The Free Will Conundrum

Do we or don’t we?

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re a human being, so this chapter might prove to be a bit of a mind-bender; humans don’t tend to take to the concepts we're about to discuss naturally. Indeed, this issue is possibly the most overlooked and misunderstood part of our existence, partly because it is by design near impossible to truly appreciate. But we’re going to try.

Let’s start with what we know:

We are each of us functional, self-directed human beings, in control of our own thoughts and actions. We have full freedom to choose and think whatever it is that we want to choose and think. Barring external constraints, we can pretty much do whatever it is that pleases us, and as such we are the masters of our own destinies.

In other words, we have free will.

Or do we?

This is a question that has occupied philosophers for centuries and been the subject of fierce and sometimes quite literally violent debate. For most everyday folk, such contemplations seem like pointless thought exercises better relegated to dull moments on the toilet. Yet this is where we will begin, because as we will see, there are superpowers to be gained at the end of the yellow brick road.

We define free will here as the ability to think what you want to think and make choices that you want to make, completely of your own volition. Absent any outside interference, when faced with any kind of a choice, out of all the options available to you, you are free to choose whichever you want. It is always possible for you to choose differently at any time in your decision process, because all choices are equally possible for you.

You feel like you want to wave your hand around so you do. You feel like having an ice cream, so you head to the ice cream store. Out of a selection of 20 flavours, you pick Strawberry, but you could just as easily have picked any of the others, or switched to Cookies and Cream at the last moment. There is no hidden hand guiding you behind the scenes.

Obviously, this is true. How could it not be?

You are, after all, sitting here right this minute, thinking thoughts of your own, making choices of your own. Even doing nothing would be a distinct choice.

At this moment, you are choosing to read the words before you. You are thinking about these words, deciding how to interpret them and forming your own thoughts and conclusions about them.

Some of you may get side-tracked and start thinking about what’s for breakfast tomorrow. Some of you may start thinking about a difficult decision you have been grappling with at work or school.

A kind soul passes you a plate of carrot and cucumber sticks. You select a delicious carrot stick, which you nibble on as you read. You choose to nibble rather than gobble because you’re refined that way. You choose carrot instead of cucumber, because you hate cucumbers with a passion; to your delicate palate they taste like stewed cockroaches.

Suddenly, a masked ninja leaps into the room and lobs a shuriken at your head. You dodge to the left. He moves in for a punch, you choose to deftly sidestep to the left, followed by a well-chosen knee to his stomach.

Unfortunately, you fail to anticipate him clubbing you on the head from behind, and you fall to the ground, where you breathe heavily as red and white blood cells rush to your injured head, and your heart and lungs go into overdrive, giving you the necessary resources to reverse somersault to your feet, where you deal a knockout blow to the ninja, and pump your fists in the air victoriously.

If we examine this sequence of events, how many of your thoughts and actions were real choices out of your own free will?

Presumably, not many of us feel that we have much dominion over the countless bodily functions that go on inside of us every single second. You aren’t like a general marshalling his troops, sending some blood cells that way, instructing this muscle to tighten just that little bit, ordering your digestive system to get to work on that chicken pie, or that neuron to connect with the one a few cells to the left.

What about your instinctive reactions when you are attacked or otherwise presented with a sudden event? Are you actually thinking and making a conscious choice about what you want to do or are you just reacting automatically? Could you choose to react any differently if you wanted to?

When you touch a hot stove and recoil automatically, is that a choice? Equally, when someone does something unreasonable and rude, and you feel a rush of negative emotions and react instinctively, is this a conscious choice or another knee jerk reaction that bypasses your conscious thought process? Are your actions in such situations what you really choose to do (or feel) of your own free will, or are you left standing in the shower long after the event, muttering all the clever comebacks you should have made at the time?

Carrots vs. cucumbers: the perennial dilemma. It was a completely free choice, which you made simply because you like carrots and you dislike cucumbers. But why do you like carrots? Why do you dislike cucumbers? Was there a time in life where you sat down and made a conscious decision that from this day forth let it be known that I, Alyscious Geribald the 3rd likes carrots and hates cucumbers? Was it really your choice, or was that choice somehow made for you? You like it, simply because you like it. The same way some songs speak to you and some grate on you. The same way some art seems incredibly beautiful and fills you with wonder, while other pieces are grotesquely bizarre or at best not to your liking. The same way you might think a particular actress is the most stunning creature to walk the Earth while your friend thinks she is average at best.

What about the thoughts that are going through your mind right now? Are you choosing to think them or are they just appearing naturally from your subconscious like a script that you read out loud in your mind?

Pay attention. What is the next thought that appears in your mind? Did you choose to think it or decide what it was going to be? Or did it just suddenly exist from nowhere? Having never paid attention to this, most people don’t realise that their thoughts appear preformed. By the time you perceive them you are merely registering the thoughts consciously rather than creating the thoughts.

If you experiment with this you will find that you can no more predict the next thought that pops in your head than you can predict the next sentence that you are about to read. In fact, logically it is impossible for there to be a situation where you could actually have real control over your thoughts, as this would require you to consciously think about your thoughts before thinking them, ad infinitum. How can you be choosing your thoughts, when you don’t even know what thoughts you are going to think next?

What if you simply think of nothing? Inevitably, after a surprisingly short amount of time, a thought will pop up in your mind’s eye. Perhaps it will be your task list for tomorrow, perhaps it will be a funny joke you heard the other day or perhaps it will be something completely random like the image of an elephant dancing in a bikini.

Whatever it is that you thought, you didn’t consciously choose to think it; in fact you were actively choosing to do the opposite. You didn’t know you were going to think the thoughts you thought, or what those thoughts would be, before you actually thought them.

Thoughts just appear, much like dandruff mysteriously appears on your hair, unbidden and sometimes a little dirty.

What of complex decisions like allocating resources at work? Such contemplations don’t seem automated in any way. In fact they can feel like a real struggle as you squeeze your head painfully, thinking through scenarios in agonising detail, methodically weighing up the pros and cons. But again, how are you actually making the choice?

Generally speaking, you are hearing a voice in your mind that talks to you, analysing the scenario, tossing the variables around. You aren’t really directing this voice, it just presents information to you.

Sometimes you might find that you already know what the voice is going to say and you can skip to the conclusion without going through the inner monologue. Other times, the voice might reach a temporary impasse, and you draw a blank, such as when you can’t find the right words or the right technique to proceed with the problem at hand. You find yourself just waiting patiently inside your mind until the inner voice catches up and feeds you the next line.

If you’re lucky you might encounter a eureka moment, when a brilliant idea suddenly appears to you out of nowhere. There you are in the shower, dutifully scrubbing away, when suddenly the heavens part and you have this great idea for sliced bread, the sequel. It seems almost a little cheeky to claim that this was a conscious effort on your part, since the flash of brilliance came to you unbidden.

Given that you are not able to think about your thoughts before thinking them, even conscious reasoned thought appears to be fed to you preformed. Even at the highest levels of complex thought, you can’t actually determine or choose what your next thought will be, it just is whatever it is.

The rebel in you may be bristling with resistance at this idea.

‘I'll show you who has no free will. I'm going to choose to stop reading this garbage right now!’ you might think.

But even this decision is not of your free will. How did the idea to stop reading pop into your head? How did you decide whether to go through with the idea? They appeared in your head. You didn't consciously choose these thoughts or actions any more than you decided to blink.

For that matter, have you actually consciously chosen anything in your life? Is who you are and where you are today a result of your own conscious choices?

Let's start at the beginning.

You didn't choose to be born in the first place.

You didn’t choose your genetic makeup or physical attributes.

You didn’t choose what sex you would be, or your sexual orientation.

You didn’t choose your parents, or the kind of upbringing that you would receive.

You didn’t choose your base levels of personality, intelligence or temperament.

You didn’t choose the time period that you would be born in.

You didn’t choose the country or area you would live in, or the primary languages you would speak.

You didn’t choose the society you would be part of, or any of its values, culture or social norms.

You didn’t choose the environment that you would live in, from the climate, to the composition of the air, to the microbes in the ground, to the food that was available to you.

You didn’t choose how many siblings you might have, or your birth order within them.

You didn’t choose the countless people you would come in contact with throughout your life that would influence you, directly or indirectly.

You didn’t have any say in the popular culture of the time, or the political backdrop, or the economy.

And yet every single one of these and countless other factors that you had absolutely no part in choosing, are precisely the reason you are who you are today. Every thought that you have, every choice that you make stems from a combination of natural traits and abilities that you were born with, and knowledge and thought patterns that you acquired from your experiences.

There is no other place for them to come from, and yet you are not responsible for any of these things.

Collectively, they define every aspect of how you think, how you behave and what choices you make at any given point in time.

Should any of these factors have been different, you would be a different person, making different choices, having different thoughts, making different judgements. And as you continue to gain experiences in life, you continue to change; ten years from now you are going to be a different person from who you are you today. Just as you are different from who you were ten years ago. These time shifted versions of you are all technically you, but with different background experiences, and different physical conditions.

From the moment a baby is born, it has a base personality and genetics which compel it to behave in a certain way. It is literally impossible for it to behave in any other way, because that is what it is. People generally understand this, and give babies and infants a lot of leeway with their behaviour, since they don’t know any better. Their brains aren’t fully developed and they aren’t really thinking about what they’re doing or making reasoned decisions. They just do whatever it is that pops into their heads. Since we view them as not being in control of their actions, we don’t tend to get too upset with them when they dribble on us. We don’t consider them as having a free choice, they just do what they do, and we therefore do not associate evil intent with their actions.

Alfred and his GEBE

Let’s follow a particular baby, Alfred, as he progresses through life, experiencing all of the wonders therein. Every step of the way, the experiences he encounters are filtered through his mind, changing the neural configuration of his growing brain.

His actions and reactions at any given point in time since the moment of his birth are a direct reflection of the current state of his mind, and the current state of his mind is always a manifestation of his genetics, his environment, and his experiences to date.

This concept is so important that we will take a moment to create an acronym: GEBE (Genetics, Environment and Background Experiences). Arbitrarily, let’s define the correct pronunciation to be ‘Gee-Bee’ as in heebie-jeebies.

Let’s look at each category in turn.

Genetics: We are born with a specific set of genes, which neither we nor our parents get to choose. These genes are the blueprint that we are built from, affecting everything that we are, from our physical attributes to our base personality and intelligence.

