Losing Faith in Free Will

Below is John Horgan's recent New York Times piece on free will, followed by some commentary and correspondence.  Since Horgan wasn't in a position to communicate all his thinking on this matter, our exchange is unfortunately a bit one-sided in my favor.  Nevertheless, it's worth presenting his thoughts as an example (typical, I suspect) of how people react to the threat of science to traditional notions of freedom and responsibility.  In my responses to the article and his brief notes, I attempt to disentangle and defuse his concerns, touching on many of the central issues, but to little avail.  Horgan is disturbed that his faith in libertarian free will is wavering, since he hasn't yet seen that such non-existent freedom isn't necessary to ground values, responsibility, or meaning.

More Than Good Intentions: Holding Fast to Faith in Free Will

by John Horgan, New York Times, December 31, 2002

When I woke this morning, I stared at the ceiling above my bed and wondered: to what extent will my rising really be an exercise of my free will? Let's say I got up right . . . now. Would my subjective decision be the cause? Or would computations unfolding in a subconscious neural netherworld actually set off the muscular twitches that slide me out of the bed, quietly, so as not to wake my wife, and propel me toward the door?

One of the risks of science journalism is that occasionally you encounter research that threatens something you cherish.

Free will is something I cherish. I can live with the idea of science killing off God. But free will? That's going too far. And yet a couple of books I've been reading lately have left me brooding over the possibility that free will is as much a myth as divine justice.

The chief offender is "The Illusion of Conscious Will," by Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard [reviewed by TWC]. What makes Dr. Wegner's critique more effective than others I've read over the years is that it is less philosophical than empirical, drawing heavily upon recent research in cognitive science and neurology.

Dr. Wegner also carries out his vivisection of free will with a disturbing cheerfulness, like a neurosurgeon joking as he cuts a patient's brain.

We think of will as a force, but actually, Dr. Wegner says, it is a feeling — "merely a feeling," as he puts it — of control over our actions. I think, "I'm going to get up now," and when I do a moment later, I credit that feeling with having been the instigating cause. But as we all know, correlation does not equal causation.

When neurologists make patients' limbs jerk by electrically zapping certain regions of their brains, the patients often insist they meant to move that arm, and they even invent reasons why. Neurologists call these erroneous, post hoc explanations confabulations, but Dr. Wegner prefers the catchier "intention inventions." He suggests that whenever we explain our acts as the outcome of our conscious choice, we are engaging in intention invention, because our actions actually stem from countless causes of which we are completely unaware.

He cites experiments in which subjects pushed a button whenever they chose while noting the time of their decision as displayed on a clock. The subjects took 0.2 seconds on average to push the button after they decided to do so. But an electroencephalograph monitoring their brain waves revealed that the subjects' brains generated a spike of brain activity 0.3 seconds before they decided to push the button.

The meaning of these widely debated findings, Dr. Wegner says, is that our conscious willing is an afterthought, which "kicks in at some point after the brain has already started preparing for the action."

Other research has indicated that the neural circuits underlying our conscious sensations of intention are distinct from the circuits that actually make our muscles move. This disconnect may explain why we so often fail to carry out our most adamant decisions. This morning, I may resolve to drink only one cup of coffee instead of two, or to take a long run through the woods. But I may do neither of these things (and chances are I won't).

Sometimes our intentions seem to be self-thwarting. The more I tell myself to go back to sleep instead of obsessing over free will, the wider awake I feel. Dr. Wegner attributes these situations to "ironic processes of mental control." Edgar Allan Poe's phrase "the imp of the perverse" even more vividly evokes that mischievous other we sense lurking within us.

Brain disorders can exacerbate experiences of this kind. Schizophrenics perceive their very thoughts as coming from malevolent external sources. Those who have lasting damage to the corpus callosum, a neural cable that transmits signals between the brain's hemispheres, may be afflicted with alien-hand syndrome.

They may end up, Dr. Wegner says, like Dr. Strangelove, whose left hand frantically tried to keep his right from jutting out in Nazi salutes.

Perfectly healthy people may lose their sense of control over actions their brains have clearly initiated. When we are hypnotized, playing with Ouija boards, or speaking in tongues, we may feel as though someone or something else is acting through us, whether a muse, ghost, devil, or deity. What all these examples imply is that the concept of a unified self, which is a necessary precondition for free will, is itself an illusion.

Dr. Wegner quotes Arthur C. Clarke's remark that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Because we cannot possibly understand how the fantastically complex machines in our skulls really work, Dr. Wegner says, we explain our behavior in terms of such silly, occult concepts as "the self" and "free will." Our belief in our personal identity and self-control does have its uses, Dr. Wegner grants; without it, "we might soon be wearing each other's underclothing."

