Free Will Fantasy


Given how watertight the case against free will can appear, it may be surprising to learn that most philosophers reject it: according to a 2009 survey, conducted by the website PhilPapers, only about 12% of them are persuaded by it. And the disagreement can be fraught, partly because free will denial belongs to a wider trend that drives some philosophers spare – the tendency for those trained in the hard sciences to make sweeping pronouncements about debates that have raged in philosophy for years, as if all those dull-witted scholars were just waiting for the physicists and neuroscientists to show up. In one chilly exchange, Dennett paid a backhanded compliment to Harris, who has a PhD in neuroscience, calling his book “remarkable” and “valuable” – but only because it was riddled with so many wrongheaded claims: “I am grateful to Harris for saying, so boldly and clearly, what less outgoing scientists are thinking but keeping to themselves.”

What’s still more surprising, and hard to wrap one’s mind around, is that most of those who defend free will don’t reject the sceptics’ most dizzying assertion – that every choice you ever make might have been determined in advance. So in the fruit bowl example, a majority of philosophers agree that if you rewound the tape of history to the moment of choice, with everything in the universe exactly the same, you couldn’t have made a different selection. That kind of free will is “as illusory as poltergeists”, to quote Dennett. What they claim instead is that this doesn’t matter: that even though our choices may be determined, it makes sense to say we’re free to choose. That’s why they’re known as “compatibilists”: they think determinism and free will are compatible. (There are many other positions in the debate, including some philosophers, many Christians among them, who think we really do have “ghostly” free will; and others who think the whole so-called problem is a chimera, resulting from a confusion of categories, or errors of language.)

To those who find the case against free will persuasive, compatibilism seems outrageous at first glance. How can we possibly be free to choose if we aren’t, in fact, you know, free to choose? But to grasp the compatibilists’ point, it helps first to think about free will not as a kind of magic, but as a mundane sort of skill – one which most adults possess, most of the time. As the compatibilist Kadri Vihvelin writes, “we have the free will we think we have, including the freedom of action we think we have … by having some bundle of abilities and being in the right kind of surroundings.” The way most compatibilists see things, “being free” is just a matter of having the capacity to think about what you want, reflect on your desires, then act on them and sometimes get what you want. When you choose the banana in the normal way – by thinking about which fruit you’d like, then taking it – you’re clearly in a different situation from someone who picks the banana because a fruit-obsessed gunman is holding a pistol to their head; or someone afflicted by a banana addiction, compelled to grab every one they see. In all of these scenarios, to be sure, your actions belonged to an unbroken chain of causes, stretching back to the dawn of time. But who cares? The banana-chooser in one of them was clearly more free than in the others.

“Harris, Pinker, Coyne – all these scientists, they all make the same two-step move,” said Eddy Nahmias, a compatibilist philosopher at Georgia State University in the US. “Their first move is always to say, ‘well, here’s what free will means’” – and it’s always something nobody could ever actually have, in the reality in which we live. “And then, sure enough, they deflate it. But once you have that sort of balloon in front of you, it’s very easy to deflate it, because any naturalistic account of the world will show that it’s false.”

Consider hypnosis. A doctrinaire free will sceptic might feel obliged to argue that a person hypnotised into making a particular purchase is no less free than someone who thinks about it, in the usual manner, before reaching for their credit card. After all, their idea of free will requires that the choice wasn’t fully determined by prior causes; yet in both cases, hypnotised and non-hypnotised, it was. “But come on, that’s just really annoying,” said Helen Beebee, a philosopher at the University of Manchester who has written widely on free will, expressing an exasperation commonly felt by compatibilists toward their rivals’ more outlandish claims. “In some sense, I don’t care if you call it ‘free will’ or ‘acting freely’ or anything else – it’s just that it obviously does matter, to everybody, whether they get hypnotised into doing things or not.”