Environment: We use the word environment here to denote both our physical environment as well as the environmental conditions within our bodies. These include hormonal levels, gut bacteria composition, brain chemistry, the ambient temperature, humidity, how hungry and tired we are, as well as colours, scents and noises around us. We may not be consciously aware of how these factors influence our behaviours, but they do so nonetheless. Hangry-ness, irritability from hormone medication, jitteriness because of caffeine, euphoria from psychedelic drugs, and sadness from sun deprivation are all examples of environmental effects on our thoughts and emotions.

Background Experiences: This encompasses literally everything that happens to us. The way our parents interact with us, the role models we have, images we see on the TV, stories we are told, kids we meet at school, our teachers, the shopkeeper who scolded you for knocking over his display, our friends, our enemies, the books you read, the movies you watch, that meditation camp you attended, that solo trip you took in Tokyo, and simply just sitting at home doing nothing. We accumulate experiences like moss on a stone and incorporate them into our psyche without realising it. Our brain is constantly soaking up inputs, and adding and removing new neural connections based on these experiences.

None of the GEBE components are things that we can choose or control, but they determine the totality of who we are, how we think and by extension what we do.

Coming back to Alfred: If Alfred has loving, nurturing parents that emphasise kindness and humour, and his genetics are receptive to such behaviour, then Alfred’s brain will adapt accordingly and form such patterns. If his genetics aren’t wired that way, or he receives greater opposing influences from other sources, then he may not.

At any given point in time, the baby, now a toddler, now a young child, now a teen, has absolutely no choice but to behave in exactly the way that he is behaving. Every thought that he has, every choice that he makes, every action that he takes is a result of the attributes he was born with plus everything that he has experienced to date, i.e. his GEBE, which keeps accumulating experiences and evolving accordingly.

At every point, Alfred feels that he is in control, that he is behind the steering wheel, making the choices he wants, but at the same time, at no point is it possible for him to choose otherwise. If we were to save Alfred’s game of life at any point in time and reload it, again and again, each time he would behave in exactly the same way given the same circumstances.

His brain can only react to his current situation in one specific way, it is not possible for it to produce different outcomes based on the same stimulus. Despite there being a very real feeling of free will, Alfred is no able to choose differently than he is able to suddenly start singing like Elvis.

As Alfred grows up, his body changes, new hormones start making their presence felt and his brain structure continues to evolve. He gains new experiences every day and as countless influences are showered upon him, new patterns form in his brain, giving him new programs of behaviour to follow.

With the accumulated knowledge and experience of a teenager, we are much more likely to attribute his actions to conscious intent, so if Albert now dribbles on us we are much more likely to be annoyed. However, from a free will perspective, Albert is no more at liberty to choose than he was when he was a baby. Whether he decides to do so or not, or whether the notion even occurs to him is a function of his GEBE, and not of conscious choice. The good news for those planning on getting close to Alfred is that his brain is most likely programmed to refrain from such behaviour given his experiences to date.

So now we look in on Alfred, years later, as a fully grown man.

Perhaps he is now a titan of industry. His whole life was marked by discipline and hard work. He was smart enough to get into the best schools, where with relative ease he excelled in his exams and graduated with high honours. Many lucrative job offers followed, and subsequently with the knowledge and contacts he had gained he started his own businesses, where he has flourished ever since.

Every step of the way he made wise choices, he did the right things, he was smarter and harder working than the average bozo and through sheer grit he made it to where he is today. He is happy to admit to lucky breaks here and there, but by and large he believes that it is through his own decisions, effort and intelligence that he has succeeded, and he is rightly proud of his accomplishments.

Let us first put aside the fact that Alfred was lucky enough to win the lottery of birth by being born in a rather pleasing environment, at a time where his inherent abilities would be valued, to parents who were suitably nurturing and well off, in a country that was stable and prosperous, and that he had access to the best schools and institutions around. Let us look only at Alfred’s own contributions.

Why is it that Alfred was able to be more disciplined and hardworking than his peers? Surely, everyone would choose to be disciplined given a choice? Was it that he simply chose to do so and through sheer force of will just did it? But then where did this well of infinite willpower come from? Did he somehow manifest in his head what many others could not?

The very concept of willpower casts doubt on free will. If free will existed, willpower would not be an issue. You could simply decide to do something and do it. Why would there be a need for more willpower, suggesting a need to fight against your base urges? Since your willpower is itself a function of your GEBE, you can’t just consciously choose to have more or less of it. Countless people struggle with their will every day. Dieters who can't seem to resist eating, gamblers who can't resist gambling, procrastinators who can't will themselves to do what they consciously believe that they should.

So why was the choice to be gritty available to Alfred? Or was it not a choice at all, and rather just the right combination of GEBE?

His early childhood was filled with motivating lessons from his parents and teachers, teaching him the value of hard work. Combined with the right genetic makeup and base intelligence, Alfred was a natural at school. Excellent teachers carefully guided him through difficult subjects, allowing him to perform well, upon which he was lauded, praised and rewarded to much ado by his proud parents and teachers. This reinforced the value of working hard, and gave him his first taste of the success to which he would soon become accustomed to.

And so on, and so forth as he progressed in life, each stage building upon the last, his mind constantly being shaped and picking up new knowledge, techniques and thinking patterns. With the platform of a good primary and secondary school education, Alfred was able to get into one of the best universities in the world, where he was surrounded by other similarly motivated and talented students, giving him even more role models to mimic and learn from, training the grit circuitry in his brain over and over till the pattern of hard work was simply second nature. Soon enough it became actually more difficult for him to sit around and do nothing than to focus on work and be disciplined.

By age 30, Alfred was an accomplished young man, intelligent, hardworking, disciplined and kind. And yet at no point in his life did he actually have the ability to choose to be otherwise.

Alfred cannot possibly think in a non-Alfred way even if he wanted to. He can only ever behave in one way in any given circumstance, which is the Alfred way. And Alfred never actually gets to choose who Alfred is. The entity known as Alfred is a constantly changing representation of his GEBE and nothing else.

Of course, all this is not to say that Alfred was just coasting along on autopilot, enjoying his luck without a care in the world. He did work tremendously hard and put in sometimes inhuman hours. He weathered his share of storms and suffered his share of setbacks. He made the most of the environment, network and opportunities that he was given. At every point in time he felt that he was in the driving seat making his own reasoned choices. His conscious mind experienced all the ups, downs, joys, sorrows, suffering, excitement, fears and stresses of his life in full 3D, just as we all do.

But as we have seen, every single choice that Alfred ever made was a result of his genetics, environment and background experiences. He could not have chosen a different path, given the same circumstances. Every time he was faced with a decision, he chose based on what his conscious mind was presented with, the only choice that was in fact available to him. His conscious mind was in effect just along for the ride. It is not that Alfred the individual isn’t making choices, it is just that Alfred’s conscious mind isn’t.

Equally, it is not hard to imagine a set of circumstances that would have resulted in a much less successful and admirable version of Alfred, again which he would have had no choice over.

In this alternate universe, Alfred’s parents were killed in a car crash when he was 5 years old, after which he was put in the social care system and left with a series of guardians that we could charitably call unqualified. He bounced from school to school, where uninterested teachers gave him little guidance, and equally unfortunate schoolmates introduced him to the joys of truancy, bullying and eventually drugs and alcohol. Eventually, he stumbled out of high school, but the thought of further education was a joke. He had become unmotivated and undisciplined and despite his inherent genetic ability had not gained any of the necessary skills and knowledge to complement it. His brain was wired to focus on entirely different things, with completely different thought processes and life perspectives to Alfred 1. He had the same core base intelligence and self-discipline, but without the necessary experiences, knowledge and environment to complement his genetics, this Alfred could not hope to ‘choose’ to be disciplined.

In both cases, it is Alfred that appears to be making free choices, but his conscious mind is in effect a passenger, subject to forces beyond its control. This is akin to a bumper car for toddlers, where the toddlers are given fake steering wheels to give them the illusion of control, while their parent is actually the one driving. In the two alternate universes Alfred cannot possibly make the same choices because he is not the same person.

The neuroscience of free will

Let’s explore this separation between the conscious and subconscious minds a little deeper.

Our brains are one of the most complex systems on Earth. Humans have the largest brain of all vertebrates relative to body size, averaging about 1.5 kg, or about 2% of body weight. Despite this relatively small stature, the brain uses up the most energy of any organ, disproportionately taking up to 20% of the body’s power (even more for babies) to fuel the electrical impulses it needs to perform its functions, like a hungry app on your phone.  

It is made up of mostly water, with a bit of fat and protein thrown in for good measure, resulting in a tofu-like consistency. Despite this amazingly simple ingredient list, the brain contains around 100 billion neurons and nerve fibres which are in turn connected by approximately one quadrillion synapses. For those who are counting, that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 connections between 100,000,000,000 neurons all crammed into that 1.5 kg mass in your head (perhaps a few less if you’ve spent too long in politics). Each of these neurons function like a microprocessor, making your brain an immensely powerful computer – by some estimates equivalent to a 1 trillion bit per second processor. It is however more the complex synaptic connections that gives rise to our intelligence rather than just the absolute number of neurons that we possess.

Most of the action we are interested in occurs in the cerebrum, which comprises of the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia and olfactory bulb, comprising about 85% of the brain’s weight. It is the largest part of the brain and is the main ‘thinking’ part, being responsible for information processing as well as things like sensations, visual processing, emotions, decision making, memory, thoughts, and voluntary physical actions.

Our neural networks are shaped by both genes and environment and continuously adapt in response to our life experiences. Individual synaptic connections are constantly being removed or created, depending on the activity of the neurons that they connect.

This is nicely summarized by Hebb’s rule, a neuroscientific theory that informally states “Neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurons that fire out of sync, fail to link.” This is a simplification, but the general point holds: the more signals that are sent between two neurons, the stronger the relevant connections become. Each individual neuron can form thousands of links with other neurons.

This means that each experience that we have causes our brains to physically rewire themselves. The brain is not a hard wired system with fixed circuits, even in full grown adults. In response to learning and experiences, synaptic networks continuously reorganise. Things that you constantly think about, or skills that you constantly practice cause relevant neurons to develop stronger connections, whereas connections you don’t use are gradually pruned away. This is why if you keep thinking about negative experiences they remain fresh in your mind and you still feel hot anger at the nasty things Auntie Alice said to you five Christmases ago, but you can’t remember where you put your keys an hour ago.

