(The bad news is, we're zombies! And the good news is, we're zombies!)
Will Storr writes:
Free will is an illusion. There's little doubt about this, though it will make some time for this scientific fact to be accepted by most people. Wrong habits of thinking take time to change. Here's a comic strip example.
In my most recent post about free will, I gave a poor review to a book that somehow managed to conclude that even though determinism rules, and free will is an illusion, the justice system still should assume that a person was freely responsible for making the choice to commit a crime.
This continues to leave the door wide open to making retribution a rationale for inflicting severe punishments on so-called "evil doers," rather than having a justice system focus on rehabilitation of criminals and protecting society from criminals during their period of rehabilitation (which could be a life sentence in the rare cases where no possibility of of rehabilitation exists).
A regular commenter on this blog, "Appreciative Reader," left this comment on the post:
Brian, can you talk about (or perhaps link to) the specifics of what you have in mind when you advocate for our penal/justice system to focus on prevention of crime and rehabilitation of criminals (as opposed to going for something like "punishment")? What would such a system actually look like?
I'm also sharing some excerpts from one of my favorite books about free will, Richard Oerton's "The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing Up t0 a False Belief." I've written about the book in several posts, but I don't believe I've shared these quotes before. Oerton is a British lawyer, so his views about the justice system and free will are well-informed.
Here's some of what Oerton has to say in a chapter called "Towards a rational penal system."
In a system which made no concessions at all to irrationality, retributive punishment would play no part whatsoever, but the other aims of sentencing set out at the start of Chapter 21, would still be relevant.
[These are: (b) the reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence); (c) the reform and rehabilitation of offenders; (d) the protection of the public, and (e) the making of reparation by offenders to persons affected by their offences.]
The overriding purpose would simply be the protection of society through the prevention of crime. The focus would be on the harmfulness, rather than the wickedness, of the offender. Imprisonment would still be necessary in very many cases -- and in the case of offenders who were both dangerous and unreachable, it might have to last a very long time -- but subject to that, the aim of those involved in the penal system would be to decide on the approach best calculated to turn the offender away from crime.
It is here, in relation to the treatment of offenders, and not in the hair-splitting statutory rules about deserts and culpability, that their varying mental states would be important. Under our present system, reform of the offender hardly gets a look-in, and our prisons are full of people with mental illness which goes largely untreated.
Official statistics tell us that three-quarters of prisoners have below average I.Q.s, that over two-thirds have one or more mental health disorders and that nearly one-tenth are psychotic (that's to say, insane).
The only prison in the country which is run entirely on therapeutic principles is Grendon. Its regime, far from being soft or lenient, makes much greater demands on the prisoners than any ordinary prison: a consultant psychiatrist uses unexpectedly colourful language in saying that it provides "group therapy with turbo-charged-rocket-boost-high-voltage-plasma-engines, going at warp factor ten."
A report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2009 reaffirmed its "remarkable achievements with some of the ... most dangerous and difficult prisoners." It was awarded the Longford Prize in 2008, when the judges described it as a beacon of hope for the prison service.
...I feel real anger, too, about the way in which, when such criminals are caught, we ignore all the distorting influences which society has allowed to bear upon them, along with any contribution which their genetic endowment has made to their criminality, and treat their crimes, not as a result of these things, but as a result of something called free will.
If free will really did allow us to choose our personalities, or to slough them off at will, who in the world would freely choose to have the personality of a serial killer, or to act in accordance with it? Would you choose even to step into the slightly more comfortable shoes of Burglar Bill?
Criminals are victims of causality just as their victims are, and none the less so if, as sometimes happens, causality has made them arrogant, gloating and glad to be the people they are.
There is another lesson which determinism teaches us about crime, and that is the need to intervene more often, more early, and more effectively, in the lives of those who are on the way to becoming criminals. Although attempts actually to do this are spasmodic and half-hearted, the need to do so is becoming increasingly to be recognised.
Even if we profess to reject determinism, we know deep down that our only hope of making a real reduction in crime lies in tackling at an early stage the chains of causality which lead to it. We cannot rely on "free will" to do the job; it will not come riding to the rescue at the last minute, like the U.S. Cavalry in an old Hollywood film.
It is true that the imposition of penalties on convicted offenders may deter them from future crime, because it modifies the causal chain, but this comes too late -- too late for the criminals and too late for their victims.
I had high expectations when I began reading Dan Barker's book, "Free Will Explained." Being a firm non-believer in free will, I figured that Barker, an avowed atheist, would give free will the same de-bunking as Sam Harris and numerous other scientifically minded authors have.
I'm a free will junkie.
I find this subject fascinating. I've read most of the books that argue free will doesn't exist, even though we humans believe we possess it. So since the subtitle of Barker's book is How Science and Philosophy Converge to Create a Beautiful Illusion, I expected a rational, reasonable, factual explanation of not only why free will is an illusion, but the benefit of giving up a belief in it.
Well, even before I got through the introduction, I found myself writing more and more question marks in the margins, because what Barker was saying made so little sense.
He admits that free will is a fiction. Determinism rules through chains of causes and effects. So far, so good.
Where Barker lost me is his contention that "Free will is a product of judgment." He claims that "free will is irrelevant -- it doesn't even exist -- until you judge behavior. It is a retroactive product of judgment."
He's talking about a particular sort of judgment, moral judgments. Supposedly free will is a social truth, like marriage. Well, this goes against how almost everybody in the world, aside from Barker, I guess, looks upon free will.
Almost everybody feels like they possess free will, even though it is an illusion. Likewise, almost everybody says "the sun is setting" rather than "the Earth is revolving." We feel like we have free will when we're alone, just as we see the sun setting when we're alone. If someone is by themselves on a desert island, they are still going to feel like they have free will, no moral judgement required.
We choose a flavor of ice cream. We pick a book to buy. We decide where to go on vacation. None of these decisions entail making moral judgments, unless the meaning of "moral" is stretched far beyond its normal usage. I fail to see how a sense of free will only arises after a judgment is made, but this is a core tenet of Barker's book.
Now, what bothers me the most about "Free Will Explained" isn't the crazy way Barker looks upon free will, but the implications he draws from that viewpoint. Unlike virtually every other author who writes about the illusion of free will, somehow Barker is simultaneously able to embrace the reality of determinism while also claiming that we are morally responsible for our actions.
"We can be completely unfree, yet also completely accountable for our own actions," he writes. Barker further asserts that "moral accountability only needs to go as far back in time as the mental decision to act was made."
So even though someone's decision to rob a bank, say, was completely determined by their genetics, upbringing, and countless life experiences, Barker is fine with the justice system assuming that they possessed free will and could have chosen to not rob the bank. Hence, it is perfectly justified, in Barker's view, to exact retribution for freely willed acts, rather than viewing criminality as something that society needs to be protected from, and the criminal rehabilitated from.
Barker goes so far as to write, "Yes, the brain tumor (or whatever) is one of the causes of the action, but the individual human being is the actual perpetrator. It is irrelevant to ask whether the person was ultimately free or not. We only assume the person was immediately free."
Huh? Barker admits that free will is an illusion, It doesn't exist. Yet somehow he is OK with a judge or jury assuming that someone with a brain tumor was "immediately free" at the moment of making a decision, even though the tumor caused them to act in a certain unlawful way.
One of the more annoying parts of Barker's book is when he raises the straw man of determinists failing to praise people or favoring moral education. He says that when his children took their first steps and he clapped his hands to congratulate them, "Should I have acted like a dull determinist and coldly remarked to my kids, 'That's no big deal. You had no choice'?"
Geez. Barker doesn't understand how us determinists view reality. Everything at the level of everyday life is determined, everything! (I'm leaving out quantum phenomena, though arguably these also are determined, albeit in a probabilistic sense.)
A determinist is going to praise their children because this is what they have been determined to do. If they don't, then they have been determined to do that. There's no getting outside of the bounds of determinism in our causal universe.
At the end of his book Barker notes that "Free will is not a scientific truth, it is a social truth." Again, this doesn't make sense. An illusory sense of free will exists in humans because it has some sort of evolutionary advantage. This makes it a scientific truth. The illusion of free will also is a scientific truth, as Barker readily admits.
Yet he persists in believing that it is better that people believe in the illusion, than in the truth. He appears to be fine with exacting retributive justice that is justified by a judge or jury assuming that someone possessed the free will to not commit a crime.
Amazingly, Barker goes so far as to say, "Denying free will is a put-down to human nature." Wow. Discovering the truth that free will is an illusion is a put-down to human nature? I heartily disagree. For centuries people had the illusion that some races are superior to others, which justified slavery. They also had the illusion that women are the weaker sex and shouldn't be able to vote, among other consequences of that illusion.
