Author, orator, and all-around ‘science guy’ Bill Nye has been asked a lot of questions in his 30 years on the air. But this time around, Bill gets asked a question almost Biblical in nature: is there such a thing as true free will? Of course, Bill gets right down to the nitty gritty and tells us what exactly is going on in our brains as we begin to make any decision. Is the idea of “choice” real or is choice just an idea in our heads? Are our brains inventing our own answers before we’ve even thought them through? The answer might surprise you. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
PETE: Hey Bill. It’s Pete from Atlanta, Georgia, and I was wondering if you believe in free will? It feels like the idea of choice is the biggest argument for free will, but is choice real or is it just an idea in our heads? If I look at my life I feel like I’m here through a series of single decisions and it just kind of feels very linear and kind of on a track. But I’m not so sure. What do you think about it? Thanks.
BILL NYE: So is there such a thing as free will? The answer is clearly “it depends what you mean.” So I am so compelled by these tests where they have brain scans going on, working real time, and then the subject is asked to make a choice. And they can see on the brain scan that the choice has already been made before the person is able to articulate it or even watch the choice had been made have it bounce back and forth and then settle on another choice.
This is a wonderful question, but that there is no free will—that, to me, is an extraordinary claim, because I feel that I have made choices – and this might be what you’re driving at—I feel that I have made choices freely based on things that have happened around me, based on the environment and my experiences and my perception of the experiences of others.
So in other words if there really were absolutely no free will could you then predict what every single person in the universe or on Earth is going to do and where he or she will end up. And then furthermore can that not be influenced by some cosmic force or forces that we can’t assess? It could be. It just doesn’t seem reasonable.
I think much more reasonable is: our brains are complicated, and they got this big or as big as they are organically through evolution, with layer being added upon layer.
So our ability to choose is often confused. Our ability to make choices is often affected by the environment, by our experiences and by biochemistry, the shape of our brain. So I think the answer is clearly “some of each.”