Sunday, June 03, 2012

Free Will or No Free Will, Two Views

The issue of free will is a hot topic these days, and the building consensus in the materialist world of neuroscience is that free will is a comforting illusion. Among the recent authors who have tried to disabuse us of this notion that we have some semblance of control over our lives are Leonard Mlodinow, Daniel Kahneman, David Eagleman, Michael Gazzaniga, Sam Harris, Charles Duhigg, Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman, and Shankar Vendantam.That is a pretty serious list of brainpower.

A recent piece on the Huffington Post by Victor Stenger argues against free will, making reference to a couple of those heavyweight thinkers, while a recent article on NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture by philosopher Alva Noë argues that we have freedom in a different way than generally conceptualized ("We are not free because we are unconstrained. We are free because we are constrained."). He is arguing, essentially, that there are greater constraints on our freedom imposed by the environment and the situation than there are from any unconscious or preconscious programming, but it is exactly this reality that offers us moments of choice, to come to a fork in the road and take it (as Yogi Berra once suggested).

For me, the reality is somewhere in between. Yes, much of our emotional and even cognitive processing is done below the level of conscious awareness and, therefore, is less than freely chosen. And yes, the situation and environment place powerful limitations on our options for choosing - we are constrained by circumstances, situations, and even external expectations.   

And yet, as I pause to consider what words should come next, and in what order, and at what level of complexity, and with which references, I am mindful of the automatic nature of writing, that there are limited options for what should come next as a result of what has already been said, the thoughts I am trying to convey, the expectations for syntax and coherence. But I am free to completely ignore all of that and offer complete nonsense in the spirit of dada or surrealism, because woof smells consciousness.

As Noë points out, "it is only through traveling down well-worn pathways and doing just what is expected of you that you ever get to that fork in the road where it is possible for you to have a choice, where it is first a live possibility for you to do something original."

Free Will Is an Illusion

, Ph.D., Physicist, bestselling author, author of 'God and the Folly of Faith'

Posted 06/01/2012

Research in neuroscience has revealed a startling fact that revolutionizes much of what we humans have previously taken for granted about our interactions with the world outside our heads: Our consciousness is really not in charge of our behavior.

Laboratory experiments show that before we become aware of making a decision, our brains have already laid the groundwork for it. In a recent book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, physicist Leonard Mlodinow reviews a wide range of psychological experiments that demonstrate the dominant role the unconscious plays in our behavior. This recognition challenges fundamental assumptions about free will and the associated religious teachings about sin and redemption, as well as our judicial concepts of responsibility and punishment. If our brains are making our decisions for us subconsciously, how can we be responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals or God punish sinners who aren't in full control of their decision-making processes?

Is free will an illusion? In his recent book titled Free Will, neuroscientist Sam Harris pulls no punches. He tells us in no uncertain terms: "Free will is an illusion." We don't exist as immaterial conscious controllers, but are instead entirely physical beings whose decisions and behaviors are the fully caused products of the brain and body.

Philosophers identify several different positions on the question of free will. Incompatibilists hold that free will is incompatible with determinism, the idea that our behavior is fully determined by antecedent causes such as fate, acts of God, or laws of nature. These split into two camps. Libertarians hold that we have free will since humans transcend cause and effect in ways that make us ultimately responsible. Determinists hold that we don't have free will because either determinism is true or indeterminism (randomness) doesn't give us control or responsibility. Both these groups are opposed by compatibilists, who argue that free will is compatible with determinism, or indeterminism for that matter.

What exactly is determinism? Two centuries ago, French physicist Pierre Laplace pointed out that, according to Newtonian mechanics, the motion of every particle in the universe can in principle be predicted from the knowledge of its position, momentum, and the forces acting on it. This is the Newtonian world machine. Since, as far as physics is concerned, we are all just particles, then this would seem to make free will an illusion indeed.

However, we now can say with considerable confidence that the universe is not a Newtonian world machine. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics showed that, deep down, nature is fundamentally indeterministic. But does quantum indeterminacy play an important role in the brain, and thus open a way for free will? Probably not, and here's why.

The moving parts of the brain are heavy by microscopic standards and move around at relatively high speeds because the brain is hot. Furthermore, the distances involved are large by these same microscopic standards. It is easy to demonstrate quantitatively that quantum effects in the brain are not significant. So, even though libertarians are correct that determinism is false at the microphysical, quantum level, the brain is for all practical purposes a deterministic Newtonian machine, so we don't have free will as they define it.