It used to be generally accepted that brain cells were limited edition items, precious and unrecoverable once lost. The theory was that once you reach adulthood you have a certain fixed number of brain cells, and once they die, you can never get them back and your brain thus deteriorates gradually until one day you presumably lose your faculties.

Fortunately, there is now ample evidence that the birth of brain cells, neurogenesis, continues in the adult brain, and can continue to do so into old age. In fact, people who train hard in various disciplines are found to experience brain growth in relevant parts of their brains, with denser matter and stronger connections. Just like your muscles, the more you use your brain, the more powerful it becomes.

At any given point in time, whatever stimulus your body encounters is processed by your brain according to its current state, whereas its current state is always a result of your GEBE. This causes your neurons to fire in a specific fashion, and these firing neurons determine literally ALL of your thoughts, hopes, fears, memories, and dreams. Most of this goes on behind the scenes, completely transparent to your conscious mind, which simply receives the resulting perceptions and thoughts at the end of the process and takes credit for them, much like your boss at work.

Our consciousness (in a strictly non-spiritual and non-religious sense) sits within your unconscious brain, acting as the aggregator of senses and thoughts, and is the part of you that experiences your life as you know it. Your consciousness is where you ultimately live, without needing to (or being able to) be aware of the detailed operations that go on inside your body or the rest of your brain; in effect, it is the audience of the movie that your brain produces. Everything you see, hear, think, perceive and experience as a human being is through your conscious mind, even though none of this information is initially processed there.

Naturally, we feel that our conscious minds are ‘us’, and that it must be doing a lot of the heavy lifting, especially when we’re thinking about really tough problems. Interestingly enough, the brain uses a similar amount of energy whether you are solving aerospace engineering questions or staring blankly at a wall. Your brain is hard at work either way, no matter what is happening in your conscious mind, which is relatively puny compared to our overall brains.

There is a branch of neuroscience dubbed the ‘neuroscience of free will’, dating from the 1980s. Using various pieces of impressive looking scientific equipment, information about the activity in the brain is collected and analysed, down to the level of individual neurons firing.

A series of experiments over the years, famously pioneered by Benjamin Libet, and subsequently expanded upon and refined by many others, were designed to determine which comes first when a subject makes a conscious decision: the brain activity related to the decision, or the moment the conscious decision is made. The idea being that if there was free will, then the subject would have to consciously make the decision before the necessary brain activity took place to commit to the decision. That is to say, for you to be exercising free will, there should be conscious intention before there is resulting action. The chicken should come before the egg.

Interestingly enough, the opposite appears to be the case. Studies consistently show that a person’s brain appears to commit to decisions before the person is consciously aware of making the choice themselves, often by many seconds. It appears that the conscious mind is merely notified as a polite courtesy about decisions that the brain and body have already planned and are already executing, and yet still feels that it has made a free choice.

This is like your fiancé asking you to decide on where you’d like to go on your honeymoon even though he’s already chosen the destination, bought the tickets, planned the itinerary and spent the last 3 months subliminally planting the idea of Paris in your head. You feel like you made a free choice, but in reality it was made for you long before.

In other words, unconscious neural activity triggers the action, and the conscious awareness of those actions (and the perception that a decision was made to take the action) only occurs at a later time.

In more recent experiments, scientists monitoring brain activity were able to predict which choice a subject would make, up to 7 seconds before the subjects actually made their conscious choice. Subjects still believed that they had the power to decide differently, even though their brains had already decided for them.

This means that a technician monitoring your brain activity could theoretically tell you if you would be having Chinese or Japanese for dinner even as you were still actively weighing the decision in your mind.

Going even further, there is research showing that choice can be manipulated independently of the perception of free will.

By using TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation), electric current can be made to flow in a specifically targeted region of the brain, and researchers are able to control particular circuits of the brain. Using this method, it is possible to influence subjects’ choices, for example, whether to move their left hand or right hand. Despite being under the influence of TMS, subjects continued to feel that their choice had been made of their own free will and were unaware of any interference.

Drunk with power, our theoretical technician could potentially direct you towards Peking duck without you being any wiser.

In 2013, a rather interesting study was done by Nicolas Burra et al on a patient with full cortical blindness. The patient’s primary visual cortex had been destroyed through injury and the patient was fully blind, even though the eyes themselves were physically still fine. The patient was put in an fMRI machine and his brain was monitored while he was exposed to gazes directed at him and gazes directed away from him. Despite having no conscious vision at all, the patient’s amygdala showed activity that indicated it was very much aware of what it was seeing and was evaluating potential threats. The activation pattern shown in response to direct gazes was very distinct from that of indirect gazes. Even though the patient’s visual cortex (and hence conscious mind) was completely unaware of what was going on, other parts of his brain were.

Other experiments have shown similar results, with cortically blind patients showing brain activity in response to facial or bodily expressions of emotion. What is happening here is not fully understood, but it does seem that our conscious minds are not the only ones looking out for us.

These findings from neuroscience cast grave doubt on the existence of free will. If your choices are in effect made before you consciously make them, if it is in fact possible to predict your choices in advance, and if it possible to affect your choices without you even knowing, how can you be exercising free will?

Rather, the science suggests that unconscious mental processes cause both the thinking and the doing. You consciously think about taking a certain course of action and then you take it, not because you consciously initiated the action with your thoughts, but because an unconscious process behind the scenes caused you not only to do so, but also to think that you chose to do so!

For example, you think about throwing a stick and then you throw it. But instead of this simple cause and effect, in reality the throw was not initiated by your decision to throw. Rather your subconscious mind chose to throw the stick, initiated the brain activity to cause the throwing, while also sending thoughts to your conscious mind making you ‘decide’ to throw it, causing you to feel like it was your choice all along.

Everything affects us

Even without such experiments, we intuitively understand that there are any number of neurological conditions, brain disorders or injuries that can change the brain enough to cause drastic differences in thoughts and behaviour.

Patients experiencing ‘alien hand syndrome’ for example, find that one of their hands functions independently, performing elaborate and seemingly voluntary actions without the patient consciously exerting any control over it. One hand might be buttoning up a shirt, while the other unbuttons it, which could explain why some people take so long to get dressed.

Schizophrenic patients hear voices in their heads, much like everyone else, the difference being that they attribute the inner voice to outside agents.

People with Cotard delusion believe that they are dead, despite all contrary evidence, which understandably makes life a little inconvenient. Sufferers of Anton-Babinksi syndrome on the other hand are physically blind but rather optimistically are convinced that they can see perfectly well, presumably resulting in a lot of bruised shins.

Even people with normal brain function find themselves feeling different emotions and having different thoughts depending on the circumstances at hand. What we choose to do in one moment, may be entirely different from what we might choose in another. One day we might just wake up in a bad mood and behave irritably the whole day, without ever consciously choosing to do so or knowing why.

Relatively small quantities of chemicals can change our brain chemistry and cause us to act in bizarre ways, independent of our wills. People under the influence of psychotropic substances feel and behave differently, often completely contrary to their normal selves. Similarly, alcohol can cause strange things to happen, making other people seem interesting and attractive, despite all evidence otherwise.

Food affects us in many ways. Many of us have the experience of feeling hangry, aka being irritable and grumpy when we’re not well fed, or perhaps before we’ve had our first cup of coffee. We do not choose to feel that way, and our resulting behaviour is often not amongst our finest moments.

But food has other less obvious effects on our personalities.

Numerous studies have linked what we eat to how we behave. A 2014 study suggested that highly processed foods with added sugar may contribute to laziness. It may not be that lazy people eat junk food, but rather that eating junk food makes them lazy. Another experiment showed that people who consumed more trans-fatty acids behaved more aggressively and irritably. Other studies show how foods such as baked goods can be linked to depression. As it turns out, we really are what we eat.

Likewise, sleep has an undeniable effect on our brain chemistry and hence our personalities.

Studies have shown that people with better sleep quality are less neurotic and more extroverted. People who have poor sleep quality on the other hand may suffer from low conscientiousness and a marked decline in agreeableness (so get your beauty sleep for the sake of everyone around you).

Hormones are essentially chemical messengers that travel through the body influencing the nervous system and regulating behaviours. In obvious ways, they affect our behaviour outside of our conscious will.

Amongst other things, testosterone affects a desire for social dominance and power, which often leads to aggressive behaviour. Since males tend to have more testosterone than females, they tend to be more aggressive in general. Males of course do not generally get to choose how much testosterone they have. Too much or too little can result in significant behavioural problems.

A 2001 study by Kevin M. Beaver et al found that males who use anabolic steroids, i.e. synthetic testosterone, were more likely to be involved in violent crimes. Young men tend to experience peaks in criminal behaviour at the same time as their peak testosterone production. Interestingly enough, marriage seems to cause a decline in testosterone production (as well as criminal behaviour). When they get divorced and begin dating again, their testosterone levels rise again (as well as their criminal behaviour!). This is of course not solely the fault of testosterone; at least part of this criminal behaviour can be attributed to the newly single man’s predilection for hanging out at bars, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and trying to impress women.

Of course, the vast majority of testosterone-laden males go through life without committing violent crimes. Giving the average male a testosterone injection is not going to turn him into The Incredible Hulk. That there is an impact on our behaviour is undeniable, but it is not on its own sufficient to cause violence.

Females are of course even worse off when it comes to the seemingly random hormonal vagaries they are subjected to throughout their lifetimes. Every month levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone fluctuate in a woman’s body according to their menstrual cycles. These hormones impact brain chemistry and circuitry, influencing emotions, mood and behaviour outside of conscious control, as many a doting partner will have learned through hard won experience.

Oestrogen impacts levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which are strongly associated with happiness, depression and psychosis. During key events in a female’s life, such as puberty, childbirth and menopause, hormonal changes can cause serious issues ranging from postnatal depression, psychosis and other mental health changes.

Estradiol is a female hormone that appears to play a role in the competitive interactions between women. The higher the level of estradiol, the more power seeking and competitive the woman is with other females (they also tend to be considered more attractive physically).

While women have lower levels of testosterone than men, they are similarly affected by it. Higher levels of testosterone are linked to more verbal aggression, competitiveness, assertiveness, social dominance and risk taking.

Given these facts, it would be quite disingenuous to recognise how much these factors affect our minds and emotions, and still insist that our actions are solely a result of our own free will.

