Mind & Self

Defending Free Will & The Self

Frank S. Robinson ‘chooses’ to remind ‘us’ of problems some contemporary philosophers have with these central human concepts.

In 2012, Sam Harris, one of the famed ‘four horsemen’ of New Atheism, published a book called Free Will, arguing that it doesn’t exist. He’s a neuroscientist, and he contends that the more science learns how our brains work, the less plausible is a self with free will. He calls them ‘illusions’. By contrast, in his 2003 book Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett, another of the horsemen, argued for a concept of free will that is “an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs” and is compatible with causal determinism. Who is right, if either of them?

Determinism is the nub of the matter. Dennett defines it by reference to ‘Laplace’s demon’. Two centuries ago the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace said that if an all-knowing demon could know perfectly the state of every particle in the universe at any given moment, it could predict their state in the next, and the next, and so on to eternity. The operation of cause and effect means that what happens next is determined by what has come before, and the future of the universe down to its tiniest details is predestined until the end of time.

Dennett questions such certainty, proposing an element of chance within causality, due to quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, he says the deterministic argument against free will remains that all outputs from your brain – including all your so-called ‘choices’ – are entirely products of physical causes beyond your conscious control. If you pick chocolate over vanilla ice-cream, that’s a consequence of something that happened among your neurons, due to the structure of your neural network, and this was shaped by everything that happened in your life till then, and indeed everything causally linked to your brain all the way back to the Big Bang. That’s causal determinism. It’s as if you’re a computer program doing what it does because it’s programmed to, and can’t choose to do different; like a chess computer that, faced with the same board configuration, will make the same move every time. Most of Dennett’s book is about how and in what sense we could have free will anyway.

Someone might point out that we’re acting on our desires, which a computer doesn’t have. But as Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “a man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants.” In other words, you might choose chocolate over vanilla, but you can’t choose to prefer chocolate over vanilla. Moreover, as Daniel Gilbert’s 2007 book Stumbling on Happiness showed, not only do we not choose our desires, we don’t even know what they truly are. You can misjudge what you think you want, and also how its fulfillment will affect you. As George Bernard Shaw once quipped, there are two big disappointments in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.

What does the word ‘you’ really mean anyway? This is the problem of the self, which is entwined with the problem of free will. We all know what selfhood feels like. But David Hume said that no amount of gazing inwards enabled him to perceive his own self. I have repeated his experiment with the same result. As hard as I try to grasp the true essence of being me, it slithers away. One cannot use the self to seek the self, it seems. I can’t wrap my head around my head.

Trampled Underfoot
Haidt’s ‘elephant of the unconscious’ by Venantius Pinto
Trampled Underfoot © Venantius J Pinto 2019. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums

Modern Representations of Mind

Now, mind and self must be produced by, or emerge from, brain activity. Let’s consider how we experience vision. Photons hit your retina, and as a result electricity pulses along the optic nerves into your brain. All of the electrical signalling between your neurons might be encoded into 1s and 0s – zillions of them – somewhat like in a computer. But even if so, how does the brain turn that information back into a picture, seen by you? And the problems of making sense of what we see are huge. The brain has to collate two different images (one from each eye), gauge distance, adjust for perspective, parse rapid motion and interpret patches of color as objects. And we not only see what’s before us, but in our minds we can also see things we remember, or only imagine.

We might imagine a ‘Cartesian theatre’ in our heads, with a projection screen, with what we see being viewed by a little person in there – a homunculus. But how does the homunculus see? Is there another smaller homunculus inside his brain? And so on, endlessly… Closer to the truth, I think, and applicable to all mental processing, is the concept of representation. Sensory perceptions (or as philosophers say, qualia) cannot themselves be empirically detected in the brain. If it’s raining it won’t consequently be wet inside your brain. This is also true of bodily sensations – if you have a stomach ache, you can’t have a stomach ache in your brain. And what does it mean to experience something — like eating a cookie, or smelling a flower? The experiences themselves are not in the mouth or nose, or the brain, but in the mind. In all such phenomena, it’s a matter of the brain constructing a mental representation of the stomach ache, rain shower, the taste of the cookie, or the flower’s smell.

