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Mind & Self

The Free Will Pill

Taylor A. Dunn asks, if free will were a drug, should you take it?

If we found out next week that neuroscientists had conclusively demonstrated that free will does not exist and that our so-called ‘choices’ are purely the result of automatic brain functions, I think we would be right to take this news badly. But imagine further that, as we continue to develop new ways to alter human brain chemistry and so on, we found a way to design a ‘free will pill’ – something like Prozac or Adderall – which alters our brains so that we can act freely.

It turns out that some recent work on free will makes this speculation more plausible than you might think. And this brings up all sorts of bizarre questions, such as whether we can freely choose to take a free will drug; whether we should take a free will drug; and what kind of effects such a drug would have on us, individually and socially.

When we’re torn about what to do, when we’ve weighed the pros and cons and need to make a choice between two courses of action, we want the choice to be solely the product of our decision. We want to have been able to have chosen differently, if we could go back in time. This ability to have chosen differently is what I’ll be referring to as ‘free will’.

The clear initial challenge to free will is determinism, the idea that the laws of physics establish chains of cause and effect where every event (including a brain event such as a choice) is decided by preceding ones, and those by still earlier ones, beginning with the Big Bang.

This may have been the correct way to understand the world according to Newtonian physics. However, anyone familiar with the standard or Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics will tell you that things are undetermined at the very small level. The debate rages on about how to make sense of measurement, superpositions, and the other aspects of quantum mechanics; but at least one way to understand it is that the laws of physics are ultimately not deterministic, but rather, probabilistic. Whether an electron is discovered to be at one position or another, for example, is uncaused. This brings up the other clear problem for free will, which is randomness. If at the fundamental level of physical reality things are just a matter of chance, then how can we be said to be in control of our choices?

Therefore the most common philosophical gripe about free will is that the concept is not even coherent. If everything is determined, then there are no undetermined choices, and so no free will; but if nothing is determined, then you get total randomness. Either way, there’s no room for free will. However, this brings us to the work of Mark Balaguer, Professor of Philosophy at California State University, who in his book Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem (MIT Press, 2015) devises a coherent notion of free will; and, moreover, one that places the locus of free will in the brain.

Matrix pills
Matrix image © Warner Bros 1999

Viva L-Freedom!

Balaguer says that a person has free will (he calls it ‘L-Freedom’) “if and only if she makes at least some decisions that are both undetermined and non-random.” (p.10) Also the decision must be non-random in the right way, a way in which she has “ authorship and control over the decision.” (p.26) Where might we look for such decisions? Balaguer asks us to consider what he calls torn decisions. A torn decision is one in which “the person in question (a) has reasons for two or more options and feels torn as to which set of reasons is strongest, that is, has no conscious belief as to which option is best, given her reasons; and (b) decides without resolving this conflict – that is the person has the experience of ‘just choosing’.” (p.70) The example he gives is of Ralph, who is trying to decide between staying in his hometown – where he can marry his childhood sweetheart – or moving to New York City, where he can fulfill his life’s ambition of starring on Broadway in a musical production of Sartre’s Nausea. The reasons on each side are of different kinds so cannot be directly compared, yet they feel finely balanced. In the end Ralph has to just choose. In such decisions, Balaguer suggests, the probabilistic forces of the universe are at a 50/50 split between us picking one option and the other, so when the choice is made, the only explanation for why one option was taken over the other is that Ralph chose it. Moreover, because there was a 50% chance of the choice going the other way, if he was to go back in time and do it again, he would be equally likely to choose differently. In this way, we can coherently understand a free act in an indeterministic world; and in fact, the indeterminism is the very means by which the agent can act freely.

