A couple of nights ago, BBC Two Horizon aired a show called “Out of Control,” which challenges the existence of free will (an increasingly important topic among philosophers and scientists).The synopsis is as follows:
We all like to think we are in control of our lives – of what we feel and what we think. But scientists are now discovering this is often simply an illusion. Surprising experiments are revealing that what you think you do and what you actually do can be very different. Your unconscious mind is often calling the shots, influencing the decisions you make, from what you eat to who you fall in love with. If you think you are really in control of your life, you may have to think again.
David Butcher of the Radio Times gives his own summary, which highlights the innately deterministic processes of our brains.
There’s a lovely scene in this Horizon where the director gives each of the brain scientists he interviews a marker pen and a sketch pad. Then he asks each of them to show on paper how much of what the brain does is conscious, and how much unconscious, in their view. They vary: one shades in a tiny square, which he says is the conscious brain’s contribution; another shades off about a tenth of the page. But they all agree that, like an iceberg, the great majority of our brain activity lies below the surface. The sense we are consciously in control is an illusion – and the programme goes on to illustrate this with wonderful experiments involving golf, knitting and chasing toy helicopters. People assume they are in control of their lives, deciding what they want and when they want it – but scientists now claim this is simply an illusion. Experiments reveal that what a person does and what they think can be very different, with the unconscious mind often influencing the decisions they make, from what they eat to who they fall in love with. Horizon reveals to what extent people really do control their own destiny.
Whether you agree with the assertion or not, I think this is a vital discussion worth watching (I for one am undecided but lean towards determinism). The existence of free will is perhaps one of the oldest debates, and it’s starting to gain a lot of traction following our advancements in genetics, neuroscience, and social psychology.
Click here to see the episode, which will remain posted for the remaining week (those of you reading this afterward should search it on Google of YouTube). I’m not sure how accessible the link is, since some of my friends were having difficulty seeing the video. But give it a shot and share your feedback.