I would guess most people in the U.S. believe in free will. It’s nice to think that we actually have control over our thoughts, decisions, actions, and ultimately, our lives. But do we?
This piece in the Atlantic seems to argue that our actions are heavily influenced by our chemistry, which we have little or no control over. While I don’t totally buy this argument, the author does cite some interesting cases where a body’s chemistry has gone haywire, resulting in unpleasant behavior. For instance, it’s well documented that damaging the frontal lobes causes a loss of inhibition, resulting in some strange and uncontrollable behaviors. Major increases in dopamine can lead to debilitating addictions to anything from gambling to pornography. Things like the ominously titled Alien Hand Syndrome. Or much worse. Take the case of 40-year-old man we’ll call Alex:
[Alex’s] sexual preferences suddenly began to transform. He developed an interest in child pornography—and not just a little interest, but an overwhelming one. He poured his time into child-pornography Web sites and magazines. He also solicited prostitution at a massage parlor, something he said he had never previously done. He reported later that he’d wanted to stop, but “the pleasure principle overrode” his restraint. He worked to hide his acts, but subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter alarmed his wife, who soon discovered his collection of child pornography. He was removed from his house, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced to rehabilitation in lieu of prison. In the rehabilitation program, he made inappropriate sexual advances toward the staff and other clients, and was expelled and routed toward prison.
At the same time, Alex was complaining of worsening headaches. The night before he was to report for prison sentencing, he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and took himself to the emergency room. He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal.
The year after the brain surgery, his pedophilic behavior began to return. The neuroradiologist discovered that a portion of the tumor had been missed in the surgery and was regrowing—and Alex went back under the knife. After the removal of the remaining tumor, his behavior again returned to normal.
Read the rest of the article here
Yikes. While it’s definitely clear that some chemical or neurological mishap can rob a person of their free will, does that mean that free will doesn’t exist to begin with? That it’s all some sort of biological trick?
Nah. Free will exists. It may be harder for some people to put down that doughnut, or that cigarette, but for almost everyone, it can be done. It might take serious work. It might take implementing a system to make it happen, but it can be done. While this article is certainly interesting, don’t let chemistry or neurology become a built in excuse for inaction. Free will exists. Exercise it.