Belief in free will isn't an innocent illusion. It is used to justify harsh punishments, since our justice system is founded on an assumption that, aside from insanity, people are free to either commit a crime or refrain from that behavior. Books like the one Barker wrote aren't merely wrong, they are dangerous.
I've just about finished re-reading a great book by a British attorney, Richard Oerton, who has spent half a century pondering the nature, or rather lack thereof, of free will.
Previously I've written about "The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing Up to a False Belief" in these posts:
Oerton makes some highly persuasive arguments against free will, building his case with a mixture of logic and facts. I'm enjoying his book even more the second time through, perhaps because I've had five years since the first reading to do my own further musings about free will.
I'm going to share some excerpts from Oerton's chapter, "Free will and religion: some parallels."
A basic parallel is that both free will and religiosity come naturally to people. It just seems so obvious that humans can freely choose to do this rather than that. It also appears so obvious that God exists, since how could the universe come into being without a creator?
Well, reality doesn't give up its secrets easily. This is the lesson of science: coming to know how things really are, as opposed to how they appear to be, is tough going. Religious belief is easy to come by. So is believing in free will.
What Oreton does is his book is challenge the easy belief in free will. He also makes a good case for viewing religion and free will as two sides of the same faulty-belief coin. Here's some passages that I particularly liked in the above-mentioned chapter. He's just spoken about the Age of Faith many centuries ago when atheism would have been almost unthinkable.
There may have been a few who questioned the existence of God but, by and large, it would not have entered anyone's head to do so. Religious belief was in the air that people breathed, taken for granted. They were born into it, they lived in it and they died in it.
They knew that God existed, and knew with such certainty that they would never have felt the need to say so. And don't we think now about free will in very much the same way as our ancestors thought then about God? Don't we accept it just as unquestioningly? Our own age may not be an age of religious faith, but it is an age of faith in free will.
...One of these parallels lies in the fact that God and free will are both mystical concepts. The idea that we might be able to understand God is almost blasphemous. God is by definition transcendent, supernatural, and (as the old hymn has it) moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
If an unbeliever questions a believer about the nature or behavior of God, the unbeliever will be met sooner or later (and probably sooner) by the assertion that, because God is what God is, such questions are unanswerable. And so it is with free will: those who want to live by it must accept that there are no good answers to the questions which they might (but seldom do) ask about its nature and purported effects.
...those who believe in free will see the behaviour of their fellow human beings in such a way as to justify and reinforce their belief -- just as religious believers see the work of God so clearly in the workings of the world that they cannot see these workings in any other way.
And here's some passages that make some great points about how, if we accept the reality of evolution, as every educated person should, some tough questions about free will arise.
We can't very well say that free will has always existed, if only because the human race hasn't always existed. It would not be credible to suggest that the earth's first life forms had free will. It would not be credible to suggest that an influenza virus now has free will, or even a tapeworm, or a woodlouse.
All these living things must be creatures of causality, governed and moved purely by physical processes. If we, as twenty-first century people, are not governed by physical processes because we have what we call free will, we must have managed, at some stage of our evolution, to detach ourselves from the laws of nature which up until then had governed us.
But when and how? So far as I know, evolutionary scientists have not concerned themselves with these questions, and they are unlikely to do so unless they themselves believe in free will, know exactly what it is and manage to devise some criteria according to which its existence or non-existence can be recognized.
We would be wise not to hold our breath.
Yet another parallel lies in the fact that like belief in God, belief in free will (so long as it remains unexamined) tends to be comforting to those who hold it.
...And the "utilitarian" argument for belief in God -- that it ought to be fostered because it is socially cohesive and leads people to live better lives -- is paralleled by a similarly utilitarian argument for belief in free will: that it is an important part of our society, our culture, our morality, our sense of self, and so on, and that we must therefore hang on to it however incoherent it may prove, on examination, to be, because humankind cannot stand very much reality.
I don't believe in free will. But like most people, I have a feeling that my intention to do something is what causes that thing to happen.
So we have two things going on:
(1) A scientific world view doesn't support a belief in free will. As I've written about a lot on this blog (type "free will" into the Google search box in the right sidebar to find the many posts), there is no evidence of an immaterial self/soul that somehow floats free of the material/physical goings-on in the human mind. So there's no entity within us which can function freely of causes and effects or the laws of nature.
(2) Yet we humans have a strong sense that our intentions lead to thoughts, actions, and everything else we're capable of doing. After all, I think type an example of a thought and the next thing I do is type "I need to finish writing this paragraph." Who the heck is controlling what I'm doing right now if it isn't my conscious intention?
Well, study carefully this photo I took of a fascinating figure in Daniel Wegner's book, "The Illusion of Conscious Will," and you'll get a very interesting explanation of why the experience of conscious will is indeed an illusion.
Note that there is an "actual" and "apparent" causal path leading to an action.
The actual causal path flows from an unconscious cause of the action. Meaning, the human brain is doing things below the surface of awareness that cause us to do something.
At the same time, there also is an unconscious cause of thought. This takes an actual causal path in the brain that leads to a thought.
So the brain is unconsciously causing both an action and a thought.
These two things are actually happening. However, our experience of conscious will -- the feeling that our thought or intention is what causes an action to occur -- is an illusion. This is shown in the "Apparent Causal Path" arrow leading from thought to action.
Here's a few passages from Wegner's book that explain what is going on here. (Wegner is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.)
The experience of will, then, is the way our minds portray their operations to us, not their actual operation. Because we have thoughts of what we will do, we can develop causal theories relating those thoughts to our actions on the basis of priority, consistency, and exclusivity.
We come to think of these prior thoughts as intentions, and we develop the sense that the intentions have causal force even though they are actually just previews of what we may do.
Yet in an important sense, it must be the case that something in our minds plays a causal role in making our actions occur. That something is, in the theory of apparent mental causation, a set of unconscious mental processes that cause the action. At the same time, that something is very much like the thoughts we have prior to the action.
...We must remember that this analysis suggests that the real causal mechanisms underlying behavior are never present in consciousness. Rather, the engines of causation operate without revealing themselves to us and so may be unconscious mechanisms of mind.
...The unique human convenience of conscious thoughts that preview your actions gives us the privilege of feeling we willfully cause what we do.
In fact, however, unconscious and inscrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as cause of the action.
So while our thoughts may have deep, important, and unconscious causal connections to our actions, the experience of conscious will arises from a process that interprets these connections, not from the connections themselves.
This is brilliant. I'm only read about 1/4 of "The Illusion of Conscious Will," but I'm far enough into the book to have gotten a good feel for Wegner's thesis. He provides a lot of evidence to support it, both scientific and philosophical.
Naturally spiritual (using that word broadly) implications of this illusion are easy to come by. For example, it can be argued that the so-called enlightenment of Zen, Taoism, and such simply is an intuitive seeing-through of the illusion of conscious will.
Meaning, the illusion that "I" am determining what I do (and also by implication, what happens to me) is somehow experienced as the scientific falsity that it is. Of course, this is just a fact -- assuming Wegner's hypothesis is correct, as it seems to be -- not any sort of supernatural or mystical state of mind.
It is just our actual state of mind, seen for what it is. It'll take another blog post to explain this more fully.
Here's another episode in my so-far never-ending quest to convince readers of this blog that free will, as normally understood, is an illusion. (For previous attempts, type "free will" in the Google search box in the right sidebar.)
Below is a letter to the editor in the July 30 issue of New Scientist, a British publication. Which explains the weird spelling of "randomize" and "recognize." Damn, can't those Britons speak English correctly, like us Americans do?
Anyway, I digress.
I thought Carpenter's last paragraph was right-on. Along with reflexes, intuitions seem to be another example of unconsicous brain processes that we aren't aware of being prepared in advance.
With rational, conscious, deliberative step-by-step thinking, by contrast, we are aware of how the brain is going through the process of making a decision. But awareness of a mechanistic process doesn't make it any less mechanical.
If the hood (or bonnet) of a car is closed, the existence of an engine isn't obvious. With the hood open, it becomes clearer that when the car moves, it is because of the engine. Closed or open, though, the same mechanical processes are making the car move.
Not a perfect analogy to the brain and our illusory feeling of free will, but sort of close. Here's the letter:
We can see brains randomising choice
From Roger Carpenter
Nial Wareing speculates that the brain might make its decisions probabilistically, and that in some circumstances it might deliberately randomise its actions (Letters, 2 July). It has long been known that this is what it does.
Recordings show that neurons in the brain encode probability and run races with each other to make decisions. A good deal of randomness is gratuitously injected into this process. To an outside observer, the resultant unpredictable responses look like “free will”, and would indeed be highly desirable in predator/prey interactions.
