I remember as a child reading something about “the will” and thinking how odd it was that philosophers talked about it like they might talk about an object. The will? Don’t we just do stuff? I haven’t thought a lot about “the question of free will” (whether we have it) since.
I had realised that I can’t cheat inevitability. I can’t choose an option that isn’t the one I’m going to choose: that’s just changing my mind to whatever I’m going to choose. But I accepted subconsciously, as most of us do, the idea that I’m a free agent. Even when I accepted materialism and started to think of humans as biological machines, it took a while to revisit the question of free will. Machines don’t generally have it, after all.
Last winter, I happened upon a website that made it pretty clear (after engaging in a couple of discussions about free will elsewhere online in which I was sceptically agnostic about it). I was surprised to find myself persuaded fairly quickly that we probably don’t have free will – and from an almost purely philosophical argument, which I often doubt in relation to ontological matters.
I hesitated to write about it to give myself time to mull it over and do more research. It’s time to share my thoughts now. As usual, one of my motivations is to stimulate discussion, so please chip in if you like, pro or con.
If we don’t have free will, it would have some very challenging, but positive, implications for our moral and political questions (despite most people being horrified by the idea).
And that last point is vitally important. If you read this and begin to be persuaded that free will might be an illusion, do not jump to conclusions about what that means, especially negative ones: these are very likely to be mistaken. Give it time and read about why having no free will (and understanding that properly) would be good for humanity.
The website that had such an impact on me is the work of ‘Trick Slattery, author of Breaking The Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. It provides a great introduction to the subject, being easily navigable and explaining all the relevant issues in bite-size chunks (and infographics).
What is Free Will?
At first, it seems obvious we have free will. If I am in line at an ice-cream counter and see that they serve my two favourite flavours, there is a common-sense kind of free will we can argue for: I am free to choose chocolate or vanilla. End of story.
This points to a view of free will that is contrasted with cases where there is an obvious obstruction to one of the choices: someone has a gun to my head and demands I get vanilla, or they’ve run out of chocolate.
But there are deeper questions to be asked. After all, if we say we know the answer to questions because they’re “common sense”, we might still think the Sun went round the Earth dispensing indivisible white light. The free will that Slattery says most people understand by the term, and the kind that matters to us personally and politically, is something different. A shortened version of his definition is:
the ability to choose between more than one viable option or action
Good philosophy involves a similar kind of scepticism required in science. You already have a hypothesis (in philosophy, an argument), but instead of resting on your laurels, you try to disprove it. Another thing that happens in both disciplines is that you notice two explanations that seem to be incompatible with each other, causing you to wonder which needs correcting.
In this case, it is the principle of determinism that throws a spanner in the free-will works. This is the proposition that every thing or condition in the universe is caused by prior things or conditions in a fixed way, i.e. is determined by them. This principle, that of cause and effect, is very powerfully supported and observed almost everywhere we look. Science would be extremely problematic, if not impossible, without it.
There has been a very long debate in philosophy about how to understand free will when nature seems to proceed in an orderly manner, like clockwork, each event necessarily a consequence of what existed before. Later discoveries, such as chaos or quantum mechanics, do not seem to change this. Chaos, the discovery that very small changes in initial conditions can cause enormous changes in results in a system, is deterministic. We’ll come to QM shortly.
So, what if we just think we have free will, when in fact all the relevant conditions of the physical world, including within us, cause every event, all actions, choices and thoughts, including the illusion of free will?
A lot of people have a negative reaction to this thought, because we naturally like to be in control. Wouldn’t the lack of free will mean that we were like automata, cogs in a great machine, just going through the motions?
Of course, determinism can be doubted. Indeterminism is the natural alternative, and is essentially just randomness. Randomness is thought by many to operate at quantum levels, and is often cited as a source of free-will.
So, does randomness help justify belief in free will? Surely not. If an effect is caused by a random process, it’s still beyond our control. We wouldn’t be exercising our free will if we made our decisions by tossing a coin.
