Free Will Roundup

Here's the latest, 2010 edition of Free Will Roundup, commentary on recent writings concerning free will. Please see the original introduction (2007) for background, but suffice it to say that attention to the issue of free will seems to be increasing as science continues to delve into the biological and neural depths of human nature. This is good news for the thorough-going naturalist, who would like to see interpersonal attitudes and social policy based on the empirical reality of who we are, not traditional myths about human causal exceptionalism.

2010 Free Will Roundup

Leveraging Harris: Making moral progress by denying free will

Sam Harris takes the lead in denying contra-causal free will, repudiating retribution

In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris devotes 10 pages (pp. 102-112) to debunking contra-causal free will and drawing out the progressive implications for our beliefs, attitudes and social practices. This is a most welcome development since Harris commands a wide readership and considerable respect (although by no means universal agreement) among atheists, humanists, skeptics and freethinkers. Such readers are among those most likely to be receptive to the thesis – radical from the traditional dualistic religious perspective, but a scientific commonplace – that we aren’t causal exceptions to nature. The Naturalism.Org has long been promoting the challenge to the soul and its supernatural freedom as a science-based route to more effective and compassionate interpersonal relations and social policies, so we’re very pleased that Harris takes up this challenge so forcefully. Having dispatched the Big God of the major Abrahamic religions in The End of Faith, the little god of free will is a next logical target.

Harris rightly and crucially points out that there are viable conceptions of moral responsibility and moral judgment that survive the death of the little god. Wrongful acts are still wrong and condemnable in a world where their perpetrators are fully caused, and we are justified in holding perpetrators responsible since doing so is essential for an ordered society. But this essentially consequentialist notion of responsibility has major implications since it calls into question what Harris calls “the logic of retribution.” As he puts it:

Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others. But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas and bad luck – which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being stands as author to his own genes or own upbringing, and yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character throughout his life. Our system of justice should reflect our understanding that each of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life…The urge for retribution…seems to depend upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior. (109)

Harris also makes a broader point, connecting a naturalistic understanding of ourselves to compassion:

Despite our attachment to the notion of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity – and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics. It seems to me that few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. (110)

Harris acknowledges the strength of the retributive impulse – a natural endowment present in all of us to greater or lesser extent – and speculates about how it can best be managed in a future culture, one fully cognizant of the causes and cures of evil. Might we continue to punish perpetrators simply to satisfy the thirst for retribution? From a humanitarian standpoint let’s hope not, since once that thirst no longer serves its original social function, now taken over by prevention and rehabilitation, its satisfaction simply imposes unnecessary suffering. Harris again: “…it seems quite clear that the retributive impulse, based on the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion, and perpetuates a moral one.”

By making the connection between causation and compassion explicit, especially in the domain of criminal justice, Harris joins other progressive naturalists such as Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, Derk Pereboom, Will Provine, William S. Robinson, and Bruce Waller, who see a revolution in the offing in how we fundamentally think about ourselves and therefore how we should treat one another.

Of course, not all naturalists are so sanguine about this prospect or see it as moral progress. Some, perhaps even a majority, are still in the retributivist camp (why so isn't clear, see the criminal justice page at Naturalism.Org). In between are those such as Daniel Dennett, who has long been wary of any revolution in criminal justice that substitutes cures for punishment, saying that “A world without punishment is not a world any of us would want to live in” (quoted here). However, in his seminar on free will he’s been developing a strictly consequentialist conception of moral desert, the logic of which suggests (at least to me) that were effective non-punitive alternatives to punishment available that fully respected human rights and personal autonomy, he might prefer them. I hope someday Dennett will take on retributivists such as Stephen Morse and Michael Moore, who still suppose punishing offenders is an intrinsic good whether or not any social benefit accrues. Were he to join Harris, Dawkins and other progressive naturalists in openly repudiating retribution, and unabashedly championing compassion (somewhat unfashionable for tough-minded philosopher-scientists), the humanistic revolution in our responsibility practices could really pick up steam.