To the owner of the brain, the crucial difference between those responses that we recognise as unconscious – like reflexes – and those that we think we have “willed”, is that we experience the latter being prepared in advance, but not the former. But both are equally mechanistic. Free will is a pretty meaningless expression.
Below is a 9-minute video that encapsulates Sam Harris' views about free will.
Which, in short, is that it is an illusion. And that the world would be better off if people recognized this, rather than wrongly believing that humans are able to freely choose what to do at any given moment.
The background music in the video is a bit distracting. But Harris' message is so convincing, and the video is so well done (aside, perhaps, from the music selection), I urge you to watch it.
Now, I realize that some people don't look upon free will in the way that Harris does.
Harris, like me, considers that free will means just that: we are free to will what we want to do. This is how the legal system looks upon free will. It also is how virtually everybody who believes in free will looks upon it: as the capacity to do this rather than that.
The alternative view of free will makes little, if any, sense. Namely, that while we are not free to choose what we will, if there is nothing constraining us from carrying out that determined choice, then we have "free will."
Well, this viewpoint simply means that humans have as much free will as a well-functioning computer does. Absent software or hardware problems, a computer is able to carry out the tasks that it has been programmed to do. But does this mean it has free will?
No. Likewise, Harris says that because we live in a deterministic universe, human actions also are determined by all of the influences acting upon us from birth onward (even before birth, of course, given genetic influences).
If you watch the video and find flaws in Harris' arguments, please leave a comment explaining what you think he got wrong. Like I said, I find the video highly convincing, but I'm open to hearing reasons why free will isn't an illusion. So far, I just haven't come across any convincing ones.
I've written a lot about free will on this blog. To me it seems obvious that free will doesn't exist. At least not in the way most people believe that it does.
(You can find my numerous posts on this subject by typing "free will" into the Google search box in the right sidebar.)
But after finishing Paul Singh's book, "The Great Illusion: The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self," I realize that when commenters on my posts object to free will being an illusion, they're usually thinking of free will of being something different than how I see it.
So hopefully this blog post will clear the confusion up. (Yeah, I'm an optimist.)
Singh makes a distinction between Free Will, which does exist, and Freedom of the Will, which doesn't. I agree with him. However, the problem is that when most people think of free will, they're really talking about freedom of the will.
Free will, in Singh's view, is essentially the philosophical position of compatibilism. Meaning, this definition of free will is compatible with determinism. Wikipedia says:
Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent. Compatibilists believe freedom can be present or absent in situations for reasons that have nothing to do with metaphysics. They define free will as freedom to act according to one's motives without arbitrary hindrance from other individuals or institutions.
Likewise, Singh writes:
Free will, according to common sense, is demonstrated by the way that a person's actions are as he or she wills their actions to be, and not otherwise. This basic conception of free will is the one built into our moral and legal systems, as we hold people responsible for their freely willed actions.
If you are able to rest content with this common sense conception of free will, then you can continue to speak of "free will" as something real and sensible, without worrying about science someday refuting it.
But this is a very weak view of free will. It just means, say, that when I will or desire to go grocery shopping in my car, nothing is stopping me from starting my car's engine, driving into town, and getting what's on our grocery list.
On the other hand, someone in jail could have the same desire, yet wouldn't have the freedom to carry out the willed actions. Thus they lack free will in this instance, and I don't. Meaning, I am free to do what I will -- go grocery shopping -- and they aren't.
This is far distant from how most people look upon free will. The usual conception of free will is that a person is able to freely choose what to will, and not merely freely carry out a willed action.
Thus Freedom of the Will is really what's usually meant by Free Will. Singh explains:
Free will defenders agree that a person's willing decision to something should result in the intended action, in order for the person to display liberty of action. What about the liberty of the will itself?... A person's control over an action really isn't like controlling ones' will.
...Defenders of freedom of the will set a requirement along the following lines. A person's will, they say, could have willed otherwise in the moment of willing, if a person's will is truly free. They then design a required test for this "could have willed otherwise" that goes something like this: If a will is free, then at the moment of decision, and with everything exactly the way it is, a will could both decide to do an action and not to do that action.
These requirements go far beyond anything suggested by ordinary free will. We aren't really talking about ordinary free will any more, but rather "freedom of the will."
...Defenders of freedom of the will treat the will as a mini-person, applying to the will the same sort of criteria for freedom that they apply to the whole person. If a person is free only if nothing outside of the self completely determines what he or she does, then the same must be true of the will itself; a will is free only if nothing outside of it completely determines what it does.
Even if things outside the will inform and influence it, the will must supply something extra to finally decide what is to be done, so that it retains the ability to both choose and change any choice.
There is no evidence that this sort of free will, "freedom of the will," exists. It goes agains everything science knows about the human brain, determinism, and the laws of nature. Freedom of the will requires a supernatural influence that overrides the physical goings-on in our craniums.
This FoW [Freedom of Will] criterion is commonly accepted among philosophers and theologians who prefer dualism over naturalism, usually for religious reasons. Dualism asserts that a person as a whole, and something within a person as well, cannot be entirely physical in nature and operation.
This non-physicality is manifested in a power to counter-balance and even override what would otherwise happen according to forces and laws.
...What is clear is that devotion to the FoW criterion drives free will enthusiasm towards the speculation that the will must be entirely unnatural and transcendent. If it were just another cog in the material machine, it wouldn't be able to control the machine by itself.
Freedom of the will calls for freedom from reality.
Which is why freedom of the will doesn't exist, while free will does. Einstein had it right:
“Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will (Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills).”
-- Albert Einstein
Wow! As a big Stephen Hawking fan, I never thought that I'd write a blog post where I took him to task for getting a scientific subject wrong.
But after watching Episode 3 of Hawking's new "Genius" series, I've got to point out how confusing this Why Are We Here? episode was when it came to free will.
So I was all eyes and ears as Hawking led three ordinary people -- meaning, non-scientists -- through exercises designed to get them thinking in a scientific way. Clips can be viewed on the PBS web page devoted to Episode 3, along with the entire hour long show.
We see them marveling at floating plates in a room within an English castle. Not surprisingly, this isn't the result of magic, but magnetism. The lesson learned is that scientific understanding of the laws of nature is the way to comprehend the world, not supernatural explanations.
Then the three Genius explorers tackle a difficult problem: how to knock an olive on a toothpick that's balanced on the edge of a cocktail glass into the drink. Without touching it with their hands.
A pendulum device on a long chain looks promising. The swinging round ball definitely has what it takes, but the scientific students keep either missing short (no contact) or long (too much contact, so the glass breaks). After many tries, and many refills of the drink by a bartender in the room, they figure out what to do.
Use a board with markings to get the ball in a precise spot, and use a button that deactivates a magnet holding the ball in place so the "push" on the ball is exactly the same every time. It doesn't take long for them to find the sweet spot where the olive is gently knocked into the glass.
And they can do this repeatedly. Lesson: if something is done in exactly the same way, the same thing will happen according to the laws of nature.
A replication of the famous Libet experiment about conscious vs. unconscious choice gets us directly into questions of free will. The three people are asked to push a button (which sets off fireworks!) at a moment of their choice while staring at a large clock projected onto a castle wall.
They note the time they consciously chose to push the button. As Libet found, and as other researchers have confirmed, a conscious decision to do something is preceded by unconscious activity in the brain. So this teaches the threesome that free will doesn't really exist, since the sense of "I freely choose to do this" is an illusion.
Actually, brain processes outside of our awareness determine what we choose. Thus they learn that determinism resulting from the laws of nature rules the universe, and us.
I was nodding along agreeably with Episode 3 up to this point. The points Hawking was making seemed eminently justified, being in line with familiar scientific principles I'd read about in numerous books and articles.
But then the episode took a turn.
A Doppelganger challenge featured many people wearing masks of the three Genius explorers. They lined up behind the real person. Then each individual decided to take a step to the right or left when a loud "beep" sounded. Before long these choices resulted in the Original and Doppelgangers being considerably out of step with each other, so to speak.
The lesson Hawking was teaching here struck me as way more scientifically problematic than what had been presented before. This exercise pointed to the Many Worlds (or Many Universes) theory of quantum mechanics.
As a Wikipedia article discusses, the notion that all possible outcomes occur, that the "universe splits into all possible universes all the time" (as Hawking says near the end of Episode 3) is by no means a settled understanding of science. The Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics has a lot of fans, but the article quotes a critic: "And who here believes the laws of physics are decided by a democratic vote?"
Yet Hawking and some other scientists, such as physicist Sean Carroll, speak as if it is virtually certain that every possible action or choice does occur in a parallel universe.
Now, obviously there's no problem entertaining this hypothesis. It makes a lot of sense, and resolves some difficult questions about the quantum world. My problem is with how Episode 3 related free will to the Many Worlds theory. I failed to see how everything happening that could happen saves free will, as one of the threesome seemed to believe.
