More thoughts after days of ruminating on this topic, and various challenges to my arguments on my blog and elsewhere. Note that if you disagree with me, or have in the past, that’s perfectly fine. I’m more interested in understanding reality than I am in being right. If I were to suddenly switch my pro-free will position, that could include a delicious insight into the nature of being. I’ve found that several people I’ve engaged with on the topic conflate free will with freedom and independence, and here I will articulate why they are not the same thing at all (though you can only achieve freedom with free will).
I’ve been criticized for not explicitly articulating what I mean by free will, so I’ll address this immediately. It is the ability to make a deliberate decision, and presumably to act on it (though if you can control your thoughts, you still have free will). It means that you are in the driver’s seat, and you are in control of your mind and body. Note that this need not be 100% of the time. Rather, the burden is on the determinists to prove that you can never freely control your mind or body – because they argue it is impossible to do so – in which case it needs to be impossible 100% of the time.
Something’s been bothering me about certain evidence behind the determinist stance against free will, namely that experiments have shown that the brain makes decisions (albeit minor ones that require no complex thought) before we consciously make them. I have strong criticisms of the extrapolations from these experiments, but there’s also a curious philosophical conundrum to deal with. If the reason we don’t have free will is the brain makes decisions before we do, than what are we fundamentally if we are not our brains and bodies?
If I am my body/brain, and the brain makes decisions before the consciousness, why not just say that the body has free will – hence I do – but not the conscious mind? Part of the answer is that in order to have free will a decision must be made deliberately, and for something to be deliberate, it must be conscious. The other part, of course, is that the body has no control over what it does, because as a physical thing it is bound by the laws of physics, and every action is the inevitable consequence of the proceeding one. The determinist would argue that the brain makes a decision first, unconsciously, and then it appears in consciousness after a brief delay.
In brain/consciousness theory, the so-called “hard problem” is how an immaterial mind can control a material body. Never mind for the moment how a material body can control an immaterial mind. I have another hard problem. How can an unconscious body make decisions about that which it is not even conscious of? It’s a bit like saying that brain sees things before the eyes look at them. Sees with what? The brain would have to be aware of what was going on in order to make decisions, but this awareness would have to be separate and prior to our experience of it. This is a bit sticky, but I can make sense out of it by defining consciousness as the awareness of being aware, or self-awareness. Determinists would have to argue, though I have not heard anyone say this, that decisions – including the most profound ones – can be made by an aware brain without the benefit of self-awareness. This might make sense for more instinctual acts, reflexes, and fast-action sports. An insect, such as a praying mantis, has awareness, and thus can act physically in the world, but it doesn’t, as far as we know, have or need self-awareness.
This is a good place to crack the limitations of the experiments showing subjects making decisions before they are consciously aware of it. The decisions in all such experiments revolve around when to perform this or that minor motion, and usually rely of self-reporting. Brain imaging shows brain activity before the subjects were consciously aware of making a decision, and in one experiment scientists could predict whether one would move their left or right hand in a competitive activity before doing so. This is not surprising when regarding inconsequential physical activities. Not only does my brain move my left foot before my right while walking before I think about it, it does it without me thinking about it at all. Certain actions, including presumably every action in the life of insects, require awareness, but not consciousness, and hence not conscious decisions and free will.
It’s anecdote time. When I was around 10 years old I went to my brother’s little league practice. The coach was hitting fly balls to the team, and he recruited me to catch all the balls when the players threw them back towards home plate, so I could give them to him to hit again. This was challenging for me because there was a lot of action, and for whatever reason, I really wanted to make a good impression on the coach. I distinctly remember that my tactic was to NOT think, and instead focus with a clear mind on catching the balls. I surprised even myself in my sudden mastery at fielding every wayward pitch from the outfield. The point here is there is that which can be handled by awareness, and that which requires conscious deliberation. At the same age, when I played chess, I couldn’t just empty my mind, but rather had to work it up into a lather and concentrate, prefiguring various possibilities, and making very deliberate choices.
You can’t write a novel grappling with the human condition if you can’t think about the fact that you are a living, perishable, human being in an often hostile physical universe, and what all that means in various scenarios. The physical brain can’t write a novel without access to conscious experience on which to gather understanding and insight.
Self-awareness can only take place in a state of self-awareness, in which case it is impossible for the realization of self-awareness to take place in the unconscious brain before conscious realization. A self-aware unconscious is impossible, obviously, because you can’t be conscious of being unconscious, or even aware of being unaware. The brain manifests a state of consciousness, and uses this state to make self-aware decisions in real time – we are that glorious, immaterial state. In that state, the brain can operate not only on a plane of awareness – like the praying mantis – but of self-awareness and self-determination.
The determinist’s conceit that who we are resides in the conscious mind, rather than the unconscious body, undermines the foundation of their argument, namely that as material beings we are bound by causality to obey physical laws and act in accordance with all that has happened before. The argument that we are material beings ironically includes as evidence that decisions presumably take place before our immaterial, conscious selves register them. If there is an immaterial, conscious mind that subjectively believes it makes choices – which are actually made a fraction of a second before by an unconscious body! – it is a given that we are not just a material body.
The brain may choose my next movement in a game of ping-pong before I think about it, because that only requires awareness, and not self-awareness, but can it finish this article about free will without the benefit of being self-aware? Some might want to argue that the brain IS self aware, and I’d agree absolutely, but that self-same self-awareness of the brain is what we experience as consciousness. The brain can’t be self-aware without consciousness. Thus, it is impossible that choices which require self-awareness can be made prior to conscious intent by the brain before it is conscious of them. We’d need for the brain to have a separate consciousness that isn’t the one we experience as our own.
