By Sam Berkeley, East Lothian Courier News Editor

ARE you really in control of your life?

Yes, of course, I'm sure you'd reply.

But what if I told you that might not actually be the case?

Right now, you think you've chosen to read this column. But do you really have control over that choice?

As crazy as it sounds, and as uncomfortable as it may be to come to terms with, recent scientific experiments point overwhelmingly to a likelihood that we don't really have conscious free will, to be in a position where we 'could have acted differently'.

Various scientific experiments have been conducted in recent years which show that when hooked up to certain machines our next actions can be confidently predicted before they’ve even entered our consciousness.

Probably the most convincing was a 2008 experiment conducted by CS Soon which, quite amazingly, was able to pick up intentions for actions entering our brains 10 SECONDS before they enter our consciousness!

That is surely incompatible with the notion of conscious free will.

But we don’t even need complex neuroscience experiments to show that conscious free will can’t exist, just to follow some logical truths.

In order to truly exercise free will, to be able to be in a position where we ‘could have acted differently’, we both need to be aware of everything that is influencing our actions at that time (things like mood, genetic predispositions, external stimuli, past experience) and be in complete control of them. But given these are out of our control, this is impossible.

Ultimately, free will is about making choices, so think of the last mundane choice you made. What you chose will have ultimately come down to what you wanted more at that moment. But the problem is we can’t control what we want – we can’t choose to want one thing more than another thing.

And for argument’s sake, let’s say, in an attempt to prove me wrong, you consciously chose to do the thing you didn’t want to do the next time you faced a mundane choice. But that would mean that your want to regain the illusion of free will was at that time stronger than your want to do what you thought you otherwise wanted to do more. Why at that time was one desire stronger than the other? We’re back at the exact same stage again, where you can’t control your wants and why some are stronger than others.

This is true of all conscious choices, even ones we think we don't want to do. For example, we might not have thought we wanted to spend the day cleaning the house - there are so many other things we think we would rather have done. But actually, the choice we made to clean the house was a result of another want we were unaware of - probably the want to be able to feel relaxed at home - subconsciously outweighing our not wanting to spend the day cleaning.

Further proof of our lack of free will can be found in our lack of ability to control when a thought will come into our heads and what that thought will be. It will pop into our heads seemingly out of nowhere - we have no control over when it will arrive and what it will be.

As the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris says: "You are not controlling the storm and you are not lost in it. You ARE the storm."

This might all sound scary and counter-intuitive – certainly it opens a Pandora's box of moral questions.

Are people truly responsible for their actions? Do people ever deserve praise, condemnation or punishment?

But we cannot ignore these questions just because they make us feel uncomfortable. If free will truly is the illusion it now appears to be we mustn't bury our heads in the sand but confront the issues it raises head on.

And as scary as it might be, it can be a liberating realisation too: knowing you 'could not have acted differently' means you can draw a line under past mistakes.

There's no need to dwell on doing something wrong, you can just learn from it - after all, if you had been in that situation a thousand times in those exact circumstances you would have acted the same way every time!

If we can calmly learn from what we did wrong without hating ourselves for making a mistake, we can make the world a much better place.