This morning I told a friend my home-brewed arguments for free will, and after patiently listening to my impromptu lecture, she asked, “Do people still question this?” Yes they do. The question of whether or not we have free will is as alive and well as the question of whether or not there is an afterlife, or if there is an objective reality (you’ve all undoubtedly heard a variation of the question, “Does a tree fall in the woods if there’s nobody there to witness it?”)
First, I’d better define “free will”. I’m going to use the example of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, partly because it’s one of my favorite novels, and also because it gets right to the matter of free will and the obvious example of crime. In short, a student kills an old woman with an axe in order to steal her money. He either did that of his own choice (free will), or he was predetermined to do it and had no say so in the matter (determinism).
Many people are still vulnerable to the idea that there is no free will. A recent YouTube prank video – Apple iPhone Reads Minds! SIRIously! – by magician Rich Ferguson makes this evident. In the video the magician uses his Apple Iphone, the voice operated personal assistant application called Siri, and the new “predictive iOS 8 beta” to read people’s minds. He asks people to choose a word, number or card, then scans their faces with the Iphone (ostensibly to collect data about them from social media), and within seconds Siri gives the correct answer. The participants were flabbergasted.
How Rich pulls off this trick is another story, and one I don’t know the answer to. He wrote that he used a combination of “psychology, technology, tricks, reading, forcing and persuasion”. These are likely the methods advanced magicians typically use to guess what word people are thinking of, but Rich added a twist and a layer of incomprehensibility by somehow having his Iphone announce the answer. He adds another level of benign deception by pretending that he doesn’t know if the answer the device gives is correct until they corroborate it, at which point he marvels at the technology along with them, saying things like, “Seriously? is that it?” and “The technology is impressive. Isn’t it? Yeah. I don’t know how it works. I’m just demonstrating it.” What is more interesting for me is the rather persuasive explanation he gives them, and the degree to which they fall for it.
Rich is a very articulate fellow, so I’ll quote him exactly:
“It’s using predictive facial recognition technology, and it’s scanning you on social media to figure out your behaviors and tendencies.”
“I think what it does is it give us a mathematical logarithm or foundation to say, ‘Oh, this is how this person ticks’, so it’s able to read your micro-expressions, behavior, and shifts in behavior even better… It gives it the tools and insights… Just like if I’m a body language expert I can start to look at you and figure you out over enough time. Now I can make educated guesses what you are likely doing or thinking. So, I think with the math behind it, and science, and technology, it’s like another whole level.”
In the comments section under the video one person asserted that this technology is possible because there is no free will. Whether one agrees or not, it makes perfect sense to connect predictive software with no free will: the less free will we have the easier it is to predict our behavior.
I’m not going to do a bunch of research and quote philosophers and scientists on free will, but just share what I can muster relying on my memory of what I’ve already read, and my own ability to decipher it and fashion my own argument. Call it arm chair philosophy if you want, but I believe we should, and should be able to, brood over philosophical questions ourselves. When Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, he couldn’t have meant that only the wisest philosophers deserved to live, but rather that every person should take time to ponder the big questions, and their own existence.
Better yet, this will keep it relatively short and simple. You probably don’t feel like reading an academic paper on philosophy, which I’m not the most qualified person to write in the first place.
I know two major arguments that there is no free will. One is scientific, and the other spiritual.
The scientific argument
The scientific argument is based on the predictability of the laws of physics. If we drop a basketball from the top of a four story building, we can all predict that it will fall, and that it will bounce. Someone with enough information, knowledge, and the appropriate technological instruments could predict what speed it will fall, the trajectory in which it will bounce, how many times it will bounce, etc. Many just switch this confidence in the predictability of physical objects onto peoples’ behavior.
They may cite the big bang, and the unfolding of the universe in accordance with natural laws, even if we don’t currently have enough knowledge to decipher those laws in their entirety. It is all a chain reaction, or the domino effect. One thing inexorably leads to another.