Maybe I should lighten up and embrace my lack of free will and a self. That's what Dr. Susan Blackmore, a British psychologist and a practitioner of Zen, advises. In her book "The Meme Machine," she contends that our minds are really just bundles of memes, the beliefs and habits and predilections that we catch from one another like viruses. Take all of the memes out of a mind, and there is no self left to be free.

Once you realize you have no control over your destiny, says Dr. Blackmore, you will expend less energy regretting past decisions and fretting over future ones, and you will be more appreciative of the vital present. Be here now, and so on. In other words, true freedom comes from accepting there is no freedom.

Dr. Blackmore's reasoning strikes me as less spiritual than Orwellian. To me, choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Moreover, our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society.

Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a "God of the gaps," who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.

As I lay in bed this morning, however, my faith in free will wavered. Scanning my mind for something resembling will, I found a welter of roiling thoughts and antithoughts, a few of which transcended virtuality long enough for closer inspection. One thought was that, no matter what my intellect decides, I'm compelled to believe in free will.

Abruptly my body, no doubt bored with all this pointless cogitation, slipped out of bed, padded to the door, and closed it behind me.

Commentary and Correspondence

Topics covered in commentary: libertarian freedom as supernatural; fatalism; meaning; explanatory gaps; dualism; freedom compatible with causality; Horgan's bafflement; consciousness and freedom; reductionism, and mysterianism.

Tom Clark comments:

It's clear that the sort of free will Horgan has in mind here is what philosophers call *libertarian* free will, that of being in some sense an uncaused chooser, since only that sort of free will is threatened by advances in psychology and neuroscience.

Libertarian free will as supernatural

The title "Holding fast to faith in free will" says it all. Since libertarian free will virtually by definition can't be empirically substantiated, as something essentially supernatural it becomes an article of *faith* on the part of those who imagine it's necessary to secure morality and meaning. But I don't think it's necessary in the least; rather, it's an impediment to a deeper, scientifically consistent understanding of ourselves that would put morality and meaning on a more realistic, if currently unorthodox footing, that of being fully included in nature.


Horgan's gloss on Blackmore - "Once you realize you have no control over your destiny, says Dr. Blackmore... " - is mistaken and I doubt Blackmore ever put it this way (if she did, she's wrong). We don't lose control over our destiny without libertarian free will; rather, our capacity to bring about what we want - that is, to control outcomes - is *part* of our destiny. So there's no fall into fatalism or passivity implied by not having free will. Furthermore, being an uncaused chooser would add nothing to our causal powers as persons, since such a chooser would have no basis to act one way as opposed to another. (For analysis of these and other common misunderstandings about not having free will, see Encountering Naturalism.)


Horgan says that "To me, choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Moreover, our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society." All of what Horgan values here - meaning, ethics, morality, personal responsibility, and the vitality of life and society - remains intact in the absence of free will. Owen Flanagan makes a good case for this in his book, The Problem of the Soul (reviewed at http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/clark.html ) and Steven Pinker has likewise attacked the "ghost in the machine" as an unnecessary fiction in The Blank Slate. My work at www.naturalism.org leads to the same conclusion: we don't need a metaphysically special soul, will, or otherwise non-physical uncaused bit of agency to be responsible agents who can build an open, vital, moral society. (Whether we will or not, of course, is another question.)

Explanatory gaps

Horgan writes that "In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness." This defense of free will is doomed, since after all, science has a reliable tendency to close explanatory gaps - that's its mission. If, as Horgan implies, freedom, dignity, morality, and meaning all depend on such gaps (since it's such gaps that give us free will) this suggests that we should cease scientific research into consciousness immediately. But of course research will continue, explanatory gaps will close, and life will go on (perhaps improve, who knows?) after the mystery of consciousness is unraveled and it's accepted we don't have libertarian freedom.

Despite what I think are his errors, there's hope for Horgan, since he admits he finds his faith in free will wavering. He just needs to see the actual state of play in naturalism for him to let go altogether, not into passivity or meaninglessness, but into a full-fledged and scientifically validated connection with his world, himself, and others.

Horgan responds:

Thanks for your very thoughtful response to my little essay. I am a materialist like you, and I suspect our views aren't really far apart. I've read and appreciated the defense of a naturalistic defense of free will in Owen Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul (which I reviewed on Amazon) and Dennett's Elbow Room. I guess the biggest difference between me and them, and you, is that the more I think about it, the more I find myself totally baffled by what the concept of choice really implies for conventional notions of physical causality. No one I know of has really grappled with this issue in a satisfactory way. By the way, even Pinker, who IMHO has a grossly inflated view of science's capacity to explain the mind, says that free will is probably a mystery that will never be explained. I suspect he's right.


