In yesterday’s New York Times, William Egginton, a professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins, was exercised by recent research showing that when monkeys make a “decision,” their neurons register it before they’re conscious of it. (This finding has been duplicated in humans.) That implies that the “decision” isn’t really a conscious one—that is, it doesn’t conform to our notion of free will. Egginton worries about the implications:
The implications are immediate. If researchers can in theory predict what human beings will decide before they themselves know it, what is left of the notion of human freedom? How can we say that humans are free in any meaningful way if others can know what their decisions will be before they themselves make them?
Research of this sort can seem frightening. An experiment that demonstrated the illusory nature of human freedom would, in many people’s mind, rob the test subjects of something essential to their humanity.
If a machine can tell me what I am about to decide before I decide it, this means that, in some sense, the decision was already made before I became consciously involved. But if that is the case, how am I, as a moral agent, to be held accountable for my actions? If, on the cusp of an important moral decision, I now know that my decision was already taken at the moment I thought myself to be deciding, does this not undermine my responsibility for that choice?
Egginton goes on to ponder the obvious: if we don’t have free will, then not only conventional ideas about morality but also a lot of religious doctrine—especially the Christian idea of free choice between good and evil—go out the window.
He’s right, of course. How do you deal with this problem? One way is to accept that our behaviors aren’t really affected by some ineffable and non-physical thing called “will.” But Egginton, whose own blog is much concerned with propping up faith and bashing atheism, finds another solution. He claims that the concept of predictability isn’t relevant to our ideas about free will:
In other words, we have no reason to assume that either predictability or lack of predictability has anything to say about free will. The fact that we do make this association has more to do with the model of the world that we subtly import into such thought experiments than with the experiments themselves.
What is this “model of the world?” Simply that the world can be understood through reason and empirical examination. To Egginton, this model is problematic:
The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism.
When you hear the words “respect for the limits of understanding,” you know that the speaker is a either a faitheist or accommodationist, trying at once to denigrate science and to vindicate “other ways of knowing,” i.e., religion. But I hardly need to remind readers that the scientific “model of the world” has been extraordinarily successful at solving problems, while other “models” haven’t done squat.
While Egginton doesn’t explicitly define free will (a recurrent problem in these sorts of discussions), he clearly knows its opposite: any behavior that can be predicted. But Egginton mistakes “predictability” for “determinism.” Our own behavior might well be completely determined by the concatenation of our genes and our environment (with perhaps a dollop of quantum indeterminacy thrown in for fun), but not be very predictable. It’s clear, in fact, that even if we are molecular automatons, we’ll never know enough to have more than a rudimentary ability to predict people’s decisions. We need to know not only how molecules, chemicals, and neurons interact with each other and their environment, but also how these interactions occur in own own unique configuration of molecules. On top of our inability to know everything is the fact that some things simply can’t be known: things like where an electron will move and when an atom will decay. But nobody thinks that free will resides in quantum indeterminacy.
The conflation of determinism and predictability is seen when people invoke chaos theory as support for free will. But chaos theory does not say that things aren’t physically determined: it says that the behavior of complex systems, though determined, isn’t predictable, since tiny and unmeasurable differences in starting conditions can ramify into large differences in outcomes.
Anthony Cashmore’s definition of free will, which seems to me to encapsulate most people’s intutitive notion, is one based on large-scale determinism but not on predictability:
I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.
Surely our ever-increasing understanding of how the brain works and how it affects behavior must play an important role in how we see “free will.” People like Egginton, who see those advances as mere annoyances, are akin to theologians who constantly revise what the Bible really means in light of our increased understanding of physics, geology, and biology. Indeed, studies of the brain are pushing back notions of free will in precisely the way that studies of evolution have pushed back the idea of a creator-god.
We simply don’t like to think that we’re molecular automatons, and so we adopt a definition of free will that makes us think we’re free. But as far as I can see, I, like everyone else, am just a molecular puppet. I don’t like that much, but that’s how it is. I don’t like the fact that I’m going to die, either, but you don’t see me redefining the notion of “death” to pretend I’m immortal.