After all, Hawking had just led the three people to several understandings: the laws of nature rule the universe, and unconscious brain processes determine our conscious choices.
So someone decides to step to the right when hearing the beep in the Doppelganger exercise. This wasn't a freely willed choice. Yet certainly a different choice -- step to the left -- could have been made by the person's brain, given different causes acting within the brain.
I fail to see how everything that could happen, does happen has any relevance to free will. If anything, the Many Worlds theory points to Determinism Gone Wild. Not only does one thing happen according to the laws of nature, everything happens.
Assuming the Many Worlds theory of the quantum realm is true. I'm not aware of any empirical evidence that it is. Thus Hawking's conclusion in Episode 3 struck me as poetic and appealing, but not convincing: "The universe you see is the one that gives rise to you out of all possible universes."
A member of the threesome said, "It took a whole universe to make me." OK, granted. The Big Bang can be viewed as the cosmic event that led to the present moment. Another quote from the episode: "We are a product of the universe, but the universe we live in is personal to us."
We all experience the world through our own subjectivity. And the Many Worlds theory takes this farther, since there supposedly are countless other "me's" having subjective experiences in parallel universes. Naturally the only universe I'm aware of is the one I'm in.
It makes sense for Hawking and his collaborators on "Genius" to end Episode 3 on a semi-uplifting note after effectively putting free will on a skewer and roasting it to death. The basic answer he gives to the episode's main question, Why Are We Here?, is that we are here because we're not in an infinity of other parallel universes.
Again, how this relates to free will and choice eludes me. But maybe the universe simply has determined that I'm not supposed to understand this.
Free will fascinates me. I don't believe it exists. Yet it sure seems like I have it.
Of course, if the cosmos has determined that I shall believe in free will, even though it is an illusion, I have no choice but to feel like I have free will.
(Type "free will" into the Google search box in the right sidebar to find my many blog posts on this subject that I couldn't help but write.)
Today I was re-reading a chapter in one of my favorite books, Raymond Smullyan's "The Tao is Silent."
Below are some excerpts from Is God a Taoist? Smullyan's take on free will and determinism from a Taoist perspective is pretty damn brilliant.
Reminds me of Alan Watts. But Smullyan is a mathematical logician (so says the back of his book), so he has a unique way of writing about this stuff.
HIs chapter consists of a dialogue between God and a Mortal.
MORTAL: Anyway, it is reassuring to know that my natural intuition about having free will is correct. Sometimes I have been worried that determinists are correct.
GOD: They are correct.
MORTAL: Wait a minute, now, do I have free will or don't I?
GOD: I already told you you do. But that does not mean determinism is incorrect.
MORTAL: Well, are my acts determined by the laws of nature, or aren't they?
GOD: The word determined here is subtly but powerfully misleading and has contributed so much to the confusions of the free will versus determinism controversies.
Your acts are certainly in accordance with the laws of nature, but to say they are determined by the laws of nature creates a totally misleading psychological image which is that your will could somehow be in conflict with the laws of nature and that the latter is somehow more powerful than you, and could "determine" your acts whether you liked it or not. But it is simply impossible for your will to ever conflict with natural law. You and natural law are really one and the same.
...MORTAL: So you really claim that I am incapable of determining to act against natural law?
GOD: It is interesting that you have twice now used the phrase "determined to act" instead of "chosen to act." This identification is quite common. Often one uses the statement "I am determined to do this" synonymously with "I have chosen to this." This very psychological identification should reveal that determinism and choice are much closer than they might appear.
Of course, you might well say that the doctrine of free will says that it is you who are doing the determining, whereas the doctrine of determinism appears to say that your acts are determined by something apparently outside you. But the confusion is largely caused by your bifurcation of reality into the "you" and the "not you."
Really now, just where do you leave off and the rest of the universe begin?
Once you can see the so-called "you" and the so-called "nature" as a continuous whole, then you can never again be bothered by such questions as whether it is you who are controlling nature or nature who is controlling you. Thus the muddle of free will versus determinism will vanish.
If I may use a crude analogy, imagine two bodies moving toward each other by virtue of gravitational attraction. Each body, if sentient, might wonder whether it is he or the other fellow who is exerting the "force." In a way it is both, in a way it is neither. It is best to say that it is the configuration of the two which is crucial.
I'm fascinated by free will. Especially the lack thereof. Do a "free will" Google search of my blogs (via the box in the right sidebar) and you'll find lots of posts I've written on this fascinating subject.
It doesn't bother me at all that modern neuroscience is steadily demolishing philosophical and religious reasons for believing in free will. If this is the way the world works, where's the problem?
To me, worrying about the consequences if people stop believing in free will is almost exactly the same as previous worries about what would happen if people learned that the earth isn't the center of the cosmos, or that we evolved from other life forms rather than being God's unique creation.
How can scientific truth be harmful?
Sure, sometimes there is a period of psychological adjustment when science reveals uncomfortable facts -- What, we humans weren't made in the image of God, starting with Adam and Eve six thousand years ago??!! -- but it is better in the long run to embrace the way things truly are, rather than fantasies.
So I was skeptical about the conclusion of a Scientific American article, "The World Without Free Will: What happens to a society that believes people have no conscious control over their actions?" Here's some excerpts from the final paragraphs.
If neuroscience research continues to degrade people's belief that they have free will, how will society change? We see three possibilities. History is replete with examples of moral norms evolving with new knowledge about the world.
...New research unveiling the biological machinery behind human thought and action may prompt a similarly dramatic change in moral views. This is the first possiblity... Though uncomfortable at times, doubting free will may end up as a kind of growing pain for our society, aligning our moral intuitions and legal institutions with new scientific knowledge and making us stronger than before.
It may not happen that way though. As our research has suggested, the more people doubt free will, the more lenient they become toward those accused of crimes and the more willing they are to break the rules themselves and harm others to get what they want. Thus, the second possibility is that newfound skepticism of free will may end up threatening the humanitarian revolution, potentially culminating in anarchy.
More likely is the third possibility. In the 18th century Voltaire famously asserted that if God did not exist, we would need to invent him because the idea of God is so vital to keeping law and order in society. Given that a belief in free will restrains people from engaging in the kind of wrongdoing that could unravel an ordered society, the parallel is obvious.
What will our society do if it finds itself without the concept of free will? It may well reinvent it.
I hope not. These arguments in favor of preserving an unscientific belief in something that almost certainly doesn't exist fail to make sense to me.
For one thing, Voltaire was wrong about the idea of God being vital to keeping society lawful and orderly. Atheists and agnostics aren't any more prone to lawlessness than religious believers. Arguably, less so, since the most secular countries tend to have less crime.
Likewise, I can't understand why not believing in free will would make someone less moral. If morality is determined, as everything else is, someone's attitude about free will is just one of many influences on his or her behavior.
I used to believe in free will. Now I don't. I can't discern any effect this change has had on the way I go about my everyday life. I still make choices, decide what is right and wrong to do, and make moral judgments.
All that has changed is how I regard the philosophical implications of what I'm doing.
Meaning, I no longer consider that I'm capable of making decisions that are divorced from all of the causes impacting me: genetics, experience, upbringing, culture, environmental influences, bodily states, and such.
As the above-linked article points out, Japan is one of the countries where a small percentage of people believe in the Western notion of God. China is another. I'd argue that most Japanese and Chinese also have a different notion of free will than people in the United States do.
We are much more individualistic, by and large.
Yet does our indvidualism and belief in free will lead to lower crime rates and a greater concern for the welfare of others? No. This country lags behind many, if not most, industrialized nations in many indicators of social well-being.
A belief in free will tends to make us more judgmental toward other people, as argued here. it leads us to think that if someone does something wrong, they could have done otherwise, so deserve punishment or whatever else results from their bad decision (like poverty or poor health).
So I'm eager for society to give up a ill-founded belief in free will. Let's embrace reality.
All of us are connected. No man or woman is an island. We're all parts of an interconnected whole -- the universe -- that collectively determines what happens in every part of itself. To me this is a beautiful way of looking at the world, one that offers way more meaning than an illusory embrace of free will.
This happens to me a lot, in my now-churchless frame of mind. I'll buy a book that seems to be in my sweet spot: scientific, yet also philosophical, with just enough of a spiritual-but-not-religious tone.
Like Goldilocks, not too much, not too little. Just right.
I don't mean to sound like a crotchety literary perfectionist. I realize that the reason I like to read books is because they're written by people who aren't me.
I enjoy reading stuff I don't agree with. So long as I can understand the author's reasons for saying what he or she does.
With "Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science," I was rocking and rolling along with David Barash's explanations of how pared-down Buddhist teachings, stripped of their supernatural elements, are right in line with modern biology.
