Your life follows a certain direction

Your decision to start the day with a cup of coffee can make philosophers and physicists laugh. Did you actually make this decision – or has it been there since…

Your decision to start the day with a cup of coffee can make philosophers and physicists laugh. Did you actually make this decision – or has it been there since the beginning of the universe? Now scientists are closing in on the answer—and the answer threatens our own free will.

Now try to respect yourself from the outside for a moment. You may be sitting in a comfortable chair and reading, but how do you sit? And what brought you to read this particular article?

Think about what decisions led you to where you are now. Did you really make any decisions on the way here or did it just happen automatically?

And if you made a decision, what did you base it on?

Perhaps the most important question is whether your actions are based on decisions of free will or whether they are guided only by unconscious processes in the brain.

Having free will means that you actually had the opportunity to make other choices than you did. Most people claim that they have that ability. But science has a different story to tell.

Free will in the traditional sense is closer to death than to life

Brain experts have revealed that decisions are the result of electrical activity in the brain – activity that obeys the laws of physics without the possibility of deviation.

Thus, free will in the traditional sense is closer to death than to life, and scientists are now debating whether it is worth reviving the term and giving it a new meaning.

Whatever the reason, numerous studies suggest that the feeling of free will is actually an illusion.

Scientists are now gaining an understanding of how the brain creates this illusion – and they can already have some control over people’s sense of control over their bodies.

An old theory is revived

In 1985, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment that has been at the center of the free will debate ever since.

Libet gathered a group of students whom he asked to move their hand whenever they wanted and simultaneously measured their brain waves using EEG technology.

Half a second before the hand moved, the measurements revealed characteristic brain waves called “readiness potential” that marked the first preparation of the movement.

However, it was not until 350 milliseconds later that the participant felt he had made a decision to move his hand.

The result was that the unconscious part of the brain had made a decision and then believed the conscious part that it had made an independent decision.

Other researchers have subsequently confirmed Libet’s findings, but their interpretation is still under discussion.

Many scientists object that Libet’s possibility preparation is a direct decision of the brain, but rather consider this to be a random mental connection that plays a part in the final decision.

In 2020, psychologist and neuroscientist Aaron Schurger conducted a significantly modified version of Libet’s experiment precisely to test this new explanation for Libet’s results.

He trained an algorithm to distinguish between different types of brain waves and demonstrated that readiness potentials are quite clearly distinguished from random mental associations. The result of the experiment supports, as it were, Libet’s old theory.

Whether our decisions are made at the same time as we become aware of them or even earlier, however, is not decisive as to whether we have free will.

The question of free will cuts much deeper than that – right down to the fundamental laws of the universe.

Your choice is predetermined

Isaac Newton revolutionized our view of the world in 1687. He presented three laws of motion of objects and these laws are universal in the entire universe.

As a result, theoretically we should be able to predict the entire future of the universe in great detail.

A classic explanation of Newton’s laws is to use billiard balls on a table as an example. If we know the spheres’ speed, mass and position at the beginning, we can predict their motion throughout eternity.

The future of the balls is predetermined from the very beginning.

The future movements of billiard balls are predetermined by the laws of physics. The functioning of your brain is governed by the same laws.

Although Einstein’s law later replaced Newton’s law, it does not shake this foundation. And since our thoughts are actually the result of the collision of tiny billiard balls – in the form of atoms – all our decisions must have been fixed since the beginning of the universe.


If this is true, free will is theoretically not possible.


But does this work? Some scientists have tried to save the term “free” with the so-called entanglement theory, which says that a whole can become more than the sum of its individual parts.


The idea is that free will can persist despite the fact that individual atoms in the brain obey the laws of physics, just as complex weather phenomena occur far from simpler phenomena, such as two air molecules colliding.


However, the entanglement theory does not accept that weather phenomena or thoughts are predetermined. She just says that these phenomena are not predictable.


Quantum mechanics could also come to the rescue. According to this theory, some events are completely dependent on chance. Even if we knew absolutely everything about the entire universe, we could not accurately predict such events.


Some scientists believe that such random quantum phenomena can affect electrical signals in the brain, and thus our thoughts are not predetermined.


But is this enough to save the free will? Not really – and maybe on the contrary. If our choices are based on pure chance, then we have absolutely no control over what we do in the future.


Scientists save free will

The laws of physics do not allow the existence of free will in the traditional sense, but many scientists are of the opinion that we simply need to redefine free will.


They believe that this term should not imply that we actually have the power to change the course of the universe. Instead, the term “free will” should only mean that people can make their own decisions.


You couldn’t really decide whether to read this article or not, but that decision was nevertheless based on your personal experience and feelings. Most likely, you decided to read the article because reading articles about science has given you pleasure in the past.


Someone else has surely decided to skip this reading – but on their own terms.

Decisions depend on who you are

It doesn’t matter that our decisions are decided in advance or that we don’t realize them until some time after the brain has made them. The decisions are still shaped by who we are.


This definition of free will fits nicely with the laws of physics. However, that is not how most of us understand the term. We actually feel that we have the power to change our future. And now scientists are getting closer to understanding how the brain creates this feeling for us.


An electric shock restores sensation

Two fundamental aspects of free will are the will to perform a certain action and the feeling of “owning” that action and being responsible for it.


In 2018, the American brain expert Michael Fox undertook to study how the brain creates these assumptions and thus gives us the opportunity to experience free will.


Fox studied a total of 78 patients who either lacked the ability to “want” to do something or the ability to feel responsible for their own actions.


28 of these patients were unable to speak or move – not because of paralysis, but simply because they completely lacked the will to do so.


These patients suffered damage to the brain center “Cortex cingularis”, which is found in a deep fold in the frontal lobes.


The other 50 patients suffered from a condition known as “anarchist hand,” which involves one hand appearing to have an independent will over which the patient has no control.


In these patients, the brain injury was associated with neuropathic pain in the area “praecuneus”, which is at the back of the vertebral lobe.

Electrical stimulation can change people’s sense of free will.

The results showed that the brain center in the frontal lobes creates the desire to perform, but it is not until the brain has started the execution that the brain center in the gyrus lobe creates a sense of ownership towards what is performed and at the same time the feeling that we could have reacted differently if we had wanted to.

Fox’s findings are additionally supported by another set of experiments.

Electrical stimulation of the brain centers that Fox points to has been found to affect the sense of free will.

In some cases, the stimulation caused people to raise both arms without feeling any responsibility for that action.

In other cases, researchers were able to make subjects want to do something, or even feel like they had performed the action—even though they hadn’t moved at all.

The neural network of the brain is, as it were, perfectly capable of tricking us. And does so consistently. The brain makes you feel responsible for actions taken as a result of unconscious impulses in the brain – impulses that are, in reality, completely governed by the inexorable laws of physics.

Self-test: The brain is predictable

American computer scientist Scott Aaronson has developed a simple program that predicts what you will do next. You just have to press F and D on the keyboard to your heart’s content.

You always decide which letter you choose, so no one else should know which one you choose next. Still, the program correctly predicts your decision 70% of the time—much more often than the 50% average that would be expected if your next action were always unpredictable.

The reason is that unconsciously you follow a certain pattern and the program learns to recognize this pattern in a matter of seconds.

This program works best on a computer – not a smartphone – and you can find it here.

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