But then how do you see or otherwise experience the representation? Why, of course, by means of a further representation – of ‘yourself’ having that experience. According to the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error (1994), even that’s not enough. The brain must actually keep three mental balls in the air simultaneously: the base representation (of the rain, say); a representation of yourself taking it in; and, finally, a third order representation, so that you not only know something, but know you know it. This might seem to be another potentially endless recursion: a representation of the self perceiving a representation of the self perceiving… However, the buck must stop somewhere, because we do know when it’s raining, and know we know it… and grab umbrellas.

While the mind is doing all that work creating representations – continually, as new signals keep arriving – there’s yet another ball it must keep aloft: a representation of who ‘you’ are. Damasio likens this to your FBI file, although it’s not all in one file, but spread across various brain modules. It includes information like what you do, where you live, people important to you, knowledge of your past, and ideas about your future: everything that makes you you. It’s not just filed away, and you constantly refresh and update all of it.

Free Will Fears

All this is relevant to a proper perspective on free will. The minds and selves we experience are extremely complex, sophisticated constructions. To say it’s all just determined, with no role for a true ‘you’ in there, seems too facile and reductionist a dismissal of all that complexity, which, after all, appears engineered precisely in order to produce a you that deliberates to make decisions tailored to circumstances you face.

One fear is that if we’re really just elaborate robots operating according to programming and inputs we can’t control, our lives are meaningless. But that’s not how we live them. As Dennett puts it, notwithstanding whatever some philosophers or neuroscientists may say, we live in an ‘atmosphere of free will’: “the enveloping, enabling, life-shaping, conceptual atmosphere of intentional action, planning and hoping and promising – and blaming, resenting, punishing and honoring” (and writing books against free will, like Sam Harris). This is our lived reality. Dennett says it’s independent of whether determinism is true. Indeed, as a thought experiment, imagine going through even one day as though you had no free will. It would be absurd. The attempt would actually invert the conundrum: How could you be sure anything you did was in fact determined and not somehow an exercise of choice?

Determinism is a tricky concept. If a ball is going to hit you, but you duck, do you actually alter what might have happened, or would Laplace’s demon have predicted your ducking, so you were never going to be hit anyway? This is the idea that whatever happens had to happen, so ‘changing the outcome’ is a meaningless concept. Dennett gives the example of a golfer missing a putt who says, “I could have made it!” What does that mean? Repeat the exact circumstances and the result must be the same. However, before he swung, was it possible for him to swing differently than he wound up doing, with a little more concentration, or better aim? This is what he means by saying, “I could have made it!” Yet his actual swing was, as the determinists argue, the consequence of a million little deterministic factors preceding that moment. So was it all preordained, or could he have, might he have, swung differently?

Another character in this story is Haidt’s elephant. In The Righteous Mind (2012), Jonathan Haidt likened one’s conscious self to a rider on an elephant, which is one’s unconscious. We suppose the rider is in charge, directing the elephant, but it’s really the other way around. The rider just comes up with rationalizations for what the elephant wants. The conscious mind rationalizes what non-conscious brain processes get it to want. And often we act completely unconsciously. As Daniel Wegner writes: “The greatest contradictions to our ideal of conscious agency occur when we find ourselves behaving with no conscious thought of what we are doing.” (The Illusion of Conscious Will, 2002). When showering, I go through a sequence of motions on autopilot, requiring no deliberation. My conscious mind might be elsewhere (perhaps pondering free will). And how often have I consciously deliberated over whether to say a certain thing, only to hear the words pop suddenly out of my mouth, the decision having happened without my realizing it? About this Dennett comments, “Consciousness of the springs of action is the exception, not the rule.” So although there is a decision-maker in here, its operation is not always transparent to the self for whom we imagine it works. Your mind is like an employer who can see the products coming out of the work room but actually has no idea what the employees do in there to produce them.

Also, a famous experiment by the neurologist Benjamin Libet seems to show that in some circumstances at least, some hundreds of milliseconds before making a conscious decision to intentionally act, something of which you are not aware occurs in your brain to trigger the action. In Dennett’s words, it seems the “decision bubbles up to consciousness from we know not where.”

This has bugged me no end. I might try to beat the unconscious brain trigger by, say, getting out of bed exactly when I myself decide. I might declare I’ll get up on a count of three, and do so. But where did the decision to count to three come from?