That revolution might also entail a rethinking of how naturalists, including the new atheists, deploy contempt and derision when conducting their campaigns for rational enlightenment. Seeing that the irrational and faith-based opposition is fully caused to be (sometimes, as are we) oblivious and obtuse, we can’t suppose they deserve contempt the way they would were they self-created. There but for circumstances go we. So we might wonder whether, if derision isn’t deserved, it actually works in winning converts to naturalism. To find out, we can ask newly minted naturalists what brought them into the fold, perhaps a project for experimental philosophers or worldview psychologists.

The science-based claim that human beings are fully a function of their bio-psycho-social circumstances, not ultimately self-made, is itself likely to become a major focus of the debate between liberals and conservatives. Liberals, more aligned with science than conservatives, and more predisposed to forgiveness and compassion (hence “bleeding hearts”), will find it easier to stand down from the pedestal of human causal exceptionalism. Conservatives, by nature more inclined to resist change and less open to experience, will cling tighter to the received myth of contra-causal freedom. They won’t easily admit that their conservatism is a contingent function of their formative circumstances, that they would have grown up liberal but for the luck of the draw. Not seeing this, they will be less likely to forgive or tolerate liberals their faults. Liberals, understanding that conservatives are fully caused in their intolerance, will look for evidence-based, effective ways to pry them loose from belief in contra-causal free will. Another front on the culture wars invites your participation.

TWC, November 2010. Comments welcome here.

Scientific Skeptic Speaks Out

Re: Anthony Cashmore: The Lucretian swerve: the biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system

Writing for a special series of "inaugural articles" for the National Academy of Sciences, biologist Anthony R. Cashmore is refreshingly candid in denying we have libertarian or contra-causal free will. He argues at length that his fellow biologists have been too reticent in this regard: they should repudiate free will just as vehemently and publicly as they repudiate vitalism. Even better, he draws out the positive social consequences of questioning contra-causal agency: "I propose that the time is opportune for society to reevaluate our thinking concerning the concept of free will, as well as the policies of the criminal justice system." Citing Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, he recommends that the criminal law become less retributive, and concludes that we'd be better off in general recognizing that we don't escape cause and effect: "Many believe that the consequences of a society lacking free will would be disastrous. In contrast, I argue that we do not necessarily need to be pessimistic about confronting a world lacking free will. Indeed, it is quite possible that progress in some of the more vexing sociological problems may be better achieved once we clarify our thinking concerning the concepts of free will and fault." Exactly right, so Cashmore and NAS are to be congratulated for their willingness to take on a central cultural shibboleth and point out the positive consequences of doing so, all of which is very heartening for progressive naturalists. However, Cashmore's presentation contains some errors that crop up occasionally in debunkings of free will. It's important that these be corrected, otherwise people might end up misunderstanding the implications of naturalizing the self. But overall his thesis is very much on the mark, an important milestone in the public debate about our fundamental nature.

Morality is alive and well

Cashmore goes astray in saying that when we deny free will we must also accept that moral responsibility is impossible. He agrees with Christian De Duve that "if free will does not exist, there can be no responsibility, and the structure of human societies must be revised.” While it's true that our conception of moral responsibility might very well change, and some social structures and responsibility practices along with it, it isn't true that responsibility disappears absent contra-causal freedom. We remain agents who know right from wrong, who can learn to behave ethically, and who are sensitive to moral judgments. We are therefore full-fledged participants in a moral community who can and must be held responsible. None of this depends on having free will (see here). So in denying we are contra-causal agents naturalism is no threat to morality; it need not be feared as morally destabilizing. Quite the reverse, since it shows why our responsibility practices actually work.

Don't forget the agent!

Cashmore asks: "If our genes and environment govern our actions, does this mean that our behavior is deterministic?" He goes on to speculate that there might be irreducibly random processes involved in our behavior, and rightly concludes that if there are, this doesn't help make us responsible. But look again at the first part of his question. Although Cashmore seems to think so, it isn't the case that our genes and environment govern our actions. We govern our actions. It's vitally important not to leave the causally effective agent out of the picture when explaining choices and behavior. Although we're fully caused creatures (and not being fully caused wouldn't buy us anything), we're just as real and causally powerful as our genetic and environmental antecedents, a point that's routinely overlooked in worries about determinism (see here and here). Forgetting that we have causal powers leads directly to fatalism, which in turn leads people to suppose we have to be uncaused causers to be causally effective - a manifestly destructive and disempowering falsehood.