Looking into slightly more exotic situations, case history is littered with examples of criminals who were found to have been born with brain abnormalities, as well as seemingly ordinary people who became murderers or paedophiles after developing brain tumours (and reverted back to normal after having the tumour removed).  

Paedophiles have been found to have IQ’s that are about 8% lower than average, with the age of their victims being correlated with the IQ of the perpetrator. The lower the IQ, the younger the victim. Paedophiles are also generally physically smaller than average, and were found to have suffered twice as many head injuries in their childhood than the average person.

By using MRT (magnetic resonance topography) imaging, it is possible to analyse what happens in their brains. When a paedophile sees a child, the reward centre in their brain’s light up in exactly the same way as a heterosexual man’s does when he sees a woman. By performing such tests, it is possible for researchers to identify with 95% accuracy whether a given subject is a paedophile, given that their responses are beyond their conscious control and cannot be hidden.

This is why medically speaking, paedophilia is classified as an illness by the psychiatric classification system, or if it is not acted upon, simply a sexual orientation. It is easier for society to think of them as evil rather than sick. The impulses that they have as a result of their sickness are unacceptable and must be prevented, but this does not change the fact that they suffer from brain dysfunction, just like other people with brain abnormalities that cause unwanted behaviour.

Tumours can have a variety of strange effects depending on their location. There was the case of Ray Rosenkaimer who woke up one day to find that he could no longer read words or recognise people. Or the case of a woman in Spain who abruptly became ultra-religious and believed that she was conversing face to face with the Virgin Mary.

Barbara Lipska is a neuroscientist who was unfortunate enough to have over 20 tumours growing in her brain. The tumours caused her to behave erratically and make strange decisions. Her personality changed to become aggressive, suspicious, detached and lacking in empathy. In her own words, she became a monster.

Despite having always thought of herself as a person with a specific personality and qualities, she became someone completely different, without realising that anything was unusual, despite being a trained neuroscientist. To her, things were normal, and she was thinking clearly and making rational decisions as she always had, and it was other people who were behaving inexplicably unreasonably. Her conscious brain was unable to see past what her impaired subconscious was telling her.

Thankfully, after intensive courses of treatment, Barbara recovered and went on to write a book about her experiences.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, treatment for tumours can affect personality and behaviour almost as much as the tumours themselves. Chemotherapy, for example, produces cognitive and emotional changes such as memory loss, reduced attention spans, anxiety, depression and fatigue. Biologic therapies cause mood disturbances and impair motor abilities and reasoning skills.

In 2001, an interesting side effect was noted resulting from a medication called pramipexole, used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Some patients reacted to the resulting change in brain chemistry by becoming pathological gamblers. Patients who had rarely gambled before suddenly found themselves flying off to Vegas, with one man racking up over $200,000 in losses over 6 months. Some of them found additional addictions, including compulsive eating, alcoholism and obsession with sex. Pramipexole had affected the brain chemistry involved in risk assessment making them confident the odds were forever in their favour. They weren’t.

Even the tiniest things

Even bacteria can affect our thoughts and emotions.

While you might ordinarily think of bacteria as things to avoid, we actually need them to survive. They are literally part of us, inhabiting just about every part of the human body, living on our skin, in our guts, up our noses, in our mouths, and even in our brains.

There are over 10,000 microbial species sharing our bodies. Trillions of bacteria live in harmony with us, helping us with many vital functions, without which we could not live. We do not have all the enzymes necessary to digest our own diets, so the bacteria in our guts help us break them down, as well as producing vitamins and anti-inflammatories that we can’t produce ourselves.

There are more of these microorganisms living in our bodies than there are human cells, by a factor of 10 to 1, possessing about 360 times more genes than we do (about 99% of the functional genes in our bodies belong to them).

They are relatively small though, so make up only about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass. This means that every time you step on the weighing scale, a few of those pounds can safely be attributed to the bacteria you carry around with you.

In some ways, we can think of ourselves as being cruise ships for bacteria. We transport them around, provide them with all the resources they need, and in return they help us with routine maintenance and affect how we feel, what we think and even what we do.

Like a cruise ship’s manifest, every person’s mix of bacteria is different, containing different species in different proportions. Even genetically identical twins share less than 40% of their gut microbes. For the rest of us, our unique mix tends to be only 25% the same as the next person’s.

The exact mix you have is generally a factor of your mother’s bacterial mix, the environment you are exposed to, as well as your diet and lifestyle. It is also one of the reasons mother’s milk is good for babies – a 2013 study showed that important bacteria was able to travel between mother and child via breast milk to help colonize the baby’s own gut, helping it develop its immune system.

Our gut bacteria in particular are known to have a heavy impact on our wellbeing, affecting our metabolism, our immune system and our mood amongst other things. When our gut bacteria are out of whack, bad things can happen including making you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, various cancers, bowel diseases, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even arthritis.  

Kirsten Tillisch at UCLA conducted research showing that the composition of our various brain regions differ depending on what kind of bacteria are present in our guts. Women with higher levels of Prevotella bacteria demonstrated greater connections between emotional, attentional and sensory brain regions. This made them more sensitive to emotional stresses. When shown negative imagery, these women experienced higher levels of anxiety, distress and irritability than women with less of this bacteria.

A study at Oxford University led by Katerina Johnson found links between gut bacteria and personality. It was observed that a number of species of gut bacteria such as Akkermansia, Lactococcus and Oscillospira were more abundant in individuals with high levels of sociability, and present in lower than average levels in people with autism. On the flipside, people with autism tend to possess high levels of Desulfovibrio and Sutterella bacteria, while in non-autistic individuals high levels of these bacteria are generally found in less sociable individuals tending towards introversion.

This bacterial-personality link can even be seen in infants. Interestingly, it appears that this link is not a one-way street. Just as gut bacteria can affect our personalities and behaviour, so can our behaviour influence the composition of our gut microbiomes.

Given the vital importance of bacteria to our well-being, it is perhaps unfortunate that we live in a world geared towards exterminating every bacterium in sight, whether they are good for us or not. The modern world is rife with antibiotic abuse: a good three quarters of antibiotics in the United States are prescribed for conditions that are untreatable by antibiotics and even more are fed to animals to fatten them or used on crops to manage diseases. Our environments are generally over sanitized and antibacterial washes and detergents are common place. Our diets are generally lacking in fibre, and few of us have much contact with nature or dirt anymore. This lifestyle has an undeniable effect on our gut microbiomes. It is likely that with each generation our gut microbiome diversity is decreasing, and we do not yet know exactly how this may be affecting our well-being.

While we don’t yet fully understand the connection between the bacteria in our body and the thoughts and feelings we experience, it is clear that there is one. Our personalities and fates are inextricably linked to these miniscule passengers that we carry.

In other words, our behaviour cannot be separated from our biology. We cannot behave in a different way than our biology dictates.

It seems even harder then to reconcile the notion of free will, given that anything from having a peanut butter sandwich, a good night’s sleep, chemical and hormonal influences, or the activities of tiny microbes can change your thought processes and decision making without you ever being the wiser.

The psychology of free will

Neuroscientists and philosophers aren’t alone in these findings. Psychologists have also weighed in, conducting research that come to the same conclusions – our minds can make choices without our conscious control.

Psychology is rife with experiments showing people acting like puppets controlled by circumstance, even though on the surface they may appear to be behaving rationally and consciously. There is a distinct cause and effect at play when it comes to human behaviour, and harnessing these levers of influence has become a big business for marketers and salespeople everywhere, as they play with hundreds of variables in the name of manipulating (or more politely, influencing) consumer behaviour.

We see these psychological ploys every day. For example, people want more of things that they can’t have. When something is scarce it automatically becomes more valuable to us, prompting a deluge of limited edition, one time only offers. Another tactic is the use of decoy products. When you have a cheaper product and an expensive product to sell, and you want to sell more of the expensive one, you can add a third product that is the same price as the expensive option but inferior in quality. This tends to make the original expensive product the most appealing option of the three by comparison.

In one famous study by John Bargh, research subjects were asked to solve word puzzles by unscrambling sets of words to make short sentences. Some of the subjects were primed by words that invoked the idea of being old, such as retirement, sunshine, and Florida.

After the experiment ended, researchers secretly timed how fast subjects walked out. Subjects who had been primed walked more slowly than other participants who had received words unrelated to being old. These participants did not make a conscious decision to walk slowly, yet their behaviour was affected by nonconscious processes.

Since then, hundreds of other studies have followed showing similar effects. People can be primed by any number of concepts, colours, sounds and environments to behave in specific ways, independent of their own conscious will. While all of us believe that we are freely, consciously deciding what to do, in reality our behaviour is heavily affected by things outside our awareness.

Daniel Wegner conducted a series of experiments in which he gave subjects an illusion of control over an event, while the results were actually determined by other people. Despite having no actual control, subjects would routinely be convinced that they were consciously causing the events to happen, showing that the illusion of free will was easy to create. The conscious brain is quite happy to take credit for actions that it thinks it has caused, leading to the pervasive illusion of free will that we all experience. If every time you sneeze people start doubling over in laughter, it won’t be long before you’re well and truly convinced that you must have a really comical nose.

The genetics of free will

Geneticists have a lot of interesting research to share in this area as well.

Genes are fundamental to life. Even small changes to genes can make a huge difference.

You are, for example, around 97% genetically identical to a mouse. Swap those 3% of genes, express them the right way, and you’d be the one scurrying around looking for cheese and running your own theme park empire.

You are even closer to chimpanzees, differing by only about 1.2% of your genome.

As for differences between you and your arch nemesis in life, who so cruelly wronged you 5 years ago on that dark and stormy night, whom you cannot begin to ever understand? Turns out that you are 0.1% away from being genetically identical to him, as well as every other human being on the planet.

To put this numerically, we have about 3 billion base pairs in our body, of which only about 3 million separate you from the next guy. For every gene that is different between you and anyone else, 999 of them are identical. Everything that is unique about you, genetically speaking, is in 0.1% of your genetic code.

Most people have no problem accepting that genes, combined with environmental factors, determine your physical attributes. Things genes affect include your height, your colouring, your proportions, your general health and predisposition to various diseases, and your base physical abilities and intelligence.

Yet, genes affect much more than that. Geneticists have found that many psychological experiences are linked with gene-environment interactions, so that people with specific genes are more likely to behave, think and feel a certain way.

The Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research has studied hundreds of pairs of identical twins over decades. Genetically identical twins are ideal for this kind of research because they can lead very different lives post birth, sometimes even being raised apart in different households. This allows researchers to better understand how much is genetic and how much is environmental.

