Now that materialism is the dominant paradigm in all the sciences, what on earth do we do about free will? If all of our “free” decisions are really predetermined—perhaps long in advance—by a combination of our biology and our environment, and our brain is simply a concatenation of cells that must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, how can any of our decisions be “free”? And if what we do for the rest of our lives has already been determined by the laws of physics—absent, perhaps a tad of quantum indeterminacy—how can we be held responsible for our actions?
The free-will issue is exacerbated by recent studies showing that when we make “choices”—say, to press a button on the left or right side of a computer—the “decision” has already been recorded in our brain’s activity at least ten seconds before we’re conscious of having made a choice. That, of course, further supports a deterministic view of behavior, and the absence of what most people think of as “free will.”
How do people conceive of free will, though? My own definition, which I think corresponds to most people’s take, is that if you could rerun the tape of life back to the moment a decision is made, with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment, and the circumstances leading up to it, remaining the same, you could have chosen differently. If you couldn’t, then determinism reigns and we’re not free agents, at least as most people think of them.
Philosophers don’t like that notion—the idea that we’re all puppets on the strings of physics. So they do what theologians do when a Biblical claim is disproven: they simply redefine free will in a way that allows us to retain it. Like the story of Adam and Eve, it becomes a metaphor, with a meaning very different from how it was once used.
This is what Eddy Nahmias, a philosopher at Georgia State University, does in an “opinionator” piece in Sunday’s New York Times: “Is neuroscience the death of free will?” And his answer is a resounding “no”.
Nahmias doesn’t like definitions of free will like mine, which involve a “soul” or “ghost in the machine” that can override the laws of physics, because they define free will out of existence:
We should be wary of defining things out of existence. Define Earth as the planet at the center of the universe and it turns out there is no Earth. Define what’s moral as whatever your God mandates and suddenly most people become immoral. Define marriage as a union only for procreation, and you thereby annul many marriages.
What he doesn’t seem to realize is that we haven’t defined it out of existence, but rather science has shown that earlier “dualistic” views of free will, in which a spirit overrules matter, are simply wrong. If free will as most people understand it rests on a misconception, then correcting that misconception eliminates the common notion of free will. Our brains are our minds, our minds are what “appear” to make decisions, our brains are subject to the laws of physics, and there is no way to override those laws with some nebulous “will”. Q.E.D.
But philosophers, acting like theologians, say, “Wait! That definition was naive to begin with! Few modern philosophers adhere to that kind of dualism! Let me give you a more sophisticated definition of free will that does hold for humans.”
And here is Nahmias’s definition, which comports with the ideas of many “compatibilist” philosophers who see free will and determinism as compatible:
Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.
These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities. They need not belong to immaterial souls outside the realm of scientific understanding (indeed, since we don’t know how souls are supposed to work, souls would not help to explain these capacities). Rather, these are the sorts of cognitive capacities that psychologists and neuroscientists are well positioned to study.
This, of course, is a definition that allows pure determinism to create “decisions.” But all it does is describe the workings of our complex brains, which take in many different inputs before producing an output—a “decision.” We aren’t really free to “imagine future courses of action”: the fact that we do this is purely a result of our evolution, our personal history, and the structure of our brain. Even if we can do this kind of imagining and planning, that doesn’t mean that we could have decided otherwise. Having a complex brain that absorbs many inputs is no more “free will” than is the output of a complex computer, say a chess-playing one, that weighs all possible strategies before making a move. Does that computer have “free will,” too?
There is a continuum in animals from simple ones who make binary decisions based on only one input (i.e. swim toward the light and away from the dark) to ones that make decisions based on more inputs (“Did I hurt my knee the last time I ran?”). At what point does the complexity of input constitute a form of “free will”? To me it seems totally arbitrary. Yes, humans can weigh factors in a way that rotifers can’t, but if the course of action is predetermined in both cases, in what meaningful sense do we have free will but rotifers don’t?
I find it curious that philosophers don’t simply abandon the term “free will” because of its heavy historical baggage involving dualism and souls. Why do they keep redefining the term in a way that allows us to maintain the illusion that we can choose?
At least in the case of Nahmias, it seems pretty obvious: he wants to keep the idea of moral responsibility. And then there’s the bad side effect that people exposed to literature on determinism tend to cheat more often, and show fewer prosocial behaviors.
Indeed, free will matters in part because it is a precondition for deserving blame for bad acts and deserving credit for achievements. It also turns out that simply exposing people to scientific claims that free will is an illusion can lead them to misbehave, for instance, cheating more or helping others less. So, it matters whether these scientists are justified in concluding that free will is an illusion.
My response to this is: “the truth is the truth, and if knowing it affects our behavior in undesirable ways, then we simply have to deal with that.” We can still have the idea of responsibility under my definition of free will, but simply have to re-conceptualize what it means. We hold people responsible for bad actions, and punish them, because it’s an environmental intervention that protects society and may, as an influence on the criminal’s neurons as well as the neurons of onlookers, reduce the incidence of bad behavior. The same goes for rewarding people for good deeds: that’s something that also affects brains and neurons, and increases the likelihood of those deeds. What is not justified under my scheme is the notion of punishment as retribution.
A kid who holds up a liquor store with a gun is no more “responsible” for his actions—in the sense of being able to freely refrain from them—than is someone with a brain tumor who becomes aggressive and attacks another person. The only difference is that the physical influences on behavior are more obvious in the second case. Choices come from minds, minds come from brains, and brains are collections of molecules that obey physical laws. Given the appearance of a “choice,” I argue that we could never have decided otherwise than we did. So when Nahmias says this:
If we put aside the misleading idea that free will depends on supernatural souls rather than our quite miraculous brains, and if we put aside the mistaken idea that our conscious thinking matters most in the milliseconds before movement, then neuroscience does not kill free will. Rather, it can help to explain our capacities to control our actions in such a way that we are responsible for them. It can help us rediscover free will.
what on earth does he mean by “our capacities to control our actions”? We can’t control our actions, for crying out loud, because there is no “we” there that can override the laws of physics. We could not have done otherwise.
I conclude that philosophers should abandon the term “free will” and use some less freighted term. How about “the appearance of having made a decision”? I don’t like the notion that philosophers, like theologians, try to turn scientific necessities into philosophical virtues.
And of course I had no choice about writing this post, nor you in whether you agree with me. . . .