Consciousness dethroned

My last, less consequential and more speculative complaint about Cashmore's analysis is that he wants to hold out hope that consciousness is causally effective in controlling behavior. Even though his own physicalist account of action pretty much marginalizes consciousness, he feels duty bound to find something for it to do, since after all, it evolved, right? Actually not. What evolved were the neural correlates of consciousness, which seem to be necessary for the sort of cognition and action control that makes possible flexible and novel behavior at the human level (and at lower levels too, no doubt, like that of our primate cousins). Consciousness itself may be a side-effect, for it isn't at all clear that, considered as something non-identical to its neural correlates, it adds anything to cognition and action control. If consciousness is identical to its correlates, then it obviously has the same causal powers, so doesn't add anything extra. But if it isn't identical, then the problem of dualist mental causation has to be solved: how does something categorically non-physical feed into and influence the brain and body's physical behavior-control network? There are no viable science-based solutions  on offer. Cashmore says: "...there must be a mechanism by which consciousness does influence behavior. There must be a flow of information from consciousness to neural activity." But he doesn't suggest what it might be. This is best explained by the hypothesis that there is no such mechanism, and that consciousness doesn't and can't play a role in 3rd person explanations of action, strange as that might sound (see here).

The significance of free will skepticism. Since he thinks consciousness must have a function, that it gave a selective advantage to creatures possessing it, he speculates that the advantage is that it "confers the illusion of responsibility." But of course we don't need the illusion of responsibility, since we already are responsible agents in all the ways that make morality and a stable society possible. If Cashmore dropped the idea that consciousness must have a function, then he wouldn't dally at all with "free will illusionism," the idea championed by philosopher Saul Smilansky and others (such as psychologists Roy Baumeister, see here, and Jonathan Schooler & Kathleen Vohs, see here), that the illusion of contra-causal free will must be preserved if we are to have a stable society.

Fortunately, he doesn't dally long, since in the end he comes out forcefully in favor of exposing the logical incoherence and empirical emptiness of contra-causal agency:

A belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs. Indeed, I would argue that free will makes “logical sense,” as long as one has the luxury of the “causal magic” of religion. Neither religious beliefs, nor a belief in free will, comply with the laws of the physical world. However, despite this similarity, although in scientific circles a skeptical viewpoint is very common regarding religious forces and their day-to-day impact on biological systems, it is my observation that similar skepticism is not widely held regarding a belief in free will.

If the existence of free will is so widely accepted and has strong survival value, then why would we want to change it? Because, as a consequence of the advance in our understanding of the molecular basis of human behavior, it will become increasingly difficult to entertain this fallacy that currently has such a strong influence in the way we govern society. As [Francis] Crick has written in reference to the relationship between human values and scientific knowledge, “To construct a New System of the World we need both inspiration and imagination, but imagination building on flawed foundations will, in the long run, fail to satisfy. Dream as we may, reality knocks relentlessly at the door. Even if perceived reality is largely a construct of our brains, it has to chime with the real world or eventually we grow dissatisfied with it."

Of course the other reason we might want to change beliefs in free will is because it has socially beneficial consequences, which Cashmore goes on to discuss in the context of criminal justice. So as he recommends, we should foster skepticism about free will just as atheists have fostered it about God. In doing so, we stay true to science and we discover our better natures. By taking on free will, Cashmore is on the enlightened cutting edge of cultural change. Let's hope his fellow biologists and scientists have the courage to follow his example.

