Aligning the Machinery of your Mind

Physics suggests there might not be free-will. But the machinery can be altered.

Posted Dec 19, 2018

Art Credit Alexi Berry. Used with permission
Source: Art Credit Alexi Berry. Used with permission

In the last few months the idea of autonomy has come to the forefront of conversation in my classes. One course had a chapter on adolescent autonomy. Another class debated whether there is freewill, or if all choices are a result of conditioning. While preparing to write this a podcast I listen to regularly had a segment about the non-existence of freewill. My philosophy on the topic is free-will and autonomy do exist, but the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, act without it. 

In classes, after some discussion of psychological aspects like conditioning and unconscious drives, I ask my students to rate how “conscious” they are; how many of your daily movements, decisions, choices, are based on conscious decision making versus unconscious. Inevitably, or possibly to please me, they rate their level of consciousness pretty low. This is often an accurate assessment. As I’ve written before, (Unconsciously Rushing to Be Unconscious) much of what we do, we learn to do with functional unconscious. In fact, we consider it mastery to get to that place (he could do it in his sleep). But, according to physics and some neuroscience, even the low estimations of my students may be exaggerated. 

The chapter, “Life is a Coin with One Side”, David Kestenbaum (2018) interviews Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford, and a Genius Grant recipient. Dr. Sapolsky wrote a book which he admits basically explains how there can not be freewill. Kestenbaum goes on to discuss the topic with his former physics professor as well, who basically says there is no evidence for freewill. Though some of them believe in freewill, they claim it is a belief in magic or God, and certainly not the science they are practicing. 

This is an extreme view, and certainly not one psychology takes yet. However, there are theories in psychology that also support that there isn’t really a central you, and that you are making decisions based on evolutionary based modules in your mind that are attempting to get certain needs met (Wright, 2017). In other words, the “you” that you think is making decisions, isn’t actually a “you”, but instead an illusion. Your evolutionary needs, combined with how you’ve been conditioned by your environment over the course of your life, is making the decisions, and another part of the mind is creating the reasons. Experiments quoted both in Wright’s book and in the podcast above, support the idea humans create reasons for their behavior. 

If for a moment we assume physics, neuroscience, and these psychological models (and all the science that supports them) hold some merit, then there is little, if any, freewill. However, there is a way we can align the “machinery” (to borrow a term from the podcast) to become more in line with acting autonomously.

The idea these theories put forth are we are acting in the way our atoms and molecules, which become the mind and its components, dictate. The internal and external environment then dictate behavior. The loop continues, and the feedback the atoms and molecules are getting continue to dictate behavior. This is the “machinery”. However, despite the argument there is no freewill, with knowledge of these mechanisms, the internal working can be affected. A computer is a machine. But with the input of new data, it’s behavior changes. For example, whether it is “you” and your autonomy, or the atoms aligning a certain way because of the knowledge of the mind “machine” and the focus on it, the internal environment can be changed. With the internal environment calmer, a different decision can be made. 

Wright calls this default mode (p.45). In this mode, the unconscious drives that are vying for control of the mind are subdued to an extent, and a more rational and logical course, more in line with who one wants to be, can be chosen. Even the idea of your mind and body being a machine can contribute to the calming. In the podcast Kestenbaum ends with a way he makes the idea of no freewill more palatable: “I've come to think of my daily existence as kind of like being in a movie, where I'm just along for the ride.” This relates a good deal to the observer role often discussed in mindfulness. With the new data, the machine is calmer, and a different outcome is experienced.

In the end it doesn’t matter if freewill or autonomy exist or not. I usually end the debate in class suggesting it is semantics, and where you draw the line between conditioning and freewill that decides.  Education is part of your environment. If you focus on the idea you can gain some control over the course of your life through slowing down your mind’s workings, becoming an observer of the mind’s course, choosing data that enriches this state, and nudging it in a more suitable direction, your behavior will be more in line with your choosing, whether you chose it or the atoms did. 

Copyright William Berry, 2018


Kestenbaum, D., 2018., Life is a coin with one side., included in the episode, Where There is a Will, from the podcast, This American Life. Retrieved from:

Wright, R., (2017), Why Buddhism is true., Simon and Schuster, N.Y., New York.

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