‘we’ in control at all? Another way of asking the same question — is there any ‘free will’? This has been an eternal debate among philosophers.

First, let’s clarify what the question is here. We’re trying to figure out who’s in control — our genes or ‘us’? But what is ‘us’? In the context of this discussion, ‘me’ and ‘you’ refers to our consciousness. Most of our body is clearly not in our conscious control. We don’t consciously control say the heart, the liver, the kidney, etc. So a more precise question is who has more control — our consciousness or our genes (and the environment)?

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, our consciousness is a tiny part of the entire machine (human body) that is being puppeteered by the genes. It’s function is highly debated, the latest thought is that it is like the marketing department of the machine that helps us interact with the outside world to find opportunities, ultimately to serve the interest of our genes. Centuries ago, Charles Darwin had already concluded that “thought… seems as much [a] function of organ, as bile of liver” Notebooks, p614. Really, what reason do we have to believe that the mind and the brain are anything different from the purely mechanical and physical processes occurring in the rest of our body? Why should we think it is anything more than an incredibly complex and incomprehensible computer?

Well, because we feel differently about our mind than the rest of our body! We feel that we can control it and experience it. How can the mind be a mechanical machine when I am clearly making my own decisions and choices? This is why the non-existence of free-will is perhaps the most difficult argument to make to a layman — we have all sorts of mechanisms in our brain that make us feel that it is ‘us’ (our consciousness) who is making the decisions, ‘we’ are responsible for our actions and ‘we’ control our destiny. But this is just a feeling that is deceiving us. Our consciousness, is a highly limited and very superficial function that is being entirely controlled by forces that are ‘subconscious’ or ‘unconscious’.

The more you think about it, the more clear it gets. This realization is already making headlines.

“Scientists link crime to low serotonin… A natural chemical called oxytocin is found to underlie love… People are getting the sense — from news in genetics, molecular biology, pharmacology, neurology, endocrinology — that we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can’t discern but that science can” 
 – Moral Animal, L6125.

Let’s look at a few groundbreaking examples that more than prove how limited and superficial our consciousness is. In these cases, something has gone terribly wrong in the brain and that exposes the inner workings and how our consciousness is really being controlled by forces we are not aware of.

Experiments were conducted on ‘split brain’ patients — people who had the link between the right half and left half of the brain cut off to stop seizures. Surprisingly, such a surgery has very little effect on everyday behavior and these were completely normal people. But some experiments done on them revealed much about how the brain works. In these patients, given that the brain is split, the left and right halves of the brain cannot communicate with each other. Now, the left half controls language and seems to responsible for most of consciousness (Moral Animal, L4717). We also need to note that the left half of the brain controls the right half of the body and the right half of the brain controls the left half of the body. In many of these experiments, the right half of the brain is shown an image (by only showing it to the left eye) and that provokes some or the other action related to that image. Now the issue is that the left part of the brain doesn’t know what was seen and thus has no idea why the consequent action was carried out, however, it is the part that is responsible for consciousness and communication! In one example, the right brain was shown the command “walk” and the patient started walking. Now, he was questioned as to why he started walking — since his left brain, which doesn’t have any knowledge of why he’s walking, is responsible for answering that question, the right answer should have been “I don’t know”. But the patient actually said he was walking in order to get a drink! The most surprising part is that time and again in such situations, people justified their actions with a lot conviction — they really believed the made up reason! In another example, a nude image was flashed to the right brain of a woman, who immediately started laughing. When asked to explain why she was laughing, again, she came up with reasons that had nothing to do with the real reason.

What does this say about consciousness? Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted some of these experiments, has said that language is merely the “press agent” for other parts of the mind — “it justifies whatever acts they induce, convincing the world that the actor is a reasonable, rational, upstanding person. It may be that the realm of consciousness itself is in large part such a press agent — the place where our unconsciously written press releases are infused with the conviction that gives them force. Consciousness cloaks the cold and self-serving logic of the genes in a variety of innocent guises” (Moral Animal, L4735). Jerome Barkow, an anthropologist has written, “It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self (consciousness) is to be the organ of impression management”.

“not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behavior an illusion, it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims”
 – Moral Animal, L4743

As we have just seen, when things go wrong, we get glimpses into the inner working of the brain. We will now look at a few cases where things went really really wrong. They are described in detail in this article, from which all the quotes are taken.

In 1966, Charles Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 32 others by shooting at them with his rifle. When the police went to investigate his home for clues, they discovered that Whitman had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep. We have all heard similar horrific stories. And we often wonder — how can someone choose to do something so horrible?