TWC, April 2010

Knights Templeton on Quest for Causa Sui

Re: Do we have free will? FSU philosopher awarded 4.4M grant to find out

The existence of free will is perhaps only second to the existence of God as a concern among those who believe science threatens human meaning and values. Just as scientific explanations of the origins of human beings obviate the necessity of invoking a creator, so too scientific explanations of human behavior obviate the necessity of invoking some special human capacity for choice that transcends cause and effect. This is worrisome for those invested in the idea that to be dignified, moral, and effective agents, we must transcend natural laws in some respect. If we are fully caused, not ultimately self-caused, then some traditional notions of agency and responsibility might go by the boards, perhaps a very unwelcome development. So there’s a strong incentive for some anti-naturalists about human agency to defend contra-causal or libertarian free will, the idea that in any actual situation that transpired, you could have acted otherwise but chose not to. This sort of freedom is likely not available to the naturalist, who finds no evidence that we are uncaused causers and who holds that ultimate self-causation (being causa sui) is logically incoherent. Libertarian free will is, therefore, plausibly construed as a supernatural freedom, even though a small minority of naturalist philosophers still try to defend it (see here about one).

Enter the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). Well known for awarding the annual Templeton Prize for making "an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension," JTF has initiated a 4.4 million dollar, four year project for research on free will (the project website is here). The principle investigator is Alfred Mele of Florida State University, well respected in the philosophical community for his contributions to the free will literature, including his recent book Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will. It is likely that Mele will provide steady, expert guidance, but the press release announcing the project gave strong hints that JTF is biased against reaching the naturalistic conclusion that we don’t have contra-causal free will. Why? Because it would be a dangerous conclusion. The release, titled “Do we have free will? FSU philosopher awarded 4.4 million dollar grant to find out," says:

The ramifications [of the research] could have significant societal impacts.

"If we eventually discover that we don't have free will, the news will come out and we can predict that people's behavior will get worse as a consequence," Mele said. "We should have plans in place for how to deal with that news."

His prediction about the degeneration of people's behavior is based on experiments in which psychologists induced a disbelief in free will among study participants to find out how that disbelief would affect their behavior. It wasn't pretty: When participants believed they had no control over their actions — and therefore presumably felt they were not responsible for their behavior — they cheated and were more aggressive.

Although it isn’t impossible that Mele and his fellow researchers will conclude we aren’t causal exceptions to nature, given these prognostications and the strong religious-dualist orientation of JTF, it’s a safe bet that the research will keep libertarian hopes alive.  

How do we know that it’s libertarian free will that’s at stake in the mind of JTF and Mele, and not the compatibilist variety, which doesn’t require the agent transcend causation?  First, the press release starts as follows: “Since the beginning of time, philosophers, scientists and theologians have sought to find out whether human beings have free will or whether other forces are at work to control our actions, decisions and choices.” The free will in question here contrasts with being at the mercy of general deterministic causation (“other forces”), not with being coerced by other agents. Libertarian free will is just that which metaphysically transcends determinism and causation, whereas compatibilist free will only requires, among other everyday things, that we act of our own reasons-responsive volition, free from coercion by others (e.g., no one's holding a gun to your head). We need not be free from causation in any respect to have compatibilist free will. So from the outset the press release seems to suggest it’s libertarian freedom that’s the object of concern and focus of research.

Second, those conducting the experiments cited by Mele as undermining beliefs in free will take the threat to be determinism, so the sort of free will they have in mind is clearly libertarian. Consider the title of a widely cited paper by Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler: “The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating” (emphasis added). In it they say “If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.” In another paper they write “Having one’s traditional understanding of free will disturbed by the determinist argument seems to encourage a form of moral laxity. Contrary to the view that discussions of free will are largely academic, this work suggests that the belief in free will, be it justified or mistaken, affects behavior.” This makes it clear that Mele’s prediction of moral breakdown derives from research which involved undermining belief in libertarian free will. This supernatural freedom is the likely focus of concern to JTF, not the freedom of simply acting on one’s own recognizance, which it wouldn’t take a $4.4M investigation to establish.

Third, Mele himself provides evidence that libertarian free will is the focus of his concern. In a talk for Big Think, Mele distinguishes two sorts of free will, one of which he calls “regular.” This is good old compatibilist free will, which all sane people have once they reach the age of reason:

 …regular free will would be the sort of thing that is presupposed in courts of law when somebody is judged guilty of an offense. So, just that you understood what you were doing, you’re sane and rational, and nobody was forcing, or compelling you to do it, and you didn’t have any medical condition that forced or compelled you to do it. That would be enough to be acting freely. Now, that’s regular free will.