One could argue that the brain collects information from consciousness, and then uses that information to make behind-the-scenes decisions. This is a tricky argument because it’s necessarily the case that neurons fire without our consciously telling them to do so. Does the mind use the brain to think, or does the brain use the mind to think, or both? The biological mechanics of making thinking possible happen unconsciously in the brain, and the brain doubtlessly unconsciously processes information retrieved via consciousness. But there’s a differene between the underlying mechanics of how the brain produces thought, and the abstract systems by which the mind manipulates thought.
Many people argue against free will because we don’t have any control of many of the most important factors in our life: when and where we are born, who our family is, what our own body and disposition are, our intelligence and capabilities, as well as large scale events such as wars, epidemics, etc. Free will doesn’t mean that we can break the laws of physics, perform miracles, have unlimited power, or be gods (depending on how you define “god”).
Since this is a rant, I’m going to go on a little aside here. Relative to all the inanimate, unconscious things in the universe, which neither have agency nor the appearance of it, can’t think, can’t reason, can’t use language, can’t use memory, and don’t have an imagination, one could say that consciousness, with its dominion over matter, is godly. Compared to a rock, or a tree, something which flits about in defiance of physical laws that keep everything else in lockstep is a transcendent miracle. Surely, if there were a God, we’d expect that it was conscious, and had free will. We share these most essential qualities.
Sadly, we humans, despite our consciousness and free will are rarely truly free. We find ourselves born into a world where we are almost immediately ensnared in a system where we must work full time so someone else can make the lion’s share of the profit off our energy, and we are taxed. We use a language we didn’t coin; wear sometimes ridiculous clothes that are the fashion; listen to whatever music the industry is peddling; and obey social norms that preceded our inception. How many of us break out of the bondage of being a nearly identical clone of millions of other people in the same general predicament, with the same routines, celebrations, and underlying thoughts, biases, and opinions?
To truly be free of mind and body may require some luck and a lot of dogged persistence, risk-taking, opportunities, adventures, periods of introspection, education, probably disillusionment with what one was taught, hard lessons, disappointment, insight, and so on. One might scrape out this space of actual independence and freedom like a prisoner slowly, secretly digging a tunnel from his cell to freedom. To do this undoubtedly requires free will and will power, the latter of which can be cultivated (just as we can train and improve our bodies) using the former.
Free will is just the capacity and the burden of making decisions, and acting on them, virtually incessantly. Whether we can ever succeed at clawing our way to actual freedom and independence is a separate issue.
When we look back out lives, or those of people close to us, we may not want to take full responsibility for our every mistake, mishap, bad choice, failure and shortcoming. If we truly had free will, we may think, certainly we would have been more rich, successful, even famous. But while we have freedom to choose, we don’t have the freedom to choose our choices. Nor do we have the freedom do decide when in life we must make many of the most important choices, or if we have adequate information and education to make the right choice in the moment. There are many things I’d do differently if I could take my life over, but that doesn’t mean that every misstep was exactly my fault. I had to navigate the options I had available according to my knowledge and understanding, and most of us just don’t get red carpets leading to prosperity. Studies have shown that most born into the lower third of the economic bracket stay there, and the same is true of those in the upper third. Free will doesn’t give you the cards in your hand, nor the ability to play them. It just gives the ability and the necessity to pick. For each of us, any estimation of what we’ve done with our lives would have to come with the caveat, “under the circumstances”. Free will doesn’t mean blaming oneself for not being dealt a royal flush.
Lastly I’d like to hit on why we have free will despite causality. Simply put, causality applies to physical things which are always, to the degree they do anything discernible, reacting without choice to prior causes. It would be ridiculous to think that snow in an avalanche had any other option than to cascade. It doesn’t have an opinion on the matter. The mind, however, is an immaterial, experiential state. This is what the determinists miss. The physical operations of the brain must obey the laws of physics, and those operations include creating the field of consciousness where self-aware thought occurs, but it does not include the laws by which the thoughts themselves operate. Reason and logic are separate from physical laws, and so when we think using logic, our thoughts are not guided by unconscious biological impulses, but by abstract rules and structures. Because the mind is not physical – science can’t find consciousness, nor can it be subjectively denied – it is not bound by laws that apply to inanimate, unconscious, unthinking things.
The only case against free will is this confidence that because everything else besides the human mind is bound by causality, so must the human mind be. This ignores that in all of the universe (excluding animals for this discussion), the only thing we know of that is even remotely capable of free will is the human mind. How can we conclude that the only thing we know of that is immaterial (even if it is dependent on the material brain), and that has consciousness, intelligence, memory, imagination, reason, and so on, is bound by the same laws that apply to its antithesis: unthinking inanimate objects?! [Others go to the opposite extreme and suppose that because we are conscious, so is everything else, and independent of a highly complex brain.]
In conclusion, [even the determinists acknowledge that] who we believe we fundamentally are is the immaterial mind; this mind is not bound by laws which apply only to physical things; and even though our choices are limited, we are not only able to make them, we are unable to not make them. True freedom, independence of thought, and individuation require not only free will, but will power. To deny free will may be a fascinating mental exercise, but it’s also shooting ourselves in both feet and accepting bondage.
For us visual artists, one of the few places we can hope to achieve freedom is within the rectangle of the canvas or picture plane. This is a territory where we can exercise full control; evolve our independence before our very eyes; manifest it for others to see; and in so doing help them to liberate their own minds from mental constraints. If we are lucky, freedom in art might lead to acquiring enough financial benefits to allow more practical freedoms (such as not having to work as a subordinate in someone else’s business, being able to travel, visit museums, take time to read the classics…).
[For this article I chose artworks which were about a lack of freedom.]
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