Jim Al-Khalili OBE is a British scientist, author and broadcaster. He is a professor of Physics at the University of Surrey where he also holds a chair in the Public Engagement in Science. He is president of the British Humanist Association.
OBE and President of the BHA! Those are some impressive credentials. I was thuys doubly disappointed to see Al-Khalili go badly wrong in a recent essay he wrote for his website, “Do we have free will—a physicist’s perspective?“. Now the question mark is in the wrong place and all implying that we don’t know whether it’s a physicist’s perspective, but that’s the least of his errors. Prompted by a piece at i109 by George Dvorsky (“Scientific evidence that you probably don’t have free will“), Al-Khalili tries his hand at defending the concept. His essay is apparently an excerpt from his recent book Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas of Science.
Before I show briefly how Al-Khalili goes wrong, let me again note that when I assert that one doesn’t have free will, I am arguing about classical dualistic free will. So when I ask whether we have free will, I am adhering to Anthony Cashmore’s definition (in bold):
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. Here, in some ways, it might be more appropriate to replace “genetic and environmental history” with “chemistry”—however, in this instance these terms are likely to be similar and the former is the one commonly used in such discussions. (Cashmore A., 2010, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 107:4500).
Now before you say that “nobody believes in that form of free will any more,” let me add that I’ve talked to plenty of people who do, including scientists. One of my colleagues recently told me that she got into an argument with a well-known scientist who was an adamant dualist, frankly admitting that he thought there was the equivalent a little man in his head making free decisions.
And yes, I know you can define free will so that we have it by definition—it’s our ability to make apparent choices without having a gun to our head, or our evolved ability to consider many factors before “deciding” on a course of action, or the fact that a mammal named Jerry is seen to make decisions, and so on. Hell, I could define free will as simply “it looks to an outsider as if we’re making choices,” and then everyone has it!
To me, the important task of philosophers should not be finding some new definition of free will so that the masses can think that they have it and thus be reassured (after all, false reassurance is what theologians do), but letting people know that our decisions are behavioral outcomes of physical processes in our brain, determined by the laws of physics or indeterminate according to quantum mechanics. Either way, dualism is dead, and educating people about this is the most important thing philosophers can do vis-à-vis the free will question.
But philosophers don’t like to do that since, as some explicitly admit, it’s bad for society if its members feel that their choices are predetermined. I find that a condescending and almost dishonest attitude. Catering to the idea that people must think that they are free agents is like theologians catering to people by saying that they must have a God because otherwise they’ll act immorally. It’s time to admit that our choices are made by our genetic and environmental history, for only that admission will enable us to adddress the legal and moral changes that must accompany an understanding of how our brain works and why we behave as we do.
And the most important task for scientists in this area is, of course, to find out how our brain works and what factors determine our behavior.
At any rate, Al-Khalili does the same thing that many philosophers do: admits physical determinism (with perhaps some quantum indeterminacy), but then argues that we have free will anyway:
Our physical brains, consisting of a network of a hundred billion neurons that are linked together via hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections are, according to everything we know about them so far, nothing more than sophisticated and hugely complicated machines that run the equivalent of computer software, albeit involving a complexity and interconnectedness far beyond anything a modern computer can achieve. All those neurons consist ultimately of atoms that obey the same laws of physics as the rest of the Universe. So if we could, in principle, know the position of each atom in our brains and what it was doing at any given moment and we understood fully the rules that govern how they all interact and fit together, then we should in principle be able to know the state of our brains at any time in the future. That is, with enough information I could predict what you will do or think next – provided of course you are not interacting with the outside world, otherwise I will need to know everything about that too.
Were it not therefore for the weird and probabilistic quantum rules according to which those atoms behave, and in the absence of any non-physical, spiritual or supernatural dimension to our consciousness of which we have no evidence, we would have to admit that we too are part of Newton’s clockwork, deterministic universe and that all our actions are preordained and fixed in advance. In essence, we would have no free will.
It would have been good had he stopped there! (Note that here he appears to be adhering to a classic dualistic definition of free will.)