The other sort of free will (“mid-grade” as opposed to regular, on Mele’s gas station analogy) is libertarian: being able to do otherwise given the exact conditions that obtain at the moment of the actual choice. It isn’t at all clear that human beings have such freedom. Mele says about this:

…if we’re going to have it, then the brain has to work in such a way that everything being the same up until a given point in time, although I did one thing, I decided to call a taxi. I could have decided to take the subway. And we don’t have good evidence that the brain does work that way, but also, we don’t have good evidence that it doesn’t. Right? So, this is a question that is empirically open. And it could turn out that the brain doesn’t work this way, and then if it doesn’t, then we’re not going to have free will at this mid grade level, but we could still have regular free will…. So, I’m convinced we have regular free will, [but] the mid-grade thing, I’m not convinced we have because we don’t have the empirical evidence that we need. But we don’t have it [the evidence] either way.

So although Mele is properly skeptical about libertarian freedom given the lack of evidence for it thus far, he’s keeping an open mind since he supposes its existence is an open empirical question. This, along with the other two considerations I’ve adduced, pretty much clinches the case that a central focus of the JTF/FSU free will project is to determine whether or not we are libertarian agents.

Some questions arise. First, given the JTF bias toward the supernatural and Mele’s belief that belief in libertarian free will is essential to avoid widespread demoralization, is it possible for them to conduct unbiased philo-scientific investigation into the existence of libertarian freedom? After all, it would be much easier to maintain belief in such freedom if we actually had it. Well, it isn’t impossible to set such bias aside, and of course raising this question in public will help keep them honest. Second, if the findings aren’t favorable for libertarians, will they be made known? Since Mele, Vohs, Schooler and others such as philosopher Saul Smilansky and psychologist Roy Baumeister predict that demoralization might well ensue if people believe we don’t have contra-causal free will (I argue here they are mistaken about this), they are obviously motivated not to publicize such findings. Nor would JTF, hoping to reconcile science and the supernatural, want such disappointing news disseminated. But such reticence would be antithetical to good science and philosophy, which depend on being open to public scrutiny and debate. To overcome this suspicion, I hope Mele and JTF will strive for transparency in making known their research methods and results.

A third question relates to Mele’s investigation itself: what sorts of findings about the brain would suggest that it has a capacity to make contra-causal choices? Libertarian freedom asks a lot: it requires that given the complete and total macro- and microscopic situation, including the agent herself, she could have done otherwise but for some reason did not. If the total situation contains that reason, to specify it would necessarily limit the contra-causal freedom of the agent by showing why a particular choice was made. If the situation doesn't contain that reason, then the choice is in some sense arbitrary and inexplicable. It seems likely that further research into the brain will show why particular choices are made, not that the same exact brain state in the same exact conditions could produce two or more different choices, something difficult, perhaps impossible to test for. One thing that won’t help is to discover that random processes in the brain play significant roles in choosing, since randomness can’t confer responsibility, it only defeats determinism. So those of us tracking the JTF/FSU free will project are very curious to hear about the preliminary hypotheses that will presumably guide researchers looking for libertarian free will in the brain.

JTF would of course love to have it turn out that scientists, perhaps with the (oft-annoying, usually unasked for) help of philosophers, find some sort of causa sui in or near the brain that establishes us as little gods, made in the image of Big God. Such a discovery would support one traditional Christian hypothesis about human nature that many in the fold fervently hope will prevail over naturalistic hypotheses (see here, here, here and here). This possibility, although far-fetched by my lights since it asks for a scientific description and explanation of a seemingly supernatural power, can’t be dogmatically ruled out in advance. Mele and his JTF-funded cohorts – Knights Templeton – are being sent forth in hopes of finding the causa sui. Should they be successful, naturalists such as myself will be proven wrong, either about the existence of the supernatural or about the naturalistic basis for contra-causal free will. But neither is very likely, so the probable outcome will be a call for more research. After all, proving categorically that the brain isn’t a libertarian organ – what Mele says is required to rule out contra-causal free will – is an indefinitely open-ended project since imaginative libertarians can always generate new hypotheses that need testing. No matter, we wish him well and look forward to future papers and press releases as the research gets underway.