In actual fact, most things we call random, like tossing a coin, are deterministic; it only seems random to us because we can’t know all the details of the starting conditions and kinetics involved. If we did, we’d know how a coin would fall. I’m allowing for the possibility of true randomness, which some say exists at the quantum level, but it doesn’t seem to help.
If an effect is determined, we’re not free; if randomly caused, we’re impotent to choose its outcome. And, as far as I can see, no mixture or complex interplay of determined processes and random ones grants free will either. Following a determined course of action with some influence from a random-choice generator won’t make us free agents.
For the sake of simplicity, therefore, in the rest of the text I will use “determinism” and “deterministic” to include the possibility of randomness, i.e. as a synonym for “not within our control”.
A Third Way
There is a position called compatibilism. Compatibilists accept determinism, yet believe we have free will. This usually involves defining free will differently, such as the absence of identifiable, obvious coercion (the gun-to-the-head variety). It is easy to see there could be a pragmatic justification for this type of “free will”, such as in courts of law, where a gun to your head makes a significant difference to your choice, but pragmatism does not rule out that there may be a deeper truth. If all of our motivations are unavoidable, as determinism implies, then this intuitive view of free will is simply wrong. We may not be able to identify all the causes of an act, but they are there anyway.
This brings up a longstanding argument for free will, which invokes some kind of dualism, often religious. This is not compatibilism, necessarily, because it may deny determinism. It is the soul, psyche or mind that is seen as the seat of our agency. Free will becomes one of the gaps God fills: God gave us it. Conversely, free will (being intuitively assumed) becomes an argument for God. Christian theology requires free will for humans to be able to choose good actions or sinful ones, and to repent, on which the destiny of their immortal soul depends.
There is no evidence whatever for the existence of separate, non-physical mind-stuff (despite endless attempts to find it and no lack of assertion). There is also a mountain of evidence that mental effects are identical to (or “caused by”) the brain states that accompany them. Hence, scientists like the clinical neurologist, Steven Novella tend to agree (it’s difficult to find data on how many would):
There is no mind without the brain (despite the unsubstantiated claims of paranormalists). If the brain is not biologically active, there is no consciousness. If the brain is damaged, the mind is altered. As brain function changes through drugs, lack of sleep, fever, or some metabolic derangement – so changes the mind. No reliable observation or experiment has been able to separate the mind as a phenomenon from the brain.
There is also the problem that if the mind were non-physical, yet we act in the physical world and gain mental impressions from it, we have to explain how there could be interaction between matter and non-matter. This is a feat that has eluded philosophers since Descartes, although this didn’t stop him conjecturing for no good reason that it happened in the pineal gland.
The attempts continue up to our own time with David Chalmers, who described the difference between brain function and subjective experience as the “hard problem of consciousness”, and the mathematician, Sir Roger Penrose, who, along with Stuart Hameroff, seems to be seeking consciousness in the microtubules of the brain, believing that it’s quantum mechanical. While some of these modern attempts involve “property dualism” or a postulated missing law of physics rather than “substance dualism”, they seem, to me, to be responses to incredulity that the subjective effect we call consciousness could be physical.
If one is happy to embrace dualism despite no evidence for it and lots of evidence against, one can quit here: the problem is solved (by magic). Materialists, however, must continue.
The important thing to note about consciousness for the free-will debate is that it must be active, indeed pro-active, in the process of making decisions and choices. Few would argue that decisions we made in our sleep demonstrated free will. Similarly, if we are awake, but making choices without knowing it, we should not consider that free will.
The semantics in this debate are critical, and we have to be extra careful what we mean. Words like “choice” or “decision” are often used in two distinct ways: to imply a consciously willed process, or to describe an unwilled, mechanistic process, as when we say that a computer program makes a decision. We humans observably make choices and decisions; the question is whether these are like those of a computer or those of a truly free agent. Steven Novella, again:
Many times we feel as if we are making a conscious choice, but we can see in the brain that the choice was actually made subconsciously before we are even aware of it.
