In the 1960s, German scientists conducted experiments on the human brain’s reaction time. The studies showed that our brain makes decisions before we’re actually aware of them. On average the brain’s “readiness potential” starts about 0.35 seconds prior to us being consciously aware of our situation. These experiments were confirmed by US scientists in the 1980s.
This proves that when it comes to movement at least, we have no free will. Only after we have subconsciously made our move do we have the opportunity to consciously veto the command and stop doing what we started doing. But even then, is it really our conscious pulling the strings, or is this just another pre-determined reaction where we mistake the conscious for the driver when it is in fact the passenger?
At first, I struggled to comprehend the idea of no free will. Life makes a lot more sense when I’m the one calling the shots. Then I started to think about things differently. Accepting that my path was preset lead me to think about a world bigger than me. After all, it isn’t me who tells my heart to beat, or my lungs to breathe, or my gut to save one type of bacteria over another. None of this is me. This is my meat body, made up of cells, chemicals and electrical impulses, that have evolved over billions of years. After all, every process our body undergoes is a tried and tested routine. Every cell is a brain. Every impulse is a memory. Every chemical is a life supply.
Our meat body is miraculous. When it detects that something isn’t working, it finds the culprit and neutralises the threat. When it discovers that too few new proteins show up, it manufacturers the product in-house. When it detects that a cell has improved its function, it replicates the design and rolls out the new model. This isn’t us. This is our meat body knowing exactly what to do, despite the fact that we know nothing.
As Giulia Enders described, “While some of us might be sitting around thinking “Nobody cares about me!”, our heart is currently working its seventeen-thousandth twenty-four-hour shift—and would have every right to feel a little forgotten when its owner thinks such thoughts.”
This is why it is better to see a human being as a collective body. We are after all made up of billions of cells sending and receiving trillions of signals. Without them our meat body would wither away.
This doesn’t change the fact that it is difficult to get our heads around free will being nothing more than a beautiful illusion. It’s hard to admit that all this time we have been in the passenger’s seat. It’s hard to find a reason to get out of bed when our ability to influence others and the world feels diminished.
But what we do have power over is what we choose to focus on. The teenage girl gets stuck when she focuses on what others think of her. The old man gets stuck when he focuses on the past. The hypochondriac gets stuck when she focuses on ailments of the body.
What if we instead focused on what we said and how we said it? What if we focused on exploring what it means to think? What if we stopped focusing on how uncomfortable the car ride is and we instead wound down the window, looked on at the passing world, and asked more meaningful questions? Choosing what to focus on is the closest thing we have to free will. Hence the expression, “I think, therefore I am”, because we are what we think.
So, perhaps a better question than who am I is what am I thinking.
Yuval Harari, Sapiens
The next stage of history will include, not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be changes so fundamental that they will call the very word ‘human’ into question. How long do we have? No one really knows. Some say by 2050 a few humans will already be ammortal. Less radical forecasts mention the next century, or the next millennium. Yet from the perspective of 70,000 years of sapiens history, what are a few millennia if the curtain is about to drop on Sapien’s history? We members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question. What do we want to become?