TWC, April 2010

2007 Free Will Roundup


Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece back in 2004 that “The great conflict between science and religion in the last century was over evolutionary biology. In this century, it will be over psychology, and the stakes are nothing less than our souls.” Coming on the heels of the new atheism, there’s a growing awareness of the other major thrust of a fully developed naturalism: the challenge to the soul (the “little god”) and its companion concept of contra-causal free will. Extending our skepticism about the supernatural inward to the psyche is the next logical step for the naturalistically inclined. Below is a roundup of some recent articles, some of which raise determinist anxieties, some of which argue that we can safely naturalize ourselves without losing anything but our illusions. True, this takes a bit of conceptual and psychological rejiggering and no doubt some will miss the soul, just as some miss god. But the challenge to these last vestiges of dualistic supernaturalism might serve as a tonic for jaded sensibilities, and those that consider themselves tough-minded will get to test their mettle. At the very least it will be fascinating to watch what’s been a largely academic debate about free will play out in the public arena. Optimistically, the growing awareness of our fully natural nature might bring with it a second enlightenment, a true coming of age as a species, aware of itself as one of nature’s more interesting experiments in conscious agenthood.   

A few questions to keep in mind when reading these pieces:

  • What is free will, anyway? There are different ideas about it floating around. Does the article disambiguate them and say which are at issue?

  • What’s the evidence for, and against, the sort(s) of free will under consideration?

  • What’s at stake?  Why does any of this matter? 

  • What are the implications, given the conclusions about free will?

New Scientist

In one of the clearest pieces on offer, neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland in “Do we have free will?” from New Scientist addresses all four questions. There’s one sort of free will we definitely don’t have, the uncaused variety, what philosophers call libertarian or contra-causal free will:

A rigid philosophical tradition claims that no choice is free unless it is uncaused; that is, unless the "will" is exercised independently of all causal influences - in a causal vacuum. In some unexplained fashion, the will - a thing that allegedly stands aloof from brain-based causality - makes an unconstrained choice. The problem is that choices are made by brains, and brains operate causally; that is, they go from one state to the next as a function of antecedent conditions. Moreover, though brains make decisions, there is no discrete brain structure or neural network which qualifies as "the will" let alone a neural structure operating in a causal vacuum. The unavoidable conclusion is that a philosophy dedicated to uncaused choice is as unrealistic as a philosophy dedicated to a flat Earth.

The significance of this of course relates to our notions of choice and responsibility:

As neuroscience uncovers [the]…mechanisms regulating choices and social behaviour, we cannot help but wonder whether anyone truly chooses anything ... As a result, profound questions about responsibility are inescapable, not just regarding criminal justice, but in the day-to-day business of life. Given that, I suggest that free will, as traditionally understood, needs modification.

Churchland’s proposal is to abandon the fruitless and illogical quest to find an uncaused causer, and instead take self-control as the basis for responsibility. This might give us, as she puts it, “a working concept of responsibility” that helps to maintain an orderly society. Healthy adults have neurologically-based capacities for self-control that allow them to be responsive to social norms, and it’s this that justifies holding them responsible. They exhibit “the neurobiological profile of a brain that has normal levels of control.” If this profile is significantly compromised by brain damage or disease, then we’re not dealing with a morally responsible agent. Note that there’s no causally free self that exerts control or is “in charge” in this picture – the person’s will isn’t free to choose itself. In fact, the will is reliably subject to control by social norms via reliable mechanisms in the brain.

So, what is the self, if it isn’t an uncaused soul? It’s a functionally necessary, phenomenally felt neural construction:

The brain constructs a range of make-sense-of-the-world neurotools; one is the future, one is the past and one is self. Does that mean my self is not real? On the contrary. It is every bit as real as the three-dimensional world we see, or the future we prepare for, or the past we remember. It is a tool tuned, in varying degrees, to the reality of brain and world; like other tools, it can malfunction, for example, in schizophrenia.

