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The Science Behind Free Will

Updated on February 23, 2019

From the second we wake up in the morning to to the time we go to sleep, humans are faced with hundreds of thousands of choices. Some are small, like deciding how much water to pour in a glass or which pair of identical socks to wear, and some are big, like deciding what to study or what job to take. And through all of these choices, we tend to feel in control of our own actions. These choices seem to come from our own free will. But do we really have free will?

As science and psychology advance, everything we do just seems to make more sense. Through studies using identical twins, it is known that at least 50 percent of our personality is determined by our DNA. One study, known as the Minnesota Study of Twins Raised Apart, found that identical twins raised in separate environments tend to still have similar personalities indicating that personalities are largely determined by DNA. Because DNA affects at least half of how one reacts to their environment, it seems that we cannot control that 50 percent. It is t isin our DNA, and there is no way to naturally control DNA. Therefore, if someone cannot completely control how we react to the outside environment, wouldn’t that mean we can never really completely have free will?

Of course, there is that other 50 percent, the nurture part of nature vs. nurture. Our environment acts on us just as much as we act on our environment. However, we cannot control what families we are born into or what environment are we are born in, and thus cannot control the way they shape our personalities.

Science is guided by a principle of cause and effect, meaning that every action has a series of causes. This principle can be applied to both psychology and the idea of free will. For example, one study done by scientists from Belgium and the Netherlands in 2013, “OXTR in Relation to State Levels of Loneliness in Adolescence” found that girls with a specific oxytocin receptor gene felt more lonely in the presence of judgmental friends than did girls without this gene. The study proves that DNA influences how we feel around others and how we react to our environments. Both the girls’ genes and their environment worked together to create this feeling of loneliness, which will affect the way they react and act on their environments.

Although the idea that no one has free will is fairly unpopular among the general public, it is typically held in popular opinion that some people cannot control their behaviors. For example, some serial killers are hard-wired to be violent and aggressive, often having ing extreme cases of psychopathy, a type of antisocial personality disorder. Another example is how is how people with various mental illnesses cannot control how they act or feel in regard to their mental illness because of their brain’s excess or lack of certain chemicals. By extension, people who do have typical brains are still controlled by their genetics, hormones. and environments. On an even smaller scale, everything in our bodies acts independently to form a whole human, from the organs that make up our body to the atoms that make up our cells.

Many psychologists and philosophers believe free will is merely a trick of the mind. They believe in a sort of scientific determinism. They believe that every action since the beginning of time, from the big bang to the formation of earth, has led to a series of action that eventually led to the creation of ones’ DNA, brain, and ultimately, the individual. In this view, there is no other way anything could have ever been. There is no free will and we are all prisoners of our own biology.

The implications of the falsehood of free will are extraordinary. The whole foundation of Western and American thinking and ethics are based on the idea of free will. Without free will, there is nothing stopping us from acting immorally or illegally, as you could use the logic that it was pre-determined and that it could never be any other way. American thinking often emphasizes the ideas of using hard work and grit to get ahead. However, if there is no free will, how could that be? How could hard work ever cause allow someone to get ahead if where they end up is not in their own control?

Even if free will does not exist, it is still important to act as if it did. Otherwise, society would not be able to function and all moral codes and ideas would be undermined. While free will may be an illusion, it is still important to act as though it is real.

However, if scientific determinism is true, then everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen is pre-determined by actions of cause and effect. Were this true, everything in the world would be intricately intertwined, creating a web of cause and effect. Together, individual humans are to the world what cells are to bodies, acting with the DNA coded inside, without sentience and independently of each other, coming together to form one being, or one world. Under this theory, we could theoretically know everything that has happened and will happen by understanding understanding the starting conditions of our universe. But knowing how the universe was started, of course, is an even more complex issue.


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