Free will: an intensely compelling ridiculous idea

October 1, 2007 | By | 54 Replies More

Talk about strange bedfellows!  You will never find any ideas supported by a more diverse following than “free will.”  What is free will?  Allegedly, it’s the ability to “freely” be in charge of one’s own thoughts and actions.  It’s the ability to be “in control.”  And as I pointed out here, there is almost nothing human beings fear more than being out of control.

It all gets very interesting, however, when you juxtapose the concept of “free will” with the concept of determinism, the belief “that every event, including human cognition and behavior, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences.”  A few years ago, a friend of mine panicked when I started telling her of some of the recent findings of cognitive science.  These were findings that substantiated that humans are animals that are subject to natural laws. She panicked because I was telling her more than she was able to consider (I wrote another post mentioning this episode).  She wanted to believe in “free will,” but the incredible sameness and predictability of human cognition demonstrated by cognitive science caused her to fear that she might be a robot–a machine that utterly lacked freedom. 

Admittedly, there is not yet any way for scientists to precisely predict human behavior in all situations.  Nonetheless, my friend panicked because science appears to be headed in that direction.  In fact, if the more people considered what cognitive scientists were up to more carefully, they would be burning down the cognitive science labs and think tanks, calling out that cognitive scientists were evil destroyers of all human values.  Thank goodness that more people don’t realize that so many scientists are daring to explore what makes humans tick!

We are finding more and more that, as Robert Wright pointed out in The Moral Animal, our emotions are “evolution’s executioners.” We are highly predictable in more ways than we care to imagine, including our biological routines for relating to our children, our parents, our mates our allies and our enemies.  Maybe we don’t yet know how to precisely map all the “causes” for my decision to buy strawberries today, but there are many of us out there (I am one of them) who assume that my behavior did, indeed, result from that particular constellation of causes that preceded my behavior. It is my assumption that science will continue to shine its light further and in a more fine-grained fashion in coming years.  In my opinion, there is an inevitability to this process.  In fact, in the coming decades, it will be impossible for honest people to overlook the thousands of physical connections human cognition must have with its surrounding environment in order to enable the sorts of things that humans do. Someday (though it might be decades away), the concept of “free will” will be considered quaint.

Here’s where the story gets interesting, however. If everything is caused by an unbroken chain of prior events, is there any room for human autonomy?  My friend insisted that human cognition was “different.”  In her opinion, all of those natural chains of causation somehow don’t penetrate to the level of human cognition.  I cross-examined her, however.  It went something like this:

What is the nature of all those gaps and causation such that you are endowed with an ability to “freely” think and act?  If you are not subject to the causal chain of natural events, your claim is that you must somehow transcend nature.  But you are not a very convincing uncaused entity.  To the contrary (I argued), your own body and brain appear to be quite at home in our natural world.  In fact, if you study other primates carefully, you will see that humans are only incrementally “different” than the other primates.  However you spin it, we are much more like chimpanzees than angels.

There doesn’t seem to be much room for “free will” to the extent that one strongly believes in a deterministic world.  If one thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to your body and brain reacting in certain ways, there simply can’t be any “free will,” as it is often portrayed by those who believe in free will.  Who are those Believers?  In my experience, just about everyone on the planet.  Why do they believe?  Because it terrifies them to not believe in free will.

What is the alternative to determinism?  Periodic breaks in the causal chain, and nothing less.  What must be true about anything that could serve as a break in the causal chains in which we are immersed?  Randomness.  Capricious uncaused unpredictable randomness.  Therefore, if you don’t want to be subject to the well-established forces of physics and chemistry, your only alternative is to declare that you are a creature that acts randomly.  Why did you just think that thought?  Not because of anything in your brain.  Why did you decide to help that person?  No reason at all.

To the extent that you are such a Believer, then, how does it feel to be reacting with your world with the predictability and precision of a roulette wheel? The simple answer is that you don’t react to your environment in a random fashion.  This much is clear to all thinking people.