For those used to thinking of themselves as soul-essences, this way of being real might seem a tad insubstantial. But not to worry, the phenomenal sense of being a self doesn’t evaporate just because you know it’s a construction – it’s an extremely robust construction, so long as your brain stays intact. And this is a rather remarkable sort of thing, or rather process, to be. As Churchland puts it:

[T]he beauty, intricacy and sophistication of the neurobiological machine that makes me "me" is vastly more fascinating and infinitely more awesome than the philosophical conception of the brain-free soul that somehow, despite the laws of physics, exercises its free will in a causal vacuum.

Indeed. Abandoning the soul allows us to see that matter, properly organized, is capable of some pretty amazing tricks; we need not be mind-body or soul-brain dualists to keep our dignity. We’ll get along just fine as neurally instantiated selves, although we can’t at the moment avoid the limitations of being biological creatures.

About these limitations, in the same issue of New Scientist Paul Broks has written a lovely, evocative science fiction meditation on the possibilities for more durable instantiations of the self. The story serves to frame a useful survey of recent developments in consciousness studies. He suggests that some of our descendents might feel, irrationally perhaps, nostalgia for the bad old days of the perishable, brain-based isolated conscious self. Don’t miss this.

The Economist

In contrast to the naturalistic clarity and optimism of Churchland and Broks, a short piece in the December-January holiday issue of The Economist sows confusion about free will, tending toward moral panic. It suggests, rightly, that neuroscience is “emphasizing to a wider public that the brain really is just a mechanism, rather than a magician's box that is somehow outside the normal laws of cause and effect.” If we take a responsibility-entailing freedom to mean being exempt from causation, as the article says we ordinarily do, then the prospects are grim:

[S]cience will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making…Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

Such repercussions include, we are warned, the pre-emptive detention of those with personality disorders that increase the propensity for crime, and the heavy-handed regulation of addictive substances. Because people don’t have the contra-causal free will not to become criminals, or to refrain from making unhealthy choices to abuse drugs, junk food, or pornography, it’s OK for the state to prevent such behavior by any means necessary.

But of course this is a complete non-sequitur. That people are completely caused to behave as they do isn’t a justification for abrogating civil liberties. After all, the freedom of voluntary action – the basis for our very real political and social freedoms – still remains a paramount value we’ll want to protect from an authoritarian state, even though voluntary action itself is just as determined as anything else in nature. Precisely because we’re hard-wired to want our liberty, we don’t become passive pawns in the face of determinism. So the death of the soul and it’s supernatural free will is nothing to panic about, so long as we don’t confuse political freedom with contra-causal freedom, as this article unfortunately does.

The same issue of The Economist also includes “Who do you think you are? A ten page report on the brain” that starts here, well worth a look. Note the refreshingly physicalist assumption in their approach to the question of the self: it’s a report on the brain. This is good progress.

New York Times (Dennis Overbye)

As you probably know, Dennis Overbye in the New York Times science section wrote a wide-ranging and entertaining look at free will, quoting philosophers, physicists and psychologists. He does a creditable job of defining the libertarian, contra-causal conception of free will, and contrasts it with the “compatibilist” conception championed by Daniel Dennett and others, a free will compatible with determinism. As nearly all those quoted agree, the contra-causal conception – widely subscribed to by those outside the academy, most of whom are soul-brain dualists – is logically incoherent and empirically unwarranted, really just magical thinking. But even after it’s explained carefully, compatibilist free will leaves many feeling puzzled and unsatisfied, a “wretched subterfuge” Kant called it. Quoted by Overbye, William James agreed: many think that a real choice can’t be merely the “the dull rattling off of a [causal] chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” So whether or not people will migrate to a notion of free will that leaves determinism undefeated is an open question. (Philosophers are engaged in a hot debate, informed by socio-metric research, about what ordinary folk believe about free will and how that bears, if at all, on what we should believe; see here for instance.)

For those not taken with compatibilism, Overbye mentions two possible escape routes from determinism: quantum mechanics (QM) and emergence theory. QM theorists such as Henry Stapp and Stewart Hameroff say freedom is built into the very structure of reality as indeterministic micro-physics interacts with human consciousness. In contrast, emergence theorists say we’re free because at the level of complexity that results in consciousness, physical causation plays second fiddle to an individual's mental causation. But it seems unlikely that consciousness, which looks to be a function of macro-physical neural processes (not anything to do with QM), escapes being a fully determined phenomenon, even if it isn’t reducible to physics or chemistry (which it likely isn’t). Determinism holds reliably at many levels of description, including the mental level. And as philosopher Michael Silberstein rightly points out in Overbye’s piece, indeterministic randomness, for instance the QM variety, wouldn’t give us free will anyway.