But no! Like a good philosopher, Al-Khalili simply redefines free will, but in a way that few philosophers accept: it’s based on the unpredictability of our behavior. (Chaos theory shows that in complex systems, sometimes very small changes in initial conditions will lead to radically different outcomes. It’s still deterministic, but prediction may require information that is very hard to get.)
So do we have free will or don’t we? The answer, despite what I have said about determinism, is yes I believe we still do. And it is rescued not by quantum mechanics, as some physicists argue, but by chaos theory. For it doesn’t matter that we live in a deterministic universe in which the future is, in principle, fixed. That future is only knowable if we were able to view the whole of space and time from the outside. But for us, and our consciousnesses, imbedded within space-time, that future is never knowable to us. It is that very unpredictability that gives us an open future. The choices we make are, to us, real choices, and because of the butterfly effect, tiny changes brought about by our different decisions can lead to very different outcomes, and hence different futures.
So, thanks to chaos theory our future is never knowable to us. You might prefer to say that the future is preordained and that our free will is just an illusion, but the point is our actions still determine which of the infinite number of possible futures is the one that gets played out.
When he says “the choices we make, are, to us, real choices,” he’s punting: what he means is, as he admits, “the choices we make seem like real choices, even though they’re pre-determined.” They are illusions, for they aren’t what they seem to be; and in that sense free will is purely illusory, based on our false sense of agency. And Al-Khalili knows this:
Whether we call it true freedom or just an illusion in a way does not matter. I can never predict what you might do or say next if you really want to trick me because I cannot in practice ever model every neuronal activity in your brain, anticipate every changing synaptic connection and replicate every one of those trillions of butterflies that constitute your conscious mind in order for me to compute your thoughts. That is what gives you free will.
Most distressing is his notion that free will is based on predictability. Yes, chaos theory means that some choices aren’t predictable, but what if, as seems likely (and recent experiments demonstrate), we’ll be able to predict some decisions moments or even hours before we’re conscious of having made them? We’re already able to do that with some accuracy over ten seconds or so, and we all know of people whose behavior seem predictable—to us, not to them—because we know them so well that we’re able in some sense to figure out what their neurons are going to make them do. I fully believe that, as brain science develops, our behavior will become predictable with increasing (but not perfect) accuracy and increasingly far in advance. What then becomes of Al-Khalili’s notion of free will? Will some of our “free” decisions really be free because science isn’t good enough to predict them, while the other decisions eventually become “unfree”?
According to Al-Khalili’s definition, the problem of free will resembles a problem of theology. Just as theological tenets are dispelled one by one as science advances, so Al-Khalili’s notion of free will (and other notions, too) is gradually eroded as brain science advances. What Al-Khalili is trying to do here resembles what accommodationists do with faith and science: reassure people that they can have their determinism and free will too.
I find the whole enterprise intellectually dubious: a sop to the average person who, according to some philosophers, will become a beast or behave erratically if he doesn’t think he makes real choices.
But that won’t happen. As I and real experts on brain science know: we have no choice but to feel that we make real choices! We won’t become bed-bound nihilists if we accept the notion of determinism.
In the end, it’s always better to know the truth about our behavior than to remain ignorant or hide the truth with sophisticated definitions. And in the case of free will, knowing the truth is vital for thinking about punishment and reward, or pondering the concept of moral responsibility. (I happen to feel that for societal reasons we should be held responsible for our actions, but because of determinism we don’t have real moral responisibility.) Surely advances in brain science should change the way we think about reward, punishment, and responsibility, but if you desperately try to save the idea of free will with definitional tricks, that won’t happen.
Sam Harris is right. We are puppets of our genes and environments, and it’s bloody well time we admitted that. Philosophers should be telling us that too, as did Sam, instead of retooling notions of free will so we can reassure a public that’s wary of determinism. We’ll still behave as if we have choices, but we can then move on to a more meaningful dialogue about punishment and moral responsibility. By playing with words, Al-Khalili isn’t helping here.