If environment is the primary predictor of personality then you would expect twins raised in the same home to be more similar to each other than twins who have been raised apart. Studies have found instead that differences between such twins are much smaller than expected, indicating that at least for some personality traits, genetics play an important role.

In a famous study by Thomas Bouchard, a pair of twins that had been separated at birth and adopted by two different families were reunited at age 39. Despite having led disconnected lives, they found that both of them had shared interests in mechanical drawing, carpentry and math but disliked spelling. They both smoked and drank similar amounts and got headaches at the same time of the day. Perhaps most amazingly, although probably coincidentally, both had divorced a woman named Linda and remarried a woman named Betty.

Another pair of twins who were separated at 6 months led even more starkly different lives. One of them lived in Germany and was brought up Catholic, eventually joining the Hitler Youth. The other lived in the Caribbean and Israel, and was raised as a Jew. Despite this polar opposite lifestyle, when they were reunited in their 50s it was found that they shared similar thought patterns, had similar walking gaits, similar tastes in food, and common habits such as flushing toilets before they used it.

According to such research, many of our traits are more than 50% genetically determined. This includes leadership, vulnerability to stress, risk seeking behaviours, zest for life, a sense of well-being, and obedience to authority. These findings imply that all things being equal, people are simply prewired to behave and experience life in certain ways.

At the same time, there are certain traits that appear to be more dependent on environment, such as the need for personal intimacy, which is only one-third genetics dependent and two-thirds dependant on experience. The more physical and emotional intimacy a person receives in their formative years, the more likely this trait will be developed, with such people having a strong desire for social closeness and emotionally intense relationships. Those who have neither the inherited trait nor the emotional intimacy from experience on the other hand, tend to grow up to become lone wolves that keep to themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, there aren’t really any good or bad genes. Rather, large number of genes work in combination, making inheritance a complex matter. This is why children may share part of the genetic code from each parent, but on the whole miss out on an entire trait, e.g. two tall parents may have a short child and two introverted parents may end up with an extroverted toddler.

At the same time, environment and context still matter a great deal irrespective of genetics. According to research by Ariel Knafo, the same gene (DRD4-7R for those who want to look it up on their own genome map) that contributes to a person being more prone to alcoholism, violence and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also contributes to the trait of kindness.

DRD4-7R isn’t alone. There are many other examples of dualistic genes that can be the root of both good and evil. Which traits get activated depends very much on the environment and experiences of the person, often at an early age.

The Dunedin study is one the most impressive studies to date on human development, providing immense insight into what makes us who we are.

Since 1972, researchers have been following a group of 1,093 subjects from a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, all born in the same year at Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in the city of Dunedin in New Zealand.

Beginning at age 3, and repeating every few years, participants undergo day long assessments where reams of psychological, medical and lifestyle data are collected.

Amazingly, 95% of the original participants are still involved, an impressive feat considering these subjects are now widely spread out across the globe, with hugely varied lives – some becoming doctors and some ending up in prison.

There have been over 1,200 scientific papers published to date using data from the Dunedin study. Many of these studies have shown how environmental surroundings can trigger genetic responses.

For example, some of the boys in the study grew up in abusive environments. It was found that among these abused children, those that were genetically prone to make low levels of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A), were much more likely to become violent adults. The combination of their genes and their environment resulted in long term personality effects.

The study also found that contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of people experience mental health issues at least on occasion over their lifetimes. These issues tend to be linked to early temperament and personality factors that can be identified early on in life.

Children who are more sociable, less emotionally reactive and have higher levels of self-control, and had no family members with psychiatric disorders are generally the most likely to get through life without significant mental issues. Surprisingly, factors such as physical health, intelligence or wealth seemed to be unrelated.

But perhaps one of the most unfortunate findings of the study was from a retrospective look of the study members at age 45. By this stage in life, about a fifth of the study participants were socially dysfunctional, and responsible for 80% of the crime, hospitalizations, fatherless child-rearing, heavy cigarette purchases and welfare claims of the entire group. They even seemed to age faster than others in the study, probably due to the stress they experienced.

Having identified this poorly performing cohort, researchers traced them back to their origins, all the way back to age 3, and looked at the data. Even at age 3 these people had scored low on early language skills, fine and gross motor skills, neurological health and self-control, as well as often growing up in poverty-stricken environments and being the victims of abuse. It seems that these people never had a chance. They started disadvantaged, and these disadvantages simply compounded over time. They never had an option to break free.  

Putting all these studies together, the bottom line is that genes alone do not determine who or what we will become (identical twins are not carbon copies of each other), but they do lay out probable pathways and set limitations for us that are hard (or sometimes impossible) to overcome.

No matter what our environments, most of us in the end will tend to lean towards certain inbuilt traits such as introversion or extroversion, specific risk appetites, positivity for life, aggressiveness, as well as natural ability. These can be modified by your environment but not completely shaken.

The illusion of free will

Adding up everything that we have learned so far, it seems that if you knew where to look, if you understood your brain’s architecture and chemistry well enough, you would be able to find specific reasons for every thought and action you take, other than your own free will. Your GEBE leads to specific thought processes, and a specific set of perspectives, values, knowledge, ethics and biases that determine the entirety of how you think and behave.

Whether it is nature or nurture, in whatever proportion, we are a product of them both and nothing else, and importantly we choose neither. We do not choose any of the forces that shape us, and we do not choose what we become. The unique brain structure and chemistry within each of our heads are not choices, they are simply the cards that we are dealt.

We have examined the case against free will from multiple perspectives. We’ve looked at it genetically, psychologically, philosophically and neurologically; pretty much everything but cosmetologically.

Whichever way we have looked at it, it seems that everything that we are is determined by our GEBE, and free will is a mere illusion, albeit an incredibly convincing one. The only real evidence we in fact have for free will is that we feel with every fibre of our beings that it is so. Unfortunately, just because an illusion feels real does not make it so. David Copperfield cannot really fly.

The revelation that there is no free will is likely to be disconcerting to many people.

We all intuitively feel that we are in full control of our thoughts. That is after all the whole point. The illusion of free will is built into us by design. It is by nature how we function and progress as humans.

It seems easy to think of plants, bacteria and other relatively simple life forms as being sacks of proteins and chemicals with no free will, but it’s much harder to see ourselves that way, even though we are made from the same atoms and governed by the same physical laws.

The illusion of free will is powerful, and it exists for a reason. Without suitable examination, the conclusions people come to from piercing the illusion of free will can be dangerous and destructive. We are designed to operate under this illusion, and once the illusion is removed, bad things can happen.

An Israeli philosophy professor, Saul Smilanksy, feels that this knowledge is so dangerous that it should be kept hidden from society. He advocates a view he calls illusionism, which is the realisation that free will is an illusion, but one that nevertheless should be defended by society. This knowledge is too dangerous to be disseminated to the general public, and should be kept within ivory towers.

In other words, even though we know it to be false, society would be better off if everyone continued to believe it to be true.

His concerns are not without merit.

In 2008, Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler ran an experiment to see what would happen if people lost belief in their ability to choose.

One group of participants was asked to read a passage arguing that free will was an illusion, while the other read a neutral passage.

The participants were then given a variety of tasks to test whether their belief in free will would influence their decisions.

The results were clear. Given a math test in an environment that made cheating easy, the group primed to see free will as an illusion were more likely to do so. Subsequently, given an opportunity to take more than their fair share of payment, they did so too, taking far more than non-primed participants. Just by weakening their belief in free will through brief exposure to an article, people became reliably more inclined to cheat.

Other experiments showed equally unpleasant results. A 2009 study by Baumeister et al found that inducing disbelief in free will caused participants to behave more aggressively and reduced their willingness to help others. Such participants were less likely to volunteer to help a person in need, or to give money to a homeless person, while more likely to inflict suffering on others.

Another experiment in 2012 by Alquist et al, showed that participants who lacked belief in free will were less likely to have autonomous and independent thoughts.

A 2014 experiment by MacKenzie et al suggested that disbelief in free will caused people to become less grateful. This is somewhat intuitive – if you do not believe that other people are capable of free will, you may not be particularly grateful for whatever favours they do for you; they had no choice but to do so after all. It is the same reason you don’t feel much gratitude when a coffee machine goes to the trouble of brewing your favourite drink.

On the flipside, multiple studies have shown positive benefits from the belief in free will.

Amongst other things, strong belief in free will seems to lead to more gratitude (MacKenzie et al), better life satisfaction (Li et al), a greater sense of self-efficacy as well as greater perceived meaning in life (Crescioni et al). Belief in free will even seems to enhance performance, with belief in free will being a predictor of better academic performance (Feldman et al), career attitudes as well as actual job performance (Stillman et al).

Taken together, these findings suggest that once people realise they have no free will, they are liable to interpret this to mean that they are not responsible for their actions and their lives accordingly have less meaning. This can cause them to start behaving irresponsibly, give in to their urges more easily and feel less compulsion to strive or to behave altruistically – a ‘why bother?’ attitude starts coming into play.

The surface interpretation of a lack of free will can indeed be somewhat fatalistic.

Why should we bother trying, if everything is already decided for us? Why not just do whatever we want, since we aren’t responsible for our actions anyway? Why do the right thing, since none of our achievements are really our own?

Equally, it is not hard to imagine that people who have done well in life may be displeased to learn that they are not quite as responsible for their brilliance and success as they would have liked to believe.

On the flipside, people who have not done so well in life may feel that this is comforting news and a good reason to sit back and let the chips fall where they may. They did not succeed simply because they were not given the conditions to succeed. C’est la vie.

None of these views are a particularly helpful way of going about life, nor are they factually correct.

At this point you would be well justified in wondering why you just spent a considerable amount of time and effort being disabused of the notion of free will, if the knowledge just leads to ruin? Why not leave you blissfully unaware?

The truth is that understanding the illusion of free will is a vital part of understanding who and what we are as humans. Taken the wrong way this knowledge may become an unhelpful burden that leads to destructive behaviour. With proper understanding however, comes superpowers that allow us to live happier, more effective lives.

What we have learned so far could be cynically phrased this way:

We are all prisoners of our own minds, trapped within walls that we cannot see, a slave to our programming and animal instincts, living a life on rails that seems full of dips and turns but is in reality straight as an arrow, leading us to the only destination that is possible for each of us. The human mind is capable of great things, but only those that it is programmed for, and those that circumstances see fit to make possible.

