“I use freewill to mean we can choose to change the physical sequence of events in our brains. … If we don’t have genuine freewill, then we can’t choose”,
to which I responded with
“Regardless of where one stands on free will, we agree that we engage in something called ‘choosing’. This phenomenon is universal whether we think it is performed by a ghost in the machine or it is just another cog in the chain of prior causes.“
This thread of the discussion carried on a little longer without a mutual understanding and eventually ended with me saying that I would try to explain myself in a new post.
So here we are. I currently suspect that we do not have libertarian free will; that is, I doubt that there is an uncaused part of us which controls the act of choosing. This is not a certainty, but I am compelled by the evidence (and the lack of alternative evidence) that this is probably a correct description of reality. So, now that you have received this revelation, you may climb back in bed and curl up in a ball and wait for your death because you are just a cog in a chain of causes. You are no different than the computing device you are currently using. You are a powerless bag of molecules, a meat puppet dangling by the strings of chance. Upon believing that your choices are byproducts of everything else, you could, paradoxically, immediately succumb to a self-defeating fatalism or you could keep reading and take another path. What will you do? Is that even a meaningful question?
This post does not seek to argue whether or not we actually have libertarian free will. The point of this post is to consider the implications for our sense of freedom if we do not possess uncaused agency.
Wait. How do you explain our experience of choice?
Good question. Even though I have no intention here of making the case for an absence of libertarian free will, it is worth considering whether that situation is even possible. I would like to start by reflecting on some observations which are representative of things that we’ve all experienced at one time or another.
The other day the book I was reading included a comment that “…animals don’t seem to want to party, despite what we see in children’s cartoons like Madagascar.” About 30 minutes after reading that – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit – I found myself with the Katy Perry song “Firework” in my head. Upon recognizing this I was surprised, so I stewed on it a bit. This is not a song that I encounter frequently in my listening habits. When I stopped to think about this, a faint scene began to play in my mind. It was an animation of zoo animals performing circus acts. You see, about a week earlier, I spent a couple hours watching Madagascar 3 with my sons. Near the end of the movie, the main characters engage in an elaborate circus performance set to the music of – you guessed it – “Firework”. Unbeknownst to me, the reference to the Madagascar movie in the book I was reading had set in motion a network of activity, drawing on recent experience, that led to the production of a particular song in my head.
When I was a kid my brother would play the “made you flinch” game. It may be a stretch to call it a game, but the rules are basically this: at any time, you can go up to your sibling and act like you’re going to hit them and then stop short. If they react in a defensive way then you have license to actually hit them. Twice. By definition, a flinch is involuntary. After enough bruises you learn to remain vigilant and can suspend your reaction, but eventually you will be caught off-guard again. Control of the flinch is subject to awareness.
As a final example, we’re all well aware that repetition can train us to do things effortlessly and thoughtlessly even though these things required considerable conscious attention during the initial training. This includes actions like reading, riding a bike, driving a car, using a mouse, etc… Even simple math eventually becomes automatic. These well-trained processes seem to lie on the borderlands between the intentional and the unintentional, lying just below the level of consciousness and waffling in and out of our awareness. We sometimes catch ourselves unaware that we had done something, or are doing something.
As these examples show, it is possible for behavior and mental activity to arise outside of our immediate awareness and control. They do not run through the “free will” filter. If we acknowledge that this is possible then it seems reasonable to acknowledge the further possibility that choice itself, our apparent exercise of free will, restraint and deliberation, can also arise through causative factors outside of our awareness. Under this paradigm, we might say that choice is what happens when our brain deals with competing interests. Even choosing to get up and get a drink is in competition with a desire to conserve energy and stay where you are. We have a remarkable feedback system that can recall past experiences and forecast future experiences. These work themselves in to the choice equation and sometimes we can spend considerable time and energy in deliberation as the network keeps pulling up data on both sides of the tug-of-war and reconfiguring itself in response.
