Is Free Will an Illusion?

Is Free Will An Illusion?
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We decided what we had for breakfast this morning, right? We decided who we live with, and what country we live in, right? We decide everything, right? WRONG! We do make choices, but we are affected by our subconsciousness and the conscious brain sort of compensates and convinces us that we have made a free choice.

In this programme, Adam Bear from Yale University tells us about research he is working on, which is being conducted into this area. Previous research has shown that the decision-making process is heavily influenced by subconscious influences from the past. “There is evidence to support the supposition,” Adam explains, “that choice is actually a reflection of an unconscious choice made by the unconscious mind. I am interested in how those choice processes actually function.”

To the question: “Do we have a free will?” Adam replied: “There are many different concepts of free will, in so far as the idea that free is to do with doing the things that you desire to do, I don’t think this research calls any of that into question, but in so far as we believe that free will involves believing in our conscious selves, as the drivers of actions, this research may call this into question by suggesting that a lot more of our everyday decisions are under our subconscious control, than we believe. Consciousness is sort of window dressing for that subconscious process. We are fooled into thinking that we make our choices well in advance, but really the choice has been made already.”

“Does the brain compensate when a decision is made?,” John Harrison asks. “We do not know exactly what is going on yet, the idea is that the conscious mind re-writes history, very quickly. So you might feel that: ‘oh, I have made that choice all along,’ but in fact there was a process going on, on a subconscious level, which actually is the true primer of your decisions.”

Is the way our memory tends to cover things up, and even forget things coded into our DNA a sort of animal self-preservation circuit? Adam answered: “There has been a lot of research into what is called motivated forgetting, that, yes, people do forget things that it wouldn't be good for them to remember….There is evidence that it might be good for us to self-deceive ourselves, for our own survival, because it aids the way in which we appear to other people and so on.”

Does a society have the power to influence our subconsciousness, and therefore affect the way which we make decisions?

“Yes absolutely, you may have heard of the Stanford prison experiment where ordinary people were made guards or prisoners, and very quickly the prison guards started to abuse their power….So there is a lot of evidence which suggests that the situation in which we are in does drastically affect our choices and our behaviour much more than we might think….this would favour the discussion about how many of our choices are driven by the situation we are in rather than our own. However in this experiment there were people who were able to overcome the group behavioural norms, so it is not ‘all or nothing.’”

There are other questions and answers in the programme which may be of interest to you.

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