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Western philosophers have argued over whether human actions are the result of free will or conversely that their actions are controlled by pre-existing factors. The recent round of this argument concerns MRI brain scans that demonstrate the human brain made a choice before the person using the brain is aware of making the decision. Some claim that observation is proof that an outside force is making the decision, and others say that it’s the individual and their brain still making the decision, but at a subconscious level. The decision is still being directed by the individual and their consciousness, but that the consciousness is not aware of the subconscious processes involved. The person doesn’t need to be aware of all of the processes of the brain to see and choose the word “red” even when the word is printed in a green color, even though there are clearly some mental processes involved. In that Stroop test what is being tested is the comparative speed of simply seeing the color of a word versus seeing and understanding the word and then saying the word. The more complex mental computations take more time, and are being processed in different locations in the brain, but they are taking place simultaneously and the quicker process wins in a test of speed. But, that experiment doesn’t have anything to do with free will, because whichever process wins that particular contest it is still the same brain and the same person making the choices.

In everyday situations there are without doubt various independent mental processes that precede actions, and the quicker ones have the greater likelihood of directing the person’s behavior. The quickest actions are reflexes, and they are surprisingly quick. For example, if I am walking on ice and a foot slips, my body reacts and stabilizes itself long before I even am aware that I have slipped. Other behaviors are my built-in responses to actions I see in people around me, and I find myself mirroring their physical actions and emotional behaviors, without even being aware of these actions. When I watch other people in a group listening to a speaker, I often see people nodding in agreement with a speaker when the speaker nods. This is easy to observe by paying attention to the movement of an otherwise still group of people. It’s like the game Pick-up sticks, where even the smallest movement of the still sticks is easily perceived when a player tries to remove a stick. I can be looking at a speaker, and see people on both sides of me in my peripheral vision responding in robot-like agreement – it’s like their heads are hooked together with perfectly rigid rods. There arises the question as to whether these listeners are exercising free will in their instantaneous nodding. Yes they have free will when choosing to listen, but once they get into synchronized nodding it appears they have forgone their reason, at least for a few seconds.

It would seem we have the choice of exercising our free will when we have at least a few seconds to consider the alternatives, even the simple alternative of thinking no, and of choosing to think something else. However, when in sync with the ongoing events and the time interval is less than a couple of seconds there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity to do anything other than react.

You do have free will, if and only if you have the time and opportunity to think.