I’ve long thought that free will is an illusion and belief is involuntary (making it irrational, if not impossible, for skeptics or believers to feel smug about their state of mind).
I know it’s unpopular, but I actually do think we are nothing but automatons. When I read The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick in the 1990s, I was not astonished. I’d already come to the conclusion that I was really just a hunk of meat. Even consciousness is an illusion. It’s true that we experience something, but there is no noncorporeal soul quickening our bodies, it’s just electrical currents and chemical messengers coursing through our meatiness.
So, can a hunk of meat have free will? I think free will is just like consciousness. We feel like it exists–we feel like we are in control of what we think, believe, and decide–but in actuality it is nothing more than an illusion, and a useful illusion at that.
You may think you decided to read this story — but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it.
In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people’s decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them.
The decision studied — whether to hit a button with one’s left or right hand — may not be representative of complicated choices that are more integrally tied to our sense of self-direction. Regardless, the findings raise profound questions about the nature of self and autonomy: How free is our will? Is conscious choice just an illusion?
But since I have no control over what I think, believe, or decide, so what? Does it make a difference if I am a fundamentalist Christian or a militant atheist? If I am not the master of my mental domain, can I be proud of escaping my superstitious past and becoming a skeptic?
This view of life, for me, leads to humility. A trait I often lack. It also leads to mystery and magic. What could be more magical than an animated hunk of meat feeling love and doubt, joy and fear, anger and lust? The lack of free will levels the playing field and makes all humans equal. Somehow knowing that I am just a hunk of meat–not a spirit, soul, and body–leads me to a few of the things I was searching for, but never found, in Christianity. Wonders never cease.