This rather bleak sounding truth is where people start getting confused.

People take this to mean that they have no power to influence their own futures, or that their own actions are meaningless. They become resigned to the whims of fate, believing that events are inevitable and nothing that they do can make a difference. Why fight against the inevitable when the outcome has already been determined?

Let’s break this down carefully.

The fact that the world is a deterministic place does not in any way suggest that it is a fatalistic, predetermined place.

Determinism simply means that everything has a cause and effect. All events happen because of previously existing causes.

The physical world is bound by such determinism and is why mankind has been able to harness the natural laws of chemistry, physics and biology to shape the world as we see fit.

The Universe is pretty reliable when it comes to natural laws. Every single particle within the known Universe obeys exactly the same laws. Nature doesn’t play favourites. If you do A, B will always happen. Add X to Y and you will always get Z. When you understand these incontrovertible laws, you can use them to great effect.

Less obviously, as we have seen, determinism also applies to our choices and who we are as individuals. We are who we are because of our GEBE and nothing else. Cause and effect. We are not free to act in any other way than the way that we actually do, no matter what it feels like to us. Under a specific set of circumstances, at a specific point of time, if you face Alfred with a particular choice, he will always make the same one.

It is therefore true that there is a certain destiny to everything, in the sense that given a certain set of conditions, there is only one possible outcome. Destiny here does not mean that somewhere out there in an ancient temple there lies a dusty old book containing the prophecy of the Chosen One who will bring balance to the books, and that is why you will become an accountant. There is no sword in the stone waiting to be pulled for you to claim your throne.

Destiny here simply means that if you add three and three together it is always 'destined' that the result will equal six. If you drop a large rock it will fall. If you drop it on your foot, it will hurt. And if you drop it on Bob’s foot, a specific chain of electrical and chemical reactions are going to take place in Bob’s brain, neurons will fire and given his particular GEBE, Bob is going to punch you in the face.

If you knew all the starting conditions of everything within a specific environment and all the laws guiding cause and effect for everything within that system, you would always be able to perfectly predict what happens next. Fortunately, this is not the case for life in general, or things would be pretty boring.

The world at large is infinitely complex, with an untold number of seemingly but not actually random events going on at the same time. Each of these events has a distinct cause and an effect. Every action a person takes can be traced back to specific roots. Since we can’t possibly know everything, it is impossible for us to fully appreciate or understand the causes of everything that happens, or to predict what will happen in the future. We do not even know what we ourselves are going to do, much less predict the course of fate at large.

The lack of free will absolutely does not mean that your choices have no meaning. Every choice you make has the power to affect your experiences and those of others. History is littered with people who have made outsized impacts on the world. Just because their conscious wills weren’t necessarily in charge does nothing to diminish their impact.

Taking a fatalistic view is completely missing the point of free will. It is essentially confusing the deterministic fact that three plus three will always equal six, with the fatalistic idea that the answer will be six no matter what; whether it is ten plus eight, two plus five or pi to the power of 88, the answer will always be six. This is obviously incorrect.

We are deterministic beings, living in a deterministic world. But life itself is absolutely in no way predetermined. There are countless variables in play.

Every choice that you make is part of the chain of destiny.

Let’s say you are crossing some train tracks and are suddenly struck with a major case of existentialism. You start thinking about the concept of free will as you hear warning bells ring, signalling the approaching train. If, as a result of a fatalistic interpretation you choose to stand still and do nothing, believing fate to be predetermined, that is in itself a choice that you have made, according to your GEBE at the time. It may not have been a conscious choice but it was nevertheless a choice, albeit the last choice you may ever make.

If you had had a slightly different GEBE at the time, with a different interpretation of the issue, you would realise that the outcome of this moment does indeed matter, and simply continue walking into your future, going on to lead a long and fruitful life, complete with a loving spouse, 2.5 children and a dog named Tex.

Your choices matter. Everything you think matters. Everything you do matters.

The important thing to realise is that everything that goes through your mind, whether conscious or not, is itself an input to your GEBE. There is a feedback loop at play here. Your conscious thoughts inform your subconscious thoughts and vice versa. Your neural configuration changes depending on its inputs, whether it is external stimulus from outside sources, or internal thoughts inside your mind.

The act of deliberate conscious thinking is an entirely necessary and integral process, even though the resulting conclusion may not be delivered by the conscious mind. Without conscious thought, you just couldn’t function.

The bad news is that this means you can’t just coast through life on autopilot, expecting good tidings at every corner. On the contrary, once you finish this book you can expect to be putting in even more conscious effort than before if you want to get the most out of what life has to offer.

The good news is that really understanding free will is a very useful superpower, allowing us to navigate life with our eyes wide open and hopefully enjoy the most scenic route possible on this journey we call life.

External Superpowers

So how should we best use this knowledge?

The illusion of free will is all pervading. It doesn’t benefit us to deny ourselves of this illusion and operate as if we were simply robots receiving directives and reacting to stimuli. We are not, and operating as if we were would quickly lead to some nasty problems.

It would also be impossible to do so effectively, requiring an infinite loop of second guessing your own thoughts. You would need to think about what you are thinking, before you think it.

Rather ironically, we believe in free will because we have no choice in the matter. The illusion is necessary for us to effectively operate as humans, while at the same time being entirely untrue. Trying to live beyond the veil is fraught with paradoxes.

It is ultimately impossible and undesirable to bypass our core design. We were built this way and we need to play the game of life with the cards we have been dealt.

We can however use our knowledge to rearrange the cards to our advantage.

As we all know, there are two types of people in the world: you and everybody else. We need to view the two separately; after all, you are the central protagonist in the movie of your life and need a little special treatment.  

Draw a mental sphere around yourself and take a look outside it.

There’s a lot of people on the other side. Look at them going about their daily lives. Different ages, faces, sexes, personalities, backgrounds and nationalities, each of them with their own unique GEBE cocktail resulting in who they are today. Examine the behaviour of your friends, your mentors, random people on the street.

All of these people feel they have free will but none of them actually have it. Since we can’t feel what they feel, it is easier for us to impartially see them as beings without free will. We can begin to comprehend that they are deterministic beings, thinking and behaving the way that they do according to their GEBE. We can start to see the patterns in their behaviour. They are what they are, and they do what they do, because they have no other choice.

As soon as we fully understand this fundamental truth we are immediately freed from the tyranny of many negative emotions. Immediately, empathy and understanding can be used to replace a host of emotional burdens that people shackle themselves with. We no longer need to agonise over why people behave the way they do because we know precisely why – their GEBE.

Once we realise that every single person on the planet is behaving in the only way they know how to, literally the only way they are able to under their circumstances, we lose any incentive to blame, envy, hate, or be upset by anyone else. We might as well rage at a rock on the road for being in our way. Neither they nor the rock can behave in any other way or be anything other than what they are.

It is incredibly freeing to realise that none of what happens to you is truly personal, or even about you. You don't feel too offended when an Asperger’s patient curses at you because you know he isn't in control. In a slightly different way, nobody else is in control either. Everyone around you is reacting to their circumstances in the only way that they are able to and your emotional reactions towards them should account for that. By doing so, you are able to see problems in a healthier light without turning them into emotional disasters.

You can be sure that whatever it is that someone is doing to upset you, disappoint you or infuriate you, they are doing so because that is the only choice that is available to them. Their GEBE compels them to act a certain way, and from their perspective of the world they are undoubtedly doing the best that they can.

If we had their GEBE we would act in exactly the same way as them under these circumstances. And even without their GEBE, we are remarkably similar to each other in so many ways. None of us have ever gone through life without ever doing anything selfish, or had a bad attitude on a bad day, or been petty or mean at some point. Hopefully you aren’t unlucky enough to be doing these things on a regular basis, but spare a thought for those that are, even if they annoy the hell out of you.

This superpower gives us emotional distance from people and events, allowing us to see them from a different perspective and with not quite the same self-importance as before. It allows us to judge less and be more compassionate.

After all, given a truly free choice, would anyone really choose to be an asshole?

Surely, this is not a very logical choice to make. Assholes generally do not have the most pleasant life experiences. Sure, some assholes may appear to revel in being assholes, but the fact is that they only behave in this way because their GEBE mandates them to do so. They have no choice in the matter. They did not wake up one day and decide to be assholes. Equally they cannot suddenly decide not to be assholes overnight. There is no asshole switch that they can toggle. Even if there were, it would not be their free choice whether to toggle it or not.

Somewhat unfortunately for them, as far as the destiny of cause and effect is concerned, they were literally born to be assholes, and they can be no other way until their GEBE evolves accordingly. The chain of circumstances and events in their lives inevitably led to them to become who they are today.

Hopefully you will agree that this is quite an unlucky thing, much like being born with a severe disability, only with your personality. Accordingly, there is a degree of pity warranted, even as you fume at their sheer assholery.

For that matter, if you interviewed a group of children and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, it is somewhat unlikely that any would choose to be child abusers, cruel dictators, corrupt politicians, murderers or paedophiles. These are not pleasant things to be. Even the vilest, most heinous people to ever live were led there by a series of experiences, circumstances and genetics that they had no control over.

While there is absolutely no doubt that the actions of such wretched beings are wrong and that they must be prevented from harming others, it is also beneficial to realise that ultimately it does not make sense to blame or hate anyone when they have no real choice in the matter. Literally, they aren’t able to do any better. Many people go through life with the excruciating feeling of wishing that they aren’t who they are.

We often think that people we interact with ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be this way or that; they should be more polite, they should be more competent, they should be more ethical, they should treat us better, they shouldn’t be so selfish, they shouldn’t be so rude. But with the understanding of free will and cause and effect, we know that there is no should or shouldn’t. There is only what is. They could not possibly behave in the way that you think they should because it is literally not possible for them to do so.

Perhaps most of all, it is important to realise that it is but for the tiniest quirk of fate that you are not them in the first place. Should you have had his or her GEBE, should you have been born in their circumstances, you would absolutely behave in the same way and you’d be an asshole too. If your consciousness was somehow placed in their minds, you would be having the exact same thoughts and reactions as them, since you would be bound by the exact same conditions.

This makes it easier to empathise with others and be calm in upsetting situations. Instead of getting overly upset, you can instead focus on being happy that you aren’t them.

Of course, this is not always straightforward. Like any technique you learn in life, it takes time and practice to master this superpower. No matter how well you logically understand the facts, you may never fully internalise them given that the free will illusion is programmed deep within us. It is simply not intuitive to see people as automatons acting without free will.

