Eddy Nahmias is an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department and the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University, in Atlanta. Lately he’s been writing and speaking a lot about free will. Nahmias is a compatibilist, someone who thinks that free will is indeed compatible with physical determinism (i.e., there is no “will” outside of our material brains that makes decisions). In November he had a piece in the New York Times Opinionator section, “Is neuroscience the death of free will?” (answer: NO), which I criticized in a post two days after Nahmias’s piece appeared.
Nahmias recently wrote on this topic again (a very similar post) at Big Questions Online, a site run by the John Templeton Foundation, which reportedly pays substantial dosh for contributions. His piece has a similar title, “Does contemporary neuroscience support or challenge the reality of free will?“ His compatibilism is on full display, as it was in the NYT piece. He begins with a ringing affirmation of the thesis that we are authors of our lives:
Humans love stories. We tell each other the stories of our lives, in which we are not merely players reading a script but also the authors. As authors we make choices that influence the plot and the other players on the stage. Free will can be understood as our capacities both to make choices—to write our own stories—and to carry them out on the world’s stage—to control our actions in light of our choices.
This isn’t just a fanciful introduction; this is what Nahmias really thinks. It implies that we can indeed make choices that influences the course of our lives, and that implies that we could have made other choices that could have affected our lives differently. To the average person, I think, “making a choice” means that you could have made different choices. Now Namiah really doesn’t believe that, but uses language suggesting otherwise. In that sense, at least, the idea of “free will”—that we can actually make choices different from those we did—is an illusion, an illusion in the sense that our notion of such freedom isn’t what it seems. Nahmias calls those of us who agree with this idea of an illusion “willusionists”:
How might neuroscience fit into the story I am telling? Most scientists who discuss free will say the story has an unhappy ending—that neuroscience shows free will to be an illusion. I call these scientists “willusionists.” (Willusionists include Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, Jonathan Bargh, Daniel Wegner, John Dylan Haynes, and as suggested briefly in some of their work, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins.) Willusionists say that neuroscience demonstrates that we are not the authors of our own stories but more like puppets whose actions are determined by brain events beyond our control. In his new book Free Will, Sam Harris says, “This [neuroscientific] understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet.” Jerry Coyne asserts in a USA Today column: “The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.”
Yes, our actions are determined by brain events beyond our control. Does anybody doubt that? But Nahmias objects to our definition of free will, which is the dualist one that, I think, most people hold (more about that tomorrow). He says that we can define it in another way so that we have it:
But there is no reason to define free will as requiring this dualist picture. Among philosophers, very few develop theories of free will that conflict with a naturalistic understanding of the mind—free will requires choice and control, and for some philosophers, indeterminism, but it does not require dualism.
Yes, but in none of these theories is our will really “free.” Of course you can always define free will in a way that comports with determinism: you can say, for example, that a computer that is programmed to give different outputs when faced with different inputs has “free ill” because it appears to make choices, and in that sense the computer has free will. This, in fact, isn’t very far from the way that many philosophers define free will, except that the computer is made of neurons, sits in our head (yes, I know our brain doesn’t act like a digital computer), has consciousness, and has a very complex way of producing outputs given different inputs. But are we really freer than that computer? I don’t think so, and most philosophers don’t, either.
Nahmias notes that many people actually do not have a dualistic picture of free will— they’re compatibilists at heart:
Furthermore, studies on ordinary people’s understanding of free will show that, while many people believe we have souls, most do not believe that free will requires a non-physical soul. And when presented scenarios about persons whose decisions are fully caused by earlier events, or even fully predictable by brain events, most people respond that they still have free will and are morally responsible. These studies strongly suggest that what people primarily associate with free will and moral responsibility is the capacity to make conscious decisions and to control one’s actions in light of such decisions.
I hope to talk about these studies—in particular Nahmias’s work—this week, but let it be said that the results of different people’s work are, well, incompatible. The way people answer questions about free will depends largely on how those questions are asked: whether or not the scenario is abstract or concrete, and whether or not one imputes moral responsibility to an actor (moral responsibility and free will aren’t identical to many people). There’s also the additional point that many of these studies are conducted on American undergraduates—Nahmias’s study that he cites in the NYT article is based on 249 undergrads at Georgia State University—and one might wonder if this is a representative sample of Americans, much less inhabitants of our planet.
Finally, I think it’s indisputable that many Christians, or other believers, think that they do have a completely free choice about whether to accept God or Jesus as their personal savior, that it is not a matter of being predetermined by your genes and environment. I wonder what a survey of Christians would show. At any rate, these surveys are tricky things, and reduce complex questions to simple choices on a form. There’s no doubt, at any rate, that many people (and some scientists I’ve talked to) are dualists, whether that’s based on religion or not. And I’m wondering why all those philosophers who are busy redefining free will don’t have the time to tell people that their actions and choices are completely determined by their genes and their environments. (Well, I have a theory about that—see below.)