Some have tried desperately to save free will despite the obvious rampant determinism we see around us.  For instance, some have written of “soft determinism,” (which, at bottom is determinism), while others have tried to find bits of “freedom” in the randomness of quantum physics. Most folks, however, cling to the patently absurd idea of a “soul,” a supposedly ghostly entity which is not part of the physical world, yet somehow interacts with it in predictable ways. But, truly, the soul is nothing less than a ghost and deserves no more respect than ghosts. But I don’t want to seem one-sided here, so do check out this photograph of the human soul at that critical “melding” stage.

But where does that leave us? When you fall in love, are “you” merely the predictable culmination of a complex symphony of chemistry and physics, i.e., a living robot?  Or are you a rather predictable being who is nonetheless riddled with causal gaps, supposedly (but not really) prone to unpredictable misfiring, scientifically speaking?

So go ahead and pick your poison: are you a robot lacking true autonomy or are you just wacky and unpredictably out-of-control?  If you choose the former, this might cause you to sometimes see the world in a hideous light. That person who was your “Grandma” might sometimes be seen as a complex adaptive system of highly organized and intensely interactive simple parts. Your grandma is a bunch of atoms if you are determinist, though she is admittedly a very interesting bunch of atoms.  If you choose the latter approach of non-causation, your grandma must be an inexplicable earthbound singularity.  This is hard to believe, however, since you know (you really know) that she acts with most of the same predictable ways that all of the rest of us exhibit. She meshes well with her environment no less so than any other animal meshes with its environment.

So here we are, between Scylla and Charybdis.  Or at least that’s my take on it.  Either everything is part of a causal chain or, to the extent that there are breaks in the causal chain, they are uncaused (and therefore random) breaks that could not account for any meaningful source of autonomy. 

There are many people that will have trouble contemplating this conundrum because they find it too terrifying.  They fear that both of these options, if true, would result in everything in their lives becoming pointless.  Really, though?  Isn’t it more true to say that things are what they are?  We do seem to have deeply grounded senses of meaning and understanding (at least most of us do) regardless of whether we are completely ensconced in a network of causation. No matter how far I’d dare to contemplate the causal web that envelops me, I remain an intensely social being who is driven by affect. No matter how philosophical I get, I still care about many things and I still feel strong moral compulsions.

Most of the time, however, I don’t contemplate this topic of “free will.”  As was the case with David Hume (who played backgammon as a retreat from his philosophy), I take numerous breaks from my own potentially unnerving philosophical excursions. When I return, however, I always come to the same conclusion: we are completely part of nature and completely subject to the laws of nature.  On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that we are completely determined.  It doesn’t feel like I’m a robot.  It feels like we are actually choosing things that we seem to choose.  But I know better . . .

One of Nietzsche’s main questions was how truth can be made “bearable.”  He argued that we have many useful untruths that are confused to be literal truths.  He contrasted these useful truths with actual truth and he asked “to what extent can truth stand to be incorporated?-that is the question; that is the experiment.” This is the question he asked at the end of section 110 of The Gay Science, where he listed other useful truths:

Origin of knowledge.-through immense periods of time the intellect produced nothing but errors; some of them turned out to be useful and species-preserving; those who hit upon or inherited them fought their fight for themselves and their progeny with greater luck.  Such erroneous articles of faith, which were passed on by inheritance further and further, and finally almost became part of the basic endowment of the species, or for example: that there are enduring things; that there are identical things; that there are things, kinds of material, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in and for itself.

Why do we fight so hard to maintain free will?  Because it is an illusion which has served us so very well.  I also think that we are terrified by the thought that there is no free will, most of us, most of the time.  It is a great threat to peel back our comforting facades and to really consider that humans are animals that are subject to the natural order.  It might even be dangerous.  Free will is Santa Claus for adults.  We believe in it without any evidence of it. Somehow, “free will” gives us a cheap sense of meaning, even though this meaning is supposedly based to a greater or lesser extent on randomness. Free will is convenient for us because it allows us to exert power by punishing and praising each other. 

In the absence of free will, “Why would we do anything at all?” people say.  Without free will, praising and punishing each other would make no more sense than praising or punishing an amoeba or an ant.  Pushing each other around is how we get things done, however, and we insist on feeling good about do it. Hence, free will.

