Saturday, May 7, 2011

Free will- solved!

A theory of free will.

One of the perennial chestnuts of philosophy is the problem of free will. Mostly a problem for theists rather than non-theists, it still holds a few mysteries for everyone. Is our natural intuition of freedom true, that we reign as sovereign beings, maybe influenced, but never finally determined, in our choices? Or are those choices entirely determined, as the Marxists, physicists, and Tolstoy tend to think- by history, social conditions, the factors of production, character, genes, etc?

And if free will is an illusion, then what of morals? Can anyone be blamed for their choices? Can moral responsibility and agency exist without free will? This is surely the more interesting question.

The physical basis of life is now well-known, so if one assumes that our minds arise from the activities of our brains and, like everything else, are bound by physical principles, there is no escaping that free will really doesn't exist. Certainly there are theists who still believe in souls, supernaturalism, magical interventions in the evolutionary process, and the like, but without much cause aside from precisely the sort of intuitions that are better examined than taken at face value.

The physical world is causally closed as far as we know, and while that may or may not encompass the origin of itself in the pre-big-bang, it certainly seems to encompass our bodies and brains. So whatever we make of our feelings and agency, there is nothing we do or decide that could, on these physical principles, possibly occur without being the consequence of a train of prior causes & physical events. This means that we don't have what I would call "atomic" free will.

The quantum revolution throws a minor wrench into the situation, because the fundamental uncertainty it finds at small scales means that, however much we know, we can never predict where the full set of physical causes is going to take us. Everything may be caused by prior events, but that doesn't mean everything is determined to a singular fate, as Laplace tried to argue. Some of our prior events are truly random, and thus unknowable in advance. Yet that hardly gives us any more agency- it only leavens the causes that determine our decisions with a bit of comedic randomness.

Daniel Wegner wrote a very nice book about how our minds/brains nevertheless maintain an illusion of free will. For instance, if a person is (falsely) convinced that he did some act, he will typically spin elaborate post-rationalizations to explain its motivation to the interviewer. This is most strikingly true for people with neurological disorders, like split brain patients where one hand literally does not know what the other was doing. The verbal half of the brain will typically make up stories to rationalize what the disconnected half is doing. One can see similar things going on in the history of religion, where humans compulsively make up stories about literally everything under the sun that is mysterious. Many of which have had to be retracted, somewhat painfully, at times, or conveniently re-blessed as artistic myths.

More minutely, the work of Libet showed that our actions, and especially our conscious choices about them (like deciding to raise a coffee cup) are always preceded by unconscious trains of neurological activity. The choice is never de novo, but is itself a consequence of prior unconscious activities in the brain, and indeed comes to our consciousness- as a choice- well after it has taken place and set the physical events in motion. So consciousness is not sovereign at a very granular level either, but more of a caboose on the train, learning about things after they happen, more part of a feedback mechanism than of an action mechanism.

So we don't seem to have actual free will. Why do we feel like we are, nevertheless in charge when we hoist a glass to drink? At this point we have to ask the Buddhist/Hume question ... what is the self? Isn't it really an unending stream of causes, influences, and effects- our life histories caroming off our genetic and developmental inheritances? The deeper you look, the messier it is, to the point that a discrete "self" is undetectable. And the mess is mostly invisible, since only a tiny part of the mind's contents are conscious, and the far vaster unconscious activity rests on even more inscrutable molecular foundations. We simply don't know what is going on in our own minds, so can hardly be blamed for regarding it as magic, with the convenient (and, as always, narcissistic) assumption that we are master of this house.

Very well- free will is illusory. What consequences does this have for our moral and legal universe? This is where things get more interesting. For theists, aside from the convenience of off-loading the self into a god-like magical soul that, as they postulate, lives forever, the idea of free will also helps account for evil, since with God stipulated as all-good and all-powerful, there has to be someone else to blame: us, our original sin, and our darned free will to screw everything up!

For non-theists, of course, this angle is completely irrelevant. Yet still, the issue of blame reappears in mundane guise. If the self and the choices it makes are not sovereign, but rather inexorably caused by prior events, then how can anyone be blamed for anything? Doesn't morality become an empty joke?

Thankfully, the answer is no- it doesn't. The reason lies in another aspect of our programming, which is that we are not just physically-bounded no-free-will flesh-bots. We are physically-bounded no-free-will flesh-bots that can learn. Learning is the crucial ingredient in a moral universe, rendering us different from inanimate and non-learning beings. Do we blame rocks for falling on our heads? No we don't, unless we regard them as spirit-inhabited. Do we blame rabid dogs for biting us? No- they have lost their reason, and specifically, their ability to be trained (and we would blame their masters, anyhow). Do we blame insane people for murder? No, they get an insanity defense, because, crucially, they either don't know better, or are incapable of doing better. They are locked up securely rather than punished, because punishment wouldn't do any good.