This gets mixed up with and bolstered by the radical behaviorism of the likes of B.F. Skinner, who argued that our actions are overwhelmingly dependent on our environment, and we have little say in what we think or do. Skinner saw humans as physical organisms who are conditioned by reward and punishment, not unlike lab rats, chicks, and dogs. Indeed, if you can make a dog drool by ringing a bell, after teaching the dog to associate the bell with the appearance of savory morsels, you can do something similar with people. On a grander scale, with much more complex modes of conditioning, people are molded by their environment to act in accordance with its directives, not their own.
If you put these theories together the universe unfolds in predictable and unalterable ways, and we are just particles in a storm: all of our actions could be predicted by a powerful enough computer with enough information.
My counterargument to the more scientific argument is that consciousness is not a material thing, even if it is dependent on the physical brain, and thus is not bound by the laws of physics. Consciousness is classically defined as the awareness of being aware. This is self-awareness. Not only are you alive, but you know you are alive. Your self-reflectivity is not a physical thing. You can’t weigh a thought, or split an insight into smaller particles like an atom. The stance that somehow even the most ephemeral or trivial of thoughts, day dreams, and decisions are predetermined becomes much harder to back when we start thinking of examples. Is my decision to have chocolate or strawberry ice-cream, and then my changing my mind, and then changing it back really the inevitable outcome of a purely mechanical process initiated 13.8 billion years ago? Even the specific content of our dreams during sleep would have to be the logical consequence of natural laws. If I dream a caterpillar asks me a question, the question would have to be the predictable consequence of a chain reaction of events. Again, our mental activity is not a physical thing, and therefore not bound by the laws of physics.
Consciousness could have evolved as a phenomenon that escapes strict physical laws, and allows the conscious entity to self-determine its own actions, albeit within the physical world and natural laws. Let’s say the universe ran more or less predictably according to physical laws UNTIL conscious intelligence evolved, at which point it became possible to make conscious decisions that were arbitrary, or not the inevitable consequence of a chain reaction. What is the point of thinking if thinking is useless? What was the evolutionary advantage of being able to think, if any decision one made was already predetermined? It makes much more sense that thinking and decision making gave humans an edge over larger, stronger animals who couldn’t do so.
Human intelligence would be completely superfluous if it only unknowingly followed some cosmic intelligence or will. Most the scientists and behaviorists who argue against free will are not likely to believe in an omnipotent being orchestrating our every move, especially since this would counter the domino effect, so we are left with the conclusion that human intelligence is an illusion, and in reality there is no intelligence in the universe at all, just physical things acting in accordance with physical laws. That can’t be true, because we can think.
The behaviorist or determinist argument also doesn’t give enough credit to human consciousness. We are not only aware, we are aware that we are aware. The ability to control the behavior of a protozoan, a rat, a dog, or a pig does not necessarily apply to humans at all. Our bodies might react predictably, especially in terms of reflexes, but unlike Pavlov’s dog who salivates at the sound of a bell when no food is present, we can ourselves understand the experiment and make a conscious decision to resist its effects.
Even Goerge W. Bush has the power of free will that separates him from other animals, and perhaps even the other higher primates (if we are to believe they don’t have free will). During a speech in Tennessee in 2002, immortalized in video, Bush stated his argument for free will thusly:
“There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”
He botched it horribly, but his point was that after you’ve been fooled once, it’s your own stupid fault if you get fooled again. Never mind for the moment what this says about the American public reelecting him. The point is we can understand how our bodily organism is influenced by the environment, and take that into consideration, change the environment, or remove ourselves from an unwanted impetus… This is what sets humankind apart from pond scum.
Comically, according to determinist logic, the person who espouses it was predetermined to do so: the person who argues there is no free will, has no choice to do otherwise. Other than being absolved of all responsibility for ones actions, I can’t see the appeal in thinking that I have no volition and am just a cog in a giant machine, doing what I am designed to do, for a reason I cannot fathom, or more likely for no reason at all. I could be no more than the equivalent of a microscopic bit of crap in an enthusiastically expelled flatulence.