But I don’t want to end this post on a note that will push some people over the edge.  So . . . let us raise our glasses and toast the concept free will, just as we sometimes smile at people dressed up like Santa Claus.  You are quite a compelling phrase (though not to me, some of the time). You are calming medicine to those who suffer existentialitis.  Thank you, Santa Cause, for making our ride on this planet more enjoyable, more endurable.  But may whole-hearted Belivers in free will someday dare to consider you with a skeptic’s eye, at least when they are ready.


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Category: Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (54)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Even if the processes that make up thought and decision are apparently completely deterministic, there is proof that they cannot be determined in practice.

    Read about Gödel's incompleteness theorems, proof that there is no "completely" in any system or hypothesis. There are always fuzzy edges.

    Read about Chaos theory, the proof that any sufficiently complex system is not predictable outside of definable bounds.

    Remember that all physical processes are built up out of quantum particles, the predictability of which is limited by both Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and the Observer effect for which it is often mistaken.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    We can also question whether we can understand what is our own will. One of the design flaws in our bodies is that there are almost no diagnostics in the central nervous system.

    They recently discovered a parallel signaling system to let the Cerebrum (logical part) know that an impulse is coming somewhere from within the brain. But if this particular system fails, we hear or see things and know (deep certainty/truth) that these apparitions are external: Jesus, demons, signals from UFO's, or whatever we can rationalize.

    But there is no internal system to let us know that the systems are working. We cannot feel misfiring neurons or brain damage. The many internal simultaneous (parallel) processes running in our brains are hidden from our awareness. We depend on others to let us know when we go awry, and are loathe to believe them when they do.

    Thus we cannot tell whether a decision was truly volitional (cogitated in the cerebrum/fore-brain), or a demand from one of the subunits (such as the Cerebellum) with a high enough priority/urgency/nerve-pulse-rate to simply override the thought processes.

    Studies of people who have a damaged or intentionally severed Corpus callosum (the bridge between hemispheres of the brain) show that one hand literally may not know what the other is doing. A question in the left ear answered with the left hand can get a different result asked and answer on the right. But the individual in the middle would not be aware of the difference until shown. Same person, same spirit, but with two different wills?

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    "Even if the processes that make up thought and decision are apparently completely deterministic, there is proof that they cannot be determined in practice."

    Dan: Undetermined doesn't sound at all like "will," only like "free." If one really figured out that cognition was not fully determined by physical laws, it would mean that we are completely out of control, mentally speaking. It's like the steering wheel just broke off.

    Many people have celebrated quantum smearing as though it hands them the equivalent of a little man in the brain with intelligence that is unhinged from the rest of physical reality. I'm convinced that physically undetermined decision-making would be, at best, willy-nilly, not anything useful to beings striving for survival. I'm not claiming that we are anywhere close to understanding the physics, the biology or the logic of conscious thought. I am confident that if science will not ever be capable of providing the answers we seek regarding human decision-making, we are complete lost in the woods, with no hope of ever gaining any understanding.

    To me, it makes no sense to argue that any form of intelligence simply IS. To me, spontaneous and un-caused intelligence is as great a leap of faith as belief that Mary was a virgin who got pregnant. Un-caused intelligence is amounts to a belief that humans are sentient supernatural beings.

    My operating assumption is that my cognitive function depends on various physical causal laws, and I proudly accept my (considerable) physical limitations. I'd rather have some sort of will than to be completely free.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Intelligence is an emergent property, a likely outcome of signal complexity. The signals running over the folds of a brain are very complex, with each waveform measured to be composed of elements from few cycles per year and through dozens of kilohertz. This makes sense if you are familiar with Fourier analysis.

    In earlier posts, like The Brain is not a Computer and Toolmaking as the basis for religion I mentioned Tilden's work at Los Alamos, where he built a 12 transistor "brain" that outperformed Pentium based (multimillion transistor) maze-runners. These brains learned from experience, and remembered very complex things for as long as they were kept running. There was almost no pre-programming, besides instructions to learn and to travel. Powered down, the waveforms disappeared; death.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    How is claiming that intelligence must have a cause different from saying that the universe must have a cause?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      When we ask about the "cause" of the universe, we are requesting what happened before there was anything at all. This is a highly speculative venture.

