Gijs Verheijke

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How to exercise free will

17 Jan 2023

I've thought about free will quite a lot, and over a long period of time. When I studied Biomedical Engineering in University, I was drawn in particular to all subjects having to do with the brain. It is pretty clear that in the moment, there is no free will.

Research has shown that in test subjects debating between pressing button A and button B, MRI data from their brain shows clearly which button they are going to press the entire time. This is even true when subjects said they wanted to press button A but then purposely pressed button B at the last second to try and 'proof' that they have free will. That was pretty mindblowing to me when I first learned it, and convinced me to accept that we have basically no choice what to do in the moment.

Looking at this a bit more technically, Our brain seems to be a computer that makes decisions based on its inputs in a 'deterministic' way. There is no 'soul' or 'pilot' at the controls who makes these decisions. It is the brain itself that does it, and the narrative your conscious mind (which is part of the same brain) spins is mostly an illusion.

Mostly. But, I choose to reject that we have no control at all. If you control your inputs, you can control your outputs. This is remarkably easy to see in real life. Whatever you pay attention to starts to dominate your thoughts. People who play Tetris famously dream of Tetris. Whatever book I'm currently reading will shape my opinions about the world, and even my actions. What happens when you are inspired by a book, for example to start exercising more? Another example is spending time with people. Who you spend time with can greatly influence what you think about, what happens next in your life, and what actions you'll take after.

The key here is that there is no way your brain can know everything that’s in the book in advance. The decision to read one book versus another may not be entirely up to you, but the content of the book is going to change your future in ways your brain cannot know in advance. A certain passage or highlight may catch your eye, leading you buy a follow-up book or watch a YouTube video. Maybe you saw that passage instead of a different one because by chance you were reading it on a plane with 100% attention at that time. This is not at odds with accepting a deterministic brain computer.

It also validates everything we know about the importance of habits and planning (implementation intention again). The key is to avoid setting yourself up to make important decisions in the moment.

So where I am at is a belief that seems useful. And at least more true than the insistence that you have total free will even in the moment. Since I don't believe in the latter, I try to intervene on a longer timescale, to be healthy, rested, and to read inspiring books, counting on this to set me up for making better decisions in the moment. But the question that is not answered in this is, do you have free will in choosing what you read, where you live, who you spend time with, etc? Could you, if you wanted to, choose to destroy your life by just staying in bed all the time. Can you totally change your path if you wanted to? Or are these things totally set in stone. Determined by the universe? I wonder if this could be empirically tested.