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Does free will exist, or is it merely an illusion? Think about it! Are we the authors of our own actions? The thinkers of our own thoughts? Or are we mere witnesses of our lives? Prisoners of the strict laws of cause and effect, with no room for freedom of choice? That's the question I want to tackle today. But before we start, please fill in this poll (for reasons which will become clear further on):
Now, you'd better sit down, as I'm about to convince￼ you that free will is really an illusion. Deep down, we are all moist robots. Nothing more, nothing less! Don't understand me wrong, we are magnificently complex robots, but robots nonetheless. In the great play that we call life, we are the puppets, and the laws of physics the puppeteer, pulling our strings in a deterministic fashion. Put simply, we have as much free will as a rock — which is to say none at all!
The problem of free will
I realise the boldness of such a statement. After all, I certainly feel like I have freedom of will. I feel in control of my own actions and decisions. I feel as if I'm shaping my own future. The more I gauge my thoughts and actions, the more I also feel as if I were inside my head, steering my own body, while peering at the outside world through my eyes. I feel like a ghost in the machine.
But is this really true? After all, where am "I" in my cranium? As far as I know, there's no lobe called "me" or "self".
So who's really behind the steering wheel? Who's in charge? Is it really "me", or could it be my genes, my upbringing, the biochemistry of my brain, the laws of physics?
Like all big questions, the problem of free will goes back to the early Greek philosophers, and it has haunted humankind ever since. A recent survey by the Scientific American showed that roughly 60% believes in free will. In another survey, that number went as high as 85%. And yet, paradoxically, modern physics and neuroscience suggest free will is really an illusion.
Defining free will
Now, before I unpack their arguments, let us be clear on what we mean by free will. I will take free will to reflect our ability to choose among a set of alternatives. When, for instance, I ordered a cappuccino this morning, I did so freely and consciously.
Of course, I could have chosen otherwise, and ordered a cup of tea instead. Which brings me to the second part of my definition. Free will implies that if I were to replay the tape of my life, I could have decided differently. To summarise: free will is our ability to choose, and to choose otherwise. With that settled, let us turn to the arguments against free will.
The demon of Laplace
The world according to modern physics is completely deterministic. Granted, there might be a sprinkle of indeterminism due to quantum mechanics, but let's set that aside for the moment. Now, in a fully deterministic Universe, the state of affairs right now determines the state of affairs at any later time:
One of the first physicists to realise this was Pierre-Simon marquis de Laplace (1749–1827). In a now famous thought experiment, Laplace asked his readers to imagine a vast intellect, since known as Laplace's demon. If the demon were to know the precise location and momentum of every atom in the entire Universe, and assuming that the "intellect was vast enough to submit these data to analysis, [...] then nothing would be uncertain, and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."
Such a deterministic worldview followed naturally from Newton's laws of motion. Newton too saw the Universe as a gigantic clockwork. Hugely complex, but utterly predictable.
On this view, every event in the Universe — be it past, present or future — is the result of a previous cause. It's really like a set of dominoes, stacked in one long row. As soon as the first domino tips over, it will cause the next in line to topple too, and so on. Nothing comes from nothing; all is predetermined by previous events. In exactly the same sense, Newton and Laplace believed that the entire history of the Universe had been engraved in stone since the dawn of time.
Now, since we are a product of Nature, just like everything else, we must be part of this great causal chain too. Everything we do therefore — from the motions of our bodies to the conversations we have with the people around us — must be determined by what happened billions of years ago. Life then is not a winding path whose final destination depends on the forks we choose; it's a straight railway track.
No free lunch
How can we reconcile this deterministic worldview with the idea of free will? How can we possibly break free from the causal chain of events? Clearly, free will doesn't comply with the laws of physics. If we're nothing more than a bag of molecules, which obey the laws of chemistry and physics, we can't "will" anything. In a world of cause and effect, there's no wiggle room for freedom, creativity or spontaneity. Our sense of agency and free will, therefore, must be an illusion! As Owen Jones put it: "Will is as free as lunch."
That's a hard pill to swallow. There's no denying in that. But if you take physics seriously, the conclusion seems inescapable. After all, free will implies that our brains can supersede or transcend the laws of physics; that we can "will" an event into being, without any prior causes, by living in some sort of causal vacuum. Such freedom of will would require entirely new laws of physics; laws which would have to break with the principle of causality.
Quantum mechanics to the rescue?
Some people have argued that the laws of quantum mechanics do just that, and that quantum mechanics has therefore reopened the door to the possibility of free will.
￼The reason is that quantum mechanics is inherently indeterministic. That's right, down at the subatomic layer of existence, in the realm of the microscopically small, determinism gives way for indeterminism, and events do occur at random, without any prior cause.
Consider, by way of example, a simple coin. Whereas the result of a coin flip is perfectly predictable in a classical world (at least to someone like Laplace's demon), this is no longer the case in the quantum world. The best quantum mechanics can do, is to assign a probability to each possible outcome. But which possibility will be actualised at any given throw is utterly unpredictable. When Einstein angrily opposed and exclaimed that "God does not play dice", Bohr bitterly responded: "Stop telling God what to do."
In summary: quantum mechanics teaches us that due to the inherent quantum fuzziness and uncertainty at the microscopic level, future events are no longer fully determined by past events. And this, many take, is sufficient to break free from the iron fist of causality and determinism and could restore our notion of free will. Here's Michio Kaku, arguing along exactly these lines:
To me, this is utter bollocks! I simply don't see how such an element of chance could restore free will. Randomness does not equal freedom. Whether my actions were programmed into the Universe from the moment of the Big Bang, or whether they depend on a random coin flip, in neither way am I in control or "willing" anything. Whether the world is deterministic, indeterministic, or both, free will is an idea ready for the dustbin.
