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I Think Therefore I Am . . . Aren’t I?

Brain as machine

If there’s one thing that science has taught us, it’s that the universe is really, really weird (and maybe a little scary). That’s not to say I don’t like the universe. On the contrary, it’s one of my favorite places; the problem is that the more science reveals about its inner workings, the more it becomes apparent that it bears little resemblance to the world we think we know.

No aspect of the universe gives me the willies more than the problems of thought and free will. Most of us live our lives under the assumption that we determine, for the most part, our own actions. That is to say, we (and possibly other living creatures) have the ability to make decisions and influence our surroundings of our own accord and are not simply swinging through predetestined arcs like balls in a Newton’s Cradle. This is not something that can be taken for granted, though. Classical western arguments about the existence and nature of free will revolved around concepts of human spirituality and the dual or triune nature of mind, body, and, sometimes, soul. How, for example, could a creature created by an omnipotent, omniscient creator truly be said to have a free will? If the creator knows all that is, was, or will ever be, aren’t all its creations simply playing out the part that has been written for us.

Even though many of us have rejected the notions of gods and spirituality, the picture painted by science is really no more promising. It tells us that at its most basic level, the universe is made up of tiny subatomic particles and the forces that make them attract and repel, spin and collide. No one imagines that these bits of matter and energy have a will of their own, but rather that they whirl about in a complicated dance determined by presumably fixed laws. Particle A orbits particle B under the influence of force C because preceding events have left things in this arrangement. They didn’t end up the way they are because they wanted to be that way, they simply have to; the Earth doesn’t orbit the Sun because it really likes a good tan, it just does. All the various parts of our bodies, including our brains, are made up of these same bits of matter/energy, and so far as we can tell, must obey all the same laws. What do we possess, then, that enables us to make decisions that is lacking in a rock or a cloud?

It would be easy to say that the mind is what separates us feom the proverbial chunk of feldspar, but that would be begging the question. The mind, in all actuality, is the very effect that we’re debating; it is not what enables us to make decisions, it’s not an object or force in and of itself, it’s just the concept we use to describe our apparent capacity for decision-making. We don’t decide to make our neurons fire any more than we will the molecules they’re made of to react with each other, so how exactly are we different from the aforementioned rock? Even newer ways to describe the universe, such as string theory, are no more comforting; they just add another layer of mindless and nearly incomprehensible particles and forces.

So is science, at its least human and most literal, right? Are we really just fooling ourselves with concepts like thought, intent, and free will?

We’re unlikely to ever have a definitive answer to this question, and even if we did, would we really rather live lives built around acceptance of the inevitable futility of our actions? In the end, whether or not we are truly in control of our actions is probably irrelevant. Our perception of choice and free will is an inescapable fact of human existence, and, delusional or not, one for which I am immensely grateful.

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