My post yesterday on the coming death of free will generated some interesting comments, with some questioning what I meant by the term ‘free will’ and whether the descriptor of ‘free’ added anything to the discussion or merely confused it. So I thought I would clarify my stand and elaborate on what I think is going on.
All that I mean when I say I don’t have free will is that when I become aware that I am in the process of making a decision to do something, which is what we normally think of as an act of will freely made, that act has already been set in motion and all that is now happening is that I am becoming aware that the act will shortly take place. This applies even when we ‘change our minds’, something that we think of as the quintessential act of free will. If I decide to do something and at the last minute change my mind and do something else, that entire sequence was already set in motion before I became aware of it. So rather that ‘changing my mind’, it is better to say that my mind was changed and then later I became aware of it.
Thinking about whether we have free will can, at the best of times, quickly drag one into an infinite regression and this is what makes the idea so uncomfortable and discussions fraught with confusion. If I say that my decision to type these words was not consciously made but emerged from some subconscious part of my brain, then what about my decision to make the decision to type these words, and so on.
Part of the problem lies with using the word ‘decision’, since that alone implies an act of will by some agency. It is perhaps less confusing to think of ourselves (bodies and brains) as integral entities that respond to outside stimuli in ways that are determined by our personal histories. We are born and grow up to have the brains and bodies that we do. When we encounter some outside stimuli, we respond in particular ways that are determined by our bodies and the stimuli. Different people can respond in different ways to the same stimuli because they have different histories, though there is a lot of commonality because of our shared evolutionary history.
It is like a car in motion. When the driver presses on the accelerator the car speeds up. Because of the way the car is built (its history), pressing on the accelerator (the outside stimulus) causes it to speed up. A naïve person sitting in the rear seat who did not see the driver press the accelerator but senses the change in motion may be deluded into thinking that it was the car that ‘decided’ to speed up when all it was doing was responding to a stimulus. All cars will speed up when the accelerator is pressed because of the common history of the evolution of cars, but there will be variations in how quickly they respond.
So when I decide to make a cup of coffee in the morning, it is due to my history that has built up a repertoire of actions to respond to the various stimuli that are part of my daily routine. So in one sense “decisions are being made by my body”, but the passive phrasing is a more accurate representation of the reality than the active form of saying “I make decisions”. One can say that this is an act of will made by me and as long as we are clear that this is all that is implied, then there should be no confusion.
The reason that we seem to be somewhat unpredictable in our behavior is likely due to the complexity of the system that causes us to be sensitive to minute changes in external conditions. Infinitesimally small changes in the external stimuli may cause macroscopic changes in behavior that give us a sense of being spontaneous. I suspect (but do not know) that the complexity of our brain’s neural networks result in the equations governing their workings to be similar to that of weather systems in that they are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Waking up to a neighbor’s dog barking instead of the alarm clock may set in motion a different chain of neural events that cause me to make tea in the morning instead of my normal coffee. I may not make the connection to the different cause of waking and instead see this as a spontaneous act of will, simply because all the processes that went into ‘making my decision’ lay beneath the surface of my consciousness.
Because of the complexity of the neural system and the sensitivity to initial conditions, it seems unlikely, even with the increasing sophistication of fMRI techniques, that we will be able to detect and interpret brain patterns that enable us to predict behavior more than at best a few tens of seconds in advance, the way that weather predictions become highly unreliable when projected more than a few days ahead.
The interesting question (for me at least) is why, if we have no ‘free will’, we evolved to think we do. It may simply be a byproduct of the evolution of our tendency to think that there are active agents driving events. This does have an evolutionary advantage and is the same tendency that is thought to have originally created the idea of a supernatural power or god in order to explain natural events that seemed mysterious and capricious. As soon as we evolved to have a sophisticated level of consciousness, it would be natural to think that our actions were being driven by an agent and from there it is but a small step to invent the idea of a disembodied mind or a soul that thinks, makes decisions, and gives commands to our bodies.
This is all highly speculative of course. But once we realize that we are entirely material beings behaving according to the laws of nature, the idea of a nonmaterial entity being an integral part of us and yet acting independently of our bodies and giving orders to it makes little sense. Unless one abandons materialism and the laws of science, it seems hard to retain the idea of free will.