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Free Will Is Still Alive!

Carlo Filice questions recent attempts to question free will.

We think we are the partial authors of our own lives. Most of us think: “I am more than the sum of the circumstances that affected what I am now. I want some credit for my accomplishments, and will accept some blame for my mistakes.” That’s the basic reason we care about free will. Not many of us view ourselves as programmed robots, even if the programming were complex, subtle, and included a feature that triggered it to reprogram itself.

Is there any good reason to overturn this self-image of partial autonomy? I don’t see it. The recent slew of popular anti-free will literature inspired by micro-neurology or by psychological research is, at best, only suggestive. At worst, it is completely confused.

Over-Enthusiastic Reductionism

Here is a sample of the confused kind:

“The 20th-century nature-nurture debate prepared us to think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control. But it left some room, at least in the popular imagination, for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances or our genes to become the author of our own destiny. The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.”
(‘There’s No Such Thing as Free Will’, Stephen Cave, The Atlantic, June 2016.)

Cave’s analysis illustrates a common confusion of reality levels. It confuses the neural or even chemical and electromagnetic levels of brain activity with the thought/belief/will/personhood level of our experience. But people do, of course, exist at multiple levels, and it’s far from established that the more physical levels are ‘more real’ than the more psychological levels. For example, the fact that features such as ‘liquid’ and ‘solid’ don’t exist at the level of subatomic particles does not mean that liquids and solids are unreal or less real than protons or electrons. The similar fact that beliefs, intentions, decisions, and indeed all conscious-level experiences do not exist at the level of neurons and synapses also does not make conscious phenomena somehow ‘less real’ or unreal. Meanings, consciousness, freedom, or the self are like liquids in this sense: the beauty of a Caravaggio painting also does not exist at the subatomic level; but meaning and beauty are not thereby fictions, ultimately dissolved into the micro units of physics. And our choice-making resides amongst the higher levels.

The nature of the interactions among these levels of reality is a thorny scientific-philosophic issue, and there is a vast literature on the topic. The complex debates in the philosophy of mind over ‘emergentism’, ‘supervenience’, and ‘downward causation’ have not led to clear resolutions. Yet to assume that macro-level phenomena are impotent and can be dismissed because they are arguably reducible to micro-level explanations that don’t feature them ignores deep controversies, and I dare say that most philosophers who focus on these questions are not in favor of any robust form of reduction of macro- to micro-phenomena in any case.

Micro-level changes do, of course, affect the higher levels. Specifically, neurons do affect person-level thoughts, feelings, and behavior. But the reverse also seems incontrovertible to me: the simplest way for me to initiate all sorts of subtle activity in my throat muscles at the level of cells and molecules is to speak, and mean, the words: “I love my wife!” How I make these many precise micro-events happen, just by stating and meaning these words, we don’t really know. That these words are themselves preceded by complex streams of muscular-cellular-molecular events may or may not imply anything about the freedom of the utterance. That depends on what we end up saying about the nature of the interaction between the levels.

Caravaggio The Taking of Christ 1602
Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ 1602. The painting’s beauty isn’t on the molecular level.

Prejudiced Data Interpretation

A second popular source of skepticism about free will comes from the field of neuropsychology. In particular, it comes from a series of delicate experiments claiming to show that non-conscious neural activity is the real decider, not our conscious volitions. Benjamin Libet was perhaps the first to conduct such experiments, in the 1980s. Many others have tried to duplicate or improve on his original set-up. The evidence generated by these experiments is interesting, but its interpretation is disputed both by psychologists and by philosophers, a good example being the philosopher Alfred Mele. Libet himself did not draw an anti free-will conclusion from his experiment.

Libet’s experiment involved people choosing to press a button and noting the time on a clock when they make the decision. Meanwhile electrodes measure a nerve impulse setting up the hand ready for the muscle contraction associated with the button-pressing. Libet’s experiments showed that this nerve impulse is fired a fraction of a second before the recorded conscious decision. Some have used this data to argue that all the neurological activity associated with a choice happens before the choice is consciously made or even independent of any conscious choice, so showing that there is no such thing as free will.

