What Is Free Will & Do We Have It?


My last two posts have been by professional philosophers discussing the perennial question of whether or not human free will exists. (I have also published summaries of the free will/determinism question here and here.) But I thought my readers might be interested in where I stand on the issue so here goes.

DISCLAIMER

I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I’m not an expert on the free will problem. I have not published in the area and teaching the issue in introductory philosophy classes does not imply expertise. Philosophers have debated the issue for centuries and some contemporary philosophers have written multiple books on the subject. By comparison, my views on the issue are shallow. Nonetheless, at the request of a regular reader, I’ll share my thoughts.

COMPATIBILISM

Quoting from Professor Houlgate’s post, for a compatibilist

“free will” simply means that there are no impediments to what I am doing. When the jailer says to the prisoner who has served his term, “You are now free to go” he means that there is no impediment to prevent the prisoner from walking out of the jail. The impediment is the jail cell.  The cell door is open.  The prisoner is free to go.

… [Furthermore] “You are free to go” is perfectly compatible with the claim that the prisoner’s choice to leave the jail is an event that has a sufficient causal explanation.

This is no more than a thumbnail sketch of compatibilism, as at a minimum we have to carefully define our terms as Professor Danaher tried to do in his essay. But note here that this conception of free will is limited, i.e., there is no “ghost in the machine” doing anything outside the laws of physics when we (apparently) make choices. But how can this be?

LIBET’S EXPERIMENTS

When I first started teaching free will I was strongly influenced by Libet’s experiments which suggest that unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, and free will therefore plays no part in their initiation. However, there have been many criticisms of that experiment. For example, the philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that no clear conclusion about volition can be derived from Libet’s experiments.

According to Dennett, ambiguities in the timings of the different events are involved. Libet tells when the readiness potential occurs objectively, using electrodes, but relies on the subject reporting the position of the hand of a clock to determine when the conscious decision was made. As Dennett points out, this is only a report of where it seems to the subject that various things come together, not of the objective time at which they actually occur.[69][70]

Or, as another philosopher put it,

At the neurophysiological level, it has not been shown convincingly that a neural ‘decision’ sufficient to cause the movement occurs before the time of awareness of the decision to move. Even if this could be shown, it would not undermine the conceptions of free will that are defended by most philosophers.

While the criticisms of Libet’s experiments don’t end the discussion, I’m now no longer convinced by those experiments.

NOT ALL KNEE JERK RESPONSES

Moreover while teaching the issue many arguments challenged my belief in hard determinism.

First, the behavior of a knee jerking after being hit by a small hammer or an iris contracting after being hit by a light is just different, according to Steven Pinker, than behavior

that engages vast amounts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes, that incorporates an enormous amount of information in the causation of the behavior, that has some mental model of the world, that can predict the consequences of possible behavior and select them on the basis of those consequences. All of those things carve out the realm of behavior that we call free will. Which it is useful to distinguish from brute involuntary reflexes, but which doesn’t necessarily have to involve some mysterious soul.

I always found this argument relatively compelling.

I’M NOT A ROCK

Moreover, I often thought “We just aren’t rocks!” Yes, we may be 99% determined, but we aren’t as determined by casual forces as rocks are. This just seems so intuitively plausible. Now I realize the danger of basing arguments on intuition, but still, I’m not a rock. I may be a machine but I’m a different kind of machine than a rock is.

Ok, but how about a dog or a chimp? Perhaps I’m more free than they are but they’re more free than rocks too. Or perhaps some humans are more free than others—say because of education for example that leaves them with more options about what to believe. So free will, like consciousness, is a gradient.

Now again none of this means that there is a little soul or ghost in my head outside the laws of physics. That is a ridiculous belief in the world revealed by modern science. So how then to better explain?

AN EMERGENT PROPERTY?

It may seem trite but the best I can do is to say what we call free will is an emergent property. Consciousness emerged in the evolutionary process and what we call free will  (which I think of as the ability to deliberate) emerged concurrently. When brains become sufficiently complex the whole takes on properties the part doesn’t possess. Again, this doesn’t mean that consciousness is supernatural or something magical beyond its parts but that those parts in a certain relationship or configuration possess properties that parts by themselves do not.