Although the brain is likely deterministic when it comes to the control of behavior, there's plenty of "pseudo-randomness" (as opposed to "pure" quantum randomness) in the thermal motions of our brains and in the environment that feeds us data. It's possible that this can provide sufficient uncertainty to give us the "feeling" of free will. Or, perhaps uncertainty plays no direct role and it is simply our lack of awareness about what causes our decisions that we interpret as being exempt from the causal laws of nature. Either way, this means that ultimately we do not have libertarian free will, even though we might be under the impression we do.

But here's some consolation. Even though at the quantum level there is no rigid determinism, the compatibilists are correct in viewing the operations of the brain as causal processes. They also make another good point when they argue that even if our thoughts and actions are the product of unconscious processes, they are still our thoughts and actions. In other words, "we" are not just our conscious minds, but rather the sum of both conscious and unconscious processes. While others can influence us, no one has access to all the data that went into the calculation except our unique selves. Another brain operating according to the same decision algorithms as ours would not necessarily come up with the same final decision since the lifetime experiences leading up to that point would be different.

So, although we don't have libertarian free will, if a decision is not controlled by forces outside ourselves, natural or supernatural, but by forces internal to our bodies, then that decision is ours. If you and I are not just some immaterial consciousness (or soul) but rather our physical brains and bodies, then it is still "we" who make our decisions. And after all, that's what the brain evolved to do, whatever role consciousness might play. And, therefore, it is "we" who are responsible for those decisions.

And that's what it all boils down to. Who cares whether we call an action "free will" or not? Calling it "free will" (as compatibilists do) is too confusing, since it suggests some form of dualism, supernatural or not; so let's call it "autonomy." The issue is: what is the moral and legal responsibility of an autonomous person, and how should society deal with wrongdoing?

Obviously, we cannot have a functioning society if we do not protect ourselves from people who are dangerous to others because of whatever it is inside their brains and nervous systems that makes them dangerous. Still, given that we don't have libertarian free will that sets us above causal laws, it would seem that our largely retributive moral and justice systems need to be re-evaluated, and maybe even drastically revamped.

* * * * * * *

by Alva Noë

Chess pieces on a chess board.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for DAGOC

A few weeks ago we discussed the anxiety that science now teaches us that (in James Atlas's words) the "choices we make in day-to-day life are prompted by impulses lodged deep within the nervous system" and that, therefore, in some sense, we are not really the authors of our own actions, responses, choices. We are governed by a zombie within.

I return to this theme now. I suspect that Atlas, and the authors he was describing, have got it wrong. We are governed, but not by a neural zombie within. We are governed from without! 
The best way to find out what people will do is not to look into their hearts, or their brains; it's simply to understand the situation they are in. Social psychologists have shown this again and again. Who will be more likely to perform an altruistic action, the priest or the business person? Answer: The one who just found some money. (See, for example, Levin and Isen's "Further Studies on the Effects of Feeling Good on Helping" for support for claim.)

But we don't need experimental data to appreciate the basic point. Every time you drive through traffic, or try to cross a street, you exhibit your confidence that you know precisely when and where cars will stop. You put your life on the line.

The fact of the matter is, human beings are very predictable. Indeed, it is this very fact that helps us understand our freedom.

Life is a little bit like having climbed half-way up the mountain peak. You can go up. Or you can turn around and go back down. But either way, it's more mountain climbing.

A nice comparison is chess. Suppose we're playing. I attack one of your pieces. Now I'm in a position to know your next move. What? How can I possibly know that? Can I tell the future? Can I read your mind?

No need for any of that. I know your next move because, well, you only have one move. I've forced your move. You've got to defend your piece.

It's sort of paradoxical. Chess is a game of skill and we very rightly credit chess players for their smart play. And yet so much of the play is more or less determined, not by physics or neuroscience, but simply by the demands of the task itself. You've got to develop your pieces, as the chess folks say. You've got to respond to aggressive moves. You are constrained — your actions are predictable. You wouldn't be a good chess player, if you were not.

And yet — here's the crux — it is only through traveling down well-worn pathways and doing just what is expected of you that you ever get to that fork in the road where it is possible for you to have a choice, where it is first a live possibility for you to do something original. (Daniel Dennett makes this kind of observation in Freedom Evolves.)

We sometimes have the idea that freedom requires of us that we are, in a certain sense, the authors of our every move. The cleverness of the chess player, we imagine, consists in his calculating the best move among all the possible moves. But this is the wrong picture of the chess player. Chess players don't need to spend time and effort thinking about every possible move. There's usually only a few moves that are even relevant to the situation on the board, and anyway, very frequently, as we have already noticed, moves are forced. Good chess players let the game author their moves for them!

We are not free because we are unconstrained. We are free because we are constrained. I can explore the city by following its many streets and alley ways. In this way, I let the city guide me. What would the alternative look like?

In a way, freedom is not having to decide.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @alvanoe.

Post a Comment