Turns out, Charles Whitman had a very normal life and was a normal person for the most part. “Whitman was an Eagle Scout and a former marine, studied architectural engineering at the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a bank teller and volunteered as a scoutmaster for Austin’s Boy Scout Troop 5. As a child, he’d scored 138 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, placing in the 99th percentile. So after his shooting spree from the University of Texas Tower, everyone wanted answers.”

The evening before his rampage, Whitman composed a suicide note where he wrote “I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts… It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …”. Further, he requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed to determine whether something had changed in his brain because he suspected it had. “I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.”

When the autopsy was done, medical experts found a tumor with the diameter of a small coin in his brain. Here is an excerpt from the article: “This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants”

A more recent case is about a man who’s sexual preferences suddenly began to transform. He became addicted to child pornography, and started making very inappropriate sexual advances even toward his own step daughter. He ultimately ended up in prison guilty of child molestation. When he underwent a brain scan, a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex was discovered. When the tumor was removed, Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal. A year later, he started making inappropriate advances again — they discovered that a portion of the tumor was regrowing. After a subsequent surgery, his behavior again returned to normal.

In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos. Some patients became consumed with Internet poker, racking up unpayable credit-card bills. For several, the new addiction reached beyond gambling, to compulsive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypersexuality.

These are extreme examples, do they tell us anything about normally functioning people? Most definitely. They show us that our consciousness, our behavior, our decisions are mostly controlled by forces that we don’t have the slightest clue about. In these unfortunate cases no reasonable person would think they did these things by choice and that their ‘free will’ guided their actions. Why then do we think that the rest of us ‘normal’ people have something called ‘free will’ and are making our own choices? What happened in these cases was that the subconscious forces that control the consciousness started sending inappropriate signals. But if you ask them — they would still feel like they made the choice and they had free will. Whitman wrote “I decided to kill my wife”, not “I am not in control and some subconscious forces made me kill my wife”. Free will is an illusion. We feel that we are making our own choices, but we are actually not in control.

It is worth discussing another very interesting experiment that throws light on this discussion.

In a seminal study by psychologists Lyn Abramson, PhD, Lauren Alloy, PhD, and others in 1979 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 108, No. 4, pages 441–485) participants were asked to press a button due to which they may or may not see a light bulb appear on a computer screen. After a number of such trials, they were asked to rate their control from zero (no control) to 100 (total control). It turned out that people who were depressed were actually very accurate in judging how much control they had, and non-depressed or happy people consistently overestimated their level of control. While this could be true for a variety of reasons, it affirms what I have observed — happy people are much more prone to thinking they are in ‘control’ and have ‘free will’ than depressed people.

So what are the forces that control our thoughts, feelings and behaviors? The genes and the environment. There is much debate about which one is more important. Robert Wright’s analogy is quite insightful — “As we’ve seen, everyone is a victim not of genes, but of genes and environment together: knobs and tunings. Then again, a victim is a victim. A stereo has no more control over its tunings than over the knobs it was born with; whatever importance you attach to the two factors, there’s no sense in which the stereo is to blame for its music.” (Moral Animal L6072). In his book, he writes a lot about what this implies about the justice system and how do we deal with this realization. “that some of our motives are hidden from us not incidentally but by design, so that we can credibly act as if they aren’t what they are; that, more generally, the “delusion about free will” may be an adaptation… free will is an illusion, brought to us by evolution. All the things we are commonly blamed or praised for — ranging from murder to theft…- are a result not of choices made by some immaterial “I” but of physical necessity. “This view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything,” Darwin wrote in his notes. “Nor ought one to blame others”. (Moral Animal L6111)

“Darwinism will increasingly frame this picture and give it narrative force. We will see not only that, for example, low serotonin encourages crime, but why: it seems to reflect a person’s perception of foreclosed routes to material success; natural selection may “want” that person to take alternate routes. Serotonin and Darwinism together could thus bring sharp testament to otherwise vague complaints about how criminals are “victims of society.” A young inner-city thug is pursuing status by the path of least resistance, no less than you; and he is compelled by forces just as strong and subtle as the ones that have made you what you are. You may not reflect on this when he kicks your dog or snatches your purse, but afterwards, on reflection, you may. And you may then see that you would have been him had you been born in his circumstances.” (Moral Animal L6133)

We must view a wicked man, Darwin wrote in his notes, “like a sickly one.” It would “be more proper to pity than to hate & be disgusted.” (Moral Animal — L6166)