      When I ask what causes intelligence, I'm seeking the "proximate cause." I'm asking for the physical events that allow it to function right now. We are capable of exploring these correlates, at least to some extent.

      That's how I see the differences.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    If you can give me a clear and concise definition of "will" or even "intelligence", then I can probably show how my earlier comments support it.

    It reminds me of the effort to pick a definition of "species" that cannot be shown to have evolved. Creationists finally slithered out from under and coined "kind". But try to get a definition of "kind", and we're either back to the beginning (if it is too precise) or else too obviously relying on post-flood super-evolution (where a kind evolves into dozens or thousands of different and distinct species in a short period).

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    The proximate cause of intelligence? As exhibited by what? I'm guessing that the answer you seek is somewhere between the wisdom of bacteria to know what is good eating and those people so aware that they can intentionally show their pulse to make an accurate rifle shot, or comfortably sit naked on a glacier (both products of training).

    Proximate? It is an emergent quality. Are mice intelligent? How about bonobos? An ant? An ant colony?

    Define intelligence and we can talk.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Dan: This suggests that you are an ignostic as to "free will." I suppose I am too, because my main retort would be "free from what?" If the answer is physical causality, that excludes any sense of control and thus autonomy. If physical laws deep down in the cellar aren't determining what you believe that you are choosing, what is? Nothing?

  8. Karl says:

    It is not strange for a person to make choice(s) that seemingly defy rationality or even the flip/flopping of societal influence.

    Some draw lines in the sand, and never look back on their choices. These lines of sand harden into self deterministic rock foundations of personal philosophy.

    Free will in these cases becomes deterministic.

    Others draw lines in the sand and just as easily erase them when it becomes clear that their choice of a specific line was not very popular with their current or perhaps desired new peer group.

    Cases of "fluid" free will are not deterministic because the individual lacks sufficient personal identity apart from perceived others in society to make their choices their own.

    Free will is best understood as being determinsitic when the environment tries to coerce it into non-existence.

    Those who doubt the existence of free will have been shaped by society into believing something, thus society can also reshape their beliefs. Those who believe in free will accept that a line in the sand could easily be erased by external influences, but will believe the line is still present inspite of external influences.

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Will is as free as circumstances permit. One is generally not free to quit breathing; the decision is made below consciousness. One may choose to act anti-socially, until society catches you and ends that freedom.

    The real question is, is this question more valid than, "What color are God's toenails?"

    We feel that there is a central ruling will, a logical decider, a soul, a spirit, an agent within us. If this is actually as it seems, then the question of whether this actor is free to arbitrarily select actions may be valid. May be.

    Modern research into mind and brain is tending toward the theory that the conscious mind is just a tenuous awareness of just the results of a consensus of brain processes. Modify any of these hidden processes (brain damage, tumors, surgery, etc.) and the formerly reliable and predictable decisions change, along with the "personality".

    So what exactly is this "will" thing of which we are debating the freedom? After all, any sufficiently complex cascade of statistically predictable and interdependent events will tend to appear random. Free.

    "I wonder whether I am taking my mitochondria for a walk, or vice versa?" — Gonick

  10. Karl says:

    People know what free will is, they just don't want to have to deal with the ramifications on a continuing basis.

    People would rather place restraining orders upon those that violate their collective sense of predetermined beliefs and actions then call freedom of will a non-existent reality.

    A person can be taught to do many things some of of which can put the subconcious autonomic nervous system under conscious control.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      "A person can be taught to do many things some of of which can put the subconcious autonomic nervous system under conscious control."

      Karl: I have no idea what this means. It looks to me like a giant red flag that you believe in a physically disconnected soul.

      Keep in mind . . . I am not denying that it feels like we are freely making decisions. Nor am I denying that each of us can take in information and process it in an astounding number of ways as part of the decision-making process.

      My point is that all cognition stems from a vastly complex physical adaptive system that resides in and inter-reacts with an environment that is even more complex. To disconnect decision-making from it's physical environment yet claim that it makes decisions is to base it on something other than the physical world which, in my mind, is the only world. What else would reasoning depend on? Randomness? A soul? I've rejected these alternatives for the reasons I've already stated.

