Inside Looking Out: Your mind machine
Two guys are sitting at the bar in Boulder View Tavern. Andy orders a beer.
Rod: Now did your brain tell you to order that beer or did you exercise your free will?
Andy: Huh? Well, I chose to order it.
Rod: OK, but your mind decided for you that you wanted a beer.
Andy: What are you getting at?
Rod: That you don’t have the free will to decide what you want. Your brain determines everything you do. You’re thirsty, your mind says order a beer. You’re hungry, your brain tells you to eat. Somebody cuts you off on the turnpike and your mind makes you angry. It’s called cause and effect. Something happens and then your mind reacts. It’s like a machine that operates outside your control.
Andy: I think I’m making my own decisions. I tell myself what to do.
Rod: Do you tell your brain what to do or does your brain have a mind of its own?
Andy: So, what’s the big deal? Why should I care about any of this?
Rod: Look at it another way. Psychologists have proven that murderers may not be responsible for their crimes; that they had no free will, no choice to not commit the crimes.
Andy: Oh, they heard voices in their head telling them to murder, right? That’s just stupid to believe that. They could have decided not to kill somebody. Sometimes, I think I get angry enough that I could hurt someone, but I make the decision not to. I changed my mind.
Rod: Did you change your mind or did your mind stop you from hurting someone?
Andy: I just changed my mind about having a beer. Hey, bartender, get me a double Jack and Coke, please!
Stephen Cave, a writer for the Atlantic says, “In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate - and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”
So, our brains are programmed by genetics and influenced by our environments and act accordingly. If I lived in Alaska, I would be a completely different person with a different mindset from the one who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Pennsylvania. That’s the environment making me who I am. If I was born into a family with a history of depression, the likelihood is high that my mind would be battling depression, too. The argument against genetic behavior would say I can decide not to be depressed and therefore, I would break the family cycle.
Are we always responsible for all our actions? When the prosecuting attorney in a murder case says to the accused who admitted his guilt, “You knew what you were doing,” the guilty person can reply, “I did, but I had no choice. My mind told me to commit the crime and if my mind told me not to, then I wouldn’t have done it.”
As ridiculous as that may be, sometimes juries do decide that a murderer is not guilty due to abnormalities in his brain.
Cave also says, “Cases of ordinary adults becoming murderers or pedophiles after developing a brain tumor demonstrate how dependent we are on the physical properties of our gray stuff.”
That I believe I have free will or my mind has a mind of its own leaves me scratching my head. Let’s go back to the two guys in the bar.
Andy: There it is, my friend. I used my free will to cancel the beer and order a Jack and Coke.
Rod: But you can’t be sure if you decided or your brain ordered you what to do.
Andy: Right now, my mind is telling me to have a few more drinks because you’re giving me a headache.
Rod: Go ahead, but you’d better hope that my mind tells me that I have to drive you home.
I think that we human beings must believe that we have free will; otherwise, we could never accept responsibility for our actions. Yet, I still have to wonder if my brain is some kind of unlimited power that pushes my buttons every day. I know this to be true, too. When I try to fall asleep some nights, my brain won’t stop working and I can’t stop it and it keeps me up most of the night.
Cave also mentioned that when we dream at night, we don’t consciously order up one. It just seems to happen as if our brains are creating visual scenes for us to watch inside our heads without our consent.
An hour later back at the bar, a duo called Strawberry Jam was about to play songs pretty much everyone knows from 60 years ago.
“If you remember the ’60s,” the lead vocalist said, “Then you weren’t really there.”
Andy: There you go! The hippies used their free will to smoke pot and have no memory of what they did back then. They willingly altered their minds.
Rod: Good point. So, I’m going to willingly alter my mind and use my free will to give you the check to pay for our drinks. Thanks, my friend!
Rich Strack can be reached at email@example.com.