“The U.S. Supreme Court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our system of law, distinct from “a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system” (United States v. Grayson, 1978)” quote from Sam Harris’ book “Free Will”.
“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” Jawaharlal Nehru
“You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.”
― Sam Harris’ book “Free Will”
After not really being interested in the debate for basically all of my life, over the past few months I’ve become more interested in the subject of free will.
Did I choose to suddenly become more interested in the subject of free will? No. The interest arose within my life just as a cloud forms in the sky — and there you have evidence that I am already starting to sound like some of the folks who argue about free will!
Notwithstanding the fact that I’m a novice on the subject of free will, I do have some thoughts and models to put forward as a combination of literature I’ve reviewed that will hopefully prove novel and interesting.
1.0 What is Free Will?
Let’s start off by simply defining what we are talking about. Dictionary.com has a basic definition of free will:
“The apparent human ability to make choices that are not externally determined“
The primary idea of free will is, I take it, that we (the conscious beings we are) are able to make independent choices without external factors absolutely determining our decisions.
E.G If given two buttons to push, you can choose the left one, the right one, or to not push any button at all and do something else; it’s completely “up to you”.
However, this more simple definition of free will is challenged somewhat by neuroscience and philosophy. First, I will speak a bit about the challenges, then some responses, and finally an analogy that I think presents a reasonable model of the concept of free will or how I currently understand it.
2.0 Neuroscientific challenges of the concept of Free Will
The only set of scientifically based experiments that I’m aware of that have any bearing on the concept of Free Will start from the Libet experiment in the 1980’s, which showed the existence of “Bereitschaftspotential” (don’t ask me how to pronounce that) — sometimes also termed “readiness potential”. In simple terms, they showed that there is a build up of neural activity in the brain before a conscious action is taken (in this case flicking one’s wrist). Importantly, this build-up appears to happen before conscious awareness of having made a choice is realised.
Then there are more recent experiments such as the left / right button experiment: basically, they put someone in a fMRI machine to monitor brain activity and run algorithms on their brain activity. Then, they ask the subject to freely choose to press a left or right button whenever they feel like it. Through this experiment they were able to predict up to 10 seconds with a 60% accuracy (non-trivial, since 50% would be random) before a button press “choice” which button they were going to press.This expands on the “readiness potential” established previously, by showing that by understanding the brain patterns we’re able to predict which button they’d press. It is possible that the 60% accuracy can be improved by better equipment and / or machine learning algorithms — and may just be a weakness of setup (a technical challenge) as opposed to a theoretical accuracy limit.
The challenge goes: if we perfect the equipment in the future, and put you in it, and then are able to predict 7-10 seconds before you make a choice exactly which choice you’ll make, then do you have free will?
3.0 Philosophical challenges of the concept of Free Will
Aside from neuroscience, we have been able to challenge the concept of free will from a more philosophical standpoint for a much longer time.
Here are some basic examples of how we can go about challenging free will philosophically:
Think about boredom for a minute.
You know how when we’re super busy we say “Oh I wish I could just lie in bed all day and not get up”? — well, have you ever actually tried that?
If you wake up in the morning and decide “well today I’m just going to lie in bed all day and do nothing” — it turns out that it doesn’t actually last that long. After some time of just lying in bed you will begin to feel an increasing urge to get up and do something.
Did you choose to have that urge? Did you choose to be bored? No. You just were. Due to some combination of brain behaviour and wiring, the feeling of boredom descended upon you — where’s the free will in that?
I have a one year old son. He’s is super curious and active. When he is energetic, if you hold him he will get frustrated and want to get down and play.
Whence the insatiable urge to play? Did he choose to have the urge to play? No, a more realistic statement would be that he is animated by the urge to play. Incidentally this urge has important biological and evolutionary foundations — children who have genes that lead them to play more will learn more, and in turn have a greater chance of survival, thus nature selected for curious and playful children.
Some of my friends who read this article will find the subject matter incredibly interesting. Others will not even finish the first sentence because they’re just so bored. Did either category “choose” their reaction to my content? When?
Free to choose?
Think about the topic of inspiration for a minute.
Let’s say you watch an inspirational video from Tony Robbins. But, what he says does not seem to inspire you. Right next to you, your friend who watches the same video is deeply inspired and affected by it.
Did you choose to not be inspired by the video? Did your friend choose to be inspired by it? No. Neither of you chose anything about your emotional reactions to the video — they more likely had their basis in your history; perhaps your friend had heard Tony Robbins before and known him for some time, perhaps you have an aversion for scientifically unqualified “motivational speakers” like Tony Robbins. In any case when you analyse this moment and this reaction to the Tony Robbins video you don’t find the concept of free will, all you see is a reaction determined by external factors, both known and unknown.
