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Feel Free To Differ
by Grant Bartley
Welcome to our issue on free will. Did you choose to read this? I’m not asking out of mere politeness or astonishment; the question, Is conscious choice real? is right at the core of a tangle of philosophical problems around free will. If the answer is ‘yes’, you do choose, then your mind can decide what to think, and how you subsequently act, whether by speaking, or throwing a ball, or reading an editorial. That question is utterly different from the free will question that vexes theologians: Are we free if God already knows everything we’ll do? It is entirely consistent to say that we do choose, but God knows what we’re going to choose. That would mean we have free will in one core way – concerning choice – but not in another way – concerning, let’s call it, our predictability. For this issue’s theme we’re interested specifically in issues surrounding the power of choice.
There are three main positions concerning choice: libertarianism, determinism, and compatibilism. Take your pick! Libertarianism is the belief that we make deliberated choices, which, through our brains, affect the material world, and that ultimately these choices are not absolutely determined by anything beyond the mind making them. Determinism is the belief that all our choices are determined by factors beyond our conscious control. The strong position says that through the brain’s processing of responses to environmental information, one brain state automatically causes a subsequent brain state, and conscious experience itself has no influence on the physical activities of the brain or the rest of the body. Compatibilism is an attempt to combine determinism with moral responsibility (it therefore presupposes determinism). Versions vary, but the basic idea is that we simultaneously both are determined and somehow choose.
Determinism itself comes in different flavours. Hard determinism of the most absolute sort is the theory that the entire history of the universe was already fixed from its very beginning by the setting of the laws of nature and the original states of the matter in it. This is no longer tenable due to the intrinsic indeterminacy – the random behaviour – at the heart of matter that is explored in quantum physics. But physics does apparently allow a somewhat less absolute determinism – the idea that the behaviour of the world is determined by previous physical activities, but with some randomness as to what the particular outcomes will be. So a quantum determinist could defend an indeterministic determinism!
There are also softer determinisms. These say that we are very heavily influenced in our choices by factors beyond our control (and which we are often unaware of). One such soft determinism is genetic determinism, which says that who you become and what you do is inescapably influenced by your genetic make-up. In his article in this issue, psychologist Steve Taylor lists several types of soft determinism before attempting to refute them; and Graham Boyd explores one splendid example in some detail in his intriguing essay.
There is no doubt that many of these softer versions of determinism are correct, to various degrees: the interesting debate concerns to what degrees, and so to what extent we can escape, for example, the chains of our DNA. Even the most ardent libertarian agrees that there are constraints on our freedom. What makes them libertarians is their insistence that the limitations don’t deny some space for true, not physically determined, conscious choice between options.
I think there are two major problems for hard determinists (and so also for compatibilists) to address. Firstly, How do you justify your assumption that causation is only physical, not also mental? The idea that minds can’t choose is so far only an assertion by determinists, and one that’s not justified in experience (and so is not empirically sound), since all our experience of willing informs us that we do make choices, and that we do so effectively. So what sound basis exists for saying we don’t choose?
The second problem is: Why would consciousness evolve if it doesn’t do anything? On a more rigid determinism, our conscious states and our actions are the results of automatic brain activity; so our actions would be the same with just the brain activity and without the consciousness. However, consciousness is an expensive luxury, being created through specially-evolved, dedicated and energy-hungry brain areas (eg V4-V6 for colour vision). Consciousness is evidently not just a fortuitous free side-effect of other brain activity, as some determinists misrepresent it. So why evolve it?
I’m not convinced that determinists can answer either of these questions adequately. But there are major problems for the libertarian too. Choice is primarily about the mind’s content: it’s primarily the choice to think one thought – one set of mental contents – rather than another (this is true even when choosing to act). We now have irrefutable neurological reasons to believe that brains produce (or channel) consciousness. Therefore, if libertarianism is true (as I choose to believe), then any choices made by a mind must also be a choice of the brain state underpinning the mind state chosen. In other words, in choosing our mental contents, we must also choose the brain state responsible for the generation of those mental contents! So if there is free will, then there must be some way for a mind to direct the state of its brain, like a sort of local mind-over-matter. It’s difficult to see how this could happen. (I personally think that the power of will operates through our choices being indirect observations of our brain states in a quantum manner. But that’s a story for another time.)
Enjoy this investigation of this fundamental aspect of human existence. I think the question of choice boils down to the question, can we make decisions in our minds that influence the state of our brains? I suggest that we do not know precisely enough how consciousness is generated by brain activity to answer that question authoritatively, yet.