In the heat of the moment it can be particularly difficult to be enlightened and understanding about the man attacking you with a machete. Whether his actions are consciously directed or not is not the most pressing item on the agenda. Negative feelings and reactions will inevitably rise when unpleasant events happen, no matter how logically you think about things.

However, once things have cooled down, it can be very valuable to see events in their proper perspective. Often an actual event might be brief, but the emotional impact can last a very long time – the right perspective can save you years of anguish.

Let’s say you live in a soap opera and have just found out that your best friend has betrayed you, stolen your life savings, slandered you to the entire village and kidnapped your dog, cat and hamster.

This is quite upsetting. Someone you trusted deeply has vindictively taken everything from you, all because the tall, dark and handsome Raul loves you and not her.

In the days and weeks that follow, you keep running over the events in your head, over and over again, strengthening the memory and the emotional impact. The more you think about it, the more you feel wronged, and your anger at your former best friend grows stronger and stronger. This leads you to lash out angrily, which just makes things worse, leading to more retribution and a never-ending cycle of hate, eventually leading to a blood vendetta between your families over the next 3 generations.

Meanwhile, your emotional wounds never heal, and whenever you have a quiet moment to yourself you find yourself in a deep dark place agonising over what happened. How could she have done that? Why would anyone behave that way? After all you did for her, what kind of scum would be so ungrateful?

The actual event and its aftermath take place over a short period, but the mental and emotional scars last for years.

Not only are you unable to properly address the situation in your anger and frustration, but bitterness seeps in and you gradually become a negative, cynical person, wasting countless hours of your life dwelling on long past wrongs.

Now say you had understood the free will concept when the betrayal happened. Undoubtedly, the initial event would still be upsetting. In the heat of the moment, you might still be inclined to go ballistic. Chances are though that knowing what you do now, your reactions would be a little more composed.

At the very least, once the initial shock had passed, you would have time to carefully consider the situation and see your best friend in a more objective manner. You would realise that her unpleasant reaction was the only possible choice that she could have made given the triggering circumstances and her GEBE.

Even without knowledge of her genetics, you know enough of her background to make her actions unsurprising. Her family was fragmented, and her father had left when she was a child, leaving her with severe abandonment issues and a deep-seated need for love and acceptance.  

These patterns had formed and strengthened over her lifetime, bolstered by people she had been influenced by and the culture of the times. Each step had led to the next, each building block adding on to her GEBE and shaping her. She did not choose her genetics, she did not choose her parents, nor did she choose any of her formative experiences. Ultimately, she did not choose the resultant personality that eventually betrayed you.

When she realised that the man she loved, loved you instead, she reacted in the only way that she knew how to, by lashing out with as much venom as she could muster. Her brain acted according to its inbuilt and learned thought patterns, resulting in her regrettable actions. Had she been more aware of her own automated patterns she might have had the chance to take pause, but alas, she was not.

Thinking about things from this perspective, you are able to take a step back and realise how lucky you are not to be born in her circumstances or have her GEBE. You realise that had the tables been turned, if you had been in her situation, you would absolutely have done exactly the same thing, for you could have done nothing else.

Knowing this, you can be much calmer and even feel some empathy for your former best friend. You can take things less personally. You may still need to take action against her to prevent further escalation, but you will not do so clouded by blind hatred or anger.

Most importantly, you are able to heal and move on from the incident much faster than you otherwise would have. You are able to find peace. You find there is absolutely no point raging at something that could have been no other way. It would be the same as carrying out a 50-year vendetta against a hurricane that blew your house down. Neither the hurricane nor your best friend was capable of anything else under the circumstances, and neither of them had any choice in who or what they were.

Freed from unnecessary negative emotions and the resulting drain on your energy, you are able to use that time and energy on positive things, further reinforcing the positive cycle. The incident passes by as an unfortunate but brief experience, and leaves no lasting emotional scars.

While most of us hopefully aren’t faced with quite so much drama, the principle is the same. We often let the behaviour of others disturb us beyond all reasonable proportion, attributing all sorts of evil intent to their actions and making things extremely personal, whether they are or not.

This perspective on free will advocates an attitude of empathy, forgiveness and understanding, and denounces the need for hatred, envy, blame and unnecessary judgement.

While this sounds very cuddly, it is important to note that this is not a blanket kumbaya call for unconditional peace and love on earth (although that would not be a bad thing were it possible). It is simply the only logical perspective that can be taken once you understand the nature of free will. It is the best approach not only because raging against figurative rocks on the road is futile, but also because it is much healthier and more advantageous for you. It is the only sensible way to approach life as it makes you happier, more effective, and frees you from unnecessary distress. The mental and emotional anguish you subject yourself to is usually far worse than anything that anyone else can do to you.

It is also very important to understand that just because you ultimately cannot blame anyone for their actions, it does not mean that the actions themselves are not bad, or that action should not be taken against perpetrators of bad deeds.

Free choice has absolutely nothing to do with whether an action is good or bad. Objectively, there are good deeds and bad deeds.

A man who tortures and kills innocents has done exactly that, whatever the circumstances that led him down this path.

Objectively, this man is exceedingly unlucky to be himself. Whether he went on his murder spree because of a tumour pressing on his brain, or simply because he had the wrong combination of genetics and life experiences, it is at the same time true that he had no choice in the matter, and that he is a murderer and must be stopped.

It does however change the narrative from one of retribution and punishment to one of containment.

For the greater good it is imperative that people who cause harm to others are prevented from doing so. If a person is wired in such a way that he or she will cause harm to others then they must be stopped, whether through deterrents, containment or rehabilitation. The purpose is simply to safeguard the greater good rather than a tit for tat, blow for blow mission of vengeance.

If someone seeks to cause harm to us or others within our circle of influence, there is real power in being able to see the situation with the objectivity that this perspective gives us. We bring more empathy and compassion to the table and are able to take effective action without being clouded by undue negative emotions.

Internal Superpowers

We have seen how to apply the free will perspective to other people. Now let’s take a look inside our mental sphere, at ourselves.

Logically we are no different from anyone else and similarly lack free will, but it is unnecessary for us to dwell on the implications too much other than to understand that we are who we are because of our GEBE.

Accordingly, we can cut ourselves some slack and treat ourselves with a little more compassion.

If you have struggled in life, and struggled with yourself, know that that is fine. And if you have done well, that is fine too.

There is very little that we are actually in conscious control over and consequently there is little point in feeling overly superior about your achievements, or too despondent and self-critical when things don’t go your way. Similarly, there’s not too much point in judging or envying other people.

Everybody has ups and downs. You are human, and as a result you are fallible. Ultimately, no one is immune from suffering in life, no matter how lucky or gifted you are.

That being said, this doesn’t mean you can sit back and see where the fates take you. As we have established previously, your choices matter. Your success and happiness in life depend very much on the choices you make, irrespective of whether they originate in your conscious mind.

It is absolutely, without a doubt, 100% possible for you to improve yourself and your circumstances. In fact, it is a certainty that you will change; you cannot possibly be the same person in ten years that you are today. Whether the change is for better or for worse depends on how your GEBE evolves. This means that you need to actively evolve your GEBE in a positive manner.

Obviously, there is nothing we can naturally do about our genetics, but we can certainly point ourselves in the right direction when it comes to experiences and environment. We are programmable beings. Good inputs conditions will generally result in good outcomes. Rubbish in, rubbish out.

There’s a reason your mum didn’t want you hanging out with those naughty boys on the corner. Like it or not, whether consciously or not, everything you experience impacts you in some way. Circumstances play a big role in shaping you.

Imagine a room full of investment bankers, next to a room full of doctors, next to a room full of politicians, business tycoons, dancers, movie stars, lawyers, accountants, construction workers and so on. If you examined each room in turn, purely based on job title alone you could probably reel off a list of stereotypical personality traits and you might not be incredibly far off on average, even though you knew absolutely nothing about each of the individuals in question.

Is it that only certain personalities get drawn into each career type? Or that the culture, environment and nature of the job causes ever adaptable humans to morph into the appropriate moulds? Likely it is both; another example of GEBE in action. Stay in any environment long enough and like it or not, you will adapt.

Similarly, you can take people born in a specific time period (baby boomers, Gen X, Y, millennials, etc), or a specific geographical region and immediately paint the average member with certain stereotypical traits. This can only be because of environmental influences.

It therefore makes all the sense in the world for you to actively seek out positive knowledge, environments, people and experiences. Be aware of who and what you surround yourself with – they will shape who you become.

Even small things matter. As fully-grown adults, we generally believe ourselves to be able to differentiate right from wrong, to separate fiction from reality, and stay true to our own values and opinions. Certainly, we believe ourselves to be immune to minor influences, and not get swayed by trivial things such as the TV shows that we watch.

Unfortunately, history has shown this not to be the case.

In the 1980’s, a specific situation in Italy created the opportunity for researchers to single out the effect of TV programming on society. Prior to 1976, Italian airwaves had been closed and dominated by the highly regarded public broadcaster RAI, which had a reputation for quality content with an educational mission. In 1976 however, broadcasting regulations began to be relaxed in stages, first allowing private channels to broadcast at a local level in limited markets, and gradually expanding until eventually in 1984 full private broadcasting at the national level was allowed.

Riding in on these newly opening airwaves came a channel called Mediaset (founded by Silvio Berlusconi, known for his populist politics and brash personality, who would later go on to become Prime Minister of Italy). It entered the market with a single-minded focus on appealing to the lowest common denominator, focusing primarily on light, lowbrow entertainment, sports, soap operas, movies and cartoons, eschewing most informative or educational forms of programming.

Access to Mediaset was rolled out across the country in stages, some towns gaining access earlier than others, over a number of years. This allowed researchers to compare otherwise equivalent towns to determine the effect of Mediaset’s programming on society. By analysing broadcast-transmitter data and cross referencing it with a whole host of other data, it was found that there was a clear difference on multiple dimensions between markets that had received Mediaset programming earlier vs. later. Notably, Mediaset influenced areas were much more likely to vote for populist political parties.

That the news media can influence our opinions is somewhat intuitive. Multiple studies have shown how Fox News in the US has had a measurable boost on Republican support or how the independent Russian channel NTV has had a negative impact on support for Vladimir Putin. Obviously if you keep hearing the same message over and over again, some of it is likely to seep in, free will or not.