What people seem to want, of course, is for the self to fully determine its choices, but not itself be fully determined, except by - itself! We want to be, as Dennett once put it, “moral levitators.” But ultimate self-creation is a logical impossibility, and proximate self-creation is a deterministic process, as far as we know. So things don’t look good for contra-causal free will and the soul, at least not if we stick with science and logic. But, getting to the implications of all this, need we “freak,” as Silberstein says we might, at the news we’re soul-less “meat machines”?

We need not. Although the debate about free will might well become another front in the culture wars, philosophers such as Churchland, Brok, Dennett and others are working hard to defuse determinist anxieties. We can still be morally responsible, and held responsible, without being causal exceptions to nature. There’s no threat to our political liberties that stems from being organic mechanisms instead of immaterial souls. Moreover, Overbye quotes none other than Albert Einstein to the effect that not believing in free will keeps people humble, and quotes Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner to the effect that we’ll become more cognizant of the actual causes of evil once we stop chalking it up to self-made monsters (speaking of Hitler, of course). Wegner also suggests we might become “a bit more focused on helping people change rather than paying them back for what they’ve done.” So the seemingly depressing prospect of jettisoning free will might have substantial practical and moral benefits.  In his response to readers, Overbye concurs, at least in one important respect: 

But contrary to what you might think, it isn’t necessarily a demotion to regard ourselves as meat machines. Rather it is an impressive illustration of just how awesome nature can be, and what untapped possibilities still exist in assemblages of atoms subject to those boring old laws that we denigrate as materialistic.

To which naturalists will respond: precisely!

New York Times (Maureen Dowd)

Last up, for dessert, New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Down riffs on free will and politics, referencing Overbye’s article. She wonders whether Bush, or anyone else for that matter, has free will, or are they just helpless puppets doomed to error:

Is the Decider freely choosing another huge blunder or is he taking instructions from his genetic and political coding, fearing that if he admits what a foul hash he’s made of Iraq, he’ll be labeled a wimp, as his dad was?


Iraq has become a snake pit of factions failing to escape fate. Shiites and Sunnis have been fighting and killing each other for about 1,400 years over who was the rightful heir to Muhammad, and yet the entire American high command was somehow taken aback that Shiites and Sunnis can’t muster the free will to keep their country from disintegrating.

And so on, with five or six more examples about whether we should hold free will or fate accountable for our current crises. Fate, of course, is really short-hand for cause and effect: we can understand that Bush will likely continue his folly because he’s afraid of looking like a wimp, because he’s been taught to think we must win in Iraq at all costs. That gives us control, potentially, since if we could find a way for Bush to save face, that might save lives. On the other hand, free will allows us to blame Bush in a way we otherwise couldn’t, and that has its ignoble attraction. We don’t have to share in the responsibility for Iraq - it’s all his fault.

However, chalking things up to free will has the major disadvantage that we’ll never understand why Bush chooses the way he does. If he evades determinism, then nothing, finally, determines or explains his choices. Likewise, supposing Shiites and Sunnis must choose of their own free will to stop fighting gives us no leverage at all, compared to admitting that there’s a full causal story to be told about their enmity. Understanding that story is key to resolving the conflict.

So, if we can put our determinist anxieties to rest, it’s clear that abandoning free will of the contra-causal, supernatural variety is to our advantage, both in gaining control and becoming more compassionate (on the assumption that’s a virtue). Let’s hope the meme of causal understanding becomes the vogue soon, to replace the disabling and demonizing dualism of the supernatural soul. It won’t give Maureen Dowd as much latitude for gossip, but that’s the price we must pay.

TWC, January 2007 


One journalist's slightly perplexed reaction to Overbye's article: "On the way to choosing: furniture and free will." 

A vehement defense of free will in response to Overbye: "Think again: free will and its deniers."