Even when the choice is made consciously, meaning we are aware of the factors that are affecting the decision, that does not mean we have truly free will. The brain is still a machine, and is dependent upon the laws of physics. A stone does not have free will to choose its path as it rolls down a hill. Its path is entirely determined by physics. Some argue that brain processes are no different, just orders of magnitude more complex.
At the same time, we do make decisions (whatever their underlying reality). Part of the “laws of physics” that shape those decisions is the knowledge that the decisions we make have consequences. Some of those consequences may be moral, shaped by culture and society.
And so whatever your belief about the ultimate philosophical reality of free will, we act as if we have free will, because we do make choices.
I don’t think Novella is making a compatibilist argument here, he’s using the second of the two meanings of “we make choices”, as observable behaviour. He indicates just how semantically sensitive the issue gets: our choices (in the mechanistic sense) are partly informed by predicting outcomes and holding certain values, but this process may still be entirely unchosen (in the free-will sense), because we do not choose our values, nor the evolved computations by which we predict outcomes of different choices, nor any of the other variables that constitute “us” and the world we live in.
If an event in the universe follows prior events in causal chains, the variables that make up our values are part of that process. However much we deliberate on a decision, our brains are just going through the motions, eventually making the only choice they can make.
The philosophical implications of this are quite mind-bending, and the political implications are quite revolutionary. But what evidence is there?
Studies on the process of making decisions and initiating action, beginning with Benjamin Libet, do suggest that we make our decisions unconsciously and then retrospectively reconstruct the sense of having made them, but there are inherent difficulties designing experiments and interpreting the results, which, I believe, rest on the simple fact that consciousness is a subjective matter.
Libet’s first experiments, for instance, required subjects to wait for the urge to arise in them to take a particular action, like flex the wrist, and simultaneously note the time on a specially designed clock when they felt the urge to move. This is clearly riddled with all manner of possible confusions, but on face value the results showed that the brain was readying itself something like a third of a second before the subject believed they’d made the decision to move.
Later experiments have given even more stark results. It has been found that experimenters, analysing fMRI data, could predict well above chance which of two buttons the subject would press several seconds before the subject chose one.
This article by Adam Bear describes more of the evidence for these “postdictive” effects (where we trick ourselves into thinking we caused an event), if you want more detail. I won’t say much more here; the take-home is that we often believe – and are utterly convinced – that we (consciously) made particular decisions or instigated actions when our brains and bodies have already executed them.
The evidence for this is incontrovertible, but there is perhaps a danger of over-generalisation. These are simple decisions and actions in artificial situations. One could still postulate some kind of long-term, complex influence from a subset of brain functions that are somehow free to make decisions in ordinary life. However, I honestly can’t imagine how that would work.
As an empiricist, I’d love to have clear evidence on that wider proposition one way or the other, but we don’t have it, and I believe it is probably impossible to get it. On the other hand, the fairly simple philosophical argument appears to be sound and a good representation of reality. Determinism and indeterminism fail to give us free will, and any third option seems impossible. If the mind is not a separate thing, we are collections of atoms, and collections of atoms don’t have a will of their own, they respond to current circumstances according to the laws of physics. But is it that simple?
Emergence and Downward Causation
One of the most promising arguments for free will might be that it is an emergent property of the evolved brain. Emergent properties are everywhere: ant colonies or crowds of people, weather patterns or chemical compounds. Significantly, consciousness is often described as an emergent property of the brain. Could free will be an emergent property, especially as consciousness is important for it?
It is not the existence of emergent properties that is in doubt so much as the question of whether they are actual causes, independent of their parts.