Thanks for your reply. I think it's important to be clear about what we mean by free will, since on your view so much depends on having it. If it's mysterious, then we should at least state precisely in what the mystery consists. In your Amazon review of Flanagan, you say that he "attacks a dualistic version [of free will] that assumes absolute freedom from physical causality-[that] is something of a straw man."


This puzzles me, since in your Times essay, it was clear (to me anyway) that it's a dualistic idea of free will that you're defending, in which case it isn't a straw man that Flanagan attacks. Only a dualistic, libertarian notion of freedom, one that requires that we are in some sense uncaused causers, is threatened by Wegner's work, and indeed many non-scientists and non-philosophers actually subscribe to such a notion. In your case, the dualism is expressed in the contrast you draw in the first paragraph between the subjective decision to get up versus the subconscious neural computations that might end up sliding you out of bed. If you believe, as you seem to, that these are two different things, that the conscious subjective decision that embodies free will must be categorically distinct from neural processes, then science is indeed a threat to the freedom you cherish if it shows they are in fact one thing, not two. To stake one's freedom on the self and its subjective decisions not being neurally instantiated is to suppose there's something non-physical about the self, in which case it seems to me you're committed to some sort of ontological dualism.

But there isn't any evidence, I don't think, for the proposition that conscious subjectivity is something categorically other than neural processes, even if we don't yet have a complete theory of consciousness in hand (although Michael Tye and Thomas Metzinger, imho, are rapidly closing in using representational accounts of subjectivity and qualia). If the self and its conscious decisions are in fact physical, then of course we don't have libertarian free will - our selves and decisions are fully caused processes that embody our personalities and capacity for rationality. But such selves can be integrated and coherent, and such decisions effective, without being anything over and above physically instantiated representations and functions.

Freedom compatible with causality

You go on to say in your Amazon review that "I believe that science undermines any meaningful concept of human choice, including the one that Flanagan articulates." If you believe this and you believe we have free will of some sort (given your essay, I'm not sure if you do or not), then you must believe there's a truth about human nature that transcends science. I'm wondering what this is, and if you have a made a positive case for it in any of your books.

The freedom I think we have that's consistent with science is the ability and opportunity to choose a course of action based on one's motives, the evidence of one's senses, and one's capacity to predict outcomes. We are free to choose to the extent we aren't coerced by other agents or handicapped by mental illness into doing what we don't want to do. This is a perfectly meaningful and vitally important concept of free choice that underlies our practice of holding rational, integrated agents accountable, but excusing those that aren't rational or that are coerced. And it's all the freedom we need to be moral, responsible, vital, pro-active, and the rest of what you claim free will underwrites. Any further freedom involving something non-physical, uncaused, or otherwise extra-scientific wouldn't add to our powers. For a concise statement of this thesis, see "Science and Freedom" in Free Inquiry, http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/clark_22_2.html.

Horgan's bafflement

You say that you find yourself "totally baffled by what the concept of choice really implies for conventional notions of physical causality." Well, what do you mean precisely by the concept of choice? If you pin it down, what is it, finally? In an entirely physical world, choice can't be anything inconsistent with the laws of physics, but that leaves open a vast space of possibilities exploitable by organisms such as ourselves that have capacities to predict and control outcomes in service to our desires, motives, concerns, and projects (see Dennett's forthcoming book, Freedom Evolves on this). Quantum uncertainty aside, this is all the deterministic unfolding of natural processes, but that's not a problem, since anything uncaused, non-physical, or non-deterministic wouldn't add to our causal powers. So, a naturalistic concept of choice has no implications for physical causality that should worry us, or visa versa. Or have I misunderstood your bafflement?

I pursue this at some length since you hold that most of what we value depends on having free will. If much depends on having it, much depends on getting clear about what we mean by it, and whether it's in fact the necessary basis for what we value. Otherwise people might end up confused and perhaps unnecessarily panicked or discouraged about not having a particular sort of freedom. It may be that this freedom is not only a chimera, but that even if it existed, it wouldn't help get us what we want.

Horgan follows up:

Re Pinker on free will, see p. 561 of How the Mind Works, in which Pinker basically arrives at a mysterian position on free will and consciousness.

As much as I'd like to, I can't really get into a full-bore discussion of free will now. You have obviously thought a lot about it and are committed to a particular position, while I'm just puzzled. You insist I'm a dualist. Maybe I am. But I don't think I am.

