A free discussion of free will

Despite its frequent academic navel gazing and elitist condescension, The Chronicle Review manages to publish some pieces of broader scope and interest.

This time they’ve outdone themselves, producing a series of six short but engrossing articles on the subject of “free will.”

The articles, published online March 18th,  feature scientists, philosophers, and moralizers of various stripes– and these authors assume as wide a range of positions on the subject at hand. Taken together, the six short pieces are a useful summary of the key free will questions.

While there are real differences between the free will stances of the authors, with one exception (which we’ll encounter in its turn, below) they all agree that the traditional view that “I” choose freely, without determinism or constraint, is an archaicism, and an illusion.

Let’s look at each article in turn, with a few comments from me after each summary.

“You Don’t Have Free Will,” by Jerry Coyne

Well-known evolutionist and professional atheist Jerry Coyne defines “free will” as the possibility that, “when you have to decide among alternatives … you could have chosen otherwise.” In a very strict, almost casuistic sense, Coyne argues that “this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.”

Your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another. These molecules must obey the laws of physics, so the outputs of our brain—our “choices”—are dictated by those laws.

And deliberating about your choices in advance doesn’t help matters, for that deliberation also reflects brain activity that must obey physical laws.

Coyne cites recent, well-known experiments that show that some “deliberate acts” occur before we become conscious of them, and that some choice decisions are signalled by brain activity as much as several seconds before we’re consciously aware that we’ve made a choice.

If there is no free will, Coyne argues, while we still need to protect ourselves from others’ criminal acts, we should cease to see punishment as retribution, since the idea that people “choose” to do wrong is a “false notion.”

In Coyne’s formulation, thanks to the universal laws of physics, “we couldn’t have had that V8, and Robert Frost couldn’t have taken the other road.”

By citing Marvin Minsky — “My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand.” — Coyne introduces, perhaps unintentionally, a major issue with which his short article doesn’t come to grips. If we don’t know how, or even that, our choices are determined, in what relevant way have we lost anything that “feels like” choice? Aren’t the events of our daily lives exactly the same as they were when we thought that we were “free”?  And if nothing’s changed, insofar as we can experience it, what’s the big deal?

“The Case Against the Case Against Free Will,” by Alfred R. Mele

Mele, a philosopher at Florida State, is the outsider in the discussion. His argument rests on his claim that despite claims to the contrary, neuroscience has not proved the case against free will.

He cites a study in which 73% of participants believed that free will was evident in a scenario in which a man kept a $20 bill he saw fall from a stranger’s pocket, rather than returning it. In this case, Mele contends, “the majority of people do not see having a nonphysical mind or soul as a requirement for free will.”

How an opinion study and a spectacularly overblown conclusion add up to evidence for free will, I have no idea. Maybe you can help me?

He also considers the familiar experiment in which subjects’ brain activity was observed, using fMRI scans, while they made a series of simple, either/or choices. He points out that the study’s accuracy rate in predicting future choices from brain activity was “only” 60%. He scoffs that he could do almost as well by tossing a coin.

Really? Perhaps he doesn’t realize that there’s a huge statistical difference between “chance” and “consistently more than chance.”

Mele’s “arguments” are shockingly weak. If he’s the best advocate the free will camp can find, they’re in real trouble. The Templeton Foundation thinks he’s pretty good, it seems, supporting his work on free will with a $4.4 million grant. Perhaps we should take out the “non-” in the following sentence, then apply it to Mele’s own position:

“Given such flimsy evidence, I do not recommend betting the farm on the nonexistence of free will.”

“Free Will Is an Illusion, but You’re Still Responsible for Your Actions,” by Michael Gazzaniga

Do robots have free will? Do ants have free will? Do chimps have free will? Is there really something in all of these machines that needs to be free, and if so, from what?

Gazzaniga, one of the real heavyweights of neuroscience, put his case against free will directly at the start of his article: “There is no one thing in us pulling the levers and in charge. It’s time to get over the idea of free will and move on.”Yet,  he writes, “brain determinism has no relevance to the concept of personal responsibility.”

These are the central points of Gazzaniga’s latest book, Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. While free will may be an illusion, he  believes, personal responsibility is not.

The exquisite machine that generates our mental life also lives in a social world and develops rules for living within a social network. For the social network to function, each person assigns each other person responsibility for his or her actions.

This singular point has complex implications, which he develops in his book but mostly ignores here. He is content to point out that “responsibility exists as a rule of social interaction and not normal, or even abnormal brain processes.”

In this view, determinism is irrelevant to responsibility. After all, he writes, “Just as we would not try to understand traffic by studying the mechanics of cars, we should not try to understand brains to understand the idea of responsibility.”

It’s a neat solution. By denying the relevance of free will to social life, we are freed from the thorny issue of determining guilt on the basis of intent. Instead, we can, similarly to Coyne, look at the consequences more clearly when we stop searching for the cause.

“Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience,” by Hilary Bok

Bok, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins, takes a more abstract view of the free will question. Her position is straightforward: “The question of whether freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with free will is not a scientific one, and we should not expect scientists to answer it.”