But then I came to the final chapter, Meaning (Existential Bio-Buddhism?). Here Barash says that he will present his personal perspective "rather than attempting to describe objectively the interface between Buddhism and biology."
That's where my enjoyment of the book went downhill. Not all the way to the bottom, not even close. I still enjoyed "Buddhist Biology" a lot and can heartily recommend it.
I just wish that Barash hadn't interjected his personal belief in free will into the book, because free will is very much at odds with both Buddhism and modern science.
In a footnote early on in the last chapter, Barash writes:
Personal note: my literary agent suggested that I refrain from introducing existentialism into this book, worrying that it is not only passé but also too highbrow. Although he is very intelligent and wise in the ways of Western publishing, my hope is that you, dear readers, will prove him wrong, at least in this regard.
Well, this reader thinks the agent was exactly right. Not for the reason Barash states; I enjoy existentialism; in my college days I embraced Sartre, Camus, and other existentialist thinkers.
What irked me about the final chapter was how it contradicted so much of what Barash had argued persuasively in favor of before. Here's how I summarized this in one of my blog posts about the book:
The core of Barash's book, which I've almost finished, is that three principles underly Buddhism in all of its varied forms. However, lots is added on to these principles that can't be defended scientifically.
But this much can. Definitions are from the book's glossary.
(1) Anatman -- not-self; denial that things, animals, or people have an independent, substantial nature. In particular, neither humans nor anything else have an eternal non-material soul. Neuroscience supports this.
(2) Anitya -- impermanence; a state of constantly becoming. Change happens. Everywhere. All the time. No exceptions. Except maybe the laws of nature that proclaim "change happens." Evolution is one example.
(3) Pratitya-Samutpada -- connectedness; the dependent co-arising of all phenomena; dependent origination; interdependence of all things. Fundamental premise of ecology, biology, systems thinking.
So we humans don't have an independent nature, or self. We are constantly changing, as is everything else. We are part of an interconnected, interdependent universe where no entity is an island, complete unto itself.
Where in this view of the cosmos is there room for free will? Logically, nowhere. But I guess Barash's fondness for existentialism overrode both his scientific and Buddhist sensibilities, because his last chapter included passages that made me pen in large question marks in the book's margins.
The concept of choice turns out to be especially important here, because in the view of the existentialists, we are free; indeed, in Sartre's paradoxical words, we are "condemned to be free."
...Thus, Buddhist thought diverges from materialist biological science in asserting that genuine intentionality exists even though strict cause-and-effect thinking (supported by biology) insists that free will is an illusion.
...But that does not mean that we are stuck with an atomized, un-Buddhist mind-set, since to a large extent, minds are among those things that we are free to make up for ourselves...admittedly with a gentle shove from that array of genetically inspired tendencies that we designate "biology."
...In any event, "going with the flow" of our biologically generated inclinations is very close to existential "bad faith," wherein people pretend -- to themselves and others -- that they are not free, whereas they in fact are.
...We are free, terrifyingly free, to make these decisions, to keep the ball in the air.
Look: I'm not bothered by a belief in free will. To me, it is like a belief in God. Almost everybody in the world considers that they have free will, and also that God exists.
Heck, I feel as if I have free will also.
I also feel that the sun rises and sets. But science tells me that the Earth rotates as it orbits the sun. Science also tells me a lot about the nature of the human brain. To me, believing in free will is as scientifically indefensible as believing that the Earth stands still while the sun moves around it.
Tellingly, Barash presents zero scientific evidence in support of his contention that "we are free, terrifyingly free." He says that "in fact," we are free. But doesn't offer up any facts in defense of that statement.
I found this deeply irritating.
Again, not so much as to detract markedly from my enjoyment of his entire book. I just mentally erased Barash's last chapter from the substance of what he said, viewing his personal belief in free will as one of those paradoxes that make people so entertainingly interesting.
I used to work with a statistician who was fond of quoting Emerson:
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
We are all multitudes, full of messy seeming contradictions, paradoxes, inconsistencies. Yet, I'd argue (because science supports me in this) that the human brain/mind is a entity founded on and formed by causes and effects, not the free will of an independent self.
Which is what Barash also argued up until his last chapter, where he flipped over into his existentialist mode.
I might have been able to accept an existentialism that was consistent with Buddhism, though not with biology, even though this would have gone against the theme of Barash's book: that the core of Buddhism is compatible with modern biology.
However, it sure seems that free will is at odds with Buddhism also. I offer up the Great God Wikipedia's article on "Free Will." Here's what the Buddhism section says. Pretty involved; I don't claim to understand it completely.
This Zen Buddhist perspective on free will (and the lack thereof) is easier to comprehend.
Free will is “the freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.” We don’t talk much about divine intervention in Buddhism, but we definitely talk about prior causes.
So, if we go with that definition, it doesn’t look like there is free will in the view of Buddha-Dharma because everything that happens, including “choice” is determined by conditions. Volition is a mental factor that arises dependent upon conditions, which is precisely what makes it not an independent self.
If there were an independent self, then it could have free will, and in fact that’s what we feel to be true as humans. We believe that “I” as a free agent can, within the limits of conditions imposed by the world, decide what to do now. Don’t we think so?
Free will may sound like a really great thing to have, but it seems to me that it would be kind of a burden to have free will. A question you can contemplate is: If it feels like “you” have to decide anything, do you feel a little bit of unease with that “freedom” of so-called free will?
If you open to the possibility that the boundless totality of conditions is determining your every move, that your “self ” is receiving its function from myriad conditions, do you feel some ease with that sense of “being controlled”?
It sure seems like Buddhism doesn't share Barash's view that "we are free, terrifyingly free." Nor, obviously, does science, including biology.
So Barash's contention that humans have free will isn't founded either in Buddhism or in biology, the twin subjects of his book. Rather, it is founded in his own feeling that he has free will -- a feeling, like I said before, that is shared by most other people.
Fine. I just would contend that Barash's belief in free will, along with my non-belief in free will, are both the result of causes and effects occurring in a marvelously complex interconnected cosmos.
Not the result of free will. (I just had to say that.)
I've got no problem with a scientifically and logically defensible conclusion: neither I, nor anyone else, has free will.
(Of course, I had no choice but to write that sentence.)
The whole existentialist and religious thing -- most early existentialists were Christians -- puts way too much undeserved pressure on us to choose the right thing to do.
Maybe this made some sense when little was known about the brain, biology, genetics, systems theory, ecology, and such.
But now it is clear that reality is a web of interdependencies, interelationships, cause and effect linkages. Demonstrable evidence for a non-material free-floating soul that freely decides what to do is precisely zero.
Which is fine with me.
See some of my previous blog posts on this subject here, here, here, here, and here. I'm happier feeling like a part of a grand whole, rather than an isolated bit of freely choosing something-or-other.
Believers in free will don't have a coherent explanation of how such exists. Yet they do their best to buck up their subjective sense of freedom with slippery arguments like compatibilism.
I do my best to understand compatibilist arguments. But fail. Just seems like the last gasp of die-hard philosophers who want to play some word games before being overwhelmed by scientific truth.
A few years ago Sam Harris wrote a book called "Free Will."
Compatibilist philosopher Daniel Dennett recently wrote a response to Harris' contention that we don't have any. After which Daniel Meissler demolished Dennett's attempted critique in a great piece, "Daniel Dennett is wrong about free will."
If you're interested in this subject, for reasons beyond your control, you need to read what Meissler wrote. Great stuff. Hard to believe how anyone could believe in free will after reading his piece. The comments are interesting also.
Here's a few excerpts to whet your reading appetite.
"Seriously? Do you [Dennett] really think that, in a country where only half of the population believes in evolution, any significant percentage of people are going to have an advanced belief in free will?
No. They aren’t. Most believe that people make choices independently of causes, to a significant degree, and therefore deserve reward and punishment. This is the basis of the American justice system and of much of our culture. This highly nuanced dance that Dennett is doing isn’t on the radar because they don’t even have radar.
Ask someone why a murderer deserves to die. Ask 1,000 people in a scientifically valid poll. You’ll find that most people believe the following: The murderer had a choice. That means that despite their bad upbringing, despite their drugged out mom, despite whatever hardships, they had the concrete, tangible, and available OPTION to not commit that murder.
So they are 100% guilty. Period.
That’s the resolution that most people have in this country when it comes to considering free will. Not everyone, but most.
...None of these things get us to freedom unless you’re describing it in the loosest and most useless way possible. As I said in the opening, he’s basically saying that if it feels free then it is, and that’s the best you’re going to get.
Well, I don’t have to accept the best illusion I’m going to get and call it freedom. I’d rather, for the sake of human dignity and the respect for reason, acknowledge that it’s an illusion and work within that framework. It’s more true, which I think is generally more healthy.