Peering into the brain
Perhaps you're still not entirely convinced free will is a grand illusion? In that case, let us look at some of the mounting evidence from both psychology and the neurosciences.
It all began in the 1960s, when neuroscientists started to tackle the issue of free will head on — and quite literally so, as George Dvorsky remarked. After carefully monitoring our brain functions, this bunch of neuroscientists made a most disturbing observation: we all seem to be making our decisions long before we're consciously making them!
Take, by way of example, John-Dylan Haynes research of 2008. After putting his participants inside a brain scanner, he asked them to press a button with either their left or right index finger whenever they felt the urge to do so. Meanwhile, Haynes monitored their brain activity in real time via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and what he saw was shocking to say the least! As Haynes later told Nature News:
"The first thought we had was 'we have to check if this is real.' We came up with more sanity checks than I've ever seen in any other study before."
But the conclusion was irrefutable. Sure enough, the participant's conscious decision to push one or the other button was made about a second before the actual action.￼ Nothing surprising here. But Haynes and his team discovered another pattern, hidden in the unconscious brain activity, that occurred up to ten full seconds before the decision entered the participant's conscious awareness. That is, long before the participants consciously made their choice, Haynes and his team could already predict which decision they were about to make.
Haynes wasn't the first neuroscientist to pull of such a trick. In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a neurophysiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, monitored brain functions by hooking up his patients to an electroencephalogram (EEG).
And low and behold, the exact same thing was observed: our decisions are first made unconsciously, and only then does awareness kick in and do we get the false impression that we consciously made that decision.
In summary: neuroscience echoes modern physics in telling us that we are moist robots who are under the illusion of having free will.
Despite all this evidence, and for reasons that defy my understanding, the fashion these days (at least among the majority of contemporary Western philosophers) is to maintain that science hasn't conclusively ruled out free will at all. Enter compatibilist (non)sense.
Four positions are typically distinguished in the debate on free will:
Libertarians (like Peter van Inwagen and Thomas Reid) reject determinism and accept free will. In a sense, we all intuitively feel libertarian. Hard determinists, in contrast, accept determinism, and reject free will. Proponents of this position include the physicists Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene, the biologists Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the psychologist Steven Pinker, and many other eminent scientists.
While both camps belong to opposite ends of the spectrum, they agree that determinism and free will are incompatible with one another. Hard incompatibilists go even further and claim that free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism. This is the position I have been defending so far.
Sadly enough, there is yet another camp, the compatibilist camp with proponents like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Daniel Dennett. Compatibilists (or soft determinists) claim that determinism and free will are compatible. If only we (re)define our notion of free will correctly, they maintain, free will can live comfortably with determinism.
Now let me be clear at the outset: to me, compatibilism is just that, a semantic game of remoulding our notion of free will so that it fits with our deterministic worldview. The result of this "word jugglery", however, is that there's nothing really free anymore about compatibilist free will.
Compatibilists define free will as the freedom to act without external constraints or hindrances from others. That is, as long as I'm not in physical chains, locked up in a prison, I have free will.
In other words, because I was able to raise my arm without hindrance when the thought of raising my arm occurred, I must have free will.
But freedom of action is not freedom of will! As Arthur Schopenhauer famously said: "Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills." Compatibilists take comfort with the first part of Schopenhauer's quote. But whereas freedom to act is a necessary condition for free will, it isn't sufficient. The compatibilist notion of free will is simply too weak. Whatever will it is, it isn't genuine (libertarian) free will.
Compatibilists thus evade the problem. As Sam Harris sharply put it, compatibilists act according to the creed: "A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings."
To be fair, I believe most compatibilists and hard determinists are talking past each other since both endorse entirely different notions of free will. In that sense, both might actually be right. Compatibilist free will (i.e. freedom of action) is of course compatible with determinism. No determinist will ever deny this. Similarly, libertarian free will (i.e. genuine free will) is clearly incompatible with determinism. Here again, even a compatibilist like Dan Dennett agrees: "that that kind of free will is an illusion — well yeah, we've known that for over 100 years."
At this point, you might start to worry: if genuine free will really is an illusion, what about the moral implications? After all, if we don't have free will, we can't be held responsible for our actions. If so, in what sense are we to be blamed for our sins and bad actions? If free will is ready for the dustbin, so (it seems) is moral responsibility.
Many people therefore worry that the illusion of free will will be used as an excuse to do as we please, and to cease to be good to one another. But, don't forget, if we're just moist robots, we can't do as we please at all.
As a matter of fact, the realisation that free will is an illusion might have a positive effect on humankind. Suppose for instance that Jack killed or raped a random stranger. Since all of his thoughts and choices were ultimately determined by his genetic and social conditioning, Jack can't be held morally responsible.
What's more, in a strange sense, Jack is a victim too: he was born with the wrong genes, brought up in the wrong environment, hanged out with the wrong people, and read the wrong books.
In short: Jack can't help it that he was born a psychopath. If you were to exchange every single atom of your body with his, you would have done the exact same (horrible) thing.
This of course doesn't mean we can no longer distinguish good from bad. Even though Jack can't take credit for the horrible things he did, it would still be best to lock him up forever, to prevent him from causing further harm.
But our desires to take revenge, to make Jack suffer as much as his victims suffered, would no longer make any sense. In a world without free will, there's no room for guilt or blame, pride or praise. As Einstein once put it: "This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper." I couldn't agree more!
Having read my entire post, please take the poll one more time, and let's find out how many of you have been converted into believing free will is really an illusion (or otherwise)! Also, don't hesitate to share your own views and opinions and to continue the discussion in the comment section below. Thank you!