  11. Karl says:

    I know pretty well what you reject as being possible.

    I don't hold it against you.

    Why does the ability of people who will to believe that there is something other than the limited scientifically observed world to believe in throw up a big red flag in your thinking?

    Yes, I understand you will to believe that this is not to be considered or your view of human formulated scientific reasoning might be knocked off of its pedestal.

  12. John Jordan says:

    ‘’To disconnect decision-making from it’s physical environment yet claim that it makes decisions is to base it on something other than the physical world which, in my mind, is the only world. What else would reasoning depend on? Randomness? A soul? I’ve rejected these alternatives for the reasons I’ve already stated.’’

    As an opening question, what if reasoning could be based on ‘’anticipation of future states’’? Crazy you say? Hear me out (or more precisely, hear me repeat the arguments of others!..Practically everything I say below is taken from Robert Rosen, a theoretical biologist)

    Consider an oak tree in the northern hemisphere…many weeks before winter sets in, the tree begins to change…leaves turn brown and fall off, sap gets pulled down into the roots etc, etc… why is this? Because sub-zero temperatures are lethal to any cell that contains water; the oak tree ‘expects’ a certain environmental state at some future date. It ‘chooses’ to lose its leaves, a costly thing to do, as it predicts that this is, ultimately, a good ‘decision’. ( I use inverted commas to indicate that I am not implying tree ‘think’)

    Contrast this anticipation with the response of a banana tree transplanted to New England. The banana tree merely reacts to its new environment by freezing to death. Its ‘programming’, if you want to call it that, did not enable it to survive. It didn’t anticipate winter.

    I considered trees above, as they have no nervous system and thus, there is no confusing this ‘anticipation’ with ‘cognition’. This is still ‘’reasoning based on the physical world’’, I am not a mystic, but as you can see, what constitutes ‘’the physical world’’ must be broadened to include organism’s future predictions. We must re-admit Aristotle’s ‘’final cause’’ to scientific discourse, as it essential when dealing with organisms.

    ‘’….who assume that my behavior did, indeed, result from that particular constellation of causes that preceded my behavior.’’

    Yes, but that constellation of causes must be widened, or else we lose information vital to understanding the ‘’why’’ of your behavior.

    ‘’ Either everything is part of a causal chain or, to the extent that there are breaks in the causal chain, they are uncaused (and therefore random) breaks that could not account for any meaningful source of autonomy. ‘’

    So we are either automatons or whimsical entities? You’re not the first to propose this, personally, false dichotomy … but it is the logical conclusion from our ‘’scientific ‘’ knowledge… and I mean ‘’physics’’ when I say ‘’scientific’’ , as the methods of the physicist reign supreme and indeed, have become synonymous with science itself… Hence the history of science is the history of alienation, as your choice demonstrates. Is there a fundamental difference between the ‘machine’ and the ‘organism’? Is an organism just a complicated machine? Are machines (and mechanism) the basis of existence?

    Only if you say ‘yes’ to the last question do you inherit the result that being part of a ‘casual chain’ means being a ‘machine’…we share causal chains with machines, e.g. gravity causing falls, but there are modes of entailment inherent in organisms that are not present in machines and serve to separate these two categories of physical systems.

    ‘’Therefore, if you don’t want to be subject to the well-established forces of physics and chemistry, your only alternative is to declare that you are a creature that acts randomly. ‘’

    While it is obvious that we obey the laws of physics, is it the case that a description of living things as ‘aggregates of particles subject to dynamical laws’ is the only description? Does it capture everything important about the system? Is biology just a ‘special case’ of physics; the latter illuminating the general principles of the universe, the former teaching us nothing?

    ‘’Perhaps the first lesson to be learned from biology is that there are lessons to be learned from biology.” – Robert Rosen, Essays on Life Itself

    ‘’When I return, however, I always come to the same conclusion: we are completely part of nature and completely subject to the laws of nature. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that we are completely determined. It doesn’t feel like I’m a robot. It feels like we are actually choosing things that we seem to choose. But I know better . . .’’

    Do you? Perhaps there is a fundamental difference between robots, which merely react to things, and organisms, which react and anticipate?….and in our own case, we exhibit an additional anticipatory mechanism, namely cognition.