...These things are not in your control. They happen to you. They trim your options down to the limited set that present themselves to you from, well…you don’t know where. That was Harris’ entire point. Whatever options get presented for you to choose from are labeled as your freedom, and you’re not even thinking about all the others that weren’t presented.
What’s free about that?
Oh, right, it’s as free as it can be, and we should be happy with that.
Sure, and a shackled slave is free to run from the plantation in lots of different ways:
Picking from available options is illusory freedom because it ignores the fact that you were only presented a few choices, and you weren’t the one who chose them. This is true without even mentioning the uncomfortable bit that you’re also not the one picking afterwards.
...As I said at the start: Dennett’s argument reduces to this:
This is a reckless assault on truth in the name of wishful thinking."
Ah, it was my first time to sit in the jury box as a prospective juror. I didn't want to waste my opportunity. Which, because I hate jury duty, was the opportunity to not be a real juror.
Yet I'd held my right hand up along with the other eleven people in the jury box (six were needed for the trial) as the judge swore us to tell the truth during the voir dire process of the defense and prosecuting attorneys questioning us prospective jurors about whether we could fairly decide the case (it involved menacing without physical contact).
So I wanted to truthfully say something that would lessen my chances of being chosen for the jury.
That meant I kept my mouth shut as the defense attorney asked people about whether they had close relationships with police officers, whether they felt police were more credible than "regular" people, and so on.
But I was definitely ready to speak up if an opportunity presented itself. My general plan was to look as weird as possible -- meaning, unpredictably out of sorts with the whole trial/jury system that I had unwillingly been drafted to be a part of.
Not a stretch for me. Not at all. Weird is well within my repertoire.
My assumption was that both the defense and prosecuting attorney were looking for predictable jurors, people they could count on to look upon the evidence and testimony in a way that favored their side. I liked what I said, when I got my chance, because it was even hard for me to figure out the precise judicial implications of my remarks.
It was the male prospective juror sitting in front of me who opened up my opportunity. The defense attorney said that the defendant had some sort of mental illness. He asked the twelve of us if this affected how we looked upon his client.
The man raised his hand. The defense attorney called on him. The guy said he didn't believe that mental illness absolved someone of responsibility for a crime. More: he said that even a meth addict was responsible for what they did while high.
That hit my neuroscience button. I felt like I had to say something in response. I raised my own hand. After the attorney recognized me, I spoke along these lines:
Here's a yang perspective to the yin view expressed by the man in front of me. He believes in personal responsibility. I say, free will is an illusion. I'm an avid reader of neuroscience books. It's almost universally agreed by the authors that free will doesn't exist.
Mentally ill people don't have free will. Neither do mentally healthy people. We're all just doing stuff for reasons other than free will. Yet the justice system is based on free will. Retribution is ridiculous given the illusion of free will.
There can be other reasons for a sentence than retribution, of course. But punishing someone for a freely willed action isn't a valid reason, since there is no such thing as free will.
As so often happens, when I stopped speaking I thought, Wow, I make so much sense to me. In my usual grandiose way, I halfway expected the judge and attorneys to applaud. Then, vow that they were quitting the legal profession until legal codes were brought up to date with modern neuroscience.
What actually happened is that the defense attorney said "Interesting..." I then had another familiar thought: My profound pronouncement about the nature of reality is not being embraced by those less enlightened than me.
Which didn't really bother me, since the uncomprehending "thud" with which my dissertation about free will hit the courtroom gave me hope that I'd now be looked upon by one or both of the attorneys as a weird unpredictable intellectual philosophical crank outlier.
In short, poor juror material.
Indeed, after a ten minute break following the voir dire period, I was super happy to see other people called up to fill the first six chairs in the jury box. The rest of us were dismissed. Joy!
I can't be sure that my free will comments helped me get out of jury duty. But I suspect they did. So thanks to Richard Oerton for writing "The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing up to a False Belief" which I finished reading recently.
Oerton is a British lawyer. Several chapters of his book directly address free will and the justice system. Some excerpts:
The idea of free will is central to the criminal law, and the judges quite clearly believe that the offender might, by exercising his own free will, have refrained from committing the offense of which he has been convicted and any other offences on which their view of him is based.
...So don't we have something of a contradiction here? Why does a judge assume that someone who has proved dangerous in the past will go on being dangerous in the future? If he might, by exercising his free will, have avoided his past crimes, why might he not, by the same means, avoid any future ones, so abstaining from behavior which is not only destructive but self-destructive?
...If free will existed it would mean that, although our personality may be determined, this determined personality does not determine our behaviour because free will allows us always to transcend it.
...But if free will did exist, with anything like the implications just described, then it would invalidate pretty much the whole of psychology, psychiatry, criminology, sociology and any other science or system you can think of which concerns itself with human behaviour.
...Of course, offenders differ from one another in their mental states, doing so to an almost infinite degree, and these differences should be reflected in the way in which they are treated by the penal system, but there are causal explanations for the crimes of all of them, free will affects none of them, and retributive punishment is not something which any of them deserves or from which any would benefit.
This reminds me that most religions believe in free will. Otherwise getting rewards in heaven or punishments in hell wouldn't make any sense. But that's a subject for another blog post.
Right now the cosmos' determinism is directing me to go soak in a hot bath with a cool glass of wine and toast my freedom from jury duty today. Brought about by good deterministic reasons, naturally.
Most of us are afraid of losing our freedom.
We like being able to say what we want, go where we want, do what we want. Within limits, of course. Absolute freedom is impossible. Constraints are part of the human condition.
This helps explain the almost universal belief in free will, and the desire to exercise free will to the fullest.
Even if we're constrained by outer circumstances, such as not being able to drive 200 miles an hour because our car won't go that fast, most people have the feeling that what they are capable of choosing to do is within their control.
I walk into Starbucks. I'm asked "What would you like?" It certainly seems as if I'm free to order whatever is on the menu, even though I've never had a desire for any drink other than a latte or regular coffee.
In one sense, this is true.
My brain and vocal cords are capable of speaking the sounds that correspond to the dizzying variety of beverages that can be ordered at Starbucks. However, the notion that I can freely will to do whatever at any moment is ridiculously wrong.
Free will is an illusion. More accurately, as Richard Oerton says in his book "The Nonsense of Free Will," it is an illusion of an illusion.
Determinists sometimes speak of "the illusion of free will", but this is a very odd sort of illusion. If you see a mirage in the desert, the illusion is of something which conforms with the laws of nature and might really be there. But the illusion of free will, surely, is an illusion of something incomprehensible: an illusion of an illusion?
Incomprehensible, because genuine free will (as contrasted with watered-down varieties such as compatibilism) can't coexist with causality. And everywhere we look, causes and effects rule the roost. Oerton writes:
Human beings, according to a believer in free will, manage somehow to stand outside the natural laws which govern the rest of the universe and, despite being inextricably a part of it, are somehow exempt from the inter-dependent causal relationships of its other elements.
So that's why I titled this post as I did.
Free will, if it existed, would cut us loose from everything else in the cosmos. We'd be free-floating bits of... what? Hard to imagine. What would it be like to be unaffected by anything in existence, utterly detached from every other sentient being and insentient object, having no relationship with them?
Sounds like hell to me. Which got me to thinking about why the illusion of free will is worshipped so highly by most religions.
Shouldn't a primary life goal, whether spiritual or secular, involve relating more intimately, lovingly, caringly, and compassionately with other parts of the universe? Isn't it better to be connected than alone, part of the pattern woven into the fabric of the All rather than an isolated thread?
In Christianity, probably along with other monotheistic religions, God supposedly gave humans free will. (Of course, if we weren't free to accept or reject that gift, that seems to limit our freedom.) This supports notions of heaven, hell, salvation, redemption, and such.
Because if everything we do and all that we are is determined by forces outside our control, the theological basis for divine rewards and punishments dissolves. Stuff just happens naturally, causes and effects proceeding in accord with the laws of nature.
Eastern views of karma thus seem closer to reality than Western views of sin and virtue. However, there still remains the question of what gets the karmic ball rolling for an individual soul/self.
Meaning, if what we do is determined by previous causes and effects, yet we still have to go through rewards and punishments of our current actions, where is the fairness in that if free will wasn't present at the beginning of a long causative chain?
That's one problem with karma-based spirituality. Another is that our interconnectedness with the cosmos through causes and effects generally is viewed by Eastern religions as something to escape from, rather than to embrace.
Traditionally, Hinduism and Buddhism speak of being freed from cycles of birth and rebirth controlled by karmic law. We keep being born in different bodies, human or otherwise, until our store of karma is exhausted through some means: meditation, selfless service, guru's grace, or whatever.