The insistence that we make choices independent of causative influence begs the question. It assumes that our identity is fully contained within a singular, unified, independent perspective; in short, a ghost in the machine. Yet, if we ask someone who has flinched whether they chose to flinch then they’re most likely going to say that it wasn’t a choice while at the same time agreeing that they acted. Likewise, we will not deny that it was us who performed automated tasks, even if we weren’t fully aware of what we were doing. So in some cases our action can come from some sort of involuntary aspect of our self. That is, we do not always disassociate our self identity from the actions which were not clearly “under our control”. If we accept that this is a part of who we are and that the line between voluntary and involuntary does not demarcate our identity, then I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice. Instead, our conception of the “self who chooses” must be revised so that it is consistent with the fact that we already include our involuntary self in our identity. We dispose of the idea that we are a singular, unified and independent soul and find that our identity is multifaceted, distributed and interdependent. Incidentally, a rare group of split-brain patients have offered us a fascinating window into how this works, as do patients who have experienced certain brain injuries (see blindsight, visual agnosia and hemispatial neglect). It appears that this distributed view of the self is the more accurate perspective.
You should believe that you can make choices
As demonstrated by the original quote at the top of this post, it is common to see claims that the rejection of libertarian free will is also the rejection of choice. I will address that claim further in the next section, but first I want to briefly review why you should believe that you – this new, complex, multifaceted you – can make choices. When we believe in free will:
- We are less likely to harm each other and more likely to help each other (Baumeister 2009).
- We are more likely to act fairly and show gratitude (Vohs 2008, MacKenzie 2014; though Zwaan failed to reproduce Vohs).
- We show less prejudice against predetermined group membership (Zhao 2014, and accordingly, we show more prejudice against chosen group membership – Brewer 2013).
- We are more likely to detect errors and invest in thought (Rigoni 2014, Rigoni 2013, Lynn 2013).
- We are less likely to succumb to impulses and more likely to exercise self-control (Rigoni 2012, Alquist 2013, Job 2010).
Given these results, the evidence seems to suggest that we prefer the versions of ourselves who believe in free will. The pragmatist follows by suggesting that the rational thing to do is to believe that we actually possess this freedom.
But I can’t just pretend for the benefits
I completely understand the objection and agree that in the short term we can’t choose our beliefs – but I’m also pretty sure that you don’t have to pretend. Even when you think you can give a reason for your choice we can always just ask why again, and keep asking why until you get to the point of saying “I don’t know”. Eventually you will get there, which means that as far as we can tell from pure introspection, there appears to be something unexplainable going on. This is where we find our “free will”.
It is possible that there actually is no prior cause at the bottom of this search but, as we have seen, it is also possible that the prior causes are simply elusive or inaccessible. If you disagree, please explain to me how this kind of experience would differ from the experience under libertarian free will. I don’t see a difference and, introspectively, we have nothing but our experience to go on. So, if our internal experience regularly lacks a fully formed understanding of causation and if we recognize that we can choose between options, why does it matter whether or not our choice is actually uncaused? Pragmatism takes over when explanations run dry and suggests that instead of looking at causes, we should look at effects. We feel a sense of control and operate with the experience of control and this results in outcomes which accord with our choice. Is this not sufficient?
From a purely experiential perspective, I make choices. If there is no libertarian free will then I may end up in bed, shut off from the outside world because all prior causes led to that condition. However, it is equally true that all prior causes may lead me to fight off the melancholy and seize the day. We don’t know which is the future path of the causal chain, yet we detect an ability to direct it. The internal experience is the same; our sense of freedom is present no matter what. This is all that matters when it comes to the choices we make. You needn’t sacrifice your freedom on the alter of fatalism. You have a choice.
If you have read this, and you find yourself agreeing with my conclusions, then it is possible that your experiences have now changed you so that you are more inclined to invoke your sense of free will. Ironically, you have just been externally caused to have a greater sense of freedom. Run with it.