    We can absract out beyond time and space , identify problems, generate solutions.

    Of course, the problems we see and the solutions we propose will be the direct the result of the interplay between our temperament, our past experiences, the spirit of the times, our material means etc, etc. but this interaction is better compared to a symphony arising from its disparate elements than to the senseless grinding of gears.

    ‘’To the extent that you are such a Believer, then, how does it feel to be reacting with your world with the predictability and precision of a roulette wheel? The simple answer is that you don’t react to your environment in a random fashion. This much is clear to all thinking people.’’

    Are we really THAT predictable? I assume that you make no distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, i.e. the ‘mind’ is a result of the electrochemical architecture of the ‘brain’? Are our bodies that predictable? Think of the side-effects of drugs…there are no ‘magic bullets’ in medicine… unintended consequences abound..this is isn’t like machines, where switches are either flipped or they are not.

    We do more than react, we anticipate,. e.g. humans have detected increased carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere and some humans have increased spending on ‘green’ energy technologies as a result. This is a curious and highly specific physiological response to increased carbon dioxide levels, don’t you think? If our decisions are nothing more than the end result of impressed forces on featureless particles, then what a marvelously improbable response we have observed! You can probably see where I’m going with this.

    In short, future is not given, time is construction and our choices matter. (Refer to Prigogine for more on this, from a physicist’s point of view)

  13. John Jordan says:

    Erich, you might find Whitehead discussion this issue in his ‘’Science and the Modern World’’, (1925), particularly in the Chapter ‘’The Romantic Reaction’’, interesting.

    ''Wordsworth in his whole being expresses a conscious reaction against the mentality of the eighteenth century. This mentality means nothing else than the acceptance of the scientific ideas at their face value….What moved him was moral repulsion. He felt that something has been left out, and that what had been left out comprised everything that was most important…… Tennyson goes to the heart of the difficulty. It is the problem of mechanism which appalls him

    ‘’ ‘’The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run.’’’

    ‘’This line states starkly the whole philosophic problem implicit in the poem. Each molecule blindly runs. The human body is a collection of molecules. Therefore, the human body blindly runs, and therefore there can no individual responsibility for the actions of the body. If you once accept that the molecule is definitely determined to be what it is, independently of any determination by reason of the total organism of the body……. can be no escape from this conclusion…. The enfeeblement of thought in the modern world is illustrated…..

    ‘’The doctrine which I am maintaining is that the whole concept of materialism only applies to very abstract entities, the products of logical discernment ….so that the plan of the whole organism influences the very characters of the various sub-ordinate organisms which enter into it….. Thus an electron within a living body is different from an electron outside it, by reason of the plan of the body. The electron blindly runs either within or without the body ; but it runs within the body in accordance with its character within the body; that it is to say, in accordance with the general plan of the body, and this plan includes the mental state.’’

    • Erich Vieth says:

      John Jordan: Thank you so very much for injecting this quote by Whitehead. It is quite a quandary, isn't it? If one wears one's reductionist hat snugly, all of the stuff that goes on up high in the mind (e.g., decision-making and pondering causation) depends completely on what happens below (e.g., electrochemicals, neurotransmitters and LTP, as well as sub-atomic physics). But we humans have lots of emotional incentive to not to believe as committed reductionists because we want to believe that we are "free." That's where your point comes in, as I see it. What about emergence? Aggregates of simpler things sometimes take on new and surprising qualities when one compares them to the substrates. No matter how much one studies carbon compounds in a lab, one will have no way of anticipating higher order things like parakeets and my grandma. Those higher-order qualities emerge, and one is tempted to conclude that those higher order properties that emerge (e.g., consciousness) can somehow be so different from the stuff that makes them up, and otherwise so magically special, that the causal arrows are actually reversed, and that my consciousness can somehow overrule the basic laws of physics (rules on which my biology intimately, for the most part, depends). I'm not willing to make that leap, as much as I'm sometimes tempted.

      Thanks, again, for joining in this conversation. I'll share with you that I'm gnawing on Daniel Dennet's Elbow Room, a work in which Dennet has dug more deeply than most others. I'll report on that when I work my way through the entire book.