However, even if we do get our marching orders ‘bubbling up’ from within, deterministically if you will, we don’t have to execute them. We can veto them. So if not free will, we do have what’s been called ‘free won’t’. Our brains produce impulses, but we evaluate them, and can squelch them. This is a consequence of our not only having thoughts but thinking about our thoughts.

If Libet is right, becoming conscious of an impulse leaves only a bare tenth-of-a-second window for the ‘free won’t’ veto. Yet in fact we prevent ourselves from expressing our impulses all the time. Meanwhile, Dennett sees a problem with Libet’s experiment. Libet told his subjects to note the time of a conscious decision from a rotating clock dial. But wouldn’t there be some time lag between your consciously making the decision and becoming aware that you’ve done so? And even more so before registering the clock time? This, among other things, puts in doubt Libet’s results. Dennett suggests that Libet really only showed that a conscious decision takes a bit of time rather than being unconsciously instantiated and only later entering consciousness.

Conscience & Communication

Another fear of science debunking free will is that this would destroy the moral basis for society, by knocking out the idea of personal responsibility. This idea was viscerally illustrated for me in a 2012 article in The Humanist magazine by Sarah Lucas, ‘Free Will and the Anders Breivik Trial’, which argued against punishing Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, because the killings were caused by brain events over which he had no control.

We have in fact long recognized that there are people with such diminished capacity or control that they cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. However, we don’t want to let all wrongdoers off the hook. Where to draw the line is hard to discern, but normally, people rightfully agree to punishment for transgressions as part of the deal for membership of society.

‘Free won’t’ is a helpful concept here, I think. Psychologist Thomas Szasz has argued that we all have antisocial impulses, yet to act upon them crosses a behavioral line that almost everyone can control. Maybe Breivik couldn’t control his delusions; but there was still a ‘moral agent’ within him capable of deciding to stay home rather than to kill seventy-seven people. So he can be held responsible and accountable for his choice.

As the title Freedom Evolves suggests, Dennett maintains that a conscious self with free will/moral agency evolved. He says that for nearly all animals that have ever existed, as long as the right behavior was forthcoming, there was no need for this behaviour “to be experienced by any thing or anybody.” However, as the environment and behavioral challenges grow more complex, an extra layer of cognition, especially the ability to consider alternative actions, becomes very advantageous. So the capacity for conscious deliberation evolved in humans, and to a lesser degree in a few other animals.

brain starry

But why so few? A big brain is actually a mixed blessing, with a lot of disadvantages. One is the difficulty of birthing large-headed babies. We compensated with a shortened gestation time, but that resulted in human infants being more fragile and helpless than nature’s norm. Also, a big brain sucks up a lot of energy – a real nutritional challenge. Our invention of cooking to help meet that challenge was a crucial step forward for humanity. Furthermore, our kind of mind is hard to create. We ourselves haven’t (yet) been able to reverse-engineer it. So it was not so inevitable that the ‘blind watchmaker’ evolutionary processes would stumble upon deliberation.

Dennett believes that a key role in the evolution of our intelligence was played by communication, which we use continually in negotiating our social context. A lot of animals have social webs, and at least rudimentary consciousness. But without language we couldn’t have created such complex cultures, building up and passing along an ever greater knowledge base. Dennett calls this our ‘information superhighway’. And, in turn, to make full use of language and culture, we needed a more advanced kind of consciousness. Language is itself a key element in creating that. As Dennett puts it, language makes the brain “a virtual machine for making more virtual machines.” For instance, our minds can create word pictures and metaphors. Metaphors pervade our thought processes, and they multiply the power of our linguistic representation.

Further, Dennett argues, we evolved not just agency but moral agency: more than just ‘free won’t’. The idea is that morality had survival value because it enhanced group cooperation. The concept of ‘group selection’ remains controversial among evolutionary biologists. However, positing that groups where morality took root survived better than others makes much sense. Alternatively, morality is a meme that got into our brains and proliferated by natural selection, via cultural (rather than biological) transmission.

The Selfish Illusion?