The spiritual argument
The spiritual argument sees people as an indivisible part of a seamless whole, which you may call God, in which case we can’t have a separate, individual will. The illusion of being an isolated, finite being in a hostile exterior universe is the root cause of suffering. The ego desperately clings to the presumed security of being a finite, divisible thing, kind of like a bird that refuses to leave the nest because it doesn’t know it can fly. There are many apt analogies, the most popular of which is that we are like drops of spray above the ocean, fearful of disintegration, when really we are part and parcel of the mighty ocean itself.
In order to overcome the suffering born of the illusion of separation, we should cultivate “choiceless awareness”, or a lack of preference for one thing over another. We should accept things just as they are, and not continually question the grander order of things, hanker after what we perceive as desirable, and avoid that which we think is undesirable. We torment ourselves in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In acceptance of everything as is there is bliss.
Self-professed enlightened gurus, from Osho to Eckhart Tolle, will consistently claim choiceless awareness, and that the enlightened person does NOT follow his own will, but in all things he does exercises the will of the universe, or nature, or God. Hence, incidentally, if the guru has sex with his devotees against their will, he is not responsible himself for his actions, but it is the universe acting upon itself in a sort of wild spirituality that is unfathomable to the separate ego-minds of the unenlightened multitude. Indeed, behavior which flies in the face of conventional morals is a sure sign of a higher morality. If a guru amasses a collection of 90 Rolls Royces, it is not a sign of his greed, but rather a jibe at other people’s envy.
In any case, he’s not responsible because he doesn’t have free will, and that’s a good thing. If you point the finger at him, it is because you are spiritually un-evolved: a pathetic separate ego, trying to impose your terrestrial and artificial morals on an incarnation of God.
There is nothing like that, like free will. It is just an ego concept, there
cannot be anything like that. ~ OSHO
“Freedom is not a reaction; freedom is not a choice. .
Freedom is found in the choiceless awareness of our daily existence and activity.” ~ J. Krishnamurti
As beautiful as the words of possibly enlightened gurus may be, even when they are echoed by a veritable sea of charlatans hoping to dissolve the immaterial barrier between seekers and their life’s savings, the spiritual take on free will has as many problems as the more scientific one.
The wrench in their argument is, again, human consciousness. I can grant that we are an inseparable part of the universe, but that doesn’t mean that a person can’t have any quality that the entirety does not. Consciousness as we know it is a product of the physical brain, and just one of the reasons we know this is because damage to the brain has direct, deleterious effects on consciousness. We can even identify which parts of the brain effect which parts of the mind.
Some people argue that the brain is like an antennae, and that we receive transmissions from somewhere else, however, this violates Ockham’s razor, the philosophical truism that, in the absence of certainty, the explanation with the least amount of assumptions is the most likely correct. If the brain is just an antennae and cannot create consciousness itself, then one needs an additional explanation for how consciousness arises somewhere else, and why the brain is such an elaborate and fragile antenna so that any damage to it compromises its receptivity to the transmission. Why need an antennae at all if consciousness is all pervasive?
Suppose we accept for the sake of argument that consciousness as we know it is produced by highly evolved brains, and inanimate objects and other objects without brains do not possess consciousness, regardless of their scale. I have consciousness, my chair doesn’t. The house I live in doesn’t, nor the street, the trees, the river a few minutes away by bike, the sky, the moon, or the sun. Because they are not conscious, they don’t have wills.
The spiritual argument is that I can’t have a will that is separate from the will of the entirety, but the entirety, excluding brain-based consciousness, does not have any other consciousness that we are aware of. In short, this argues that you cannot have a will separate from something that doesn’t even have a will to begin with. This is like saying that if I am in a stadium that is filled with women, except for me, because I am unarguably inseparable from them, I cannot be different, and therefore I don’t have a penis.
All the evidence that we have points only to the conclusion that will is a product of consciousness, consciousness is a product of the brain, and brains are physical objects encased in separate physical beings (even if this takes place in an indivisible universe on the subatomic level of which particles are waves and waves are particles).
To people who insist that we are so interwoven with the universe as a whole that consciousness is permeable, shared, and immortal, I ask why they need to eat. If you are not separate from the slice of pizza in front of you, your body doesn’t need to consume it to get essential nutrients.