What are the main problems with such experiments and this interpretation of them? First, there are measurement issues, such as determining when exactly one has fully formed one’s conscious decision. Second, even if these measurement problems could be resolved, it is not clear that the measured nervous activity that precedes the conscious choice is part of the cause of the choice. It could instead be simply one phase of the process, like a nervous preparation anticipating the making of the choice. Thirdly, such findings apply to simple motor decisions, like choosing to press a button. Why should these findings carry over to sophisticated deliberative choices which involve a complex process with many sub-decisions, such as quitting a job, or not? Indeed, what connection is there between these simple experimental situations and the millions of interrelated choices one makes while writing a poem, planting a garden, playing a tennis game, cooking a meal?

The entire area surrounding these experiments is too contested to carry much weight. We will have to see what future research shows.

Of course, even if we accept the reality of conscious phenomena such as beliefs, desires, intentions, decisions, agency, and even if we accept that they can cause changes in the physical world, we could still view the whole process as deterministic. Every conscious decision might, in principle, be the inevitable consequence of the prior river of both microscopic and macroscopic events constituting our past. Might … but this apparent possibility is far from having been shown as even likely. We have not even come close to understanding and predicting the behavior of much simpler organisms, like insects. So, again, let’s wait and see.

Presuming Only Determinism or Randomness

Patience is not our best trait. If only we could rule out free will purely theoretically! Is there not a knockout punch available against free will?

Maybe. Philosophers old and new have gone for the knockout punch by appealing to a series of arguments.

Here is an old standby: the crucial agent control needed for free will requires more than mere indeterminism or randomness. If one were to opt for coffee instead of tea due to some uncontrolled mental coin-flip, we surely would not be responsible for that arbitrary decision. Indeed, arbitrarily deciding between options in such a way could hardly be called a choice. But, the argument goes, the only alternative to absolute determinism is randomness. Either way, there can be no responsible free will.

The problem with this argument is that third options have been dismissed too quickly.

robot dealing cards

Let’s consider a robot analogy to spell out this skeptical take on free will. Imagine a robot playing poker. The robot is dealt hands and has programmed instructions guiding its play. Neither of these aspects it chose. However, one of the programmed instructions can be: “Whenever you are undecided because you face two options of equal merit, go for one of those options randomly.” The robot will occasionally face such circumstances. It will then opt randomly (it comes equipped with a randomizer, triggered by such indecision). Such choices would be done ‘on its own’, as someone might say; and as these choices ‘on its own’ add up, its overall success or failure at the poker game (its life) will become more and more ‘its own’.

However, this kind of robot would not have the free will we care about:

(1) The robot has no say over its own initial programming (as neither do we); but also,

(2) The robot has no control over the outcomes of its ‘indecision choices’, since they are produced by a randomizer. Any randomizer, internal or not, by definition yields unpredictable outcomes not under the agent’s control. The link between non-predictability and agent responsibility is broken.

So how do we add an agent-control factor to the robot, or to us, without losing the non-deterministic factor in our choices?

Frankly, we don’t know. The skeptic about free will is right in pointing out that this agent-control factor is mysterious. However, the intellectual jump from ‘still mysterious’ to ‘non-existent’ (or, worse, ‘impossible’) gives many of us pause, if only because this agent-control factor seems intimately real to all of us. Cases where we exert sustained effort in the course of an activity make this factor especially evident. Some of us meditate, aiming at fixing our attention on our breathing for minutes. It’s hard to do, but we often succeed. And the doing of this activity – with all the monitoring, directing, and redirecting involved – yields direct evidence of intimate agency at work. Riding a bicycle uphill is another good example. Moreover, these experiences of intense monitoring and directing are similar in kind to those involved in our ordinary choosing – of whether or not to have the second bowl of ice cream; of quitting or staying at our job; of whether or not discussions of free will matter, etc. These choices are felt as then-and-there up to us, especially when they conflict. They feel neither like random coin-flips inside us, nor like inevitable products of our character, surroundings or mental workings, but rather, like choices.