Free to choose?
3.3 Peer Pressure
Think about the subject of peer pressure for a minute.
Two kids are with some friends in high school, and their friends are pressuring them to drink alcohol for the first time. One kid is strong and independent, “sorry, I just couldn’t be bothered” he responds. But the other kid yields to the pressure and drinks.
Now we could trace their resistance to peer pressure to other factors; perhaps the stronger kid had a better childhood with both parents together, he was taught in ways that made him more emotionally secure.
But either way, how susceptible each kid is to pressure from peers in this moment is exactly what it is, and they cannot choose to make it an iota more or less. This relates to willpower: you have as much willpower you have, and cannot magically choose for it to be more (or less).
Where is the free will?
Think for a minute about sexuality.
Are you straight? Gay? Bi? Something else?
At which point in your life did you consciously choose your sexual instincts? This is most poignant with straight people who in many societies still claim that homosexuality is a choice, and yet cannot seem to trace when they chose to be straight.
3.5 Generalising to feelings
Generalising the above examples, the more one analyses human emotion, and the more one digs into questions like these, the more one realises that at the bottom many of the sensations we experience and the reactions of the mind to external stimuli are “black boxes”.
3.6 Expanding to “Meta-feelings”
“But wait” people will say. “Let’s say I’m overweight because I have some bad eating habits — well, I can choose to stop eating poorly and reduce my intake of bad foods. I can choose to resist the urge to eat bad foods. Thus I am exercising my free will.”
Yes sure, but whence the urge to get thin? Whence the urge to eat healthily? Did you choose to want to lose weight?
From a free will critique point of view, all I can see is a “puppet being pulled by two different strings in opposing directoins” — 1) The urge to eat badly, leading to obesity, and 2) The urge to eat better, leading to health. You didn’t choose to have either urge. I see these two strings having a tug-of-war, and perhaps your choice in any given moment (to eat healthily or poorly) could be completely predicted if we had a perfect model of the human mind to work off, along with perfect measurements of the state of your mind.
You see a picture below you and you have thoughts about who this person is:
You probably fit into one of three categories of people when you see this picture:
- “Tom Hanks!” (immediately recognise who this is)
- “Uh, who’s that actor again… Oh yes, Tom Hanks!” (Delayed recognition of who this is. The delay can be anything from a few seconds to a few minutes)
- “Um, no idea”
Regardless of which category you fall into; the recognition, delayed recognition, or no recognition at all of who this person is is something that appeared in your consciousness as a thought, and choice had nothing to do with it.
Generalising that (for our Buddhist friends among us) thoughts are things that appear in consciousness, and the way they appear seems to be beyond explicit choice.
Just think for a second about the sentence “I just had a thought”. What does that mean? Is it the same as having a burp? Even the language we use to describe thought implies it has some involuntary character. (In Mandarin Chinese the word for “to recall” or “to think of it” 想起来xiǎng qǐlái literally means “thoughts rise up” — seemingly describing the experience of “having a thought”)
I can hear the retort from strong believers in free will: “But wait, if I want to think about, say, real estate investments, I can choose to think about real estate investments for as long as I want to! I can think about real estate for five minutes or five hours, it’s completely up to me! I am free to choose!”
Yes, that’s true. But when did you choose to want to think about real estate investments? In fact, when did you choose to react in the way you did from the arguments being presented critiquing free will? Didn’t it just “seem to happen”?
3.8 Song in your head
Finally, think about the sensation of “having a song in your head” (this happens to me a lot). What’s it like? Do you choose for the song to play over and over in your head? Surely not — since quite often it’s an annoying experience having a half warped song replaying over and over — surely if it were a choice you’d choose for it to go away!
Perhaps the sensation of having a song in your head is a great example of areas where we lack free will in our human experience.
4.0 What we want to believe about free will
We seem to want to believe that we have the power to choose that is not subject to any external factors. To an extent that seems to be true. But what is “external” to your consciousness? Are neurotransmitters and patterns in your brain that lead to specific desires “external”?
You are producing white blood cells right now. Is that “internal”?
Did you choose to produce them?
I hope the above has well steel-manned the critiques. Now I’ll turn to some responses.
5.0 Daniel Denett’s “real magic” Commentary
In a really good presentation about free will, the philosopher Daniel Denett shares the following anecdote about the process of writing a book about Indian street magic:
“”I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked “real magic?” by real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. “No,” I answer: “conjuring tricks, not real magic”.
