Free will:
There is a book The Myth of Free Will edited by Cris Evatt.  It is a collection of essays.  I thought I had a book The Illusion of Free Will, but I cannot put my hand to it nor find it on, so I must tell you as best as I can remember.   If memory serves, someone had done an experiment.  The subjects were asked to make some decision such as which of two buttons to press, but they were told not to make the decision until just before pressing the button.  There was some means of scanning the brain for activity while the chore was being done.  They found that some moments before the subject made the choice there was brain activity.  The timing and location of the activity was stereotyped so the conclusion was reached that there was no choice being made at all.  There was just brain activity which appeared to be free choice to the subjects.

That seems to me to be a lot of philosophical baggage to hand on a single study.  The activity, for instance, may have been a reflection of a decision to make a decision.  Of course I may have remembered it wrong.  But in light of the existence of the Cris Evatt book there appears to be a significant amount of interest in the subject.  Are we free agents or are we automatons that are deluding ourselves.  Somebody else pointed out that an organism capable of making a decision might be at a selective advantage but it was hard to see how evolution would create an organism that simply deluded itself.  I am in the camp that says, “Yes, there is such a thing as free will.  Don’t give up trying to use your good judgment just yet.”  But let us give the devil his due. 

There are of course limits to choice.  You can choose whether to lift a pencil.  You cannot choose to lift a boxcar.  The numbers we have already presented on the Main Page of this site show evidence of free will.  For about the past 40 years the ages of Germans have been in an almost linear decline, probably leveling out to a degree.  But there are notches in the curve.  These are unpredicted by the calculations that elsewhere have been so accurate.  It would appear that during those years Germans on average did to some degree limit the number of children they had, thus demonstrating a degree of choice.  Then beginning about 10 years ago the line becomes much straighter.  At this point the consensus seems to have been to have as many babies as they could.  Fertility had declined so much that they had reached the limits of their choice or rather the limit had reached them.  The Denmark paper specifically states that fertility depends on whom one marries and on nothing else.  Once the size of the town and the distance between birthplaces of the parents is taken into account, there is no effect either of wealth or education on the number of children.  The only way that makes sense is that during the period of study they were having all the babies they could manage, certain social restrictions such as expected age of marriage being constant.  Also the Iceland paper shows, at least over a range of kinship, that kinship alone determines reproductive rate.  They are having all the babies they can. 

In other words, if people are able to have as many children as they want, they may limit their fecundity.  If they cannot have as many as they want, they do what they can.  It makes perfectly good sense.

But there is a subtlety to it.  I once was chatting with a patient who had been in an automobile accident.  She had not been badly hurt and took a few moments to describe her experience.  She had lost control of her car and gone into a four wheel skid.  She said that she tried to skid the car so the front of the other car would hit the back of hers, but in fact the front of hers hit the back of the other.  She said she thought that had she been able to skid it the way she was trying to, it would have been the other driver’s fault.

I thought that since her car was out of control, it was pretty clear that it was her fault, but we went on to other matters. 

A driver has no control over a car in a four wheel skid.  Perhaps that is not strictly true.  Years ago when driving was more expensive, dangerous, unreliable and slower it was more fun.  Also alas our judgment was worse.  One thing about those old cars was that the rubber available for tires was not capable of high performance.  Tires were tall and narrow to reduce heat accumulation.  But that meant they skidded easily.  They also had understeer and lacked power steering.  You had to horse the steering wheel around vigorously in order to turn quickly.  One trick was a drift.  Don’t try this at home.  Don’t try it at all.  But some of us would do it.  (Not I.  I always had enough muscle to put the wheels where I wanted them, with the single exception of a 1938 Buick, a wonderful machine but which had all the steering faults to admiration.  It turned out all right.  I could not turn the wheel fast enough and sallied into a forest but struck no tree. I didn’t try a drift.  Don’t try it either.  Besides, my own impression is that with modern cars you just point and scoot.) 

For a drift you would enter your turn and when your strength was giving out you would pop the parking brake for in instant.  That would break the car into a four wheel skid and it would begin to spin.  When it had spun to where you wanted to, you turned into the skid and, luck being with you, recovered control and continued.  Whether you were in control during the drift is debatable if you could regain control at will. 

My patient was out of control of the car.  But she thought she was in control.  She thought that having the wheels and pedals right there she could do something about the career of the car, even not knowing about steering into the skid. 

Although I believe we have choices, I must acknowledge that we are capable of deluding ourselves.  There is any number of examples of someone doing something by chance and thinking it was deliberate. 

It seems to me that there are three ways to make a decision.  There first is simply to continue what you are doing or do what you did the last time you were in a similar situation.  That makes excellent good sense.  You made it this far so continue.  It has even been suggested that the brain is hard wired to stabilize sensory input rather than to seek reward or, as B. F. Skinner would have it, a reinforcement.  Watching other people drive tends to confirm this.  In a light traffic people will bunch up for no apparent reason except to avoid being able to see as much passing landscape.  If you try to pass such a clutch, they may well try to prevent you.  This is not personal.  They may just be stabilizing sensory input.  Doing what you did before has been rewarded by evolution. 

The second way to make a decision is to do what everyone else is doing.  Over the long haul, those taking a poor path will not prosper.  So evolution goads you into being a conformist.  Besides if there are others about they are more likely to help you than otherwise, and they are better able to do that if they know what to expect of you. 

The third way is to judge a case on its merits.  Suppose you had an ancestor who was standing alone holding a stick beneath a tree on a riverbank.  The ancestor was attacked by an animal.  The ancestor had an embarrassment of opportunities: run, climb, swim or fight.  The merits of each tactic depended on exactly what animal, what stick, what tree, what river, what undergrowth and what available skills.  In order to survive and contribute to your arrival in history, the ancestor had to make a choice.  It may be the first important choice of a lifetime.  Continuing as before was a bad idea.  There was nobody else to give a clue as to the proper choice.

The proper response was to consider the merits of the case, make a decision, make it fast and make it work.  But this ancestor was totally inexperienced in making critical decisions.  This was a problem.

Self delusion came to the rescue.  If that ancestor had always believed he or she was making choices based on judgment, then the crisis could be met with alacrity.  So perhaps there is indeed an evolutionary advantage for a creature that thinks it has more free will than it actually does.

I look at graphs that show birth rates following a strict mathematical formula.  I model the formula with the most realistic simple genetic arrangement I can contrive.  When I am told that it is all just a matter of choice, I am skeptical.  I am willing to make exception for the person I am talking to, but for the majority I just don’t believe it.  Conversely when I tell people, genetic diversity and large gene pool size are not good for people; everything you believe and everything everybody else believes is true, people just don’t believe me.  It is a pity it has to be that way. 

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