We may not have free will, but we can still act freely—sort of.
America is a symbol of freedom all over the world, enjoying as it does freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Our ancestors prized these political freedoms so much that many of them were willing to die defending them. And though many of us are often accused today of taking them for granted, we continue to see people rising up to fight for them when they’re threatened (when someone else’s freedoms are threatened, too).
These freedoms, of course, aren’t absolute. I can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded movie theater when I know no fire exists, to cite a famous example of the limitations imposed on free speech. Nor can I threaten to detonate an imaginary bomb on a plane (even writing that phrase in a post is likely to attract the attention of the Office of Homeland Security). Nor, to paraphrase another famous line, can I swing my fist into the space your nose happens to occupy. In other words, to state the obvious, we’re all free within limits.
So it has always been and so in a civil society must it always be. Mostly we don’t notice these limitations because we’ve been programmed to not even think about being released from them (for the most part). And even when someone does want to punch someone else’s nose, the threat of punishment isn’t the only thing that stops them (at least we hope). It’s also the sense that we shouldn’t impinge upon someone else’s right not to have their nose punched.
Political freedom, however, isn’t the only realm in which freedom appears to be greater than it is. It turns out that our freedom to make even the simplest of choices (e.g., whether to put on brown or blue pants) may not just be more limited than we think—it may not exist at all.
As research in neuroscience progresses, it’s steadily reinterpreting past ideas from other disciplines—notably, both psychology and philosophy—and quickly subsuming them. Freud’s conception of the unconscious mind has turned out to have an entirely neurological basis, for example, and though he got many of the details wrong, we now know that the greatest proportion of our thinking does indeed go on beneath our conscious awareness. Which, it turns out, is lucky for us.
As Daniel Kahneman points out in his fascinating new book Thinking, Fast and Slow we need what he calls System 1—the fast, unconscious thinker—to survive at all. If we had to consciously attend to all the things we need to do simply to make it out of bed in the morning, we’d not only never get anything done, we’d be continually exhausted. Conscious reasoning—the so-called “executive function” of the brain—is extremely tiring.
But as Kahneman also argues, System 2—the part of our minds we identify as “us“—is powerfully influenced by the workings of System 1. If we take the time, we can free ourselves from some of them, but not all, and certainly not all the time. The difficult truth is that “we” aren’t free even from our unconscious selves. Of course, we’ve long known this—long before the concepts of System 1 and System 2 were even imagined. The intellect has ever been pitted against the emotions, our notion of what we should do, to offer just one example, often warring with and losing to what we want to do.
But for the age-old question of free will, it’s even worse than that: it looks as if the answer is that we don’t actually have it. Studies now show that the impulse to take the most basic of actions—the movement of a finger, for example—originate in the brain at least a full second before we’re consciously aware of our desire to move it! It appears that the unconscious mind, functioning with an understanding bereft of language, may control far more of our conscious decision making than we ever imagined—if not all of it.
Philosophers and scientists are speaking out against these results, not so much to deny them but to try instead to salvage the notion of free will by redefining it. And though I think these efforts will ultimately fail, there exists good reason to want them to succeed: studies also show that when we lose our belief in free will, our motivation to act diminishes, as well.
However, the question the free will data should spark isn’t merely whether we have free will. We should also be asking: what exactly do we mean by “we“? We self-identify with System 2, our conscious minds, our sense of self—whatever you want to call it—but in doing so, are we sure we’re placing the seat of ourselves in the right location? We behave as if System 1 is a hobgoblin in our minds, separate from “us,” doing as it pleases, serving its own interests, which are often different from “ours.” But is this conception accurate?
Most of what System 1 does is actually done for our benefit. It helps us avoid traffic accidents and other environmental hazards, and recognize what others are feeling from the subtlest of facial expressions. On the other hand, it’s often things we don’t wish to be, like selfish, angry, and perverse.
I would argue, however, that a view of the unconscious mind as an entity distinct from that which we conceive of as “us” is flawed. It’s certainly understandable that we’d think of it that way given that studies have demonstrated our conscious minds aren’t able to control our unconscious ones. For example, we can’t simply decide to stop feeling sad or depressed or—anything. Yet other avenues of influence over our unconscious minds do exist. We may not be able, in the heat of the moment, to stop ourselves from feeling angry (different, of course, from stopping ourselves from acting on our anger), but we can over time ferret out the things that trigger our anger and defuse their ability to anger us. Thus we may, in fact, be able to forge a kind of indirect freedom, the freedom of our conscious minds to govern the basic direction of our lives by forging our unconscious selves into the people our conscious selves want them to be. That way, though we may not consciously initiate our fists to strike, our fists will lash out only when we agree they should.
It’s quite a leap to imagine this is possible to the degree I’m suggesting. But it’s tantalizing to imagine that the elephant of our unconscious mind that we’re all riding and that may be in charge—to borrow Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor from his book The Happiness Hypothesis—needn’t only be made to do “our” bidding against its will, but that we can also train it to want what we want. Perhaps then the greatest potential for freedom lies in creating as much unity between our conscious and unconscious selves as possible.
Author: Alex Lickerman, M.D.
Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a physician, former assistant professor of medicine, former director of primary care, and former assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services at the University of Chicago. He currently leads a direct primary care private practice called ImagineMD in Chicago. Check out some of Alex’s book , The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, or The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness on Amazon.