“real magic” in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.“
There is no such thing as “real magic” it turns out. But there is “magic”, and it is functional. Children are wowed as much by conjuring tricks as they would be by “real magic”. To use an intentional pun, “fake magic does the trick“!
He then translates this argument to free will. He acknowledges that the traditional notion of free will is false — people who believe in the traditional definition want “free will” to be “real magic” (they want a miracle). Indeed, some of the critical responses to his book on the subject were:
“One wants to be what tradition has it that Eve was when she bit the apple. Perfectly free to do otherwise. So perfectly free, in fact, that even God couldn’t tell which way she’d jump.’” Jerry Foder
“He doesn’t establish the kind of absolute free will and moral responsibility that most people want to believe in and do believe in. That can’t be done, and he knows it.” Galen Strawson
Unfortunately it seems that this kind of absolute free will is a myth. It’s a miracle. It’s magic.
However we do have “something” in it’s place. Let’s talk about what that is and what shape that takes, and I think it will turn out that just as “fake magic” can wow children as “real magic” would, so it turns out that “the free will we actually have” is just as functional and useful as “real (magical) free will” would have been.
Just like money “is an illusion” (an inter-personal reality, but in reality money is just paper and electrons), but it is also “real” (real enough) so I think the free will we actually have is “real enough”.
6.0 Brief thoughts / responses to scientific challenges
Here are some brief thoughts about the neuroscientific experiments and their bearing on “free will”.
- I don’t contest the evidence. I don’t think anyone does contest the experiments themselves.
- And I don’t think we should apologetically “cling” to the outstanding 40% that could be resolved with more accurate equipment and more sophisticated algorithms as a way to defend traditional free will.
- And I don’t pretend that this has no bearing on the question of free will.
But — I have an analogy to explain a bit.
Imagine for your entire life you’ve been a computer user. You see a screen, you see a mouse, you see a keyboard, you type things into this and “magic” happens. You go on the internet. You type an email. You watch a video and hear the audio. Isn’t that incredible?
Then, imagine one day you somehow gain the ability to observe in detail the memory states of the computer.
In shock you respond: but all of the things I see on the computer are controlled by the internal circuits?! There is actually no video, no text, no colours, it’s all just an illusion. The entire interface with the computer is an illusion. If I can observe the memory states within the RAM and CPU of a computer I can see how all of the behaviour forces the content of the computer screen and — it’s not magic!
Yes, but does that make the interface any less functional or significant for a user? No.
In these experiments we are just peeking into the “memory states” of the human mind, seeing how decisions are made, etc. Again, this doesn’t resolve to traditional notions of “free will”! It merely explains that we don’t lose practical, everyday significance by understanding how the mind works.
We have what we need. But we don’t have “real magic”.
7.0 Philosophical response: the allegory of the CEO
Now let me address the philosophical arguments with what I’ll call the “allegory of the CEO” — an extended metaphor which attempts to explain what kind of “free will” we actually have.
Imagine we could liken our conscious experience and “power of choice” to a company with a CEO.
You (whatever you are), are the CEO. You sit at the head of a company. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend this company is a textile manufacturing company.
The company is vast and has many resources. You have factories, logistical operations, sales, marketing, accounts, finance, and an extensive set of relationships with other third parties; suppliers, distributes, banks, etc.
The company operates from YOU TOWER — a skyscraper in the CBD, and you as the CEO live and work on the top floor, overseeing all operations.
Right? — so that’s the premise, now let’s break down the analogy and translate each concept to the human body, consciousness, and free will.
7.1 Production of red blood cells / production of textiles in the factory (complete unawareness)
Your body is producing red blood cells right now, and you’re completely unaware of it. Can you choose to stop producing red blood cells? No. (Well, maybe…)
The textile company has factories and the workers are producing textiles. You are sitting in the CEOs office in YOU TOWER. Are you immediately aware of the workers in the factory? Not really. You know they’re there, doing their job, but it seems so far away, even though it’s all one company.
Could the CEO stop the process of producing textiles? Yes, but the company would fall over. Similarly, you could commit suicide and stop producing red blood cells.
But barring that extreme action, you cannot any more choose to stop producing red blood cells as a CEO can choose to halt all textile manufacturing (assuming he can only do textile manufacturing in his business).
7.1 Explains the more “distant functions of the body”. Most of these events are filtered away by our minds from our consciousness. Just like what time Bobby the textile worker turns up for work right now is information the CEO barely has access to, and has very little or no power to change.
Your heart keeps beating. “You (sort of) can’t stop it”. No (magical) “free will”.
7.2 Semi-autonomous functions / YOU TOWER
Everyday you live and work on the top floor of YOU TOWER. The entrance has a revolving door. The front desk has a receptionist. There are multiple floors.