Or think of it this way. You and I are not just the water and the chemicals that make up our bodies. Nor or we just the atoms and molecules and ultimately sub-atomic particles that make up the water and chemicals. And we are not just these parts plus some ghost or soul that (somehow) has free will. We are all those parts in a certain configuration, a certain relationship. When you put all those neurons together in a certain way they take on properties that they don’t possess by themselves. And along with our evolved consciousness emerged the ability of the neurons to deliberate.

Nonetheless, I accept that most of what we do and think is relatively predictable. If I knew everything about someone’s genes and environment I could almost predict what they would think and do. I believe we have a tiny bit of what is usually called free will. And determinism is compatible with this narrow view of free will which means “not coerced.” I think genes and environment coerce us, but not completely.

LIVING AS IF WE ARE FREE

Let me also say that I live as if I make free choices. I don’t know what it would mean to live assuming that all of your choices are determined. So I go along assuming I’m making choices while recognizing that so much of what I do and believe is largely determined.

MOST PHILOSOPHERS ARE COMPATIBILISTS

Finally note that the question of free will (among others) was asked in a 2020 survey of almost 1800 academic philosophers, mainly from university departments in North America, Europe, and Australasia. The results:

Libertarian free will – 18.8%
Compatibilism – 59.2%
No free will – 11.2%
Other – 11.4%

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4 thoughts on “What Is Free Will & Do We Have It?

  1. ”At the neurophysiological level, it has not been shown convincingly that a neural ‘decision’ sufficient to cause the movement occurs ”.

    I am no ”expert” either, but I do remember watching a credible documentary about how, in certain instances, it has been proven that when we believe we made a choice, this impulse had been already given involuntarily. If I were starving, and someone showed me some delicious food that however I would be prevented from eating, I would probably react in ways I could not avoid. Perhaps I could even kill.

    Or take sexual impulses. If I see a beautiful woman, I am immediately attracted.

    Simple examples, but this stuff affects us all, at many levels. We practically build our lives around them.

    In this sense, we aren’t too different from rocks. We are rocks who can talk and think we aren’t rocks 🙂

    I don’t know all the technicalities about free will that have been developed during the last several decades, or even the last one and a half century, but my impression is simply this: the less trivial the decisions, and the stakes, the less power we have in controlling not only our free will, but anything at all.

    As for the ‘supernatural’ aspects or claims, I won’t even consider them. As it has been said, they are ridiculous. Stuff that simpletons believe.

    Thank you.

  2. Compatibleism appears sound to me, and, I guess it is valid in my life experience. Free will has been a compelling topic for a long time…just as consciousness itself remains a bug bear for philosophers and everyone else who tries to figure out how and why we do what we do; think what we think. I am, as an investment advisor told me years ago, comfortable with the position. Of course, I was gambling then—futures trading is a risk I would never again take. I lost a few thousand dollars and realized the futures trade was not for me. Thanks, Dr., and best wishes always.

  3. Hello John..
    Sorry to be so late in responding to your excellent review of the free will problem. I have two questions. First, when you say that the ability of the neurons to deliberate emerges from the water and chemicals that make up our bodies (along with our evolved consciousness), you are making an empirical judgement. As such, it requires proof/evidence. Are there any experiments that have been performed to show that this claim is true? If so, are the experiments similar to what happens when I make pancakes? I begin with flour, water, milk, egg, etc. and I end up with a mixture suitable for pouring on the griddle. The mixture is an observable simple chemical change. But even if there is evidence that the ability to deliberate emerges as a complex chemical soup, how does the determinist use it to prove that we have no free will when we walk, talk, eat, and do anything else that moves the body?
    Second, in the section where you say that “I live as if I make free choices,” my question is why don’t you come right out and say, “I make free choices.” I don’t like the “as if” part. It implies that you are pretending to live making free choices. For example, compare “I made a free choice when I bought my new car,” with “I pretended to make a free choice when I bought my new car,” or “I believe I made a free choice when I bought my new car, but I’m not sure that it was a free choice.”
    Finally, what I don’t like about determinist arguments to prove that we do not have free will is that they are using empirical observations and experiments to solve a philosophical problem. Philosophical problems are about concepts and their relationship to other concepts. As such, philosophy is not informative about the world (Gilbert Ryle). When we ask the question “Do we have free will” we are asking a question about the concept Free Will and that question can only be answered by an analysis of the concept as it is used by us in ordinary language, e.g. “Did you hand over your wallet to that man of your own free will, or did he force you to hand over your wallet?” Science has no role to play in this analysis.

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