There are few things that arouse stronger reactions in people than the claim that free will is an illusion. When I used to run workshops for graduate students on how to critically read research papers, I would hand out a paper that discussed experiments that had evidence that seemed to show support for the idea that we did not have free will. (More on the nature of this evidence later.) The students would get into this exercise with gusto, as I knew they would, poring over the paper and analyzing the data and the reasoning to try to find flaws so that they could hold on to the idea that they had free will.
Why do we cling so tenaciously to the idea that we have free will? To even discus the idea we need to be clearer about what we even mean by the term ‘free will’, since there is some ambiguity there and many different definitions floating around. The usual free will model is that ‘I’ consciously make a decision to take some action (get up, pick up a pen, say something, etc.) and then carry it out. The word ‘will’ is not that problematic. We can assign it to the decision-making process that results in the command to be executed. It is the word ‘free’ that causes problems. Free of what, exactly? A belief in ‘free’ will says that the ‘I’ is not purely biologically driven and is in control of that part of the process and could just as easily have made a different decision (keep sitting, not pick up the pen, stay silent, etc.) and carried that out.
But who is this ‘I’ that initiates the process?
If you are a Cartesian dualist, you simply assume a distinction between mind and body in which the mind makes all the decisions and communicates them to the body. The mechanism by which this happens is not specified. Here is Rene Descartes on the topic.
“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 by Rene Descartes, p. 67)
On the other hand, if you are a thoroughgoing materialist, then the ‘I’ is just an integrated biological system, and the decisions (along with our consciousness and thoughts) are just the the results of the various parts of the body working according to the laws that govern them to arrive at the ‘decision’, with no metaphysical agency intervening in the process at any point. This means that the decision could not have been anything other than what it was and hence is not ‘free’ in the sense that ‘I’ could have made an alternative decision. There is no ‘ghost in the machine’ (to use a formulation by Gilbert Ryle) that can override the process. Believers in free will have to postulate some mechanism, not determined by our biology, that can override the biological processes that drive our consciousness, thoughts, and actions.
The difficulty of postulating such a mechanism while staying committed to the universal applicability of scientific laws is what has made an increasing number of people, especially scientists, come to the conclusion that free will is an illusion. Biologist Robert M. Sapolsky has concluded after decades of study of primates that there is no such thing a free will and has written a new book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.
After more than 40 years studying humans and other primates, Sapolsky has reached the conclusion that virtually all human behavior is as far beyond our conscious control as the convulsions of a seizure, the division of cells or the beating of our hearts.
This means accepting that a man who shoots into a crowd has no more control over his fate than the victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It means treating drunk drivers who barrel into pedestrians just like drivers who suffer a sudden heart attack and veer out of their lane.
“The world is really screwed up and made much, much more unfair by the fact that we reward people and punish people for things they have no control over,” Sapolsky said. “We’ve got no free will. Stop attributing stuff to us that isn’t there.”
Analyzing human behavior through the lens of any single discipline leaves room for the possibility that people choose their actions, he says. But after a long cross-disciplinary career, he feels it’s intellectually dishonest to write anything other than what he sees as the unavoidable conclusion: Free will is a myth, and the sooner we accept that, the more just our society will be.
Many people worry about what rejecting free will means for the justice system, fearing that it means that people can do what they like since they are not responsible for their actions. But there is a difference being and subject to consequences for our actions (which we still are), and being morally culpable (which we are not).
“Who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the sense that would make us truly deserving of praise and blame, punishment and reward,” said Gregg Caruso, a philosopher at SUNY Corning who read early drafts of the book. “I am in agreement with Sapolsky that life without belief in free will is not only possible but preferable.”
Caruso is co-director of the Justice Without Retribution Network, which advocates for an approach to criminal activity that prioritizes preventing future harm rather than assigning blame. Focusing on the causes of violent or antisocial behavior instead of fulfilling a desire for punishment, he said, “will allow us to adopt more humane and effective practices and policies.”
Caruso presented some very cogent arguments in his favor in a written debate he had with Daniel Dennett that I wrote about a few years ago. Caruso says that free will skeptics do not deny that there may be good reasons for retaining punishments but they do say that the retributive motivation for punishments, that we punish people because they deserve it, are not valid. He says that who we are and what we become is largely dependent on the various forms of contingent events that occur as we grow up. But he says that punishments can “be justified by its role in incapacitating, rehabilitating and deterring offenders”.
