Free Will – Sam Harris

Here’s a short article from Sam Harris about how free will does not exist. I agree with him for most of it…but don’t really understand what he’s saying at the end. Read it here from his blog, or below:

The human brain must respond to information coming from several domains: from the external world, from internal states of the body, and, increasingly, from a sphere of meaning—which includes spoken and written language, social cues, cultural norms, rituals of interaction, assumptions about the rationality of others, judgments of taste and style, etc. Generally, these streams of information seem unified in our experience:

You spot your best friend standing on the street corner looking strangely disheveled. You recognize that she is crying and frantically dialing her cell phone. Was she involved in a car accident? Did someone assault her? You rush to her side, feeling an acute desire to help. Your “self” seems to stand at the intersection of these lines of input and output. From this point of view, you tend to feel that you are the source of your own thoughts and actions. You decide what to do and not to do. You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain. All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions.

And the distinction between “higher” and “lower” systems in the brain offers no relief: for I no more initiate events in executive regions of my prefrontal cortex than I cause the creaturely outbursts of my limbic system. The truth seems inescapable: I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.

Of course, many scientists and philosophers realized long before the advent of experimental neuroscience that free will could not be squared with an understanding of the physical world. Nevertheless, many still deny this fact. For instance, the biologist Martin Heisenberg has observed that some fundamental processes in the brain, like the opening and closing of ion channels and the release of synaptic vesicles, occur at random, and cannot, therefore, be determined by environmental stimuli. Thus, much of our behavior can be considered “self-generated,” and therein, he imagines, lies a basis for free will. But “self-generated” in this sense means only that these events originate in the brain. The same can be said for the brain states of a chicken.

If I were to learn that my decision to have a third cup of coffee this morning was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as the free exercise of my will? Such indeterminacy, if it were generally effective throughout the brain, would obliterate any semblance of human agency. Imagine what your life would be like if all your actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires were “self-generated” in this way: you would scarcely seem to have a mind at all. You would live as one blown about by an internal wind. Actions, intentions, beliefs, and desires can only exist in a system that is significantly constrained by patterns of behavior and the laws of stimulus-response. In fact, the possibility of reasoning with other human beings—or, indeed, of finding their behaviors and utterances comprehensible at all—depends on the assumption that their thoughts and actions will obediently ride the rails of a shared reality. In the limit, Heisenberg’s “self-generated” mental events would amount to utter madness.

And the indeterminacy specific to quantum mechanics offers no foothold. Even if our brains were quantum computers, the brains of chimps, dogs, and mice would be quantum computers as well. (I don’t know of anyone who believes that these animals have free will.) And quantum effects are unlikely to be biologically salient in any case. They do drive evolution, as high-energy particles like cosmic rays cause point mutations in DNA, and the behavior of such particles passing through the nucleus of a cell is governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. (Evolution, therefore, seems unpredictable in principle.) But most neuroscientists do not view the brain as a quantum computer. Again, even if we knew that human consciousness depended upon quantum processes, it is pure hand-waving to suggest that quantum indeterminacy renders the concept of free will scientifically intelligible.

If the laws of nature do not strike most of us as incompatible with free will, it is because we have not imagined how human action would appear if all cause-and-effect relationships were understood. Consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine that a mad scientist has developed a means of controlling the human brain at a distance. What would it be like to watch him send a person to and fro on the wings of her “will”? Would there be even the slightest temptation to impute freedom to her? No. But this mad scientist is nothing more than causal determinism personified. What makes his existence so inimical to our notion of free will is that when we imagine him lurking behind a person’s thoughts and actions—tweaking electrical potentials, manufacturing neurotransmitters, regulating genes, etc.—we cannot help but let our notions of freedom and responsibility travel up the puppet’s strings to the hand that controls them.

To see that the addition of randomness—quantum mechanical or otherwise—does nothing to change this situation, we need only imagine the scientist basing the inputs to his machine on a shrewd arrangement of roulette wheels, or on the decay of some radioactive isotope. How would such unpredictable changes in the states of a person’s brain constitute freedom?

All the relevant features of a person’s inner life could be conserved—thoughts, moods, and intentions would still arise and beget actions—and yet, once we imagine a hypothetical mad scientist dispensing the appropriate cocktail of randomness and natural law, we are left with the undeniable fact that the conscious mind is not the source of its own thoughts and intentions. This discloses the real mystery of free will: if our moment to moment experience is compatible with its utter absence, how can we say that we see any evidence for it in the first place?

None of this, however, renders the choices we make in life any less important. As my friend Dan Dennett has pointed out, many people confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like, “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” But the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If I had not decided to write my last book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. And to “just sit back and see what happens” is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.

Therefore, while it is true to say that a person would have done otherwise if he had chosen to do otherwise, this does not deliver the kind of free will that most people seem to cherish—because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void. From the perspective of your conscious mind, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

Our belief in free will seems to arise from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the specific prior causes of our thoughts and actions. The phrase “free will” describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each mental state as it arises in consciousness. Trains of thought like, “What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know, I’ll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish,” convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. But from a deeper perspective (speaking both subjectively and objectively), thoughts simply arise (what else could they do?) unauthored, and yet author to our actions.

In the philosophical literature, one finds three approaches to the problem of free will: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. Both determinism and libertarianism are often referred to as “incompatibilist” views, in that both maintain that if our behavior is fully determined by background causes, free will is an illusion. Determinists believe that we live in precisely such a world; libertarians (no relation to the political view that goes by this name) believe that our agency rises above the field of prior causes—and they inevitably invoke some metaphysical entity, like a soul, as the vehicle for our freely acting wills. Compatibilists, like Dan Dennett, maintain that free will is compatible with causal determinism (see his fine books, Freedom Evolves and Elbow Room; for other compatibilist arguments see Ayer, Chisholm, Strawson, Frankfurt, Dennett, and Watson here).

The problem with compatibilism, as I see it, is that it tends to ignore that people’s moral intuitions are driven by a deeper, metaphysical notion of free will. That is, the free will that people presume for themselves and readily attribute to others (whether or not this freedom is, in Dennett’s sense, “worth wanting”) is a freedom that slips the influence of impersonal, background causes. The moment you show that such causes are effective—as any detailed account of the neurophysiology of human thought and behavior would— proponents of free will can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang their notions of moral responsibility. The neuroscientists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen make this same point:

Most people’s view of the mind is implicitly dualist and libertarian and not materialist and compatibilist . . . [I]ntuitive free will is libertarian, not compatibilist. That is, it requires the rejection of determinism and an implicit commitment to some kind of magical mental causation . . . contrary to legal and philosophical orthodoxy, determinism really does threaten free will and responsibility as we intuitively understand them (Greene J & J. Cohen. 2004).

It is generally argued that our sense of free will presents a compelling mystery: on the one hand, it is impossible to make sense of in causal terms; on the other, we feel that we are the authors of our own actions. However, I think that this mystery is itself a symptom of our confusion. It is not that free will is simply an illusion: our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality; rather, we are mistaken about the character of our experience. We do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be ourselves in the world. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do?  The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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