The Supposed Illusion of Agency

Could this feeling of being in control be an illusion? Perhaps, but don’t bet on it.

Again, the issues here are not new: they echo thousand-year-old debates between Buddhist and Hindu philosophers; or between David Hume on one side and Immanuel Kant or René Descartes on the other. The Buddhists and Hume claim that there is no introspective evidence of a core self. They claim that when we look inside ourselves, we only find streams of sensations, impulses, thoughts, drives, feelings, memories, so we are simply a changing bundle of experiences. For a popular recent example of this picture of the self, check out Sam Harris’s book Free Will (2012). He repeatedly speaks of a self as a complex stream of uncontrolled thoughts and feelings. Harris’s stimulating podcasts disseminate this unsubstantiated claim to millions.

This passive picture of our inner life as a stream of uncontrolled elements oversimplifies our experience. Yes, many thoughts and dreams and feelings do merely occur to us; but not all. The very activity of introspecting – what is that? – should make us pause before denying that experience provides evidence of our active agency. And it’s not the only activity that should. Our conscious life is a wonderfully subtle mix of passive and active elements, of thoughts and sensations that occur to us and our active interplay with these. We actively try to summon forgotten names; actively list pluses and minuses when facing tough choices; actively sustain an effort against resistance.

Again, could all the active experiences be illusory? Could we really never consciously control our attention? Perhaps. But if we are deceived by these ‘active experiences’ we must be deceivable about virtually anything.

Alternatively, are we giving too much weight to experiences of directing our mind, will, attention, or limbs? Perhaps. But it’s really hard not to. Our experiences of choosing are intimately tied to who we are.

And who or what is the ‘I’ doing the directing, the summoning, the introspecting? Mystery, again. But the solution to this mystery is not to belittle the activity. With all the dizzying success of science, it’s easy to forget that many aspects of our inner experience escape its tools. Love, creativity, beauty, commitments, morality, meanings, the very experiential aspect of consciousness… all of these remain scientifically contentious, if not mysterious. Do they have a place in a world that is only physical? Perhaps not; but let’s not forget that a physicalist view of the world is itself controversial. So, allegiance to physicalism cannot settle the issue. Besides, if consciousness can emerge out of non-conscious physical nature, active powers might equally develop out of non-active ones within conscious aspects of nature.

No Chosen Foundations For Our Choices

There are other philosophical attempts to knock out free will. One goes back at least as far as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and was recently revived by Galen Strawson. The argument is that there is no meaningful form of ultimate self-making or self-programming, because one always needs preexisting motives to shape your choices. In other words, you might be able to choose how you respond to your desires, but you do not choose the values by which you make this choice… One needs a prior program even in order for one to meaningfully re-program oneself, so no genuine autonomy is possible (even in degree).

This either-or thinking is also subject to the type of response we used for the either-or of determinism/randomness. Yes, we need prior motives to assess our motives meaningfully. But must initial non-chosen motives always rule out transformations into semi-autonomous ones? Not so fast! What if such non-chosen motives are many and suitably complex; and what if they generate routine indecisions? These indecisions could generate the pause, the space, for self-reflection. A complex psychology might produce a self-initiated (partial) reprogramming. If I am naturally both self-centered and empathetic, both curious and cautious, the accumulation of split-decisions over time might prompt me to develop one side of myself more than another, and unpredictably. My own complex, non-chosen, open-ended psychological resources might prompt some reprogramming. This reprogramming may take autonomy-building forms.

Or perhaps not. But this issue also needs to be carefully debated. The skeptics tend to go too fast. Much more would have to be said here.

For the moment, it appears that neither science nor philosophy has killed free will. The future is likely to remain open!

© Carlo Filice 2018

Carlo Filice is Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Geneseo and author of The Purpose of Life: An Eastern Philosophical Vision (UPA, 2011).

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