In its simplest terms, Bok’s stance dismisses the significance of a neurological description of physical determinism. She rejects classical dualism — “When we say that a person’s choice caused her action, we do not mean that she swooped in from outside nature and altered her destiny” — and accepts with equanimity the claim that “an event in her brain” is the source of a person’s action.

But she sees no problem in the co-existence of a sense of freedom on one hand and the findings of brain science on the other: “The claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it.”

Bok’s stance, like several others below, doesn’t care so much to answer the question of whether or not free will exists. Instead, she dismisses the importance of the issue itself.

“The End of Discussing Free Will,” by Owen D. Jones

Jones, a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, takes the by now familiar position that free will is irrelevant, but with a more flippant tone: “The problem with free will is that we keep dwelling on it. Really, this has to stop.”

Free will is to human behavior what a perfect vacuum is to terrestrial physics—a largely abstract endpoint from which to begin thinking, before immediately moving on to consider and confront the practical frictions of daily existence.

Jones argues that our brains are “functionally specialized … different brain regions have evolved to do different things—even though they generally do more than one thing.” He notes that “impairments to specific areas of the brain—through injury or disease, for example—can impede normal human decision-making.”

Jones treats the question of whether or not brain activity determines action, or more properly in his view, constrains choice, as having been fully and finally answered in the affirmative. OK, he says, that’s it for that question. Next? “All behaviors have causes, and all choices are constrained. We need to accept this and adapt.”

This is just the kind of short, sharp, and smug reply that makes some materialists so widely unpopular. Disdain and flippancy may feel good, but they don’t add a whole lot to the argument — even if it’s an argument that you don’t think merits having.

“Free Will Does Not Exist. So What?,” by Paul Bloom

Yale’s Paul Bloom is another who shoos the question of free will out the door.

He acknowledges that we all describe our decisions as “choices,” something that is “not determined and not random.” But this, he writes, is something that “most scientists and philosophers agree … is an illusion.”

Bloom agrees, “but it’s not the big news that many of my colleagues seem to think it is.” He argues that “the deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought.”

… it is not wrong to think that one can think, that we can mull over arguments, weigh the options, and sometimes come to a conclusion. After all, what are you doing now?

This position, by now quite familiar, suggests that we can avoid much of the angst that questioning free will causes by relaxing and getting on with our lives.

In some senses, it’s similar to our current understanding of quantum mechanics. According to the best science we have, the material world that we perceive to be solid and stable is, in reality, neither of those things.Yet we go about our business without evident difficulty. We perceive tables to be solid, and, in all the ways that we can sense, they are. That they, and we, are mainly “empty” space is true, but inconsequential.

Perhaps that’s the best way to deal with the free will problem. If it doesn’t exist, that doesn’t change a whole lot, and we should just get on with it.


4 thoughts on “A free discussion of free will

  1. Excellent post. This is a subject I’ve been wrangling with for many years.
    I think this is a subject that we like to over-complicate. For free will to exist, something must create it, it must come from somewhere. No-one seems to offer a solution to that beyond “greater than the sum of its parts” arguments.
    I believe the largest impediment to objective analysis of this is that it feels to each of us as though we exercise free will. Of course, this proves nothing.

    • I agree with you that the issue of free will has long been over-complicated. We know that we choose — we experience choosing — and how the brain makes the mind do that may well be just too hard a question. Or no real question at all.

  2. I just wrote an article stating what seems to be the exact opposite position you are taking here, so I do not really agree with much, but will ask one question:

    If we define Free Will as the ability to intentionally direct our actions through rational choice, or the ability to have done otherwise than what we did, and we conclude it to be an illusion… how one be held personally responsible for their actions? If personal responsibility (as per your citing Gazzaniga) is to be moved to part of the causal system of our “social world [that] develops rules for living within a social network,” this makes us no more personally responsible for our actions. The notion of personal responsibility would still be an illusion (though apparently one required by society).

    I think real personal responsibility has to come from within a self-conscious intentional agent – the science and philosophy that I have read leads me to believe that it can. And counter to Paul Bloom, I estimate that most academic philosophers would agree (Daniel Dennett and a few others notwithstanding).

    • My position is more that the question of free will is a remnant of a past spiritual worldview and perhaps not a “real” issue at all.

      I don’t have a problem with trading personal responsibility for social responsibility, since I have more sympathy than you do for the notion that it doesn’t matter much if will is really “free,” especially since so much depends on how we define “free.”

      As with my comparison of the “illusions” of consciousness to those of quantum mechanics, I think that the “neuro-physicist” approach — we live in a deterministic universe bound by the laws of physics — is so narrowly focused that it misses most of the point, and all of the experience.

      And I’m not very concerned that it may be true that we “decide” before we become aware that we’ve decided. The speed of the message system that leads from the mechanisms that enable mind is not particularly relevant to the events of mind as consciously perceived by us.

      So I find nothing at all with which to disagree in your article‘s assertion that “we must not confuse causal mechanism (i.e. the brain) with conscious human reasoning. The latter transcends mere mechanism and belongs to a symbolic system of meanings that are both subjectively experienced and pluralistic in the sense that they are shared within the sociocultural web of other subjective minds.

      That is, of course, so long as “transcends” refers to the experience and not the origin. The Dualism Police won’t have that!

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