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.