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You Don’t Have Free Will - but You Might Get It Someday - Dilbert Blog

You Don’t Have Free Will — but You Might Get It Someday

Regular readers know that I don’t believe in the superstition of “free will” because the laws of physics don’t stop at your skull. Whatever is happening in your brain is the result of cause and effect, and perhaps some randomness. But “free will” isn’t a real thing, except in our imaginations.

But it might be a real thing soon.

We’re hearing in the news that someday, perhaps within ten years, humans will be able to implant microchips in their brains to boost performance or fix problems. When that happens, we’ll have our first opportunity for something like genuine “free will.”

With our current fully-organic brains, we do whatever the physics and chemistry of our brains tells us to do. You might want to lose weight, but your brain is telling you to eat that ice cream at midnight anyway, so you do. Your urges are simply stronger than your rational mind. 

But what if the microchip in your brain could reverse that situation? Suppose you programmed the microchip to allow your rational mind to overcome your irrational urges. In that situation, with the help of the chip, and for the first time in your life, your rational mind would control your irrational urges. You could resist the ice cream when the time comes because you hacked your brain in advance to prevent the bad urges from overwhelming the good ones.

Your current human body allows the strongest “urge” to win every time. You later rationalize your actions after the fact as something like “thinking.” But in reality, your so-called thinking is just rationalizing for why your strongest urge won again, for the millionth time in a row. In my simple example, the urge to eat ice cream would normally be larger (in some people) than the urge to lose weight. But the microchip in the brain can turn down one of the urges based on reason. The trick is that you have to anticipate the problem (the ice cream) in advance, and make sure you have programmed the microchip to suppress that specific urge when needed.

Some of you will argue that all I have done in this example is add a new link in the chain of cause-and-effect, and in my example, everything is still predetermined. But the part I added (the microchip) allows your weak sense of reason to best your stronger urges later. That’s new. The old you always went with your strongest urges in any given moment. The microchip in your brain allows you to substitute reason in those situations by manipulating your competing urges.

The Persuasion Filter (my own term) says humans are irrational 90% of the time. We’re only rational during those rare situations where no emotional pull is involved, such as when you do boring routine tasks. But that limited power of reason rarely gets involved with our important decisions because in those situations our urges overwhelm our sense of reason. The microchip could reverse that situation and substitute our calm sense of reason where our urges would normally prevent that from happening. Thus, humans would have something like free will for the first time.

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