This used to make sense to me. So much sense, I spent several years writing a book, "Life is Fair," about the karmic rationale for vegetarianism that was published in India. (A PDF file of the book can be downloaded via the previous link.)
Now, though, I'm happy to see myself as nothing special. I'm just a temporarily existing part of a vast cosmos that existed long before me and will continue on long after me. I'm affected by the countless connections I have with other things and people.
Those interrelationships have made me who I am, and continue to form me. I'm not free to do whatever I will. My will, intentions, desires, actions, and such spring from causes which, ultimately, can be traced all the way back to the big bang some 14 billion years ago.
And also are as recent as the sights and sounds cascading into my brain right now, along with every other influence acting upon me at the moment.
Would I have it any other way? No. Thankfully, because I've got no choice.
Free will doesn't exist, and I don't exist apart from everything else in the cosmos. I'm a part of the whole, dependent, not independent. Naturally I also am not free to lose my belief in free will; that's just happened, for reasons not of my own making.
Free will. Who needs it? Not me. Not you. Not Sam Harris. Not anybody.
Which is a good thing. Because almost certainly free will doesn't exist. So it's good news, and unsurprising news, that something humans don't have isn't necessary to live a satisfying life.
Harris is an excellent writer and thinker. Read his "Life Without Free Will."
If you're under the illusion that you're free to do whatever you decide to do, his piece will reassure you that's it's fine to give up that unsubsantiated belief.
I particularly liked this section of the essay.
In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness. With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a pediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them. Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.
Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest? How, for instance, does one become a pediatric surgeon? Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid. You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby. Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood. Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well.
At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one. Will you be the conscious source of this wanting? Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine? No. If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line.
None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behavior. And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.
Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort. But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort? To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon? Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration?
And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enroll in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments? Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious. Where is the freedom in this?
Hard to argue with. But if you feel like disagreeing with Sam Harris because you believe in free will, go ahead. After all, you're powerless to do anything else.
Free will. Who could be against this seemingly wonderful notion? The opposite idea seems to be a depressing downer: Unfree determinism.
After I'd read the first part of Sam Harris' new book, "Free Will," I shared my enthusiasm with my wife about giving up the belief that I can freely decide what I think, feel, or do. She wasn't nearly as enthused, perhaps because of her lengthy experience as a psychotherapist.
"But wouldn't people then use I've got no free will as an excuse for doing whatever they want? And wouldn't this take away people's motivation to change, to improve themselves, to pursue difficult undertakings?"
I had a ready response.
"Anyone who reads Harris' book will simply have more information dumped into their brain, an additional experience that will combine with all the other influences which currently determine their brain states. How they change as a result can't be predicted. Giving up a belief in free will might be highly positive for them, rather than negative."
Here's some quotes that illustrate how Harris approached this subject.
Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics -- by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.
...Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic -- in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future... A creative change of inputs to the system -- learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention -- may radically transform one's life.
If who we are and what we do is up to us, we're confined in an exceedingly small cage of individualistic selfhood. We can only move in directions that are apparent to our conscious free will. Fortunately, this isn't the truth known to modern neuroscience and psychology.
Psychologist Shimon Edelman discusses how the illusions of free will and selfhood are being replaced by the scientific truths of determinism and extended "virtual" selves. Here's how he puts it in a book that nicely complements Harris', The Happiness of Pursuit.
Insofar as the extended system -- the effective and narrative Selves planted in the great web of cause and effect -- can reach deep into geographical and social space, the computational need for such focusing of behavioral feedback is pressing. By taking responsibility for the processing and use of this information, the phenomenal Self gives rise to another useful illusion: that of free will.
In the West, it has been known since at least the time of Voltaire and Hume that the concept of uncaused cause, which is a prerequisite for free will, is logically incoherent: if my "free" decision to do a particular deed arises absolutely independently of any of the existing circumstances, including my own prior actions and states of mind, then in no sense can it be considered free, or, indeed, mine.
...I do not obey a code of conduct that is implicit in the web of cause and effect; rather I am part of the web. The ultimate reach of this web is universal -- and within the boundaries of physical law the universe is, of course, free.
...The bottom line, then, is this: the Self, along with all of its perceived and remembered attributes -- anything and everything that is included in the feeling of being you -- is a product of the brain's virtual reality engine. This virtual Self is computed and put in charge of the situation purely for reasons of good governance, that is, efficient and purposeful control of the brain's life support system -- your body.
So here's another reason why my wife doesn't have to worry much about people giving up their belief in free will and turning into irresponsible there's no reason to do anything couch potatoes: evolution has led to a virtual/illusory sense of self being front and center within human consciousness.
Even if I intellectually know that I have no free will, it sure seems like I'm able to choose what words I'm going to type in the next moment. (Yet as every writer knows, what's going to be written isn't known until the words appear on paper or a computer screen.)
The inward feeling of free will isn't much of a problem. What's culturally destructive is how this illusory feeling gets translated into social policies which assume that individual human beings are capable of freely deciding their thoughts and actions.
Harris talks about how our justice system is founded on this assumption.
Retribution becomes the main goal, rather than rehabilitation and prevention of future crimes. Often it will be necessary to lock people up to keep them from committing additional offenses. However, there's no scientifically defensible reason to believe that a criminal freely chose his/her unlawful act.
Would we punish hurricanes or earthquakes, if this were possible, berating them for the destruction they bring to humans? Or if ways to prevent these natural occurrences could be found, wouldn't we simply implement them without considering that a malevolent motivation lies behind 150 mph winds or 8.0 Richter Scale shakings?
Viewing human beings as natural phenomena need not damage our system of criminal justice. If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. We fight emerging epidemics -- and even the occasional wild animal -- without attributing free will to them. Clearly, we can respond intelligently to the threat posed by dangerous people without lying to ourselves about the ultimate origins of human behavior.
Then there's sin (or the Eastern version, bad karma).
Sin can't exist without free will, which is why earthquakes, hurricanes, and rattlesnakes don't have to spend time in a confession booth. A belief in sin or freely willed bad karma has decidedly destructive consequences, as Harris notes.
Despite our attachment to the notion of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity -- and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics.
Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin -- which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next.
And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves wil dehumanize us.
No, truth can't be dehumanizing. Which includes the truth, free will does not exist.
Free will is an illusion.
We're full of wants, desires, thoughts, emotions, and such. But we can't want our wants, desire our desires, think our thoughts, emote our emotions, or freely choose anything.
It's only 66 pages long.
Yet it could have been even shorter, because Harris necessarily repeats his no free will theme in various ways -- getting his point across from different perspectives. I say "necessarily" since the illusion of free will is so strong, most people resist the scientifically defensible conclusion that it doesn't exist.
I'll write more about the book after I finish it. For now, I mostly wanted to talk about the joy of embracing the no free will reality.
Not that I have any choice in feeling that joy. Your results may differ if you read the book. Heck, they almost certainly will. Each of us is different. Yet we all share certain facts, nicely summarized by Harris in the passage below that I liked a lot.
Recently I heard someone talk about Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning." Frankl argues that we have the freedom to choose our psychological reactions to situations, even those as extreme as being in a concentration camp.
Not true, says Harris. He writes:
One of the most refreshing ideas to come out of existentialism (perhaps the only one) is that we are free to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of our lives. You can consider your first marriage, which ended in divorce, to be a "failure," or you can view it as a circumstance that caused you to grow in ways that were crucial to your future happiness.
Does this freedom of interpretation require free will? No. It simply suggests that different ways of thinking have different consequences. Some thoughts are depressing and disempowering; others inspire us. We can pursue any line of thought we want -- but our choice is the product of prior events that we did not bring into being.
Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn't choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain.
And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime -- by your genes, by your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas.
Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?
...What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery -- one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance). To declare my "freedom" is tantamount to saying, "I don't know why I did it, but it's the sort of thing I tend to do, and I don't mind doing it."
I love the notion -- more, the reality -- that free will is an illusion. It's difficult to explain the dizzying enjoyable feeling I get when I realize there's no exit.
Wherever I turn, whichever way I go, always I'm in a maze of causes and effects not of my own making, because there's no separate "me" apart from those causes and effects. We're all in this maze together; no man or woman stands alone; individual human islands are an impossibility; it's all one big continent of interacting influences, a beautiful natural ecology of determinism.
Here's my favorite Harris passage from the part of his book that I've read so far.
Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.
But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom -- for what would influence the influenced? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you.
You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.
Wonderful. Love it! You are the storm. Nothing scary about a hurricane if you are the hurricane. Nothing bothersome about the brain's workings if you are those workings.
Ooh, ooh, I'm so excited! Amazon tells me my pre-ordered copy of "Free Will" by Sam Harris should be delivered today.