And what good was punishment supposed to do anyhow? Ideally, (and I am not speaking of our current appalling penal system), punishment teaches the criminal a moral attitude, especially empathy, hopefully inducing deep personal change. Additionally, it has the exemplary role of teaching others the fate that immoral action leads to, as judged by the social system they share. It is a training exercise, which is exactly the sort of prior influence that comes back around to (hopefully) affect our future actions which, as we saw above, do not result from free will.

The (stricter) muslims cut a hand from the thief, which has all these salutary effects. Aside from significantly incapacitating the person from future thievery, it reminds him as few other punishments could of the social rules, and reminds all others who see it as well, influencing their future actions in turn. Unfortunately, its harshness also seriously impairs the society's claim to greater moral ideals and empathy, counteracting its training purpose.

 In so many ways- eating, gambling, drugs, advertising- we know very well we don't have free will. There is hardly a richer literature than that of the tragic battle against temptation and fate. And throughout history, (including that of religion), we labor on, seeking social power and influence to defend others from temptation and bend others to our ideas of human betterment, descended as they are from, to paraphrase Keynes, some defunct philosopher. "Free" has nothing to do with it, but learning and mutual social influence certainly do.

We live in a matrix of influences and prior events. We are built as social beings to give and receive these influences, wired for empathy, for conversation, and inspiration. We cultivate each other and ourselves in a constant effort to attain our overall goal, on which our unconscious and conscious minds are in full agreement- increased happiness. The moral landscape is just another word for that mutual cultivation, on which everything depends.

  • A blogging friend writes about punishment and its moral role, coming to a similar point from a very different direction.
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  • A dark age of economic dementia.
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week (from Charles Ferguson), on the credibility of economist Martin Feldstein:
"Martin Feldstein, a Harvard professor, a major architect of deregulation in the Reagan administration, president for 30 years of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and for 20 years on the boards of directors of both AIG, which paid him more than $6-million, and AIG Financial Products, whose derivatives deals destroyed the company. Feldstein has written several hundred papers, on many subjects; none of them address the dangers of unregulated financial derivatives or financial-industry compensation."


  1. Nice post. I like Dennett's take on this question in Freedom Evolves.

    It includes a critique of Libet's experiments -- Dennett raises some interesting questions about the assumptions Libet is making re: timing.

    While I can accept that moment to moment actions might not be in the realm of free will (it feels like that -- I certainly can't control my own tics or mannerisms), it *feels* like I have free will from a more zoomed out perspective. Can I make basic decisions about the trajectory of my life? My subjective experience says yes, and I don't think Libet's work contradicts that possibility.

    The most fundamental level of reality we can model (quantum level) isn't deterministic, so how can human behavior be completely deterministic? Just because every minute action isn't within the realm of conscious control doesn't mean that all human choice is illusory.

  2. Consciousness is simply an exaggerated tool for sexual selection, a trick of mind to boost our ego!

  3. Hi, JD-

    You pose very interesting questions. As you say, Libet is looking at the granular issue of conscious motor control. But I don't buy Dennet's criticism:

    "Libet tells when the readiness potential occurs objectively, using electrodes, but relies on the subject reporting the position of the hand of a clock to determine when the conscious decision was made. As Dennett points out, this is only a report of where it seems to the subject that various things come together, not of the objective time at which they actually occur."

    The whole point of the experiment was to gauge whether the subjective experience of conscious sovereignty actually actuated the physical actions. Whether the subjective will is itself a product of trains of events and the like is surely true, but immaterial to the question being asked. The observation is that the action is put in motion prior to the subjective experience of the decision, which means the voluntary will is, at very least, a more complicated unconscious production than we naively take it to be, with the subjective conscious decision not the first event.

    Additionally, this will all become much clearer when more work is done on the matter, dealing with the timings Dennett speaks about. But to do that we need a circuitry of consciousness, so that we can trace where its contents come from and at what point they "pop" into subjective consciousness. I am sure all that will some day become known, but you can see that the whole idea already presupposes that the foundations of both consciousness and other activities are unconscious, which goes to the ultimate point that our conscious will is a follower, not a leader, of thought. The only other way around the issue is that our consious thoughts come from some magical, extraterrestrial, etc. source, which is not physically plausible.

    Your larger issue is whether, in the zoomed out perspective, free will remains relevant. It sure seems that way, but ask youself how and why you make any of your trajectory of life decisions? Do you have reasons? Then what does consciousness have to do with it? Once we become conscious of all the reasons, we have long made the crucial decisions. That is a bit flip, but I would see consciousness as a feedback mechanism, evaluating what we have done and want, and exerting self-training.

    The most conscious calculation is something that reflects information and motivations bubbling up from many unconscious pathways, and whose effects are in turn to reset or alter other unconscious settings in preparation for future thoughts and actions. Consciousness is only a part of the flow of mental activities, and there is nothing free about it- even the free-est redirection of mental attention is motivated by some preceeding motivation or idea that came from some previous events.. There is no escaping the flow.

    So all I ask is for you to closely attend to what you call "free", and ask whether it really is free at all, or whether it only seems that way because it has causes that are typically introspectively invisible.


