Category Archives: Free Will

Will Transhumanism Lead to Greater Freedom?

(This articles was reprinted in Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July  26, 2014. Also reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, August 11, 2014.)

A friend emailed me to say that he believed that transhumanists should strive to be free, if free will doesn’t currently exist, or strive to be freer, if humans currently possess some small modicum of free will. He also suggested that becoming transhuman would expedite either process. In short he was claiming that transhumanists should desire more freedom.

I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I have not done much with the free will problem beyond teaching the issue in introductory philosophy courses over the years. I have also penned two brief summaries of the free will issue, “The Case Against Free Will,” which summarizes the modern scientific objections to the existence of free will, and “Freedom and Determinism,” which summarizes some positions and counter positions on the topic. But that is all, so my knowledge of the issue is rudimentary. I will note that by a wide margin, most contemporary philosophers are compatibilists; they believe that free will and determinism are compatible. Here are the stats: (compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.)

I am sympathetic with my friend’s thinking that transhumanists should want free will. Transhumanism is about overcoming all human limitations, including psychological ones, and I think psychological determinism is an obvious limitation. We are limited if we don’t have free will. (Yes, all these terms need to be carefully defined.) That makes sense to me, at least at first glance. If I can’t freely choose to desire psychological health or inner peace, or if I can’t desire to be transhuman, or explore new ideas or new types of consciousness, then I am limited. And transhumanists don’t believe in limitations.

If the majority of philosophers are correct that we now possess a bit of free will because we have highly complex brains—something that rocks, trees and worms don’t have—then why can’t more and better consciousness/intelligence make us more free? Perhaps consciousness and freedom are emergent properties of evolution. And if free will could emerge through natural selection, then why can’t we design ourselves or  robots superintelligences to be more free?

I think the problem comes in explaining how you do this. Designing yourself or robot to be free seems counter-intuitive. Maybe you have to increase the intelligence of system and freedom will naturally emerge. But it is hard to see how you implant say a moral chip in your brain that would make you more free. Still, as we become transhuman, freedom and consciousness will hopefully increase.

Perhaps there is even a connection between intelligence and freedom. Maybe more intelligence makes you freer because you have more choices—you know more and can do more. For example, if I am ultimately omniscient I can think anything, or if I’m omnipotent I can do anything. So as we evolve progressively toward transhuman and post-human states, our ability to make choices unconstrained by genes and environment will naturally increase. Why wouldn’t it, if we could bypass genes or choose environments? And yes I think to do all this would be a good thing. (An aside. We also aren’t truly free if we have to die, so defeating death would go a long way to making us freer.)

All of this raises questions that E. O. Wilson raised almost 40 years ago in the final chapter of On Human Nature. Where do we want to go as a species? What goals are desirable? As I’ve stated multiple times in this blog, we should move toward a reality with more knowledge, freedom, beauty, truth, goodness, and meaning; and away from a reality with more of their opposites. We should overcome all pain, suffering and death and create a heaven on earth. We have a long way to go, but that is the only worthwhile goal for beings worthy of existence.

Summary of Free Will vs. Determinism

The Determinist Argument  – (in its most simple form)

  • Actions are caused.
  • Caused actions aren’t free.
  • Actions aren’t free.

Response 1 – Libertarianism  – Challenges the first premise – some actions aren’t casually determined. Below are four brief arguments in defense of libertarianism and outlines of responses to those arguments.

  1. Argument from experience (we just know we have free will)
    Response – But that doesn’t mean we are right. Consider Delgado’s experiment. He tweaks your brain causing you act, but you think you freely did that thing.
  2. The universe is indeterministic – (things aren’t predictable at the quantum level; thus reality is indeterministic.) Response – At the micro level, the level of subatomic particles, this is true; but at the macro level, the level of your brain, this is irrelevant.
  3. We can’t predict our own acts (actions aren’t predictable in principle, and thus free)
    Response – Still, an ideal observer could predict your actions, determinism means predictable in principle or by an ideal observer.
  4. Argument from accountability (we are accountable, and that implies free will)
    Response – But how do we know our belief in accountability is justified? Because it’s “natural” to believe in accountability doesn’t mean we should believe in it.