  14. grumpypilgrim says:

    John's comments have had me thinking a lot about this subject. On the one hand, the example of the oak tree highlights the mechanistic aspect of life. Trees lose their leaves not because they 'anticipate' winter in any sense; rather, autumn's shorter days (well before winter's killing cold arrives) retards the photosynthesis process, which reduces the nutrient uptake that the tree needs to support all those green leaves. The leaves then lose their chlorophyl, which causes their underlying color to appear (brown, red, yellow, orange, etc. — the familiar colors of autumn) and then the leaves fall off. All very predetermined.

    On the other hand, we have human consciousness. Of course, it, too, has its robotic component — the personalities of most of us don't vary much from one day to the next (if it does, the person will often be institutionalized) — yet even if our outward behavior were entirely determined by the mechanical workings of the subatomic particles in our brains, we would still *not* behave in a predictable manner. Heisenberg Uncertainty would be constantly introducing unpredictable changes in the (quantum mechanical) workings of the subatomic particles in our brains, and our thoughts, and thus our behavior, would (presumably) then appear largely random. In fact, humans are capable of directing their thoughts in a particular (desired?) direction for sustained periods of time. Presumably, we could not do that without having some (willful?) control over the random quantum fluctuations going on inside our neurons: free will.

    Then again, a mosquito brain presumably also has neurons that are subject to unpredictable quantum fluctuations, yet who would argue that the mosquito has "free will" over whom it chooses to bite?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Grumpy: Welcome to the conversation on free will. Excellent thoughts. Thank you. I sense that we are both stalemated on a similar point. People can argue about the meaning of "free," but I've NEVER run across anyone who would argue that "free" means "random" or "capricious." For most people, "freedom" requires some sort of direct control by an autonomous agent who is not directly controlled, not completely directly controlled anyway. But that agent is never characterized as acting randomly. Quantum randomness will loosen up the causal chains that preceded the development of quantum physics. No respectable scientist today argues that we can trace predictable causation all the way down into the sub-atomic sphere. What what does that get you? As humans, quantum randomness would seem to offer us, at most, upredictability and random thoughts and behavior.

      That's not what philosophers and theologians mean when they argue that human beings are "free."

      Sometimes, I'm convinced that the entire conundrum is caused by use of the vague word "free." If we can't define that word in a generally acceptable way, we shouldn't even be trying to discuss "free will." It reminds me of the problem that gave rise to the word "ignostic" in discussions concerning whether "God" exists (see meaning #2 here: ).

  15. John Jordan says:


    I am deliberately avoiding the arguments you made in the article, as, well, I am in agreement; where we differ is the somewhat pessimistic stalemate you seem to have resigned yourself to (in my opinion, but I’ve only glanced over your article, I’m a terrible listener!).

    I will try to provide information and outline half-formed ideas that you may find useful in your attempt to achieve a more satisfactory answer. There are other ways to proceed, scientifically, none of this wishy-washy emoting, or taking refuge in spirituality (oh, horror-of horrors!)

    ‘’ But we humans have lots of emotional incentive to not to believe as committed reductionists because we want to believe that we are “free.”’’

    I would say that we have much more than an ‘’emotional incentive’’, we have, in fact, good scientific reasons not to believe. Firstly, it is crucial to define what we mean as ‘free’ , as words are slippery and often cause people to engage in parallel monologues, each debating a topic only tangentially related to the other’s. (One of my most persistent vices!)

    By ‘’free’, I mean, ‘’while we cannot control our impulses, we can control our actions’’. I admit this is more ‘’free won’t’’ as opposed to ‘’free will’’, but I think it describes the situation better.

    The people who say our will is ‘NOT free’ are exemplified by the murderer who replies that ‘’The knife went in’’ when asked why he stabbed his victim (See the first few pages of…. all I’ve read of this book, but I think it will be useful to this discussion… illustrates the danger to society of having people fall too hard into the ‘determinism’ camp).

    A quote – [‘’In causal systems the past is the cause of the present and there is no reference to the future as a determining agent, contrary to anticipatory systems where expectations are the cause of the present action.’’]

