On free will-3: Free will and determinism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Defining what is meant by free will is not easy. In a loose sense it implies a denial of strict determinism, in which all our actions are completely determined by the past and the immediate environment we find ourselves in. The philosopher John Searle describes free will as the belief “that we could often have done otherwise than we in fact did.” In other words, although I am currently sitting at my desk typing, I think I could just as easily stand up and sing or hop around the room or do any other seemingly spontaneous act. My decision to not do so and continue typing seems like a conscious, freely chosen decision that is not entirely pre-ordained. The catch is that it is hard to reject the alternative hypothesis that all the options I considered were already determined by my history and the external stimuli of the moment, as was also my decision as to which option to choose.

Biologist Anthony Cashmore, in a recent paper (The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 9, 2010, vol. 107, no. 10, 4499-4504) that provided the Searle definition above, suggests a better definition of free will and is what I will use. He says that, “free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.” The reason I like this better is because it focuses on the crucial question of the actual mechanism by which free will acts, rather than on our subjective perceptions about the inevitability or otherwise of our actions.

The idea that we may not have free will in the classical sense, of being able to make decisions that are not entirely determined by our personal history and external factors, is very difficult to accept. Even biologists, who would have little trouble agreeing with the statement that all biological systems are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry, and indeed depend upon that belief for their research, tend to resist the necessary conclusion that this likely eliminates the possibility of an autonomous, independent non-biological free will.

Rejecting free will is harder than rejecting the idea of god because the idea that we are free and autonomous agents is so deeply ingrained into our psyche. Apart from the emotional impact that abandoning this idea entails, there are those who worry about the consequences of that realization. Would the rejection of free will mean that we can have no morality? If our decisions are not freely made, then how can we speak of right and wrong decisions? How can we assign responsibility for people’s actions? How can society punish people for breaking laws if their actions are not freely chosen? Would it not be like punishing someone who was forced to do something because of a gun pointed at his head?

My position is that in the long run it is better to know the truth than believe in fictions. If there is no free will, it is better to face up to it and devise social and legal systems that deal with the consequences than pretend otherwise. It is the same reasoning that causes me to reject the arguments that even if there is no god, it is better to maintain the fiction of god in order to frighten people into behaving better.

We need to look at what evidence there is for the existence of free will and also at how to deal with the consequences if we can show conclusively that it is a fiction. This is not a hypothetical philosophical exercise. There is already considerable evidence that free will as we know it does not exist and I think it is only a matter of time before it is conclusively shown to be the case. This realization will first occur in the scientific community as they are the ones more familiar with the evidence, and it will take longer for the general public to come to terms with it.

The early Greek philosophers were troubled by the implications for free will of the atomistic and mechanistic ideas that were current at that time. If everything in nature consisted (as they believed) of atoms in motion obeying unchanging laws, then everything that happened was just the playing out of pre-determined events. Cashmore quotes philosopher Daniel Dennett on what troubled the Epicureans:

If all movement is always interconnected, the new arising from the old in a determinate order—if the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect—what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?

Note the assumption (by the Epicureans and perhaps also Dennett) that free will must obviously exist. The problem for the Greeks was how to reconcile this with their atomistic model of nature in which all actions were determined by past events. To overcome this strict determinism, Lucretius proposed that what might happen is that occasionally atoms might execute ‘random swerves’, caused by the gods, and that was what broke the deterministic pattern of events.

To this day, most people who have an understanding of the science of the brain and appreciate the strong evidence that everything has a materialist basis, look for the modern equivalent of the ‘Lucretian swerve’ in order to salvage the notion of free will. Some still assign the cause of the swerve to the gods, others (as I will discuss in the next post in the series) to causes that have some kind of scientific veneer. But both seek some way of holding on to the idea of an entity that controls my material body on the basis of decisions that are freely made, and that this entity is the real me.

Next: Can physics rescue free will?


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    Thank you for calling attention to Cashmore’s article, which I had not seen before. While a number of philosophers hold a similar position, scientists tend to write much more clearly than philosophers (and sans tedious ruminations on what other philosophers have written) and so it is in this case. I especially enjoyed his remarks on implications for the criminal justice system. They are very close to my own thoughts on that subject; that all that would really be lost are 1) retributivism and 2) the inordinate influence of intellectually bankrupt psychological “experts”, and that these things are well lost.

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