It’s been awhile since I inflicted on this blog’s readers a long multi-part series of posts but I have decided to look at the question of free will, something that I have not addressed before, and this is such a weighty and controversial subject that it requires a somewhat lengthy discussion.
It used to be thought that what distinguished living things from inanimate matter was the presence of some mysterious life force, an élan vital. Modern biology has dispelled that myth of a vital essence, replacing it with the understanding that biological systems are nothing more than the working out of the laws of physics and chemistry on atoms and molecules. But there are some forms of vitalistic thinking that are still extant because people tend to want to cling on to the idea that there is something special about living things, especially human beings.
Religious people give the name the ‘soul’ to the feature that supposedly distinguishes them from non-human animals. They believe it enters and becomes part of the body at some point in its development from its start as a fertilized egg. The pope says that god inserts the soul at the moment of conception but others may allow for the soul to make its mysterious appearance later, as an emergent property that arises along with other things like consciousness once the neural system has reached a suitably advanced state. But, whenever and however it makes its appearance, people seem to believe that it has an autonomous existence, independent of the body. The soul supposedly lives on after the body has dispersed into its constituent atoms.
Belief in god and belief in free will have an obvious connection. Religious people need to believe in free will because there is no virtue in having faith in god if we have no control over our decisions. Of course, religious people seem to think that there is no problem with god coercing people to believe, on pain of eternal damnation and torments in hell. You would think that such belief would be just as tainted and useless as (say) confessions obtained under torture, which we rightly exclude from evidence in legal trials, or at least used to until this horror known as the ‘war on terror’ was unleashed. But religious people determinedly cling to the idea that their faith is freely given.
While the idea of a soul and its associated concept of god still continue to exert a powerful attraction for religious people, most scientists have given up on those ideas. But that does not mean that vitalistic thinking has entirely disappeared among the non-religious. Where it still lurks is in beliefs about the existence of free will.
There is an important similarity between god and free will. For most people, god is some independently existing conscious entity that is non-material and not subject to the laws of nature and yet is capable of interacting with the world, to the extent of knowing everything that happens everywhere at every moment and influencing events whenever he wants to. To achieve this requires this non-material entity to be able to interact with matter (in order to move objects) and to trigger the firing of neurons in brains (in order to influence people’s thinking). Religious people rarely probe their beliefs to this level of detail and if they do, the mechanisms by which those things occur is never elaborated on. It is all part of god’s mysterious ways.
The idea of free will is quite similar. To say I have free will implies that I can first freely make a decision (to pick up a pen, say) and then impose that decision on my body, forcing it to carry out that action. But who is this ‘I’ that is making this decision and how does it do it? At the most straightforward level, it implies a dualism that is similar in many respects to what we think of as god. It implies that there is an independently existing conscious entity that is non-material that we refer to as the ‘mind’ (or soul if you are religious) and which can make decisions and make my body comply with them.
The scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is credited with being the founder of such a dualistic model. He started out by questioning the nature of this thing we call ‘I’, arriving at the conclusion that there could not be any doubt about the existence of such an independent entity, writing, “But what, then am I? And what is that? A thing which doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, does not will, which also imagines and senses… For the fact that it is I who doubt, who understand, who will, is so obvious that there is nothing which could make it more evident.” (Rene Descartes, Second Meditation, Translated by Desmond M. Clarke, Penguin Classics 1998, p. 26)
He went on to say that it was fairly obvious to show that we must have such an independent mind:
I perceive that there is a big difference between the mind and the body insofar as the body, by its nature, is always divisible whereas the mind is evidently indivisible. When I reflect on the mind (or on myself insofar as I am simply a thinking thing), I certainly cannot distinguish any parts in myself; instead I understand myself to be a completely unified and integral thing. And even though the whole mind seems to be united with the whole body, if however a foot, an arm, or any other part of the body is cut off, I know that nothing is thereby taken away from the mind. Nor can the faculties of willing, sensing, understanding, etc., be said to be parts of the mind, because it is one and the same mind that wills, senses and understands. In contrast, I cannot think of any physical or extended body that I cannot divide easily in my thought; for that reason alone, I understand that it is divisible. That would be enough to teach me that the mind is completely different from the body if I did not already know it adequately from other considerations. (Sixth Meditation, p. 67)
We are all deeply influenced by this Cartesian dualistic model, tending to think that somewhere inside our brain is some kind of sophisticated control room where information streams in from everywhere via our senses and from the prior knowledge stored in our brains, and that in this room is some disembodied entity, the real ‘I’, who is a kind of commander-in-chief that views all this data, makes judgments, decides what to do, and then sends out commands that are executed by the body. This image of a command center, which Daniel Dennett calls the Cartesian Theater, is very powerful and hard to shake off.
As this series develops, we will see this traditional idea of dualism and its associated concept of free will take quite a beating. This does not mean that people will abandon the idea. We know in the case of religion that the desire to believe in god is so strong that people cling tenaciously to that idea, creating all manner of convoluted theories to explain the absence of any evidence in its favor. The idea of free will is even more deeply engrained in us and thus harder to let go, so one should expect similar attempts at countering any evidence that free will may well turn out to be an illusion.
Next: The problems with the Cartesian model.