I’ve recently read a few books (like this one: The Tell-Tale Brain) on how our brain works and it seems our brains function at multiple levels. While our eyes optically see a full image, that image has too much information to process, so one part of brain reduces the image into a subset of more useful information (e.g., just the edges of what is seen), which is then passed up to the next stage which likewise reduces the information further into only the information that is the most important. Some of this information will be handled subconsciously, other parts will be sent on up to our conscious level. Interestingly, this is not a one-way process. At each level, the higher level part of the brain may send commands back down telling the lower level to adjust its processing because something has been noticed that needs further clarity. Again, much of this feedback happens at subconscious levels.
For example, I went on a hike the other day where I saw three rattlesnakes in a row. Suddenly, every rock and bit of dirt that even vaguely resembled a rattlesnake became noticeable. Why? Because part of my brain reacted to the real snakes and made an appeal to the lower processing parts to start sending up anything that might be a snake! Some part of me didn’t want to leave it my standard image processing to catch a potential snake out there. It raised the threat level and changed how my brain was functioning.
The thing is, this wasn’t even conscious. I didn’t consciously choose to be more watchful. My emotional side of me interacted with other parts of my brain to just make it happen.
In other words, your brain is continually making all kinds of choices on your behalf without you even being aware of it. But, your conscious level can at any point override those choices. In fact, it is our conscious brain that in large measure “programs” the lower parts to behave the way they do.
Now it seems that some neuroscientists believe that there is no free will. Why? Because in some experiments your subconscious brain makes choices for you before your conscious part is even aware that a choice needs to be made. They flash questions to a person, and the person reacts by pressing a button to give an answer before the conscious part of the brain is active. Think about that. It’s as if you have no control.
But you do. Yes, for things that are unimportant to us, we do hand off a lot of decision making to the quicker parts of our subconscious brain. That helps us survive. But this handoff is not to a separate and unconnected entity. It is our brain that we have programmed through the multitude of choices and judgments we have made every day of our entire lives. Not only did we play a direct role in how our brain functions at the lower levels, but we can also override that programming whenever we really want to. If I want to wake up at a given time. If I really want to. I will. My brain knows I want something and it will do what I want.
But consider how complex this feedback mechanism of our brain is. One part of us wants something, like that piece of pie sitting on the table. It was designed by nature, our upbringing and our previous choices to crave that sweet delicious piece of pie. And yet another part of us knows that we need to watch our calories. And still another part is telling us that perhaps this is the last piece and wouldn’t it be nice to leave it for someone else.
One part is sending feedback down saying to please pipe more of that beautiful smell in. Another part is instructing our gastric juices to start flowing for the delight that is about to be consumed. Another part is pulling up memories from the last time we blew it and overate and how that made us feel. Still another part is remembering the hurt feelings of the other person when they realized we ate the last piece.
The point is that ultimately, some part of us has to make the final choice. Will we eat that piece of pie or not.
Now perhaps that final decision maker is just the top level conscious part of our brain. Or perhaps it is the real us, i.e., our soul. Does it matter? Clearly, each of us has only a single final decision maker. The only question is whether that is a natural part of our brains, or whether it is something beyond our physical brain.
This gets even more complicated because some of the top physicists in the world believe that our brain actually works at the quantum level and can therefore tap into other dimensions. While there are many conflicting theories on quantum mechanics and what is really going on at that level, it is clear things don’t follow Newtonian physical laws at that level. In fact, one of the most established aspects of quantum mechanics has to do with uncertainty. We only know probabilities at that level and cannot say precisely what is happening.
Here is Sir Roger Penrose on his belief of the quantum nature of consciousness:
The point here is that our classical understanding of cause and effect and determinism may be quite erroneous. We simply don’t know how consciousness is ultimately achieved, nor do we know (scientifically that is) if our brains are connected beyond themselves, either at some quantum level or at a spiritual level.
But when you have a sense of awe or a moment of inspiration, what is that? Is that simply our brain resonating with emotional feelings, or are we connecting to something greater than ourselves?
Some people used to wear the wrist band that said “WWJD” to remind themselves not just to make their own choices, but to consider what Jesus would do, to help them decide what is truly the best choice to make. My belief is that when we choose to do something right, when we choose to do what Jesus would do, that we sense His approval. This is feedback once again, though not from one part of our brain to another. This is feedback from God to our souls.
So what does our free will make us free from? Well, we are free from no real choices. We are free to choose a different path than the one that was programmed into us either by our DNA or by our parents. We are free to eat that piece of pie or not.
And even when our bodies are controlled, like being in a prison, we are still free to believe. We are free to connect with God. We are free to forgive and to love. Or not. For while man may try to control us, God has chosen not to control our wills.
Ultimately, our free will is our freedom to believe in Him or not. If we had no choice in that, then we wouldn’t be free.
At least that’s my take on free will. What do you believe?