Dennett argued in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained that the common metaphor of your self as a captain at the helm of your mind is wrong: it’s really more like a gaggle of crewmen fighting over the wheel. In other words, there really isn’t a ‘self-contained’ self, but rather, a lot of neurons sparking all over the brain. They’re not acting with any intentions; but the effect of their interaction is that at any given moment one neuronal activity has shoved its way to the forefront of the neuronal processing. And that, says Dennett in Freedom Evolves, is how mental contents become conscious – “by winning the competitions against other mental contents for control of behavior.”

So what still makes you feel that there’s a you in there? Dennett would reply that asking this question echoes Cartesian dualism, which conceives of the ‘you’ as something in addition to all the brain and body activity. On the contrary, what you are, he asserts, “just is this organization of all the competitive activity between a host of competences that your body has developed” – which you ‘automatically’ know about because it’s your body.

However, an amoeba has a body without ‘knowing’ anything, especially not in the self-reflective way you do. I think the answer to the mystery of our selves instead lies in our layering of representations – unlike an amoeba, not merely knowing things, but knowing we know them.

But there’s more to Dennett’s thesis. He says we bootstrap our way to (self-)consciousness by a process of interactions between our brains/bodies and our social environments, with back-and-forth communication about reasons for actions, which develops the mind to think in such terms. He also cites a Harry Frankfurt essay, ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’ (1971), which says, “A person can want one thing but want to want something else – and act on that second-order desire” – like your desire to eat that chocolate cake versus your desire to lose weight. Dennett argues that this capacity to reflect on and mediate among one’s desires is the essence of personhood. But this seems at odds with Schopenhauer’s saying that one can’t choose one’s desires. And what about the metaphor of crewmen fighting over the wheel, instead of a captain being in charge? In the end, Dennett insists that we can and do use deliberation to resolve such internal conflicts, and that there is somebody home – the self – after all, to take responsibility and be morally accountable.

Let me offer my own thoughts on this issue. When the crewmen battle over the wheel, it’s not a chaotic process where one outcome is as likely as another, like rolling dice. Saying the outcome is deterministically governed by a long string of preceding causes is also far too simplistic. Viewed more holistically, everything about those battles is a reflection of who you are, your personality and character, constructed over years. This is shaped by many factors beyond your control, yes – your genetic endowment, how your parents raised you, and a host of other environmental influences; but also, importantly, by all the choices and decisions you made along the way. Many of those past choices and decisions were influenced by past battles over the wheel by various gangs of crewmen. But in all those, too, personality/character factors came into play. And so your battle, say between diet and dessert, is decided by the kind of person you are. Which is not written in stone either. Personality and character change throughout one’s life, sometimes due to a conscious effort to change. We are not wholly self-constructed, then; but we are partly self-constructed. At the end of the day, you are at least partly responsible for who you are. And even if your choice between cake and diet is attributable to personality or character factors that you can’t change for the purposes of that decision, the outcome is never a foregone conclusion. Even if most people, most of the time, do conform very predictably to their character profiles, we’re not like the chess computer that will play the same move every time. People are not robots: we do things that defy all expectations, making us living refutations of determinist absolutism.

Here’s a good illustration of the practical reality of free will. Few actions are more deterministically caused than a smoker’s lighting up – a consequence of physical addiction on top of psychological and behavioral conditioning, all creating a powerful craving. Seemingly a textbook case of B.F. Skinner’s deterministic behaviorism. Yet smokers quit! If that’s not free will, I don’t know what could be.

You might reply that the quitting actually has its own deterministic causes, predictable by Laplace’s demon: that whatever happens had to happen. But even if Laplace’s demon – or an omniscient God – could (hypothetically) predict what your self will do, so what? It’s still your self that does it. A different self would do differently. And you’re responsible (at least to a considerable degree) for your self. Seen this way, free will is not at odds with causal determinism.

Dennett invokes Dumbo, the elephant who flies by flapping his ears. At first Dumbo is scared of launching himself off the cliff. But his bird friend has a bright idea. He hands Dumbo a feather, saying it’s a magic feather, and as long as Dumbo holds it, he can fly. It works. Of course he doesn’t really need the feather, and in the end he learns that. Dennett says we too don’t need the feather of magical ideas. But we do have minds with vast capabilities. And, like Dumbo, we should recognize those capabilities – including our free will to run our lives.

© Frank S. Robinson 2019

Frank S. Robinson is the author of five books, including The Case for Rational Optimism. He blogs at rationaloptimist.wordpress.com.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X