Back when schoolchildren regularly read uplifting poetry, there was a famous Victorian poem that affirmed the human birthright of free will. It was “Invictus,” by W. E. Henley and began:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
The sentiment being expressed is more than empty piousness. Henley had grown up in poverty, and when he was 29 one of his legs had to be amputated as a consequence of tuberculosis. The other leg was saved only after many surgeries, and while he was recovering, Henley was inspired to write his poem, which ended on a triumphant note: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
On many grounds this anthem to free will can be refuted. There is no proof you have a soul, if you are a materialist. There is ample proof, on the other hand, that deterministic forces are at work inside us. A generation ago human behavior was largely attributed to genes, although the fashion today is to claim that the brain is the major controller of what we think, say, and do. The average person finds the free will vs. determinism debate totally academic–in everyday life we all proceed as if our choices and decisions are our own. This has created a serious mismatch between experience and theory, because science, after all, is supposed to settle difficult questions with data, experiments, and facts.
The free will camp has been short of data and facts for a long time, but no more. Instead of working out the problem of free will largely by logical reasoning (which rarely succeeds, since your opponent calls upon the opposite logic), supporters of free will can point to genetics and neuroscience, the very areas that strongly suggest that determinism is at work. This sounds like a paradox. How can genes both control us and allow for free choice? How can the brain produce thought but also be affected by thinking?
Here is where a new view of free will is needed. The paradox is real. Genes determine the color of your hair and eyes, but thanks to the emerging science of epigenetics, we now know that genes are also fluid, malleable, and in fact responsive to everything we experience in the world. The same is true of the brain. Its processes follow strict laws of physics and chemistry, yet neurons, synapses, and brain circuitry are open to change simply by the way we lead our lives.
Suddenly the free will vs. determinism debate is no longer theoretical. The two extremes are complementary; opposites coexist and cooperate. Consider how you control the temperature in your house. Once the thermostat is set, the house’s heating system must follow its fixed instructions. But you can alter these instructions by turning the thermostat up and down. In the same way, if you eat a charbroiled steak for dinner, your digestive tract will follow fixed physiological processes, but you can choose to eat salmon instead. In turn, the brain that makes this choice can be conditioned by habit (there are people who only eat meat and potatoes, and that’s that) or it can be influenced by new thinking (after reading an article about the benefits of eating fish, for example).
So the real issue, which overturns the old dichotomy between free will and determinism, is how to find the switches that control genes and neurons. A flood of research findings is emerging around this. Quite recently, for example, an article in the New York Times posed the startling question, “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?” the focus of the article was the pioneering work of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, who as far back as 1981 was testing the possibility that aging has a major mental component. (The notion is actually ancient in origin. The medieval Indian philosopher and sage Adi Shankara declared that people grow old and die because they see other people grow old and die.)
In 1981 Langer took eight men in their seventies, all in good health but exhibiting signs of age, and immersed them for five days in an environment that was like time travel going back to 1959, including the music and television of the period, along with the movies and events in the news. The men were told to act as if they were their younger selves, because Langer had already done experiments in which memory loss in the elderly could sometimes be reversed by giving subjects an incentive to remember. In other words, the mind was being motivated to affect the body.
Before entering the time-capsule environment, the men were tested on various markers of aging such as grip strength, dexterity, and how well they could hear and see. At the end of the five days, the group improved on seven out of eight measures, including better vision, a startling finding. They looked younger as assessed by outside judges. Thirty-three years ago Prof. Langer was proceeding more or less intuitively, without the knowledge into gene expression and neuroplasticity that we can turn to today. Mental causes need to have a parallel in physiology, and now it has been proven that they do.
What is the limit to free will as mediated by genes and neurons? This is a thorny question. Since 1981, there has been a massive change in attitude towards aging, so that 75, which seemed very old three decades ago, is the new 55. Collective consciousness combined with medical advances made the “new old age” a reality. But aging eventually must set in, progress, and lead to death. The battle between free will and determinism cannot be definitely declared a truce.
Yet on the whole evolution is winning out over entropy, which would have stunned scientists in the past, and even more stunning, the force that pushing evolution forward is a conscious choice. If the lines “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” sound completely outdated in their language, Henley’s declaration of free will is turning into cutting-edge science. We should proceed with the following principles in mind:
- Mind comes before brain.
- Mental choices originate the messages that change organs, tissues, and cells.
- The body is fluid and dynamic, not fixed and determined.
- Genes express whatever a person desires. They operate through switches that the mind can access.
- The mind-body system is a feedback loop where input and output have many determinants, including lifestyle, environment, behavior, beliefs, and past conditioning.
- Through self-care, a higher state of well-being is attainable. Self-care makes daily use of the mind-body feedback loop.
- Ultimately, the evolution of future humanity depends on internal balance (homeostasis) that is balanced with the whole ecology of the planet.
What these principles have in common is their emphasis on individual choice as the key to conscious evolution. Without knowing how much of your destiny you can master, it’s best to assume that your potential for mastery is much greater than anyone now supposes.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)