As advances in neuroscience continue to unlock the secrets of the inner workings of our brains, I am reminded of an intellectual quandary that I wrestled with in my early 20s: Are we really free?
Back then, having read the works of B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), I found myself torn by their radically diverse points of view.
In “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” behaviorist and philosopher B.F. Skinner argues that, although we might feel we’re making free choices, all our choices are in fact the result of our unique past conditioning. Freedom is an illusion and is itself a conditioned response. Skinner famously cites two examples to support his position: the leaf and the fly.
A leaf falling from the top of a tall tree covers its journey in zigzag motions eventually ending up on a pile of other leaves on the ground. Its path can be traced and predicted by air currents, atmospheric density, minute photon forces, the mass and volume of the leaf, etc. Is the leaf free? No, it follows predetermined causal laws.
A household fly is no different. A fly buzzing around your kitchen may have a more complicated trajectory than the leaf; however, its previous conditioning, its “needs,” its “desires,” its “goals” and the aerodynamics of its flight, if properly calculated, would also allow us to accurately plot its next move.
Although vastly more complicated, the same principle applies to humans. If properly analyzed, our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our surroundings, our emotional propensities, our needs and our desires could lead to accurate predictions of our future behavior.
The work of neuroscientists, Hans Kornhuber and Luber Keecke, would seem to confirm Skinner’s beliefs. If you measure brain activity before a decision occurs, they discovered that you could actually witness its neural process. The decision itself, they revealed, is made before we actually “deliberate.” Our emotional center, the limbic system, seems to dominate the entire decision-making process at the outset.
Other researchers took up the same issue with identical results. Psychologist John-Dylan Haynes did groundbreaking work in this area in 2008 and confirmed the findings of Kornhuber and Keecke. The undeniable truth is that the unconscious parts of the brain engage in the real decision-making process. Once they are done, they signal to the conscious part of our brains, thus giving us the illusion that we are making a decision. While the brain creates the illusion of freewill, the reality is quite different.
In contrast, the famous writer, political activist, and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre posits a different theory. His famous novel, “The Age of Reason,” inspired me at a very young age. Sartre rejects determinism completely. Nothing dictates what we do. We cannot blame a god, or others, or past environmental factors for our decisions. Boldly, unreservedly, existentially, he asserts that we must take responsibility for our actions as well as their consequences.
Unlike many thinkers, including Aristotle and the Dalai Lama, Sartre claims that the goal of life is authenticity, not happiness. Like fellow existentialist Nietzsche, Sartre suggests that our only true alternative is to choose to live life on our own terms.
Life’s decisions are not a matter of genetic makeup or upbringing but the result of our growth choices. Without this growth, we will never be truly content. This process is a gradual escape from self-deception that eventually becomes the center of our consciousness. As is the core of existentialism, Sartre maintains that this yearning for authenticity for our true self, the whole self, forms the elusive meaning of our lives.
The truth, once understood, frees us from the myths that are designed to rule us by fear. Neither God nor society can control our life’s goals. Believing in absolute freedom, we can now live courageously and for the first time in our lives, truly feel alive.
So, given these diverse points of view, are we free? Almost 50 years after I first posed this question to myself, I can assert a decisive maybe!
I have a profound appreciation for both Skinner’s and Sartre’s positions. Time has witnessed incredible scientific advances, which have provided fascinating discoveries on the workings of the brain. Behavior genetics teaches us that most personality characteristics originate in our genes. Our inherited genetic makeup indisputably determines whether we are introverted or extraverted, stable or unstable, open or closed to new experiences, agreeable or disagreeable in social settings, willing or unwilling to take responsibility for our actions.
The final product includes the “personality traits” that we so love to judge: carelessness, impatience, narrow-mindedness, rudeness, selfishness, suspiciousness, etc. Instead of chalking these up to genetic bad luck, we’ve always held the individual responsible for these traits.
Sartre has a point. The personality traits listed above are predispositions, not tight causal connections. Scientist James Watson was always fond of saying, “a predisposition does not a predetermination make.” Notwithstanding the undeniable pull of our inherited genetics, environment, upbringing, desires and goals, we can still experience the freedom of decision-making.
To truly be free, our self-awareness must be insightful enough to recognize our natural propensities and our volitional impulse strong enough to override inherited and learned predispositions. Thus, it is our self-awareness and strength of will that determine how much freedom we actually utilize when making our decisions.
And, of course, you are always free to reject these arguments!