Granted, the compatibilist version of free will may be less exciting. But it doesn’t follow that it’s worthless. Indeed, it may be (in another of Dennett’s phrases) the only kind of “free will worth wanting”. You experience the desire for a certain fruit, you act on it, and you get the fruit, with no external gunmen or internal disorders influencing your choice. How could a person ever be freer than that?

Thinking of free will this way also puts a different spin on some notorious experiments conducted in the 80s by the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, which have been interpreted as offering scientific proof that free will doesn’t exist. Wiring his subjects to a brain scanner, and asking them to flex their hands at a moment of their choosing, Libet seemed to show that their choice was detectable from brain activity 300 milliseconds before they made a conscious decision. (Other studies have indicated activity up to 10 seconds before a conscious choice.) How could these subjects be said to have reached their decisions freely, if the lab equipment knew their decisions so far in advance? But to most compatibilists, this is a fuss about nothing. Like everything else, our conscious choices are links in a causal chain of neural processes, so of course some brain activity precedes the moment at which we become aware of them.

From this down-to-earth perspective, there’s also no need to start panicking that cases like Charles Whitman’s might mean we could never hold anybody responsible for their misdeeds, or praise them for their achievements. (In their defence, several free will sceptics I spoke to had their reasons for not going that far, either.) Instead, we need only ask whether someone had the normal ability to choose rationally, reflecting on the implications of their actions. We all agree that newborn babies haven’t developed that yet, so we don’t blame them for waking us in the night; and we believe most non-human animals don’t possess it – so few of us rage indignantly at wasps for stinging us. Someone with a severe neurological or developmental impairment would surely lack it, too, perhaps including Whitman. But as for everyone else: “Bernie Madoff is the example I always like to use,” said Nahmias. “Because it’s so clear that he knew what he was doing, and that he knew that what he was doing was wrong, and he did it anyway.” He did have the ability we call “free will” – and used it to defraud his investors of more than $17bn.

To the free will sceptics, this is all just a desperate attempt at face-saving and changing the subject – an effort to redefine free will not as the thing we all feel, when faced with a choice, but as something else, unworthy of the name. “People hate the idea that they aren’t agents who can make free choices,” Jerry Coyne has argued. Harris has accused Dennett of approaching the topic as if he were telling someone bent on discovering the lost city of Atlantis that they ought to be satisfied with a trip to Sicily. After all, it meets some of the criteria: it’s an island in the sea, home to a civilisation with ancient roots. But the facts remain: Atlantis doesn’t exist. And when it felt like it wasn’t inevitable you’d choose the banana, the truth is that it actually was.

It’s tempting to dismiss the free will controversy as irrelevant to real life, on the grounds that we can’t help but feel as though we have free will, whatever the philosophical truth may be. I’m certainly going to keep responding to others as though they had free will: if you injure me, or someone I love, I can guarantee I’m going to be furious, instead of smiling indulgently on the grounds that you had no option. In this experiential sense, free will just seems to be a given.

But is it? When my mind is at its quietest – for example, drinking coffee early in the morning, before the four-year-old wakes up – things are liable to feel different. In such moments of relaxed concentration, it seems clear to me that my intentions and choices, like all my other thoughts and emotions, arise unbidden in my awareness. There’s no sense in which it feels like I’m their author. Why do I put down my coffee mug and head to the shower at the exact moment I do so? Because the intention to do so pops up, caused, no doubt, by all sorts of activity in my brain – but activity that lies outside my understanding, let alone my command. And it’s exactly the same when it comes to those weightier decisions that seem to express something profound about the kind of person I am: whether to attend the funeral of a certain relative, say, or which of two incompatible career opportunities to pursue. I can spend hours or even days engaged in what I tell myself is “reaching a decision” about those, when what I’m really doing, if I’m honest, is just vacillating between options – until at some unpredictable moment, or when an external deadline forces the issue, the decision to commit to one path or another simply arises.

