I am republishing this post, as a form or blog-recycling - an idea I caught on from Wise Donkey's blog (click). Coincidentally, tomorrow happens to also be the anniversary of my blog, and the time this post was published for the first time. I have edited the post a bit. This was the first post I had actually published on this blog. :)
Following is a blog I had originally posted at yahoo 360:
I was replying to one of the offbeat queries on rxpgonline.com, and the reply turned out so long that I thought, better I convert it into a blog. But again, I am surprised that this world has been a crucible of such great minds at work (thinking being the work of a mind), that ultimately, however much I try, it is not possible to think a thought that has not been thought before! So, many of the opinions that I had developed on my own, I learned, are already established schools in philosophy!
I will not post the query because of reasons related to copyright issues, but the gist of it was "if we decide anything really on our own volition, or are we predetermined to make those decisions".
Here's my response:
Let me refine what you have called thoughts and emotions. Fortunately, we as medicos are in better positions to understand that both thoughts and emotions arise out of neurotransmission across synapses through very complex neural networks. What is important here, though is not the complexity of networks, but that the process that gives rise to thoughts and emotions is as simplistic and physical as action potential giving rise to or inhibiting action potential elsewhere (synaptic inhibition or facilitation).
The feeling we get while we make a choice is that it is "I" who is deciding to do a particular thing, and not opt an alternative choice, and had I wanted, I "could" have made the other choice. The question is: do we really make choices that were not determined by past events? To make this question clear, I would have to give an example:
Think of someone breaking a frame in a game of pool. There are 10 balls that are struck with the cue ball, and immediately at the moment of impact all of them scatter away. To the untrained human eye, this is quite a chaotic event, but everyone would agree that with our modern technology, if the force, spin and direction of the cue ball, the masses of other balls, the properties of the reflecting walls, and the properties of the surface of the pool table would be known, we can definitely predict with amazing degree of accuracy where each ball on the table would end up after a finite amount of time. So in that sense the fate of each ball was predetermined by their mutual positions, the speed and direction with which the cue ball would impact them (force), the properties of the various surfaces and the time of impact. So, if the pool table were a closed system (where no external force could act), we would be the best astrologers! We could foretell everything that the pool balls would ever want to "know" about their future! And, add to it the fact that it is you who would be hitting at those cue balls. So in that sense, you are the one who is determining the fates of those balls. But, the way you are determining their fate is very "physical". If I were to tell you that try to change the course of the balls only by power of your mind (without actually touching them or using a physical force), and you would know that it would be impossible, unless and of course you are a firm believer of psychokinesis (click).
Now let us shift the same pool table to within our brain, and think of all the vesicles holding neurotransmitter molecules as those balls. Our emotions, thoughts, memories, all are a result of which neurons "fire" at what time. So, if real free will were to exist, we should be able to "control" (unknowingly) the particular neurons so as to make them release a particular neurotransmitter at a particular point in time in a particular quantity. The issue is can we really do all that with our "will", which is nothing, but again, a result of activity of the same neurons containing the said neurotransmitters? Well, I am not sure of the answer. Though, going by the physics of it, the answer seems like "no". No, we cannot make the molecules of neurotransmitters behave the way we want them to. So, each time you are deciding between a yellow dress or a white one, and even if you decide after full five minutes of pondering that you want the yellow one, it could be only because the neuron that was to trigger your decision fired at that moment (after five minutes), because of pre-set conditions, and not because of your thought-processes. So, this sounds very gloomy, indeed, that everything we do is predetermined, and more importantly, out of our control. But, when I gave the example of pool balls, I was talking of classical physics, which holds true only at a very gross level. If somehow, instead of 10 pool balls, 10 neutrons (and not neurons) were to be placed in a frame, and then hit with a "cue neutron", we will not be able to predict the trajectories of any of the neutrons, forget all the ten neutrons together. There are too many issues. Firstly, quantum physics does not allow any particle to be absolutely still - it has to oscillate with what is called a finite amount of "zero point energy" (the minimum energy that a particle has to possess, which equals hv/2, h=Planck's constant, and v is the frequency of oscillation of the particle). Secondly, the the Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, does not allow precise knowledge of positions of the particles and their momentum at the same time. But, what happens in real life is that the "amount of uncertainty" remains constant even with a large assembly of particles, but since the assemblies these particles become are so large that any uncertainty gets buffered by the practical and acceptable approximations of their momentum and position. So, the uncertainty principle somehow does not apply to the day-to-day "bulky" objects and situations. Hence our neurotransmitter molecules, and even more so, the vesicles that hold them, are on the borderline of being big and small enough to obey the uncertainty principle. Their courses and positions are somewhat predictable and yet, somehow unpredictable.
But, what is the implication of this knowledge of uncertainty principle to our discussion? What it implies is that at least the course of the neurotransmitter vesicles in our brains cannot be determined with complete accuracy, and hence, cannot be predicted. And, so the decisions that a person makes are not completely predictable. But, the issue of being "able" to alter the course of or effect the emptying of a particular vesicle in a particular neuron at a given time without a physical force though, remains as it is.
Of course, I know it is very difficult to even digest the possibility: that the emotions that we feel to be so real, or the feeling of "choosing", which is another name for freedom/liberty, could all be illusory. One of the possibilities of why we feel this illusion could be a specialized center in the brain that "witnesses" all the activities in the neurons. And these activities get registered as thoughts. We witness a live broadcast of our own thoughts (which are not exactly out of volition, but determined by the pre-set conditions), and we get a feeling that we are somehow effecting those thoughts, possibly because the time lag between the moment when a thought "arises" and it is "registered" could be very short.
So, I would recommend that one try while buying a dress, bargaining the price pointing out:
“It’s not me who wants to buy the dress, it’s just the neurons; I’m compelled by their preset conditions,. I cannot help it. So could you please give me a discount, at least if not give it away for free?”
But, I would warn here that the shopkeeper’s response need not be that philosophical!!!
PS: A very pertinent discussion had also occurred at my other blog, here (click). Also, I request the reader to go through all the comments as they had been quite illuminating.