An Argument for Free Will

Posted on March 15, 2019

An Argument for Free Will

Has neurobiology and science killed free will altogether?

I yell, NO!

First, my concessions from what I see in the science. We operate on automatic pilot and habitual behavior much of our days. Those struggling to survive will unconsciously rely more on habits that keep them alive often not seeing the negative consequences of their behaviors.

Second, much of our behavior is a reaction to variables in the environment and past learning. Unless we consciously contemplate our situations, choices, and possible consequences, we react. Unfortunately, the parts of the brain that supports our ability to contemplate, the pre-frontal cortex, is underdeveloped in those with repeated, untreated trauma and the reactive areas, amygdala, is overdeveloped.

I do believe there is room in the science for free will to emerge. Here is a list of some of the variables that allow someone to make choices that counteract ingrained habits, past learning and behavioral patterns.

  1. Safety – Without safety, we will rely heavily on past behaviors and emotional responses.
  2. Relationships – Someone’s support and ability to help us contemplate is critical for major life changes.
  3. Choice – There are always choices. The question is whether the individual can identify them in the moment. Many need someone’s assistance to see how future choices might deviate from past habits.
  4. Hope – Related to choice, hope is that sense that if one chooses an alternative path that their future will improve.
  5. Self-confidence – Rarely will someone choose a different path if they lack the confidence that they can achieve the desired outcome.
  6. Motivation – With a desire, reason, or need to change there is little energy to contemplate change or deviate from past habits.

Think about how many of these variables are present in our life. I’m lucky enough that my safety is rarely threatened; I have numerous people in my life who love and support me; I have the time to identify and contemplate choices that might improve my life; I possess a track record of overcoming hardship and making difficult life change; most days it isn’t hard for me to find emotion. In other words, I’m fortunate enough to possess a great deal of free will in my life. I’m lucky!

One of the reasons free will seems elusive in science is that most study individuals in isolation, in settings where they have limited choices and little social support. I believe we stand as proof that providing people who are most likely to rely on habits and past learning (due to their neurobiology caused by untreated trauma) with safety, support, choice proves free will. We bare witness every day to people choosing different paths even after years of suffering, addiction, survival, and hardship.

I love seeing our work and helping people break the chains of their pasts and finding pathways to better futures. In many ways we might provide the best argument that free will does exist!

2 responses to “An Argument for Free Will”

  1. Joshua Smith, LMSW says:

    Great response. I liked the point that most of the studies in support of determinism seem to occur in controlled settings and in a vacuum of sorts. The research community has good reason for doing this, of course, to help rule out other variables, but there are numerous examples of results not being replicated in the real world across several branches of science. If we consider that human behavior is even more difficult to know completely, then a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary.

    An interesting look at the area of free will is happening in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Regardless of its risks or benefits to our species, the concept of something literally artificial developing true intelligence speaks a lot to our own existence. If the world is 100% deterministic, when does a machine that we program, and thus inherently know completely, have true independent levels of intellect and can make its own choices? At what point do we say “Eureka!”? If it is a totally deterministic world, it sort of never will reach that point because it is unobtainable. All choice potentials are in its base programming. This is a good metaphor for the human being as a machine.

    The other argument is that we take enough decision making capabilities and programming and “teach” it enough on how and why to make choices, then it will suddenly cross into the territory of true intellect and the ability to exert its own will and choice. These machines have a complex network of code and learning to do this, we have the complex network biology, past experiences, social networking, safety, and hope. Most of these alone only create a human machine, but the interplay between them all is what makes us have free will and intellect.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Love the comparison to AI! I think determining if it was truly a volitional choice brings human determinism complexity into focus even better. Great comment my friend!

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