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Is Life A Passive Movie?

October 1, 2012

What would you consider to be the most profound thing you’ve ever learned?  Something that has totally reshaped the way you view everything, including your place in the cosmos?  As for myself, neuroscience leaves me totally baffled.  I’ve been struggling with the idea of free will for years now.  I have such a hard time accepting that maybe I’m simply “watching” this life play out, with no control over what’s happening.

It’s not a conclusion people want to accept, nor is it something anyone should accept without really looking into it.  The consequences of not having free will are of such importance, what else is there?  Just think about it for a moment.  Your words are not your words, they’re the universe talking to itself.  Your thoughts are not your thoughts, it’s just a sort of “happening”.  Your actions are not your actions, they’re just firings of a complex biological machine.  It’s no wonder that people refuse to accept these ideas.

I’ve been watching the Gifford lecture series Dr. Gazzaniga delivered at the University of Edinburgh a few years ago.   If you haven’t heard of him, he’s considered the father of cognitive neuroscience and is one of the most respected academics in brain science.  If you major in neuroscience in any university around the country, you’ll be studying out of his textbooks.  There are seven one hour lectures available online, and this is his Gifford lecture on whether or not we have free will.

It’s a wonderful lecture series.  You can easily find the other lectures on Youtube.  Just search “Gazzaniga Gifford”, and you’ll find them all.  His series begins by asking, “What are we?”  He then gives a quick overview of the different areas of the human brain and what they do.  He talks about how our brains come to understand the world, how we make decisions, and how it generates an illusion of “self”.  Many things will leave you speechless as you try to take it all in.

For example, take his own research into split brain patients.  People suffering from epilepsy undergo a surgery which severs their corpus callosum, leaving the left and right hemispheres of the patient’s brain isolated from one another.  This is done in hopes that the chaotic fits of brain activity will be confined to one hemisphere and the patient will be able to remain conscious and in control of his or her body during an attack.  But when we cut those connections, weird things start to happen.  Eventually he ends up asking us, “Are there two people living in that one skull?”  The evidence seems to suggest that’s the case.  When you study how our brain works, you have to rethink everything.  Your intuitive sense of what you are and what this life is just isn’t right.

In the video above, pay close attention to Joe when he’s asked to identify the word he saw, which is “bell”.  The speaking side of his brain is isolated from the other half of his brain which saw the word, and because it doesn’t understand why that half of his brain identified that picture on the screen, it rationalized the decision.  Gazzaniga calls this the “Interpreter”.  Our brains are making up reasons for why we do the things we do all the time, and this little game is exposed when you do split brain experiments.  Learning about it really makes you rethink your life.  Our actions aren’t our actions.  Things simply happen in this world, including our own decisions, but we have a special brain “chip” which examines everything it sees and makes up plausible reasons for it.  That’s the story of you trying to figure out your life and why you did what you did.  Your brain made a decision to do something, and then the “cause and effect” chip saw what happened and justified the action, yet you falsely mistake the process for “you” making a decision.  That’s just one our brain’s many magic tricks.

There’s no central “I” anywhere.  The brain is this set of interconnected systems working in parallel, all competing with each other, in many ways isolated from one another.  When I wake up in the morning, I find myself asking, “What is this?  What’s going on?  Why am I here?  Why am I experiencing this life?”  “I’m” plagued by this idea of “I”.  Apparently this life is more like a vivid movie and I’m being tricked into thinking this experience “I’m” living is really “me”.  But if I’m not making my decisions, if my words aren’t my own, and if I had no role in even the thoughts running through my head, how am I supposed to claim any of this is “me”?  It can’t be.  It’s a happening.

But don’t let this lead you to a bleak outlook on life.  It actually gives me a profound peace.  When I realized that my “self” was an illusion, I haven’t worried about death since.  Life isn’t something that you “live”.  Just watch the movie.

It’s all so confusing.  I tell myself that maybe I haven’t quite grasped the whole picture of life.  Maybe if I understood dark energy and dark matter, they’d lend some more clues into what’s going on.  Or maybe there’s even more to think about, such as  parallel universes.  Maybe quantum physics can leave some room for freedom of some sort, like a sort of branching tree of possible paths to choose.  But still, no matter how hard I try, I can’t find a way to make any of that coherent.  Everything seems to suggest there isn’t any freedom.  All of those explanations are what I want to be true, not what the evidence points to.  A real explorer follows the evidence, wherever it may lead.  That’s what it means to be honest and humble.

I was born, I “watched” this movie of life, and then will soon “die”.  It’s a short movie.  A strange movie.  And you know what, I don’t expect you to believe me.  It’s sort of like when my grandfather took off his wrist watch one Sunday afternoon and told me, “Now if I was to place a bunch of rocks in a cup and shake them up, no matter how much I did so, this watch would never emerge.  Somebody had to create it.  The same goes for this world.”  I thought, “You know, I can see why you think that.  The arguments for evolution are difficult and take a lot of time to learn about.  The evidence behind it all is never directly experienced in your day to day life and a lot of it can be subtle.  You have to actively seek it out, reading books, researching the material, and carefully examine the evidence with an open mind.  If you haven’t been exposed to those facts, such as the fossil record, the workings of our DNA, or bad design remnants from our biological lineage, then your argument certainly would sound plausible.  But if you know the facts, you realize that the truth is different from what you’d first suspect.”

The same idea applies to free will.  I don’t expect a short post like this to convince anybody that we lack free will.  It doesn’t work that way.  There’s no quick argument which would or should convince you.  But if you take the brain apart, look at what each section does and how it ties together, and learn how it all works, you’ll come to the same conclusion as Dr. Gazzaniga — like many things, free will is an illusion.

And if free will is an illusion, then I’m not a male, I’m not a human, I’m not anything.  I’m the subjective consciousness watching this occurrence from the front row seat of my body.  There’s just this evolving existence and for whatever reason I’m conscious of it at this time.  That’s all I feel confident in saying.

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