Nahmias discounts the Libet and Soon et. al experiments (which have been challenged recently on other grounds, not successfully, I think), showing that brain scan can predict the results of a “choice” before that choice is consciously made:
If such early brain activity always completely determines what we do before our conscious thinking ever comes into the picture, then this would suggest we lack free will, because our conscious thinking would happen too late to influence what we did—an audience rather than author. But the data does not show that brain activity occurring prior to awareness completely causes all of our decisions. In the study just described, the early brain activity correlates with behavior at only 10% above chance. It is not surprising that our brains prepare for action ahead of time and that this provides some information about what people will do.
But later studies show a higher predictability and an unconscious signal that arises much sooner—up to ten seconds before one thinks the decision was made. It’s not surprising that the predictability is not perfect (left versus right choices for pushing a button) given that the brain scans are crude. What would Nahmias say if we could make predictions that were 95% accurate before the subject said she made a conscious decision? Would that mean that there is no free will in Nahmias’s scheme? For, make no mistake, predictability is going to get better as we understand more about the brain. And it is not that our brains merely “prepare for action”—it is that our brains give information about which decision we will make ahead of time.
In the end, Nahmias says we have free will because, as humans, we can reflect and deliberate about what we do before we make a choice, and that those reflections and deliberations can affect our choice:
A more complete scientific theory of the mind will have to explain how consciousness and rationality work, rather than explaining them away. As it does, we will come to understand how and when we have the capacities for conscious and rational choice, and for self-control, that people ordinarily associate with free will. These are the capacities to reflect on our desires and reasons, to consider which of them we want to motivate us, and to make efforts to act accordingly—or as Roy Baumeister explained in his recent post, to habituate ourselves to make choices that accord with our reflectively endorsed goals.
But none of us incompatibilists think that our “deliberation process” has nothing to do with our choices, for our deliberations reflect our genes and our environments, and nobody denies that our experience conditions what “choices” we make. If you see from experience that an employee who makes mistakes is more responsive to correction when you’re empathic rather than judgmental about it, you’ll tend to be more empathic when dealing with him. Our “deliberations” may reflect that experience, even if there is no “will” that chooses to be empathic. Our “deliberations and reflections” mirror our experience, and may be the conscious signs of the processing that is going on in our neurons. So when Namiah says this,
But our stories are not always fiction. Other research suggests that our deliberations and decisions can have significant causal influences on what we decide and do, especially when we have difficult decisions to make and when we make complex plans for future action.
he is saying nothing that’s incompatible with incompatibilism. That “other research” shows that affecting one’s deliberations by outside interventions affects one’s decisions. But those interventions also affect one’s neurons and the physical processes in our brain. “Deliberations and decisions” can have causal influences only if those deliberations are part of a deterministic physical process conditioned by genes and environments.
Here’s a 5-minute video of Nahmias speaking at my university (I didn’t hear the talk) under the “Defining Wisdom” program, which was sponsored by a $3 million grant from—guess who?—The Templeton Foundation. Templeton, of course, is wholly in favor of compatibilism; the idea we have free will comports completely with their religion-loves-science agenda.
Note that what seems to bother Nahmias in this video is the idea that the public will misunderstand what “willusionists” like Harris and I say when we argue that free will is an illusion. If the public thinks they they really are really puppets on the strings of our genes and our environments (which we are), then they will become nihilists, people who think that they have no moral responsibility. Society will fall to pieces. In that way compatibilism resembles the view that morality comes from God: without the notion that we can somehow have free will, or without the Divine Command theory, civil society will dissolve. So we can’t let the average Joe or Jill know that all their actions are determined, and we must find some way that we are morally responsible despite the fact that we lack some “free agency” in our brain.
This idea, I think, plays a substantial role in motivating philosophers to redefine free will in a way that gives us moral responsibility. I don’t think I’m being uncharitable to philosophers here, because this view that the public will “misunderstand” determinism is explicit not only in this talk by Nahmias, but in writings by other philosophers that I’ll discuss another day.
Notice the word “threat” in Nahmias’s description of his latest book, taken from his homepage:
“…I am currently working on a book project, Rediscovering Free Will, which is contracted with Oxford University Press and partially funded by a Wisdom Grant (2008-2010) from the University of Chicago’s Arete Initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. In the book I argue that the free will debate should not be focused on the traditional question of whether free will is compatible with determinism. Rather, the free will debate should be focused on distinct threats posed by the sciences of the mind (e.g., neuroscience and psychology). I examine these threats and argue that they do not show that free will is an illusion. However, they do suggest that we have less free will than we tend to think. I also argue that these sciences can help to explain free will, rather than explaining it away…”
Why the word “threat” instead of “challenge”?
Required reading for this week:
Nahmias, E. and Dy. Murray, 2012, Experimental philosophy of free will: an error theory for incompatibilist intuitions (free download).
This is the manuscript that, says Nahmias, supports the view that the average person is a compatibilist. Please don’t comment on this until I post about it.