How Do You Decide?

How do you make decisions? You don’t. Your brain is the one calling the shots. In the fourth episode of the series The Brain: The Story of You, the logical conclusions of a purely physical understanding of humanity becomes increasingly clear. There is nothing outside of your physiology that makes a decision. There is no you.

Your brain experiences internal fights between competing networks. The dominant one wins and the illusion of a decision follows. Some idea of you, some personhood that transcends your competing networks, is false. It is a mere mirage. David Eagleman, the show’s host, says it this way:

Now matter how easy your day seems your brain is always hard at work making choices and weighing different options. And it’s often in a state of conflict locked in a great power struggle with itself. . . And it’s because of this sort of conflict that we can get angry at ourselves and cuss at ourselves and cajole ourselves. Who’s talking with whom exactly? It’s all you right? But it’s different parts of you. 

Understanding that there is not some unified us that makes choices, but rather these multiple networks duking it out, is supposed to make it easier for us to decide. But there is no us to decide. There is no real decision to be made. In the boxing match of our brain we are passive observers sitting in the stands munching on popcorn waiting to see who wins. But even this assumes there’s an us to watch the fight. On Eagleman’s view there isn’t. We are out of the picture.

As Eagleman says, “Neuroscience shows that you are not an individual.” He goes on to explain that we are a composite of competing drives. This all seems coherent. What doesn’t seem to follow is Eagleman’s final statement, “understanding how choices battle it out in the brain we can learn how to make better decisions for ourselves and for society.”

But how do we — as individuals who aren’t really individuals — make any decisions? As I’ve shared with my worldview class at Boyce College, knowing the basic philosophical starting point of this documentary allows one to predict where it’s heading. At the offset I told my students that before the program is over there would be a denial of the self and a diminishing of the concept of the will.

In the end, if we aren’t individuals who make real decisions then we are something less than what most people understand of what it means to be human. We can either dismiss the human experience as individuals who have a will as illusory or we can conclude that a purely physical explanation of humanity is insufficient.


Here’s some quick links to my summary and brief response to each episode: