Free will as a sense
In this post I explore the possibility of free will being a sense, just like sight, smell, and touch.
Senses evolved to help organisms gather information about the physical world to better survive. There’s nothing fundamental about them, and many organisms have very different senses that determine their umwelt. Living beings use senses to measure their surroundings which make them more apt to reproduce.
I propose that free will is another sense conforming our unified stream of consciousness. That is, that we “feel” that we exercise free will when we’re making a conscious decision. I don’t think this can be a new idea, but I couldn’t find any article talking about it, so I decided to save my thoughts in writing.
The classic problem of free will comes from the difficulty of proving or disproving its existence. The are two apparently inconsistent views that each present pretty strong evidence for and against it. We experience free will every day, when we chose what clothes to wear. Yet, very simple rational analysis renders free will pretty much impossible to occur. Everything we know about the physical world shows that all events occur due to causally sufficient conditions. And we are part of the physical world, so it would seem that our actions are consequences of a (possibly very complex) sequence of causes. But free will is very hard to get rid of. You can’t simply stop deciding things. Life will force you to decide, and you can’t just passively wait for a decision to occur. You’ll be required to produce a conscious exercise of free will.
I want to focus on the difference between conscious and unconscious decisions next. We make millions of unconscious decisions every day (for example exactly how to take each breath, how to move our legs to walk around) but I wouldn’t call them an exercise of free will. Conscious decisions are, in turn, more “computationally intensive” (pardon the software engineering jargon, but I think it’s clear what I mean by that). Unconscious decisions (such as how much force to apply to the floor to jump over a puddle) are made almost instantly, and conscious decisions can take from seconds to hours or months. When we master some activity, we gradually move decisions from the conscious to the unconscious field. Consciousness seems to be reserved for the higher levels of thought.
My proposed solution is that free will is a sort of inner sense that lets us know we’re “processing” a decision. It’s hard to define what causes a decision to be conscious vs unconscious, but I’ll attempt to guess that it’s when several sectors of our brain give similarly strong signals for different actions. So, for example, if a waiter asks if we want sugar in our milk and our automatic answer would be “yes”, but we’ve read an article this morning about the dangers of added sugars, we hesitate for a moment and make a conscious decision process. This means, I think, that some group of neurons (representing our tradition of getting sugar in our coffee) added to the “yes” answer, and another group of neurons (representing our care for our own health and the memory of the anti-sugar article) added to the “no” answer in a measurably similar amount. This makes the decision impossible to solve fast, and we “take more time to decide”. This in fact means that the brain processes gather more information to “solve the tie”, thus requiring a conscious exercise of free will.
So, free will is something that informs consciousness why we’re taking some extra time to decide, because that has external consequences and thus affects our ability to survive. We might want to communicate our reasons. We might want to reflect on them, to learn. In conclusion, I propose that free will is just another sense that evolved in organisms allowing them to be conscious about their own decision processes when the time needed is long enough to have external consequences.
This leaves a big unanswered question about why we have consciousness at all, but I’m far from attempting to tackle that problem at the moment. My idea is that if for some reason consciousness is needed for vision, hearing, etc… the same should apply to free will as a sense.
To sum up, I think our actions are actually consequences of causally sufficient conditions. Free will is just us being spectators of the way our brain is processing decisions, as we are spectators to the outside world via sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. The biggest question remains… why do we form a subjective experience of all those things?
Would love to know what you think.