We live a life where we are confronted with having to make decisions on a moment-to-moment basis. In a democratic society, most of our decisions are ungoverned. We are free to choose the people we get into relationships with, the clothes we wear and we’re even free to elect the political parties we prefer into power. So does this mean we are free? Yes perhaps, depending in which way you look at it. However, are we truly free in making our very own, voluntary, planned and well thought-through decisions? Well… not entirely.
Consider this quote from Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza: “Men are deceived in that they think themselves free, an opinion which consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.”
Neuroscientific studies suggest De Spinoza was onto something when he said this. For instance, they are able to identify decision-making activity in the brain, using electroencephalography (EEG), before a research subject is even aware of it. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscientists are also able to predict research subjects’ decisions, up to 8 seconds before they become aware of these decisions, by analysing the activity of various areas of the brain (for example, the prefrontal cortex that is in charge of abstract thinking and analysis, but also closely linked to a person’s personality).
Decisions are thus products of our neuroanatomy and neural networks - perhaps influenced by genetics and our environment. And isn’t that something to think about?
I’ll end off with another question: Does this mean that our lives are dictated by our subconscious minds, thus making free will just an illusion? I would love to hear your opinion.