The Physiological Constraints of Free Will

When I took “Intro to Philosophy” as an elective back in university, I recall the professor introducing us to the eminent 19th-century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his proposition, “essence versus existence.” Sartre proposed that artificial things in the world have an explicit function, referred to as ‘essence.’ For instance, a stapler’s essence is to staple, a knife’s essence is to cut, and congress’s essence is to pass meaningless laws. These things were manufactured with a specific purpose in mind; ergo, essence precedes existence.

In contrast, humans’ existence precedes their essence by virtue of evolution or creationism, and therefore, humans must determine their own destiny. He approaches this conclusion from the perspective of positive liberation.

  • Incidentally, this idea of humans being 100% both in control and responsible for their actions presages future ideologies such as those put forth by Ayn Rand.

The objective of this paper is to argue that since we have neither control over our fundamental nature (see genetics) or nurture (born into a predetermined environment), was Sartre’s line of thinking unfounded?

Even working under the assumption of Jean-Paul Satre’s theory, one is still ultimately captive to one’s genetics. Furthermore, since the resulting neurological framework that gives rise to consciousness is where all possible decisions originate, then the entirety of those decisions are unconditionally dependent on this underlying system.

In order to avoid becoming mired in abstractions, permit us to put this in more concrete terms. 

Let’s assume a toymaker built a remote-control car capable of turning left and right, and moving in forward and reverse, and then handed the controller to their child. From cursory observation, the child would appear to manipulate the car in these orthogonal directions seemingly according to their will. However, these actions (and any subsequent order and permutations) are still an inextricable subset of a larger yet nevertheless ultimately predetermined domain of potential actions.

The child cannot cause the car to move upward, and to go a step further, this is not an action a normal child would even think to do while playing with a remote control car. The morphology of one’s mind not only constrains but predisposes one’s decisions.

Even as an adult, you *wish* you had one of these cars.

Consequently, not only are we incapable of making decisions that exist outside the domain of potential actions determined by our neurological framework, but the average person might not even be able to conceive of these theoretical actions which lie outside their domain, much less act on them.

Half the meme pictures I found had the word misspelled. Where’s Inigo Montoya when you need him?

Let’s apply these considerations to another facet of human nature, personality. If you have some hobbies or interests, have you ever stopped to ask meta-cognitive questions such as “why are you interested in these things?” or “where does this interest come from?”. In the vast majority of cases, there was never a proactive decision behind one’s natural proclivities. On the contrary, one’s interests, hobbies, and traits are largely inherent, and it is more a matter of progressive discovery than self-invention.

Some will attempt to rationally explain why they like or dislike certain things – but this smacks of self-justification, an almost deliberate form of reverse engineering to legitimize something that is, at its core, driven by an inscrutable neurological black box.

This could include physical tastes as well as hobbies. Why should the reason that you dislike baseball be any different than the reason you dislike broccoli? Yes, one might be classified as belonging to a “higher-order,” but all trees ultimately grow in the ground. (obligatory pun about dendrites)

His whole life was leading up to this moment.

Fortunately, we as humans are set up to have a positive neurochemical response to the things we like, so perhaps rationally we shouldn’t be distressed by the self-awareness that the totality of our personalities is effectively pre-ordained and that our passions and corresponding pleasures are nothing more than a skinner box running through a perpetual feedback loop. Given how many humans struggle to find purpose in life, it’s a shame we can’t design a stimulus-response box with electrodes attached to a person’s head, which runs through millions of grouped neural activations (categorized by potential occupational interest) and monitor the corresponding dopamine response.

Have you ever heard the expression, “It’s not what’s on the outside that counts”? Whether you’re speaking about the inside with respect to one’s character or to one’s mental acuity, the inside is just as predetermined as the outside – you don’t get to make a judgment call on someone’s character based on the locality of their physiology. Everything is physical.

It’s what’s inside that counts…

This is also why the expression “you can do anything you set your mind to” is a naive saccharine pile of oliphaunt excrement. Frankly, this overwrought phrase sounds like something an early 20th-century Gilded Age industrialist would have coined as a means of motivating the guileless common man to work harder in a world extolling capitalism as its loftiest ideal.

John Locke was only partially correct – while we might all be born tabula rasa, some of us are college ruled while others are community college ruled.

Given our natural propensity to constantly compare and contrast our success with our peers around us, how does nature help us work around these limitations? One might find a possible answer in the form of cognitive bias, specifically, the Dunning–Kruger effect, whereby the less capable we are in some given area, the more we are inclined to overestimate ourselves. Despite the obvious disadvantages to the Dunning-Kruger effect (over-confidence and a false sense of superiority), one might postulate its necessity to encourage humans to adapt to and explore an otherwise hostile environment. It also likely helps prevent the populace from developing a debilitating inferiority complex. After all, does anyone actually want to be Salieri?

One could also liken it to the holodeck in the sci-fi TV series, Star Trek The Next Generation. In the show, the holodeck is a large cubic-shaped recreation room that is capable of projecting a virtual world around the user. 

Shutup Wesley!

By subtly guiding the user to walk in a slightly circular pattern, it gives the illusion that they can walk in any direction for a seemingly infinite distance without running into the walls of the holodeck, despite the minimal physical dimensions of the room. Just because you can’t perceive the walls doesn’t make them any less real.

On the other hand, perhaps you possess some degree of aptitude and are proud of your ostensibly “natural abilities.” However, whether those abilities are a blessing from the figurative heavens or the product of a specific genotypical sequence – the result is identical. You did nothing to earn them – they were effectively granted pro bono with few if any strings attached. 

But, you vociferously protest, “Very well, perhaps these natural talents were a gift, but it was only through blood, sweat, and tears that I was able to polish them to the point that they gleamed.” While that may be the case – you still possessed the seeds of those natural gifts to begin with. Conversely, it doesn’t really matter how many recipes you have in your cookbook if the fridge is empty.

Ahhh… a full day’s supply of vitamin C…

Moreover, we could argue that the very traits that led you to hone your skill in the first place (diligence, perseverance) are merely a byproduct of your genetics. Fundamentally, they are not the product of “hard work”… as if such a “universal characteristic” could be found outside the confines of natural reality; some intangible quality that existed equally in every human being outside of our neurological framework, an indefatigable font of perseverance that everyone could tap in equal measure.

Perhaps, the Declaration of Independence should be amended, “All men are created equal under the law,” for we are most assuredly not created equal under nature. It is somewhat ironic that the eponymous movie Gattaca had it completely backward. In point of fact, controlled eugenics might be the closest we could ever get to a level playing field. After all, nature never had any intention of playing fair.

How the protagonist of the movie claimed he was able to outswim his brother.