There must also be something separate in order to see itself as separate. If I have no separate will from the will of the whole, and I believe I have free will, than it must be the will of the whole for me to believe I have free will. There is no use in my trying to overcome the illusion of having free will, according to this logic, because that itself would be an act of will. I have to wait until the entirety somehow wills me to awaken to not having a will.
I am not denouncing spirituality, just questioning some of the common assumptions. One can have a will, live in a universe where one is conscious and most everything else is not, and be unselfish and accept reality as it is, and as it unfolds. One can overcome the notion of somehow being unique and separate without losing the ego that allows us to function in society, or drive a car for that matter (driving under the influence of egolessness would be a criminal offense if anyone could do it). The ego can be a tool, and we can cease to identify it as ourselves, or as defining the boundaries of ourselves.
What is the point of being conscious at all if we have no will? It would be like being in one of those first person shooter video games, but you wouldn’t be able to fire the gun, move, jump, squat, sidestep, walk, or run. You’d just watch it. Nobody would play such a game because playing would be impossible. If we’d feel gipped not being able to operate the controls in a video game, we’d feel infinitely more so in life itself.
But we don’t feel that we aren’t in control at all. We feel as if we are absolutely in control. That’s our lived experience every moment. I don’t mean I can control who is elected president, but I can hold my breath, blink on command, or think of a song and whistle it: those are sure signs of free will. To think otherwise is to convince oneself of a theory, intellectually, even if one’s immediate experience contradicts it, kind of like saying, “I don’t exist at all”.
We may be an inextricable part of a seamless totality, molded by our environment, subject to the laws of physics, vulnerable to unforeseeable tragic events, and act in predictable ways, but those are the parameters of the game in which we play using the tools of consciousness and intelligence. That’s a much more exciting and relevant arena to exist in than is being a mindless automaton in a universe without spontaneity, flexibility, or creativity.
I thought of one more example and argument while I was out riding my bike and exercising at the public park by the river. I’ll call it “The Bobby Fischer Defense” (as in defending free will).
You probably know Bobby Fischer, since he’s the most famous chess champion ever. When I was in junior high school I got a book of his which was a bunch of chess puzzles. You finished all of the pages and then flipped the book over and did the puzzles on the opposite pages, as I remember. Bear with me with this personal anecdote, there’s a point to it.
After completing that book I didn’t lose a chess match in a decade, though I also didn’t play all that much, and not in any competitions. I was just a big fish in a puddle. I finally lost when I played my biological father, who I was reunited with after not seeing him for more than 20 years. He had terminal cancer and decided he wanted to see his boys before he died. He didn’t tell us about his condition. He was obsessed with chess, and I thought I was pretty good, so I played him. I should have known better because he had a chess library that included thick volumes on “the end game”. I never stood a chance. He knew the name for every move I made, and I didn’t. Within a dozen moves I was absolutely doomed. The only thing about my playing that showed any signs of skill was how many different ways I could see that I was doomed.
Can you guess the point in that? It’s that in order to play chess well you need to do a lot of practice, and study the game. The universe, the entirely, and all but the most literal concept of God, does not know how to play chess. If it did know how, somehow, magically, we wouldn’t need to train at it ourselves. This raises some serious issues.
The questions that came to mind while I was working up a sweat at the park, which wasn’t hard to do in 95% weather with 35% humidity, were – “Did Bobby Fischer have free will while he was playing chess?” and “If he wasn’t responsible for the moves he made, why was he better at it than anyone else at the time?” Surely there would be a lot of stalemates if the universe was playing itself through chess champs.
Even if we granted that Bobby Fischer had no choice but to play chess, he had to use his own intelligence to decide which moves to make. If we want to maintain that there is no free will, we will have to say that he had no choice but to use his own intelligence, but he didn’t make the decisions on which moves to make based on his intelligence. If he could make those decisions himself, which required analyzing thousands of options, surely he would be able to decide whether he wanted to sit by the window or take the aisle seat on an airplane. If he could do either of those things, he had free will.