This is what Harris means when he declares that, on close inspection, it’s not merely that free will is an illusion, but that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion: watch yourself closely, and you don’t even seem to be free. “If one pays sufficient attention,” he told me by email, “one can notice that there’s no subject in the middle of experience – there is only experience. And everything we experience simply arises on its own.” This is an idea with roots in Buddhism, and echoed by others, including the philosopher David Hume: when you look within, there’s no trace of an internal commanding officer, autonomously issuing decisions. There’s only mental activity, flowing on. Or as Arthur Rimbaud wrote, in a letter to a friend in 1871: “I am a spectator at the unfolding of my thought; I watch it, I listen to it.”

There are reasons to agree with Saul Smilansky that it might be personally and societally detrimental for too many people to start thinking in this way, even if it turns out it’s the truth. (Dennett, although he thinks we do have free will, takes a similar position, arguing that it’s morally irresponsible to promote free-will denial.) In one set of studies in 2008, the psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler asked one group of participants to read an excerpt from The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, in which he suggests free will is an illusion. The subjects thus primed to doubt the existence of free will proved significantly likelier than others, in a subsequent stage of the experiment, to cheat in a test where there was money at stake. Other research has reported a diminished belief in free will to less willingness to volunteer to help others, to lower levels of commitment in relationships, and lower levels of gratitude.

Unsuccessful attempts to replicate Vohs and Schooler’s findings have called them into question. But even if the effects are real, some free will sceptics argue that the participants in such studies are making a common mistake – and one that might get cleared up rather rapidly, were the case against free will to become better known and understood. Study participants who suddenly become immoral seem to be confusing determinism with fatalism – the idea that if we don’t have free will, then our choices don’t really matter, so we might as well not bother trying to make good ones, and just do as we please instead. But in fact it doesn’t follow from our choices being determined that they don’t matter. It might matter enormously whether you choose to feed your children a diet rich in vegetables or not; or whether you decide to check carefully in both directions before crossing a busy road. It’s just that (according to the sceptics) you don’t get to make those choices freely.

In any case, were free will really to be shown to be nonexistent, the implications might not be entirely negative. It’s true that there’s something repellent about an idea that seems to require us to treat a cold-blooded murderer as not responsible for his actions, while at the same time characterising the love of a parent for a child as nothing more than what Smilansky calls “the unfolding of the given” – mere blind causation, devoid of any human spark. But there’s something liberating about it, too. It’s a reason to be gentler with yourself, and with others. For those of us prone to being hard on ourselves, it’s therapeutic to keep in the back of your mind the thought that you might be doing precisely as well as you were always going to be doing – that in the profoundest sense, you couldn’t have done any more. And for those of us prone to raging at others for their minor misdeeds, it’s calming to consider how easily their faults might have been yours. (Sure enough, some research has linked disbelief in free will to increased kindness.)

Harris argues that if we fully grasped the case against free will, it would be difficult to hate other people: how can you hate someone you don’t blame for their actions? Yet love would survive largely unscathed, since love is “the condition of our wanting those we love to be happy, and being made happy ourselves by that ethical and emotional connection”, neither of which would be undermined. And countless other positive aspects of life would be similarly untouched. As Strawson puts it, in a world without a belief in free will, “strawberries would still taste just as good”.

Those early-morning moments aside, I personally can’t claim to find the case against free will ultimately persuasive; it’s just at odds with too much else that seems obviously true about life. Yet even if only entertained as a hypothetical possibility, free will scepticism is an antidote to that bleak individualist philosophy which holds that a person’s accomplishments truly belong to them alone – and that you’ve therefore only yourself to blame if you fail. It’s a reminder that accidents of birth might affect the trajectories of our lives far more comprehensively than we realise, dictating not only the socioeconomic position into which we’re born, but also our personalities and experiences as a whole: our talents and our weaknesses, our capacity for joy, and our ability to overcome tendencies toward violence, laziness or despair, and the paths we end up travelling. There is a deep sense of human fellowship in this picture of reality – in the idea that, in our utter exposure to forces beyond our control, we might all be in the same boat, clinging on for our lives, adrift on the storm-tossed ocean of luck.

- Author: Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian


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