The Mediaset case study is however somewhat different, since for the period under study, none of the programming Mediaset broadcast was political in nature. In fact, news programs were not introduced at all until 1991. It was not that people were being bombarded with partisan political messaging, or encouraged to vote in a specific way. Rather it was that exposure to such programming changed the cultural environment, and fundamentally changed who the viewers were as individuals; naturally, this change went on to affect their political preferences.

Quite disturbingly, it was found that individuals who were first exposed to Mediaset as children suffered a negative impact on cognitive abilities as adults, as measured by standardized numeracy and literacy tests; light entertainment had literally made them dumber. These same individuals were also found to have significantly lower levels of civic engagement than those without such influence. Part of these declines may have been due to opportunity cost. Every hour that they spent watching mindless shows on TV is one where their minds weren’t being stimulated, weren’t receiving positive inputs and weren’t socialising.

Exposure to shallow programming turned them into shallow adults, both cognitively and culturally, and hence more susceptible to populist rhetoric. Parties that catered to less educated and less civic minded voters naturally benefitted from the Mediaset effect.

Without anyone noticing, an entire country’s thinking and culture shifted.

This example helps illustrate how important it is for us to curate what we are exposed to and how we process our experiences. Even the most subtle background experiences in our life can have a big cumulative effect on who we become.

Nowadays of course it’s not just TV that informs us. Social media influences are everywhere. It’s quite hard to avoid, since there are literally groups of people who identify themselves as ‘social media influencers’. They do what it says on the tin. Their sole purpose is to influence you and sell you (often fictitious) lifestyles, products and life expectations. Memes go viral and suddenly the whole world is aware of how important the latest fad, product, catch phrase or behaviour is. Equally,we are now regularly kept informed about all the offensive things that we need to feel insulted about, and it has become common to find people raging mightily over concepts that they only learned about 5 minutes ago.

Influencers just as influences can be negative just as easily as they can be positive. Be aware of who and what you follow because that will affect who you become. If there is some mindless entertainment that you wouldn't want your baby sister to be watching then it's a good bet you shouldn't be either no matter how entertaining or fascinating they may be.

What constitutes a good experience takes on a slightly different light from the free will perspective. Knowing that everything we encounter contributes to who we are, it is wise to be more selective. Not everything you put yourself through for money, status, power or fun is going to be worth it if it turns you into an asshole or worse. Wealth that comes at the cost of your good character, happiness and relationships is not wealth at all. Do not make the mistake of risking valuable things that you have for things that you don’t need.

Much like we instinctively guide children towards good experiences and try to prevent them from being exposed to bad influences, we must put effort into doing the same for ourselves. We may think we’re mature and rational enough to be surrounded by toxicity and remain unaffected but we are not. We cannot swim through ink and not get stained. We need to curate our experiences, the activities we partake in, the careers we embark on, the people we surround ourselves with and the knowledge we seek. What you think about and experience is what makes you you, so carefully supervise yourself, just as you would guide a child. By making an active effort to shape your GEBE, you start a positive feedback loop that builds on itself. Positivity begets positivity. Seek out the appropriate environment, influences and experiences to become the person you want to be.

In other words, if you aspire to be a ruthless, aggressive, political, conniving mercenary, then you probably shouldn’t spend all your time hanging around Buddhist monks.

Not all rivers lead to the same sea. Not all ponds are worth swimming in. Seek out the right environment for yourself.

Of course, you can’t always make big life changing moves in the name of moulding yourself, but big moves are not always necessary. Simply by seeking out the right books to read, talking to the right people or even just by being in the right frame of mind, your perspective and thoughts can evolve. By focusing your thoughts on the right things you can filter the experiences you have, even if you can’t choose the actual events that happen.

The more you do this, the more you are able to shape yourself in a positive way. Instead of passively going through life day by day, actively seek to evolve your GEBE and see things from a healthy perspective. We will explore this in more detail later on.

A certain degree of introspection is also welcome. We have seen how your thoughts stem from your GEBE. Knowing that your opinions are based on previously determined patterns, it is often a good idea to pause and question yourself.

Am I thinking this way because it is the most reasonable way to think, or simply because it is my default pattern?

Am I doing this because it is the right thing to do or because I am automatically responding the way I always do?

Am I reacting in a rational way? Can I trace this back to a previous experience that is clouding my judgement?

Is this instant liking/disliking/fear/attraction/disgust of this new person/situation something that is warranted or is it an irrational reaction stemming from default patterns?

By taking a beat to question your default reactions you can break free of some of the less desirable patterns formed from your GEBE.

Differences are immaterial

As a bonus, an understanding of these concepts also shines a light on how nonsensical divisive issues like race, nationality, sexuality, politics, religion or which football team you support really are.

You are but a few atoms away from being on the other side of the argument.

Obviously, no one has a choice what race, nationality or colour to be born as, but as we now know, there is little choice in much else either. Research shows that genetics alone can heavily influence attitudes like political leanings or the likelihood that a given person is religious. Life experiences and environment account for the rest.

If all I told you about Alex was that he was born and grew up in the deep south of the United States, you would immediately be able to guess his religious position, his political views, his values and even what types of sports he would be interested in. Likewise, if I told you that Adnan was born and grew up in a small village in Pakistan you would immediately be able to do the same for him. You might not get specifics right, but on average you have a decent shot at reasonable accuracy.

Such uniformity makes it quite obvious that none of these things are remotely free choices.

Let’s say you and a friend watch a movie together, and immediately have starkly opposing viewpoints. One of you feels the movie is a work of genius and the other feels it is trash of the highest order. You start debating the merits of the movie and the more each of you digs in, the more you feel you must defend your positions to the death.

But where did your opinions come from in the first place? Just like any of your thoughts, they appear in your mind preformed as a result of your GEBE. There isn’t really anything special about the opinion, other than that it happened to be the one presented to you at that point in time.

Consequently, taking someone’s differing opinion (on any matter) as a personal affront is quite unnecessary. They can’t choose what they think any more than you can. And yet so often people find themselves incensed that other people have the bare faced audacity to have a belief or opinion that differs from their own. It is not enough that you hold a belief yourself. Everyone else must agree too, or else.

When handled badly, differences in opinion have a tendency to snowball into gigantic ideological divisions that can never be resolved. Emotions are stoked, the very mention of the subject gets peoples’ hearts racing and defences up. Instead of a reasoned, friendly discussion, it becomes a hunger games scenario, where there can be only one survivor.

Put large numbers of people with shared beliefs together and this becomes immeasurably worse. It doesn’t really matter whether the belief in question is factually correct, or for that matter, even based in reality. By enclosing themselves in an echo chamber of agreeableness, people become even more convinced of the correctness of their views, and by extension, the incorrectness of those of others. Unfortunately, such groups sometimes develop the inclination to educate everyone else on the errors of their ways, sometimes politely, sometimes through mass genocide.

In the end, there's really only one type of person that exists in the world: one that you partially agree with. There's literally no one earth that you agree with or disagree with completely on every single matter. Even the worst, strangest, most different person you can imagine shares something in common with you, even if it’s only a love of cream cakes. And even your most revered idol will surely do or say things you disagree with from time to time. And this is fine. There is no need to take disagreements to heart.

By understanding the free will perspective, all these differences become emotionally immaterial. It becomes unnecessary and unproductive to take differences of opinion personally, or to require that others think the same way as you. Neither of you have a choice in your opinions. You think what you think, the only thing it is possible for you to think, just as they do.

This perspective allows you to be open minded and level headed; negative emotions do not come into play, since neither of you needs to be attached to your opinion. Irrespective of how it feels, your opinion is merely a function of your GEBE and not guaranteed to be right, and neither is theirs.

With this mind-set it becomes infinitely easier to exchange ideas rationally, and accept opposing viewpoints. Free from ego and emotion, you can educate each other and hopefully come to the best rational conclusion.

The perfect solution is not always possible, since there often is no single best or right answer to life’s complex problems, especially when other people are concerned. But this approach will get you closer and even when no agreement is possible, it will allow you to live and let live, without the burden of emotional negativity.

Eating our cake

As a final note, it might seem somewhat paradoxical that we have no free will and are yet apparently able to ‘choose’ to guide ourselves to greater experiences and better selves. We can’t have our cake and eat it too, can we?

In this case we can.

This is just simple cause and effect in action. Choosing doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a fully conscious choice. Whether your brain makes a choice for you behind the scenes or whether it is a conscious choice that ‘you’ make does not really matter in this context; only that a choice has been made. Remember that our conscious minds inform our subconscious minds and vice versa in a perpetual feedback loop.

As we have seen, our minds take certain input conditions, filter them through our GEBE, and come up with a resultant output thought or reaction. For example, Joe berates me angrily, in what I consider to be an extremely unfair manner, and because of my current GEBE, my temper flares and I retaliate, and our fists double up for a fight.

Our GEBE is always evolving based on whatever we experience. Your GEBE, having just read this chapter, now includes the information therein, bad jokes and all. These facts are now part of your GEBE, which as always forms the basis for your brain to act in the way that it sees fit.

Now, given the same input as before, your evolved GEBE may well produce a different output, i.e. you might perceive things differently, or react differently than before to the same event.

For example, Joe berates me, but now I understand that Joe is only acting in the only way he knows how to, and I make myself take pause before reacting, eventually deciding that it is better to find points of agreement than to get into a fistfight.

If we think about our past selves this is quite obvious; there will be examples where your thoughts and reactions today would be completely different to what they would have been some years ago.

What your actual reaction is of course remains a factor of your overall GEBE. Just because new information has been received doesn’t necessarily mean it will be taken on board. Some people will forget everything they’ve read within minutes, some people will find it difficult to accept the concepts, and some may misinterpret them entirely. Depending on how the information is received, your brain may or may not make a choice to make the suggested changes.

Whatever it is that you eventually do, it will of course appear to you as being a fully conscious decision, even though it ultimately comes from other parts of your brain.

If your particular GEBE is unreceptive, then a choice will be made to disregard what you have read and do nothing. If it is receptive however, then your brain may start deciding to see certain things differently. You might start to take steps to guide yourself in the ways we’ve outlined previously. The more you do so, the more your GEBE will evolve accordingly, and the more improvements you may see.

While it is certainly true that we are products of our past, it is also true that we need not be prisoners of it. Despite your choices not coming from your conscious mind, you, as an entire entity, are nonetheless able to guide and improve yourself.