Which chess move to make against Boris Spassky wouldn’t make any sense to a tree, or the moons of Jupiter, or even the Milky Way. Bobby Fischer must have made those decisions himself based on his own intelligence and thought processes.
We have free will, including the ability to say that we don’t.
Feel free to throw in your own thoughts, but don’t just give me links, tell me I’m wrong, insult me, or condescend to me from the lofty perch of your automatically correct self-proclaimed enlightenment. I’d like to hear YOUR arm-chair philosophy, not be referred to some other authority.
Challenges to my arguments!
By using a chess example I left myself open for a classic line of attack. I argued that Bobby Fischer making decisions about chess moves was proof of free will:
- The universe cannot compel him to make a given move because it does not know how to play chess.
- He must use his own intelligence to play.
- If he can decide which move to make out of thousands of difficult options, he can also choose where to sit on a plane, in which case, we cannot say he has no free will.
A good counterargument is that a chess computer has no free will, being programmed by humans, but can also make complex decisions and even beat a human chess champion.
My response is that the chess computer does not even know it is playing chess; has no choice as to whether or not it plays chess; doesn’t care if it wins or loses, can do nothing other than play chess, and isn’t really thinking in the same way as a human chess player. The chess computer is calculating odds of the most successful move based on thousands of championship games which have been entered into its system. It merely blindly calculates the best option based on past games and statistics. It is doing math, not playing chess.
Just because humans can create machines that simulate the appearance of free will, which they do not have at all because they only act in accordance with what we tell them to do, does not mean that we have no more free will than our own toys. We know that the chess machine merely appears to play chess, but that doesn’t mean that the human isn’t really doing it either.
Someone attacked my argument above as follows:
“In the same sense that [chess] computers aren’t making decisions, humans aren’t making decisions either… They are just following subconscious instructions programmed into them by their genetics and environment.”
And my rebuttal to this is that the subconscious can’t be taught chess independent of the conscious mind – you can’t learn to play in your sleep – and therefore can’t tell the conscious mind which moves to make. Even if you imagine a scenario in which someone has been playing for so long that he can make valid chess moves in his dreams, to say that the subconscious is directing the conscious here is putting the cart before the horse.
Similarly, we can’t learn a language by listening to instructional audio in our sleep. People have tried. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. So, while the subconscious might influence our decisions, it can only tell us what to think or say to the degree it has learned from the conscious mind how to think or use language.
His counterargument to my position above was this:
“And what of the conscious mind? How does it learn how to play chess? It is conditioned by its opponent by having its weaker strategies beaten. It is chastised for breaking rules. It takes in strings of visual or audio code and scans them for useful/relevant information.”
To which I responded that this is not how we learn to play chess. You don’t just go and move pieces around based on emotion. You have to learn the rules of the game first, then to get any good you have to study strategies and practice puzzles. This learning is done by the conscious mind. It’s similar to learning a musical instrument or Algebra. You have to think about it, make steps in understanding, and practice it. Decisions made by the conscious mind in territory only it can operate in requires that it has control. If it has control, it has free will.
What he was talking about is playing chess after you have already learned how to do so. There are further problems with his argument, such as that while he said you are conditioned by your opponent to develop better strategies, he didn’t account for the process of developing strategies itself. Does that happen in the subconscious, which does not know how to play chess, or in the conscious mind? If you can make new strategies on the fly using your conscious mind, then you have free will. Personally, I think one may use both the conscious and subconscious to make strategies, just as one might use both to compose a song. However, the subconscious can’t do it without the conscious mind.
If the conscious mind is responsible for even 5% of the decision making, we have free will. The burden is on the determinist to say that the conscious mind can make no decisions, nor can the subconscious, which is still part of you.
Determinists will also need to prove that the subconscious is completely controlled by the environment and not capable of spontaneous thought or other mental activity, such as orchestrating elaborate dreams.