Can't help my excitement. I have no free will. Harris gives away the plot line of his book in The Illusion of Free Will. In that short piece he ends with a great question:
How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds?
His new book is just 96 pages long. Good. I want to learn Harris' answer.
I gave it my best try last night -- arguing that we humans don't have free will, though it seems ever so obvious that we do. (Of course, it also seems obvious that the sun goes around the Earth, which demolishes the "obviousness" argument for anything.)
My wife and I belong to a three-couple book/article discussion group. Yesterday the subject was the justice system. When it came time for me to share my thoughts, I started off by quoting from Jerry Coyne's column in USA Today, "Why you don't really have free will."
The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.
But before I explain this, let me define what I mean by "free will." I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation.
A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.
Well, it was a good choice to lead off my part of the discussion in this fashion. Because it stimulated some passionate exchanges between me and several free-will believers.
I said that if the goals of the U.S. justice system basically are deterrence, punishment, rehabilitation, and restitution, one of these -- punishment -- should be taken off the table, since people don't have free will. Punishment (retribution) doesn't make sense if someone wasn't able to freely choose between committing a crime or not committing a crime.
Deter further crimes by putting them in jail, and serving as a warning to other potential criminals. Rehabilitate them through education, counseling, training, and such while in prison. Force them via restitution to pay back people they've harmed.
But don't believe that someone deserves to be punished out of a sense that he or she freely willed to commit a crime.
As Coyne implied above, this belief requires a supernatural, immaterial, non-physical source of our actions, a soul or free-floating consciousness unaffected by genetics, prior experiences, environmental factors, memories, unconscious influences, hormones, and so on.
At every moment, I argued, all we know is that what happened, did.
A belief in free will assumes that something other than what did happen, could have. That's an interesting philosophical notion which has inspired lots of fictional works. What if Hitler won the Second World War? What if John Kennedy hadn't been assassinated?
However, we never see those "what if's" in reality. There's only one path through time and space that we follow. Coyne says:
Now there's no way to rewind the tape of our lives to see if we can really make different choices in completely identical circumstances. But two lines of evidence suggest that such free will is an illusion.
The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the "choosing."
And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.
True "free will," then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain's structure and modify how it works. Science hasn't shown any way we can do this because "we" are simply constructs of our brain. We can't impose a nebulous "will" on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.
And that's what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.
That word, "predetermined," came up often last night. Some of my fellow discussants were strongly opposed to the notion that everything we do, think, and feel was determined at the moment at the big bang, with events simply unfolding according to the laws of physics.
I understand. Again, almost everybody feels like they have free will. I certainly do. But feeling so doesn't make it so.
Also, I pointed out that the "pre" part of predetermined usually is an abstraction when we're talking about people. Practically speaking, it's more accurate to say that our behavior is determined. Meaning, the human brain is so complex, as are the environmental influences acting upon us, there's no way to precisely predict what someone is going to do.
It's like chaos theory.
Chaotic systems, such as a turbulent river, are deterministic yet unpredictable. Throw a cork into the water above some rapids. You won't be able to predict where it will end up, but it will end up somewhere after innumerable causes and effects act upon it. The cork doesn't use its free will to decide "I'm going to head this way rather that way for no reason, just because I want to."
Yet us humans imagine that we can, the imagining being determined, of course, just as everything else is.
Last night I was told that without free will, there can't be any morality. I don't get this argument. Other primates act in ways we'd call "moral." Apes demonstrate empathy, concern, sharing. Why is free will required for getting along with our fellow humans?
We respond to other people; we communicate with other people; we learn about their needs, and tell them our own; we do our best to act kindly, compassionately, honestly, generously. Why? Because we're drawn to. This is our nature. We aren't isolated individuals. We're connected with, and influenced by, everything and everyone we come in contact with.
To me, a belief in free will is horribly confining. It implies that I'm a tiny island rather than a vast continent, a free-standing part rather than an integrated whole, a fallen leaf rather than living foliage on the branches of a tree that, ultimately, is the entire cosmos.
Actions are determined. So justice should be determinate.
Within reasonable guidelines, judges should be able to determine sentences which fit with determining factors of the criminal and the crime. Since there's no such thing as a Free Will Fairy which floats above people's heads and makes decisions out of the blue, completely independent of brain functioning, heredity, environmental influences, or whatever, condemning a troubled 14 year old to a life sentence without parole after he shot his grandfather is absurd.
When we give up belief in free will, genuine morality is possible. Otherwise we're trapped in cruel Old Testament "eye for an eye" vengeance, assuming that we can be as free to punish as a criminal was free to commit a crime.
Jerry Coyne responds to comments on his free will essay here. Interesting give and take. I feel like I understand his position, which makes a lot of sense, but other people are so invested in their free will'ness, they misinterpret Coyne's arguments and fuzzy-up the whole notion of free will.
LIke Massimo Pigliucci does.
Indeed, it is not surprising at all that we make all sorts of unconscious decisions before we become aware of them... Incidentally, I find it strange when some people argue that “we” are not making decisions if our subconscious is operating, since presumably we all agree that our subconscious is just as defining of “us” as conscious thinking is.
Hmmmm. So an intuition pops into awareness from my subconscious, and when I follow it, that's "free will"? Even though I wasn't free to will it? That's a strange view of free will, not at all as Coyne describes it.
Over the years, and decades, I've had lots of intense discussions with other people about free will.
Partly this is because my first book about physics and mysticism had a chapter called "Laws of cause and effect govern lower levels of creation." Then my second book, "Life is Fair," argued in a different fashion that karma rules the universe, and karma is basically a spiritualized form of cause and effect.
My view of reality is much different now. I don't agree with myself about a lot of stuff that used to make sense to me, but doesn't from my current perspective.
I'm still fascinated by the notion of free will, though.
So I was excited to see that the most recent issue of New Scientist had an article called "The free will delusion." Here's some excerpts, some of which refer to a thought experiment described in a short video that you can watch here.
Neuroscientists increasingly describe our behaviour as the result of a chain of cause-and-effect, in which one physical brain state or pattern of neural activity inexorably leads to the next, culminating in a particular action or decision. With little space for free choice in this chain of causation, the conscious, deliberating self seems to be a fiction.
From this perspective, all the real action is occurring at the level of synapses and neurotransmitters - putting us a lot closer to that deterministic world of 2500 than most people think.
For now most of us are content to believe that we have control over our own lives, but what would happen if we lost our faith in free will?
...People whose belief in free will was challenged were, on average, less altruistic than the other group. The researchers also found that priming people with anti-free will statements made them behave more aggressively towards strangers, as measured by how much chilli sauce they added to a dish destined to be eaten by someone who had expressed a dislike of hot foods
...When Stillman and colleagues asked supervisors to rate the work of their employees, those with a greater belief in their own free will were generally rated as performing better than those with weaker beliefs.
...All the evidence indicates that our sense of free will is deeply ingrained. In 1998, the International Social Survey Programme asked around 40,000 people from 34 countries: "Do we make our own fate?" More than 70 per cent answered in the affirmative. And people don't just believe they have free will, they also believe they have more of it than others.
...Alfred Mele, a philosopher at Florida State University, suggests that when scientists talk about the brain and free will, they need to tread carefully. "Neuroscientists often talk as if our conception of free will depends on having non-physical minds or souls," says Mele, and as modern neuroscience pretty much rules these out, free will seems to fall too.
But this needn't follow. As Nahmias's studies show, belief in free will doesn't depend on having a soul, but on feeling in control of "your" actions. So long as the citizens of 2500 do not lose that perception, the reality of determinism should have little effect on their behaviour. And if the recent studies prove anything, it's that this feeling of controlling our own destiny is very robust.
Well, it should be.
Neuroscientists understand that we humans aren't capable of knowing how our brain is working behind the conscious scenes. An intention pops into our awareness and we think, "Ah, this is what I want to do."
So our direct experience is of free will, just as we intuitively believe that we have (or are) a "self" separate and distinct from the physical body. It's sort of like no matter how well we cognize that the earth's rotation makes the sun appear to move through the sky, it still seems to us that the sun rises and sets while the earth stands still.
Personally, I can't understand how our will could be "free."
How could this be? What does free even mean? Completely unaffected by outside influences? This isn't possible, given what is known about the laws of nature, heredity, how the brain works, culture, and our social nature.
I think the closing conclusion in the excerpts above that I quoted from the New Scientist article gets it about right. If I view myself as someone who can control "my" actions, then I'll feel like I've got free will (even though I don't).
But if I recognize that I'm part of a marvelous interconnected web of relationships and exchanges of energy with entities both living (such as my friends and relatives) and insentient (such as the sun and earth's atmosphere), then I won't regard myself as being isolated from the effects of influences beyond my skin.