    Lastly, on determinism, I had dealt with quantum issues in the post. Randomness may render Laplacean determinism impossible, but it gives us no more agency than we had before. We are just subject to some prior causes that are random.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful response Burk. It's easy for me to accept that much of what I experience as free will, isn't. Most behavior is habitual ... the nervous system reacting to various environmental stimuli (and internal stimuli like hunger, fatigue, blood sugar, nicotine levels, etc.)

    On the other hand, I haven't seen any experimental evidence (or been convinced by any philosophical arguments) that contradict the possibility that people are actually making real choices (that could be described as free will) when they decide to *change* habits -- to reprogram themselves.

    I understand that you're suggesting that even these meta-choices are influenced by something -- that consciousness may always "follow" choice. But if you look at freedom as a continuum, we're certainly more free than other animals that don't have this metaprogramming ability (both subjectively and functionally). Dogs are very smart, but they can't decide to stop smoking, or be more friendly, other otherwise change what they're habituated to do or be.

    Enjoying your posts -- will stay tuned.

  5. Hi, Burk - while I won't try to argue for "the ghost in the atom," and suggest that quantum uncertainty directly allows us to have free will (I believe we've discussed that before), I would like to point out a larger result of that quantum uncertainty.
    In the realm of physics, things always end up as statistical processes. QM dictates that this must be the case, because on the most fundamental level and involving the smallest bits of matter, things are unpredictable. One can know how the bulk will act, because the bulk is simply a sum over all of the most probable of outcomes for each of the individual bits. But we can't know the exact history or future of each individual bit. While we know the radioactive material decays with a certain halflife, each nucleus could last a millisecond or a million years... we don't know. We can't know.
    Human beings are no different, because, as you say, we're subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the universe. A human being is not one unit, but is comprised of billions upon billions of individual units, each of which is scientifically unpredictable in an individual and precise way. We can predict with reasonable certainty the behavior of the bulk - the person - but only because we know the most probable behaviors of the individual (atomic) components. So this isn't really the same as determinism. In fact, it's fundamentally different. Determinism knows everything to exactly 100% certainty. QM says this isn't possible. What we really know is that there's a 97% probability that the person will take a drink from his coffee cup. Those two things are fundamentally antithetic (it's hard to explain without invoking mathematics just how much the mechanism differs, even if the outcome seems similar).
    So human beings, like anything else, are statistical processes which can't be precisely predicted or known. This doesn't seem like a "minor wrench" to me... but as a physicist, it's easy for me to see what a large part this statistical nature plays. My work every day reminds me of how everything is probabilistic and not deterministic. In fact, if the world wasn't as it is, we'd be in quite a bind... if the universe was deterministic, we'd be in a hell completely outside of our control; if the universe was totally random, on the other hand, we'd be unable to learn (because actions wouldn't ever have predictable results). Either way, morals couldn't exist. It's only because the universe is probabilistic that morals can exist at all. So that's free will, in a way... it exists within those tiny probabilities that are outside of the one-sigma width of the distribution.

    Love the last paragraph, by the way. Kudos.

  6. Hi, Kelly-

    Thanks for your kindness and thorough comment. I completely agree that determinism is dead, defunct, and shouldn't be confused with any live hypothesis. Indeed, it is usually determinism that is the mental image of those militating for free will, (as a sort of dawn of the dead robotic horror scene), so it deserved more treatment, as you say.

    Your proposal that morals would be impossible in a deterministic universe is fascinating. I agree that a fully chaotic universe wouldn't allow anything organized to exist at all, let alone morals, so that can be put to one side. But the other end of the spectrum seems more disputable.

    Since we don't know where our inner wellsprings come from anyway, there seems little difference between a modicum of quantum randomness in the system and none. The molecular biology would still provide large amounts of noise even in the absence of any QM considerations. That noise might, in a deterministic universe, be predictable, but that wouldn't alter the fundamental problem of the necessary inscrutability of internal introspection.. i.e., no thinking being can internally surveil its own originating thoughts.. it is logically impossible.

    Our molecular systems have spent a good deal of evolution trying to become more precise and overcome randomness, quantum and otherwise. The eye is an example of such optimization, where virtually a single photon can be transduced to vision. So if more randomness were beneficial, such as for personality diversification, creativity, etc., I believe it could be arranged even in a physically deterministic universe. I mean ... pseudorandom is enough for most practical purposes.

    The essence of experienced free will would likewise be preserved, I think, via 1. impossibility of full introspection, and 2. preserved ability to learn and adjust to circumstances & reason, physical as well as social. Admittedly, this is a difficult thought experiment, but I don't see how QM randomness changes these properties. If everything could be predicted, (given clearly impossible computing power), we might feel that the future was unalterable and fated, but isn't it pretty much that way anyhow? The difference between practical unpredictability and absolute unpredictability seems somewhat minor.

  7. I guess this was what I was trying to get at in my comment - that the difference is fundamental, not practical, but that this alters the entire conclusion. One can memorize formulas, but it's only when one learns the deeper physical and mathematical laws that one truly understands the system. The practical outcome (passing an exam, for instance) is the same, but the fundamental difference in understanding is not invisible or unimportant.