This is related to something called “downward causation”. Downward causation refers to the process whereby the whole affects the parts (“upward causation” being a little more obvious, since it is how all the large systems around us are built). So, if a whole, a surgeon, say, operates on his own leg, this is downward causation. The surgeon is the result, amongst other things, of upward causation: his growth and all his evolutionary past.
I disagree with Slattery on this issue. He argues for downward causation, but discounts its facility in giving free will, while I think of it as an abstraction. However, I can see it from both positions, and, once again, it depends on very fine distinctions.
Assuming I have understood his position, he sees wholes (and mental phenomena, by the way) as having real causal efficacy, but, since they result from a chain of cause and effect, free will is still impossible.
The other way to see it, which I’m more drawn to, is that the whole, being the sum of the parts, has no special emergent causal property, although we can abstract that idea and attach a label, “Dan, the intrepid surgeon”. Does it matter really whether we say a man is a cloud of choreographed atoms that does complex stuff, or that his atoms create a higher-level thing that has causal properties that affect lower levels of matter? Upward and downward causation cancel out, by either reckoning.
Slattery sees consciousness as ontologically real, separate from the brain states that cause it, and from that, believes that it can be a cause of effects (such as pain making us avoid a hot stove). I see conscious experience not as caused by the physics of the brain, but identical to it.
We have little problem, seeing a swirling cyclone, in understanding that it is essentially an abstraction, just water and air molecules in motion. We can just about as easily see an ant colony’s behaviour as just the behaviour of individual ants, summed. It’s much harder, but in principle no different, to see a human being as a complex buzz of energy and atoms. I’ll return to this question another time, leaving you with Slattery’s conclusion:
Upward, downward, sideways, multidirectional, or even special swirly whirly causation is “deterministic” and incompatible with free will.
The definition of free will with which we began – “the ability to choose between more than one viable option or action” – implies another that Slattery uses (again, I’ll shorten it):
the ability to have done otherwise than one actually did
Clearly these are equivalent: if we only ever have one viable option ahead of us, when we look back, we only had one viable option.
Most people don’t want to consider this possibility. Where it is discussed, I see people bemoaning their reluctant conversion, or urging people not to spread it about or it’ll be the end of civilization as we know it. But the surprising thing is that a number of very valuable benefits follow from the no-free-will position, which is why Slattery’s book title ends as it does: …for the Betterment of Humankind.
A common reaction is along the lines of, “Well, if there were no free will, there’d be no point getting up in the morning. If we’re just robots, people are going to do what they’re going to do, so we might as well give up trying to do anything different, or trying to influence anyone. Politics would be dead.”
I believe the many confusions that arise just illustrate how alien the idea is to most of us. The lack of free will does not negate cause and effect (indeed we began with precisely that premise). Actions still have consequences, and those consequences are causes of further effects. These are not contradictory statements:
- I cannot freely will what I am going to do.
- What I do will affect things that follow.
Telling someone to do or not do something is an action, so it has consequences. But what you tell people will be a consequence of what you already believe. Hence, “people are going to do what they’re going to do” is true, but doesn’t mean they can’t be influenced – indeed, it means that they will do what they’re going to do precisely because they are influenced…by what you do, what everyone else is doing, and all other relevant variables.
The response that we might as well not get up in the morning isn’t realistic, because people are creatures of habit and if we try to lie in bed, we soon want to get up and have breakfast. We have desires, drives and ambitions; these are the things that have been making us act the way we do already, so if we’re only discovering that we have no free will, we’ll still have them.
On the other hand, our motivations might well change with this, as with any, important discovery. For instance, Theresa, hearing that she has no free will, may decide to stay in bed sulking, before eventually having to get up for a pee. Boris might spend the morning meditating to see if he can find his will-power. Jeremy might write a manifesto for a better tomorrow, based on the compassion that comes from realising that nobody had a choice in who they are or what they do.
These actions would be different from what each would do had they not heard the news, but they could not help hearing it if they heard it, because that was caused by prior events, nor could they affect their response to it, because that would be caused by who they are.