The question is whether we ever find ourselves in such circumstances. It certainly seems to me that these moments occur all the time. For example, you might find yourself undecided about what to order for dinner at a restaurant (the burger or the steak?), and suddenly the waiter is there asking you, and before you can conclude your deliberation, you simply choose. However, to figure out if these situations are as undetermined as they feel, Balaguer says that we will have to dig deep in the world of brain science. “For all we know […] it may be that all of our torn decisions are causally determined by prior physical events in our brains that precede these decisions. Whether or not our torn decisions are in fact causally determined is an empirical question.” (p.72)

Manufacturing Free Will

Let’s assume Balaguer is right, and the question of whether we have free will or not will eventually be discovered by neuroscientists. They’ll either find that we have free will, or that we don’t, or perhaps that we have some degree of freedom that is generally unsatisfying. Recall that on Balaguer’s model, in order for us to have free will, those torn decision events need a 50/50 chance of going one way or the other. This would require a very particular orchestration of brain processes. And while the question is still entirely open as to what is going on during torn decision events, it seems overly optimistic that in many cases we are making a free choice on Balaguer’s terms. (It might not require an exact balance though. A 60/40 probability split on a decision, for instance, might mean a 3:2 likelihood of choosing one option over another. But perhaps 50/50 is required for absolute freedom of choice at any given moment.)

Let’s make the pessimistic assumption that neuroscientists discover either that we don’t have free will, or that we don’t have a satisfying degree of freedom over our choices. Couldn’t we in principle develop a drug able to manipulate brain function in order to achieve that 50/50 probability of the brain state going one way or the other at the moment of choice? It’s not so hard to imagine that, if we learn enough about the brain to figure out what’s involved during a decision, we’ll have a decent enough grasp on what it might take to alter the brain in order to manufacture free will in Balaguer’s sort of way.

However, if truly free choices can only be made once the drug is taken, that would make the choice to take the drug either determined or random. It seems strange to think either that we might be determined to become free, or that we might randomly become free. And if we can manage to wrap our heads around that paradoxical prospect, we are left with the question of whether or not we ought to take the free will pill.

A free will pill should no doubt be thought of as a kind of human enhancement, providing us with an ability we wouldn’t otherwise have. Some argue that certain enhancements, such as an enhancement in our ability to empathize, are not merely permissible, but morally obligatory, and we might see a free will drug as fitting within that paradigm. However, many philosophers warn against any technological enhancement of human abilities – even those which purport to improve our quality of life. This anti-enhancement sentiment is largely a reaction to the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and for good reasons. That effort to attach moral significance to certain human traits and abilities led to the horrors of genocide; and so our contemporaries remain justifiably wary of arguments for making ‘better humans’. They argue that we’ll find ourselves in a position where enhanced humans carry more moral value (real or perceived), and this will lead to the moral disregard of the unenhanced. Other anti-enhancement arguments are made in regard to genetic modifications, especially those made in utero. Jürgen Habermas’ well-known argument, for example, states that genetic changes compromise the autonomy of those future humans. However, most of these objections don’t seem to apply to a discussion of a free will enhancing pill, and I think the more pressing worries here are distinct from much enhancement discussion.

Considering Choice

I have two major ethical concerns about a free will drug. The first is that it could further stratify an already highly stratified society, exacerbating social and economic inequalities. The inequality of access to technology and medicine is a serious problem already in our current world, and barring a massive global redistribution of resources, we could find ourselves in a position where the few had enhanced free will and the many did not. Creating this genuine metaphysical difference between people might lead to other divisions too. Since the notion of free will is inextricably linked to moral and criminal responsibility, one consequence might be that some people came to be held more fully responsible for their actions than others.

The second major concern is that taking a free will drug will powerfully disrupt our experience of making decisions. As it stands, it certainly feels to me that I make free choices all the time, complete with a robust phenomenology of choice. If we were to take a drug that affects the way our brains work in our decision-making process, this would most likely change the way we experience this process. This change could be uncomfortable; or even prevent us from being able to choose at all. The freedom the drug provides may render us incapable of choosing!

The way our brain functions without such a drug may be necessary for us to operate on a daily basis, and disrupting those processes could be highly detrimental. It may be then, that, although we could take a free will pill, and perhaps we ought to, we wouldn’t want to after all.

© Taylor A. Dunn 2019

Taylor Dunn has an MA in philosophy from California State University, and is now a philosophy graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.

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