Anyway some quick final thoughts. Wegner, and of course Freud and many others, assert that we often do things for reasons of which we are totally unaware. This complicates free will immensely, without raising the issue of determinism. The point you seem to have missed is that the neural computations that push me out of bed in the morning usually have no conscious correlate!

I do believe that occasionally I consciously face genuine choices, and consciously act upon them after deliberation. Subaru, or Jeep? Stay mad at my wife, or buy her flowers? But there is an unbridgeable chasm between this psychological way of looking at the mind and science's descriptions of the brain as a physical entity ruled by electrochemical forces. Obviously my choices are physically instantiated, but knowing the physical instantiation tells you absolutely nothing about the choices, or how I'll choose. It's akin to the old saw about trying to understand Shakespeare through chemical analysis. You will surely insist that I'm just looking at things wrong, and the puzzle will go away if I see things as you do, but from my point of you it is you who sees things wrong if you aren't puzzled.

Clark wraps up:

Thanks for your Pinker reference, I’ll have a look.

Consciousness and freedom

It seems to me you’ve problematically intertwined the problems of free will and consciousness (the mind/body problem), when in fact they are separate issues in many respects.

We certainly become freer, in the sense of being able to assess and modify our motives in the light of higher-order goals, when we become conscious of why we act. But as you say, this is true whether or not behavior is determined, so it seems to me tangential to the classical philosophical problem of (libertarian) free will, which is, after all, the issue of whether we are uncaused causers or not.

It seems likely (to me, anyway) that consciousness will eventually be shown to be a largely deterministic function of highly integrated, widely distributed neural states and processes which represent aspects of the world in service to moment-to-moment, high level, goal-driven behavior (Cognition, Volume 79, Issue 1-2, April 2001, “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Consciousness,” edited by Stanislas Dehaene, also published as a book). Phenomenal consciousness is likely the content of such representations (Michael Tye’s Ten Problems of Consciousness). The subjective sense of self will likely turn out to be a sub-set of this representational activity, that which demarcates the organism and its projects from the rest of the world (Thomas Metzinger’s forthcoming book, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity).

If this turns out to be the case, then consciousness and the sense of self aren’t non-deterministic exemptions from natural causality that confer libertarian free will, but are simply characteristics of creatures that are complex, self-representing information processors. So the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes won’t be one that lines up with the free/unfree distinction (in the libertarian sense), which is why it shouldn’t trouble us that we find ourselves getting out of bed (or doing many mundane tasks) without having first consciously thought about it. When you make a genuine, conscious, deliberate choice, that’s just as deterministic a process as a thoughtless reflex. What makes it a genuine conscious choice is that it involves sensory and deliberative capacities that contribute representational content to consciousness, not that it is undetermined in some sense. What makes such choices free, in the naturalistic sense that’s compatible with causality and that can justify responsibility ascriptions, is that they not be coerced by other agents, and not be significantly compromised by deficits in rationality or by other mental/behavioral disorders. So consciousness and freedom are separate characteristics of choice that may or may not both be present in a given situation.


I don’t think the chasm you see between the psychological and scientific descriptions of mind is unbridgeable, in fact bridges are being built daily. Research into the physical instantiation of consciousness, e.g., the sorts of neural networks that subserve conscious decision-making, is already telling us a good deal about all sorts of modular capacities that figure in rationality, self-awareness, and goal-directed behavior, which is to say such research eventually will tell us how we choose as more or less rational systems. Of course it’s generally agreed that psychological, first-person descriptions of behavior in terms of reasons and motives will never be eliminated in favor of descriptions of cells and neural networks, since these two sorts of descriptions operate at different levels, making it impossible to interchange them in all contexts of prediction and control. But this is not to say that there is something ultimately or ontologically mysterious about conscious choice; it’s only to say that it involves high-level cybernetics that in practice defies precise prediction and control via physical level analysis.


So, finally, I’m still puzzled about your puzzlement. Not that consciousness and the mechanisms of choice aren’t still mysteries, but in my view they are tractable, solvable mysteries, whereas on your view there is some sort of in principle reason why they must remain unsolvable, and in that unsolvability we find, somehow, human freedom and dignity. I don’t think you’ve articulated that reason, at least in your Times free will piece and in this correspondence (I’ll consult your books for further clues, any pointers appreciated), nor do I think our freedom and dignity depends on the existence of scientific mysteries. But mysterianism certainly has strong and I think quasi-supernaturalistic appeal, so I expect you will find a good deal of sympathy for the notion of a freedom of the gaps.

TWC, January 2003

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