One of the most important consequences of accepting that we don’t have free will is realising that people do not deserve things in the way we usually imagine they do. They don’t deserve success or riches because they’re a hard worker (they’re a hard worker for reasons outside their control), and they don’t deserve to be poor. Criminals don’t deserve punishment; benefactors don’t deserve praise.
Again, it’s easy to misconstrue this and it depends on definitions. There may be pragmatic reasons to congratulate or criticise, to reward or incarcerate, to motivate particular behaviour: the word “deserve” here is used to indicate the attribution of fundamental praise-worthiness or blame-worthiness, i.e. dependent on agency. The no-free-will position is that nobody had an alternative to the actions they took. Had you been them (whoever you consider), you would have done exactly what they did.
The classic thought experiment involves the question: if I chose chocolate, but had a time-machine and could go back and be in the queue for ice cream again, with everything exactly the same in the universe as it was, could I choose vanilla this time, through an act of will? The question forces us to take seriously the determinist view, in which “everything being the same” includes everything that motivated us. In that case, it becomes impossible to conceive a difference that allows us to choose a different flavour (except a random difference, which is not willed).
The question of how much randomness there is in the universe is a difficult one to approach. If it is small or non-existent, the future is largely or entirely determined, but if it’s large, there could be all manner of hypothetical possible futures, although presumably only one will actualize.
My experience as a counsellor, anecdotal though it is, is consistent with the view that we can’t help but do what we do. When you listen to someone who has done terrible things, for example, you learn that their motivations were real and unavoidable. It is also healing to be understood in this way, to feel that someone “forgives” you (or rather, that there is no need for forgiveness).
The issue of addiction illustrates this. People struggle with themselves, wanting more than anything to give up their addiction, yet are unable to do so until – for whatever reason – they are able to do so. Self-recrimination tends to keep addicts in their addictions, because it’s a horrible feeling, and their addiction is how they temporarily feel better. Self-forgiveness, on the contrary, from seeing the forces that cause the behaviour, is a big part of the road to recovery.
There are many more implications of the no-free-will position, which Slattery goes into in detail, including creating a better justice system, based on purely consequentialist ethics rather than retribution, and working towards economic and social fairness. I’ll leave these for now in favour of a more personal reflection.
This has been a profound experience for me, even though I’m not 100% sure of the conclusion. It was at first rather disturbing to consider the proposition, but it’s now an increasing source of wonder. I am acutely aware that it is a dangerous idea (as has been said of Darwin’s evolution through natural selection). Like the latter, it is probably dangerous only when misunderstood, and profoundly beneficial when understood properly.
One paradoxical result for me, which I’ve seen others report too, is a feeling of freedom that I didn’t have when I took free will for granted! I think the reason is something like this: when I thought I had free will, I tended to assess my actions to some extent on how praiseworthy or blameworthy they might make me, eliciting feelings of pride or shame. I’m feeling more able now to assess my actions on a consequentialist basis alone, on likely outcomes. I suppose it’s a bit of freedom from my ego, which tends to cloud issues.
I’m still puzzled. I still keep thinking that if there’s no free will, nothing I do makes a difference; the outcome is inevitable. And then I recognise again that only half of that is true: whatever decision I’m about to make is inevitable, but what I do will indeed make a difference, lots of differences, just as the decision I’m about to make was determined by all the differences made in the past. There aren’t many occasions like this, when we experience personal paradigm shift. It takes some adjusting.
I imagined for a while I’d live my life henceforth with detachment, just watching, like a passenger, but that’s not quite right either. Living the actions of my life is part of the inevitable causal process of the universe. A water molecule may be swept along by the river, but it also is the river. This makes me feel more connected. Rather than feeling robotic, I’m swimming with Nature.
And I realise that, despite being a materialist for the last ten years, I have some remnant of the homunculus in my psychology – my magical free will – pulling the strings of this body like one of those powered exoskeletons from Avatar.