A little while after James died, I got into discussions on what is sadly now the defunct AgnosticForums website. More than one of its threads touched upon free will. Initially, I thought the discussions trite, I believed I had free will, and even if I did not have free will, the whole thing was pretty much irrelevant. Now, I may have spent more time on the forum than normally would be considered healthy, but I was slowly drawn to the possibility that free will as such does not exist. Consequently, I have summarized my and other people’s thoughts on the possibility of free will being an illusion.
The definition of free will that I am using is:
The ability to act or to make choices independently of the environment or of the universe.
First to make things clear, ‘I make decisions and do stuff pretty much all the time’. I feel like I have free will, although I’m painfully aware that sometimes circumstances can limit my choices; even so, I work around these in an apparently free manner. Everyday, I think I act like an agent with free will and I will continue to do so. So what’s the problem, why would one even consider the possibility that free will is an illusion?
The thing that bothers me is, the human body and for that matter the mind is good at coping with, or even is, the source of many illusions. For example the human eye cannot see stationary objects, eg the Troxler effect; we believe we can see stationary objects, but we compensate by continuously moving our eyes ever so slightly. There are several levels we can look at the effects of the physical world on free will: the macro, genetic, chemical, and ultimately the physical. At each level there are strong arguments against free will.
A Simple Psychological Argument: Schopenhauer (1788 to 1860) said, “Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” For some this is a sufficient definition for free will and soft determinists or compatibilists are happy to say his is good enough for free will. Some might argue that even the second order will (willing the will) is possible. For example I might wish that I exercised more or even that I had a stronger gumption to do so. Nevertheless if we were to have a “true” free will some would argue that this simple definition sort of implies there is a homunculus directing our thoughts, in that our will has to come from somewhere. Galen Strawson in an interview argued that ultimately this recursive assessment of our will was sufficient to dismiss free will and that we would need to be, in certain respects, ultimately responsible for who we are. In the study of psychology our actions are based on prior events or causes. If they were not then I can’t actually envisage a science of psychology.
Macro or Everyday Argument: Is there a decision I can make that has not been influenced by my parents, the society I live in, my education or a book I have read? How do I separate the experiences I have had from the choices I can make? Can I choose to go on holiday to a place I have never heard of? Yes, but then again what’s driving my wish to go to some ‘unusual’ place? Is it to impress the Jones’s? If so why do I want to impress the Jones’s? Ad infinitum! So asking the question again can I make an uninfluenced decision? and if the answer is yes, can I be sure there is not some hidden subconscious influence? The answer is no!
It’s not quite Popeye the Sailor Man’s philosophy, “I am what I am,” but I am what I have experienced. The nurture part of the old nature versus nurture debate.
Genetic Argument: The genetic argument by itself is the weakest, but it does provide support for the other arguments. The argument that genetics is “all who we are” is probably wrong. Either our will or the environment can likely trump genetics in many if not most instances. Of course in some it cannot or is very difficult, eg hereditary depression and other hereditary illnesses. Also, we are liable to dismiss free will in the animal kingdom and point to examples: eg imprinting, when a duck egg is hatched by a hen; the duckling immediately has the hen imprinted as its mother. We may have had imprinting minimized in the human species, but have we eliminated it?
Is to be human or to be “me” a reflection of our DNA? Approximately fifty percent of our so called junk DNA appears to be viral in origin. Somehow retro viruses have inserted themselves into our junk or non coding DNA. Just food for thought.
Chemical and Biochemical: Being a chemist this is one of the strongest arguments (for me) against free will. Our bodies are composed of chemicals (in this I would include charged ions, in particular potassium and calcium). In my experience and that of chemists in general, the behaviour of chemicals and chemical reactions is described by the law of mass action. When chemical reactions apparently have not been described by the law of mass action, they have shown us that we did not understand the underlying chemistry. So if all our component parts’ behaviour is described by the law how do we exert an influence on the behaviour of a chemical reaction? Take for example ‘I feel cold’, my body chemistry starts the reflex action of shivering. Alternatively, I can go and turn up the thermostat or go and put on an extra layer of clothing. But in either case it is chemical reactions that are making the decision and carrying out the action. Similarly if I have an alcohol addiction, it’s chemical reactions that are driving me to have another drink. Of course I perceive it as a need; and consequently, I choose to have another drink. There are a whole host of examples where chemicals affect the apparent decisions we make.
What is patently clear, is that we are literally a very complex bag of chemical reactions; but what is less clear is, are we any more than that? And if so where does the “more” reside, is it measurable and if not how does it interact with the physical world I am describing?
Fundamental: Now physicists are probing the very fabric of our universe. Lets assume the majority of physicists hold sway and the universe is probabilistic in nature; though, there are dissenting voices who think our quantum based universe could actually be deterministic. Either way the probabilistic nature is very obvious at the very small and at the not quite so small eg buckyballs (molecular mass 720).
For me the question becomes does the probabilistic nature of the universe affect the way we make choices or do we somehow control the probability at the quantum level? We seem to exert some effect on quantum behaviour by observing it closely but then that behaviour becomes deterministic. And finally, what is the agent, if it exists, that is affecting the quantum aspect of our lives?