Another argument has cropped up against me. I’ll call it the “perfect replica” argument. It goes something like this. Imagine that Japan – who is the world’s leader in making humanoid robots – creates a robot, named Lucy, that is so convincing people assume she’s really a human. She has a powerful computer and can interpret and respond to spoken language. She is pre-programmed with millions of appropriate responses that she can respond with to anything you say. She has real hair, and otherwise looks convincingly human. If she appears to have free will, and she doesn’t, it stands to reason that while you appear to have free will, you don’t either. A bystander couldn’t tell which of you had free will and which did not. You are programmed by your genes and your environment just as Lucy was programmed by people.
This argument has an enormous flaw. It basically says that because Lucy appears to have free will, but doesn’t, than neither do you. By logical extension if Lucy appears to be conscious, but she isn’t, neither are you. And if you can go along with that, the clincher is that if Lucy appears to be alive, but she isn’t, neither are you. Unless you are prepared to argue that you are not alive, this should refute the “perfect replica” argument.
Someone challenged that in order for me to say that something is spontaneous, and thus not the unavoidable consequence of everything preceding it, I must prove that all outside factors did NOT effect it. Below is my response:
Yesterday I argued that content in dreams appears to arise spontaneously from the subconscious. A typical counter to that would be that the subconscious merely rehashes and regurgitates events from waking life, automatically. However, I have noticed over the span of my lifetime that my subconscious is particularly good at making up music on the fly. Perhaps you have had this same experience. You might be at a concert in your dream, listening to music, or performing yourself. The music might be fantastic. I find this particularly impressive because, try as I might, and I do, I can’t spontaneously create music like that with my conscious mind. This leads me to think that the wellsprings of creativity might be housed in the subconscious. The main point, however, is that creating music on the fly is not a mere recycling of the day’s events, but an immediate act of creation. And the relevance of this point to the discussion is that spontaneous or impromptu creation can’t be completely controlled or inevitable.
One objection is that I can’t prove that something is genuinely spontaneous, and not the ineradicable and predictable outcome of former events. I would need to account for every prior possible influence, and then discount it. This is impossible, but so is it to prove that the impromptu guitar solo one hears in one’s dream is the unavoidable result of a chain reaction of physical laws. Given that neither side is empirically provable, we should go with the one that is more likely. We further should not rely on faith in a given position, for or against free will, to decide which scenario is more likely. We are going to have to go with the better argument.
I argue that human consciousness possesses the capacity of original thought, leaps of understanding, insights, and epiphanies which are not the predictable result of prior physical occurrences. This is what would give us an evolutionary advantage: the ability to step outside of automatic behavior and learn to manipulate objects and events ourselves, in a way that better insures our survival. If we are doing it ourselves, it would explain why we’ve botched things so terribly. We make some big mistakes. If you don’t agree, then are you going to have to argue that nature has decided to make humans pollute their own biosphere in order to preserve itself, or that God is compelling us to poison our own environment? It seems much more likely that it’s our own stupid mistake.
Another key argument I should have introduced earlier, is that even if inanimate or non-conscious objects were merely following the expected trajectory of history, when consciousness emerged, it escaped that fate. We can say that the universe evolved self-awareness if you like. Even if that was as inevitable a process as a caterpillar emerging from the chrysalis as a butterfly, once it occurred there was something that was free of inevitability. And wouldn’t this be a more interesting and profound course for the universe to take than just blindly following physical laws?
Additionally, if you want to argue that the universe and everything in it can only follow physical laws, when did these laws emerge? Did they somehow exist before the Big Bang, or were they initiated instantly along with it? Or, does the universe not just follow a preordained path, but instead evolves itself?
If humans have creativity, than so does the universe. If humans don’t have creativity, and we are just being carried along by the universe like water droplets in a wave, than the universe itself must have creativity. The universe composed Beethoven’s 5th symphony, wrote the plays of Shakespeare, the music of the Beatles, and the speeches of Martin Luther King.
That doesn’t follow because the universe doesn’t speak English or know how to play musical instruments. Therefore we have creativity absolutely, and we may guess that the universe does as well and isn’t just along for the ride (that’s another discussion). The act of creating defies the chains of inevitability. Significantly, many acts of creation – such as movies, novels and representational paintings – develop their own fictive worlds, separate from the exterior one. Physical laws and history, be it personal or communal, put boundaries on our will, but it is still free.