A detailed and careful treatment of how the justice system should deal with the realization that we have no free will is provided by Anthony Cashmore. 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.” I like this definition because it focuses on the crucial question of the actual mechanism by which free will acts, rather than on our perceptions about the inevitability or otherwise of our actions.
As I said above, accepting that free will is an illusion is a difficult idea for many people to accept. It seems to carry heavy emotional costs.. But Francis Merson argues that it need not be so, and that taking a worldview without free will can provide many benefits.
Detailing the consolations of a clockwork Universe is not just an academic exercise. In my practice as a therapist, I’ve seen patients who adopt a deterministic worldview become more empathic, less angry, more socially conscious and less inclined to struggle needlessly against the vicissitudes of life. Rather than something to be feared, determinism could be personally, positively transformative for many. While it can be a hard pill to swallow, it may, once fully digested, result in a range of emotional benefits – like a kind of metaphysical Zoloft.
Recognising that people’s actions were predetermined can result in a much calmer reaction to perceived wrongdoing. Anger relies on the assumption that someone could have acted other than how they did (which is why angry people are so passionate about instructing you on what you could have done differently). However, when seen in the light of determinism, the assumptions of the angry mindset melt away like so much sorbet in the sun.
If people’s actions are not freely chosen, it doesn’t make sense to be angry at them – any more than it does to be angry at someone for anything outside their control, such as having green eyes, or the hiccups. This doesn’t imply that you can’t try to change the world, and occasionally even succeed. But if you are motivated by anger, you’re more likely to focus on punishing the perceived offender – often at your own expense – rather than on a useful prosocial outcome.
My problem with Merson’s paper is that he seems to be a believer in classical determinism, in the sense that everything is pre-ordained from the beginning of time and that hence everything is in principle predictable. But modern science tells us that the world is stochastic, that truly random events occur at the quantum level and hence the world is unpredictable. What we have is quantum determinism in which outcomes are still predictable but only in a statistical way. But that does not rescue free will since it still does not provide a way for our ‘will’ to control events.
Discussions about whether free will exists or not have gone back millennia and involved philosophers and religious scholars who tried to argue for and against on a priori grounds. Some still think that it is to these fields of study that we should turn to for arguments for and against free will. Kevin Drum, for example, thinks that free will is ‘mankind’s biggest myth’ but continues that “this is a very old religious and philosophical argument, and neither Sapolsky nor I are going to settle it. But we’re right.”
We can get an answer to this question but we should not look to religion or philosophy for it. Doing so ignores the most important developments which is that with the arrival of brain studies, this has now become an empirical question that can be answered by experiment. While the answer has implications for philosophy. religion, and the legal system, those areas are not the ones we need to look to to decide if free will exists or not. (Back in 2010, I wrote a 16-part series exploring the free will question in great detail, including the experiments that had been done to date.)
How can brain studies address this question? Belief in free will supposes that there is first a conscious decision that is made to take come action, and that is followed by the action. But if we can find some activity in the brain that an individual is unaware of but can be used to predict the conscious decision and action, then that will negate the foundation of free will. And indeed fMRI studies are revealing just that. Those studies found that patterns in brain activity predict what the person would decide to do five to ten seconds before they consciously made the decision. The predictions were not 100% accurate as yet but the key research was done by John-Dylan Haynes back in 2008 and developed further in 2015, and as the power and sophistication of the MRI machines improve, enabling researchers to focus on ever smaller regions of the brain, one can expect the accuracy of the predictions to increase.
Here is a talk given by Haynes in 2013 clearly explaining what they did.
Here is another talk by him given in 2014 where he goes further and says that the decision making process in the brain occurs up to seven seconds before we are conscious of making the decision. He also discusses the consequences for responsibility of actions.
Haynes says in the PNAS article that there are some signs that someone can veto a decision that has made but even that is limited and there is a point of no return beyond which one cannot change one’s mind.
Despite these developments, people still try to find a way to retain free will even if the decisions are being made are at the unconscious level prior to the person being aware of them. But those arguments are unconvincing, to me at least.
Giving up the idea of free will actually has few consequences for everyday life, other than requiring a rethinking of our motivations for punishing people for bad behavior and taking away feelings of guilt and moral failure for bad actions, even though we will still face repercussions from them. We cannot avoid acting as if we had free will, that we are making decisions and carrying them out. What alternative is there? Try being inert and waiting for the brain to tell you what to do. It will tell you but that will not be distinguishable from you thinking that you made that decision of your own free will.
As Isaac Beshevis Singer so aptly put it, “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”