Just as an aside, the universe does not follow our laws and theories (real theories as opposed to hypotheses or worse still speculations) of science. Our laws and theories describe what we observe. Inherently, these laws and theories are wrong! But, they do allow us to make ever increasingly accurate predictions about the universe. A piece of accurate evidence can either be consistent with a law or theory or it can it can disprove that law. A scientific theory can never be proved but only disproved. I trust I don’t give any other impression.
If we don’t have free will, then some interesting questions immediately become apparent:
- Free will in philosophy is intimately associated with morality, how can someone be held accountable if that someone has no free will?
- What is the being (or beings) in my mind that appears to believe and behave as though I have free will? What exactly is consciousness?
- Where exactly does the being I consider as “I” stop and the rest of the universe start?
- Exactly what is the difference between the animate and inanimate, or being alive and not being alive?
- Although a lack of free will does not address the grand meaning of life, it does put any personal meaning on a bit more shaky ground.
The precept that if somebody, who does not have free will, cannot be held accountable for any actions while true; for me, is totally irrelevant. Morality is a societal concept. If a person cannot take up societal mores in to their programming then they will bear the consequences.
Now a couple of questions of society, is society’s intent retribution, punishment or education? What is the difference between retribution and punishment? For me, retribution makes the plaintiff feel better and punishment makes the perpetrator feel worse. A better strategy for dealing with perpetrators might be one that enhances the society.
The concept of good and evil begins to fade if we have no free will. A person that a society labels as evil is no worse than say a hurricane which we can explain away by the action of sun on the ocean, and a person by their environment and subsequent chemical reactions.
If we don’t have free will, then what is that being that rattles around in my mind making decisions, acting independently and railing against the possibility of free will not existing? As soon as I stop thinking and stop considering the possibility of free will being an illusion, my consciousness will take over and start doing stuff all of its own accord, to all intents and purposes, independent of the rest of the universe.
Now, I can’t speak for your consciousness; but if free will does not exist, my consciousness is not quite what it seems; and I have no reason to suspect your consciousness to be any different.
My ability to speak knowledgeably about consciousness is limited, but philosophers have debated at length for at least two millennia, without agreement; so I may be in good company.
When I think of me, my boundary of self is my skin, ignoring my hair or what little of it is left. So just ignoring my consciousness for the moment; is my epidermis and its contents a good definition of me? I can lose (if be it carelessly) limbs and still be me. Many parts of the body can be transplanted from other humans or pigs. Machines can supplement many bodily functions. We start getting to the crux of the matter when we come to the brain and its most important asset the mind.
Are the brain and mind separate, or is the mind an integral part of the brain? Is the mind defined by the arrangement of molecules and ions within the brain? We end up asking the same question as above. Assuming the mind is not some magical being and is subject to cause and effect; then the definition of self evaporates. Every molecule, atom and fundamental particle within my epidermis has been subject to the same forces of the universe as has those of my neighbour’s cat and the rock in my garden, ie any boundary I draw between me and the rest of the universe is arbitrary. It’s just that the perspectives are different. Don’t get me wrong, I will still defend my arbitrary bit of matter.
All the component parts of our bodies, elementary particles atoms and molecules are made up non-living matter. So exactly at what point does a being become alive? Is life just a matter of definition? Each of the component particles that make up what we call life are affected by the rest of the universe and in turn affect the universe, all be it in a minuscule manner. I have heard good arguments that a cell phone is as much alive as anything else. And by some definitions things like mules would not be alive (ie mules can’t reproduce). Viruses and prions seem to be on the cusp by definition.
At the end of the day, we have the ability to be shaped by the universe, much in the same way a rock can be smoothed by a flowing stream or graphite turned into diamond at depth. We are simply a product of the universe. Some would argue that the distinction between living and the non alive is arbitrary.
Experiments like hooking up some cultured cells, from a rat’s brain, to control a robot, show that there is a very fuzzy distinction between what is alive and what is not.
From an agnostic point of view, the conclusion I cannot come to appears to be blindingly obvious, I have free will. On the other hand, just because I cannot see a mechanism for free will, it does not mean, free will does not exist. But the absence of free will does lead us to some interesting places. I for one will bear those in mind when going about my daily life.
I can’t help wondering if it is the definition of free will that I have chosen that makes free will difficult to defend.
The picture to the left is taken high in the Peruvian Andes. In the background we can see fossilized dinosaur footprints. It was a rather spiritual moment for me, realizing the analogy between the footprints, human beings and everything else. We will leave our footprints in this universe and we ourselves are footprints.
Madeleine was reluctant to read this, whether or not the real reason is my turgid prose, she said it might make for depressing reading. But for some, the prospect of having no free will is somehow disturbing. I don’t find it so, in that: 1) on a day to day basis I will ignore that possibility and 2) I would sooner have real good glimpse of the possibilities of my existence than go through life just in my own mind.
My final question; why would we want to make decisions that are in some way independent of the universe?
If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was travelling its way of its own accord … So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.
This is something I wrote in late 2008, with the odd update. I still feel this is more or less reality.