Moreover, can libertarianism explain behaviors? Can it say something about why we act other than to say determinism is false? Can it offer a positive account of how we supposedly choose? It seems not. Libertarianism can’t explain how we make decisions without resorting to ghostly souls within, or by having faith that cause and effect don’t affect our brains. This doesn’t seem like much of an alternative to determinism.

Response 2 – Compatibilism – Challenges the second premise – Freedom doesn’t mean actions are uncaused, but that actions are uncoerced; freedom isn’t actions without causes, but actions caused by individuals. So actions can be caused, and still be free, says the compatibilist.

To better understand this consider that uncaused actions would be random, but random actions aren’t free actions. So free will requires that actions are caused! A person’s character, desires, thoughts, and intentions cause behavior. And the fact that we can predict someone’s behavior doesn’t mean they aren’t free. Just because I know what you’ll probably do doesn’t mean that you didn’t choose to do that thing freely.

Problem with Compatibilism

Compatibilists say that we are free if our actions are uncoerced. But are our actions ever uncoerced?  It seems not, since character, desires, thoughts, intentions, preferences, desires, etc. are all caused by forces beyond our control.

Ethics and free will – what are the implication of all this for ethics?

Deliberation – We still have goals—and take pleasure in achieving and pursuing them—even if we know we have them because of genes and environment. So it still makes sense to strive for things, and it still makes sense to deliberate.

Good and Bad – We can still think of some actions or people as good or bad. We can still say that torture is bad, and medical care is good. Even if we know why someone does the bad (good) things they do, the things they do are still bad (good).

Responsibility – But without free will, we aren’t responsible for our actions. Here we have two options. We could say:

1) Without free will one is not responsible – So let’s find out what’s wrong/right with people/cultures so that we can make them, and the world, better. Or we could say:

2) Without free will one is responsible – We might say that one is blameworthy if they have no excuses,  or praiseworthy if they have no credit-eliminating conditions.

Problem with #2 – But since no one set their initial conditions—our genome or environment—aren’t there always excuses or credit-eliminating conditions to appeal to? And if the answer is yes, then we should conclude that people don’t ultimately control either their thoughts or actions. And in that case, we shouldn’t hold them responsible.

All of this suggests that we should be empathic toward others and ourselves since we are all genomes in environments. This is one of the benefits of giving up a belief in free will. And this suggests we adopt therapeutic models of helping people. 

Final Thought – Despite the fact that we are largely the product of genes and environment, we are not rocks or plants.  Consciousness has emerged in the evolutionary process and perhaps, along with it, a modicum of what we call free choice has also emerged.

(This entry relied heavily on James and Stuart Rachels’ book: Problems from Philosophy.)

Leopold and Loeb and Free Will

Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00652, Nathan Leopold.png Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00652, Richard Loeb.png

Nathan Leopold                                        Richard Loeb

Nathan Leopold (1904 – 1971) was born in Chicago to a wealthy immigrant family and was a child prodigy who reportedly scored an intelligence quotient of 210.[4] At the time of the murder, he had already completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago with Phi Beta Kappa honors and planned to begin studies at Harvard Law School after a trip to Europe.[6] He reportedly had studied 15 languages and spoke at least five fluently,[7] and had achieved a measure of national recognition as an ornithologist.[6]

Richard Loeb (1905 – 1936) was also born in Chicago to the wealthy family.  Like Leopold, Loeb was exceptionally intelligent. Though he skipped several grades in school and became the University of Michigan‘s youngest graduate at age 17, he was described as “lazy”, “unmotivated”, and “obsessed with crime,” and spent most of his time reading detective novels.[6]

In 1924 Leopold and Loeb kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago. They committed the murder—at the time called “the crime of the century”[2]—as a demonstration of their perceived intellectual superiority, which they thought rendered them capable of carrying out a “perfect crime,” and absolved them of responsibility for their actions.

Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous trial attorney of all time, defended the young boys against the death penalty, arguing that the environment and biology had conspired against the boys, causing them to commit the crime. “Intelligent people now know that every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.” Arguing to save the boy’s lives, he spoke for more than 12 hours, saying:

I do not know what it was that made these boys do this mad act, but I do know there is a reason for it. I know they did not beget themselves. I know that any one of an infinite number of causes reaching back to the beginning might be working out in these boys’ minds, whom you are asked to hang in malice and in hatred and injustice, because someone in the past sinned against them.

Leopold and Loeb’s lives were spared.  Twelve years later, Loeb was attacked and killed by another prisoner, while Leopold spent 34 years behind bars, during which time he taught other prisoners, volunteered for malaria testing, ran the prison library, worked in the prison hospital, and ultimately learned to speak 27 languages! After his release, he moved to Puerto Rico where he earned a master’s degree, taught university classes, worked for urban renewal, did research in leprosy, was active in the Natural History Society, and published a book on birds.

But was Darrow correct that the boys didn’t commit their crimes freely? Here are a number of theories and ideas to support this claim.

Fatalism is the view that whatever will happen must happen because logic entails that the future is determined. Theologians have worried about the same problem regarding God’s foreknowledge and human free will. If the gods know the future, then we can’t be free. While fatalism isn’t particularly popular with professional philosophers, some have defended it vigorously.

Determinism is the view that every event has a cause. It says that effects are the results of prior causes such that, given the cause, the effect will follow. The entire universe seems governed by cause and effect, and the universe includes our brains whose activity is caused by electrical signals, which are caused by prior electrical activity, ad infinitum. The immediate causes of our behaviors are events in the brain, and we know that stimulating the brain in various places we can make someone experience different things.

We can also make people act in certain ways by stimulating their brains, and they will experience the subsequent physical movements as natural. Moreover, when human brains are stimulated, people offer reasons why they subsequently moved their bodies. So it seems our decisions are determined too. And someone watching your brain scan sees the pattern that will result in your action, not only before you perform the action, but before you decide to perform the act. This is evidence that your decisions are determined.

Not only do findings from the physical sciences count against our belief in free will, but so too does ordinary experience. Consider how much of what you do and believe is easily predictable by the conditions of your upbringing, culture, socio-economic group, genome, gender, etc. This suggests that you didn’t choose any of your behaviors and beliefs, but that they were largely determined for you by your genes and environment.

Moreover, the science of psychology has little use for the concept of free will when explaining human actions. For example, behaviorism posits that humans are easily conditioned by positive and negative reinforcement—rules of classical and operant conditioning are well-known to work with humans. Furthermore, experiments continually show that the conditions in which we find ourselves largely determine what we do. For example, in the Stanford prison experiment, we found that people can easily be turned into torturers. (Since this post was published questions have been raised about the experiment.) And the experiments of Milgram found that many people will administer a fatal electric shock to another because an authority figure asked them to.

So far we have placed the emphasis on the environment as the main factor that determines behavior. But there are also genes; there is biology. For example, we have found that identical twins are remarkably similar even if raised in completely different environments. Twins reared together are most alike; then twins reared apart; then siblings reared together, then siblings reared apart, then non-related kids reared together, then non-related kids reared apart. This is exactly what we should expect if genes and environment (plus random factors like genetic noise) determine behavior.

Moreover, we now know the connection between genes and: violence, alcoholism, impulsivity, OCD, depression, and more. When you combine genes and environment together it is hard to see how one is free. And even if we could resist the pull of biology and environment, the place for free will seems vanishingly small. Genes and environment seem to be an exhaustive explanation for human behavior. The more science learns about people, the less likely it seems that they have free will, at least in ways we usually imagine.