Will and inhibition: the power to cancel a choice makes us “free”

Giovanni Mirabella
in NODES 13-14 →
Polish philosopher Zygmut Bauman raises a question which frames a debate that for centuries has been crucial to theologists and philosophers and, in the last fifty years, to neuroscientists as well. From the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep, we perform hundreds of actions, some as simple as taking a glass of water, others more complex as deciding what to say during an imminent business meeting. Even though in the majority of the circumstances, we put little or no attention in what we do, we still have the perception of having voluntary control over everything. Unconsciously, we reckon that actions are determined by our own conscious will to act, namely our “free will”. This idea is at the basis of both the concept of self-control and moral responsibility and every legal system that shapes social interactions in modern societies (Lavazza & Inglese, 2015). For instance, the Italian penal code considers the ability to understand and want as the determining fact when punishing someone.
However, the idea that the conscious intention to perform an action is its actual cause is in strong contrast with determinism, for which every event is generated by a cause-effect relation and, thus, by necessity and not by choice. Determinism finds its roots in Newton’s physics laws, for which a system’s initial conditions are sufficient to undoubtedly predict the future behaviour of a system as such. For instance, knowing precisely the initial conditions of movement and characteristics of the planets of the Solar System, we can precisely predict their orbit around the Sun. Since our brains are made of the same matter of the planets and are thus subject to the same rules, determinism asserts that also our future actions are as certain as the orbits of the planets. According to philosopher Daniel Dennett (1984): «We have the illusion of control. Actually, we are completely controlled by external factors, tied to the history of life written at the beginning of creation».