One day the revolving door smacks you in the face. You get angry. You tell the receptionist to replace it with a sliding door with sensors.
They make the change. Then the sliding door with sensors is installed. Then it keeps operating. For a moment “you” “take control”. But after that the new sliding door just keeps sliding.
Similarly you can hold your breath right now if you choose. “you” can “enforce” a temporary other action onto a normally automated function. But the urge to breathe will eventually overwhelm you.
But whence the desire to hold your breath?
And whence the precise amount of willpower you currently have?
7.3 Decision making, corporate strategy, and the limitations of information
As the CEO it’s your job to make corporate decisions that will affect the destiny of the company for years to come.
You meet with a board of directors to debate the direction you want to take the company. Through these meetings, your ideas “converge” into decisions.
Do you have absolute control over the company? Not really. You simultaneously have a lot of control, and yet very little. If you make stupid moves, the board and stakeholders will terminate your contract. (If you eat deadly poison, your body will die). If you choose to reduce the salaries of the factory workers, you could have a rebellion and strike on your hands. (stop eating for two days and your stomach will really hurt).
Furthermore, what information do you have at your disposal with which to make decisions? Only the information the board chooses to disclose to you. Your choices are limited by what you are aware of. You can’t choose things you’re incapable of understanding or imagining.
In other words, being a CEO is like walking on a knife-edge. You are constrained by so many things. So much so in fact that it seems difficult to argue that you have any power to choose at all. Yet you do have something. It’s just not magic.
Have you ever gone for a walk to think about something?
Is your thinking not similar to sitting in a boardroom full of different voices?
Have you ever walked past someone who is delivering a monologue out loud? Don’t they sound crazy? “I can’t believe she kicked me out of the house.” “But maybe she has reason to” “No that’s crazy”.
In this context the only difference between a madman and a sane person is whether the monologue is out loud or simply silently goes on in the mind. We all have that board meeting running inside our minds constantly. We seem to be able to observe it — but we can’t fully control it.
Thoughts appear in consciousness just as people speak out their minds in a board meeting. Various opinions and desires tug on us like the opinions of the board members tug on the CEO and his “decision making” — he can’t make completely novel decisions. He is bound and constrained by the information shared with him, his own imagination, his own boldness, etc.
7.4 Process automation / learning & neutral reinforcement
The CEO discovers a new manufacturing process for textiles. In the beginning, he has to get very hands-on in figuring out how to properly use this process. But over time as he learns it and automates the process, teaching the factory workers.
Have you ever tried to learn the piano? Or a new language? In the beginning, it’s really hard and requires a lot of concentration. However, over time, it becomes second nature. Eventually, you hardly even think about it when you do it.
For instance, if you’re an English speaker reading and understanding this sentence is very easy; however it wasn’t always. When you were six years old it would be much more difficult to parse.
Eventually it’s so automatic, like walking is to you now, it’s not that you barely think about it at all, it’s more that you literally don’t think about it at all.
7.5 Stuck on the top floor of the tower
You stand on the top floor of YOU TOWER overlooking the massive city. You wonder how you got onto this rock that is earth. You didn’t choose to exist — you just exist. You didn’t choose to be the CEO, (be the consciousness within your body) but you are.
You stub your toe on the way into a meeting. When you stub your toe you experience pain. The pain overwhelms you to reach down and hold your injured toe. But you’re in front of colleagues and you want to appear strong — you could resist the urge, but the urge to resist the urge is likewise not of your invention. Why do you want to appear strong? Did you choose to want to appear strong? Your “choices” — whatever they are, seem to just be tugs of wars (or aggregated tugs of wars) of urges and combinations of urges — of which none of them are of your ultimate invention — like a puppet pulled around by a massive set of strings, each in time pulling in different directions; now you want to sleep so you fall asleep. Now you want to eat. Now you want sex. And it goes on.
8.0 Conclusory thoughts
It turns out that when you convince people they don’t have free will, they begin to make decisions differently. Specifically, they tend to become less responsible and more “wild” and negligent.
I haven’t touched on concepts of discipline, “proactiveness”, responsibility, ethics, morality, or law. Really, all of these are human constructs that rely on our notions of free will. How can you be responsible for something if you have no free will? How can you be “choose to be proactive” (as opposed to being “reactive”) if you have no free will (with no free will, everything is a “reaction”).
Really, all we need is to believe that we have “free will” in some shape or form, and that it is functional (it is enough). In fact it seems an essential component of a successful society. And by so believing, we are not deluding ourselves, as we do have that thing — it’s just not magic.
So go on believing!