    The ‘’NOT free’’ camp argues that we are simple casual systems, as described above. (I’m not attempting to set-up a straw-man, this is my honest understanding of their position) Here, Laplace’s demon knows our next move.

    By ‘free’ I do not mean ‘whimsical’ i.e. derived from random (supernatural) breaks in the casual chain. Referring to this definition, I would state that our will is ‘’NOT free’’, in this sense.

    I will elaborate on your example, as it’s full of potential. Consider the carbon atom. You, being a damned good reductionist, discern the atomic radius, the electronic orbitals, the number of protons and neutrons etc. You know everything there is to know about the carbon atom. Does this mean you now know everything about aggregates of carbon atoms? Consider the simplest aggregates of carbon, its allotropes.

    Why is diamond the hardest natural material and graphite among the softest? Diamond is an electrical insulator, graphite a conductor. Graphene, molecular chicken wire, has unprecedented properties – it’s the material scientist’s wet dream! Incidentally, graphene was theorized as an impossible arrangement for many years (

    It is obvious in the examples above that the simple spatial arrangement, the structure, is as important to understanding the system as its material parts are; indeed, you might argue that it is more important, as you could, conceivably, obtain the same result with different materials. Saying that a diamond is just a ‘lump of carbon’ is patently false. What, then, to make of the description of man as a ‘lump of molecules’?

    We could ask the question – does the matter even matter? Consider that mammals have blood (or more precisely, oxygen carrying systems) based on iron, some creatures have blood based on copper, most have no blood at all. All are still alive. The interactions between the parts of a living system are infinitely richer than that of a machine and will give rise to all sorts of emergent properties. Of course, we can compare a machine to an organism, this is what ‘hard’ science does at present, but this is not the only way to proceed.

    Observing organisms, we witness wondrous new properties arising- a living thing is no mere aggregate of particles. A rock, a dead lifeless thing is a mere molecular aggregate. There is no such thing as a ‘’living robot’’, it’s an oxymoron, like Rob Zombie’s ‘’Living Dead Girl’’.

    Living things represent ‘’organised matter’’. What is meant by ‘’organisation’’ includes material structure, the functional relationship between parts, the effects generated, the relations between effects etc.

    Organisation is the reason why the whole is more than the sum of the parts; it is a fundamental feature of our world, of causality. The things we cannot ‘’see’’, like functional interactions between parts, are as real as the things we can, like particles.

    Think of the active site of a protein, the functional unit. You cannot determine where the active site of an unknown enzyme is, by looking at its structure, if you divorce it from its context. But that doesn’t mean that the functional unit is any ‘less real’ than the material structure, i.e. the amino acid sequence.

    In fact, while a function demands a certain structure, a structure does not entail a certain function… a simple, mechanical example, is that a car needs an object that spins attached to its axles, i.e. a wheel (structure), in order to drive (function) but having a wheel (structure) doesn’t mean the object is there to drive, it could be a Catherine Wheel. So who dances to who’s tune? What way is the causal arrow directed? Is that leap looking anymore likely?

    those higher order properties that emerge (e.g., consciousness) can somehow be so different from the stuff that makes them up, and otherwise so magically special, that the causal arrows are actually reversed, and that my consciousness can somehow overrule the basic laws of physics (rules on which my biology intimately, for the most part, depends). I’m not willing to make that leap, as much as I’m sometimes tempted.

    I take ‘basic’ laws of physics to mean the ‘physics of particles’… the same four forces act on people and particles, yes, but a description of people, in terms of particles, leaves out what is most important about people. It also creates the problem of free will versus determinism that you and many others have wrestled with for many years.

    Perhaps in all my rambling, you will find something that will lead you to a way to ‘dissolve’ this problem, since I don’t think there is any way of 'solving' it… recall Einstein..

    ’’We cannot solve problems using the same thinking we used when we created them’’

    • Erich Vieth says:

      John: Many great points here. Thank you for taking the time to spell them out. I would like to meditate on them a bit before responding fully. At this point, I do want to clarify one thing. I would classify myself as striving (though not always succeeding) to interpret the world through a naturalistic scientific lens. I am highly skeptical. I am quite willing to say that I have learned many things about the world (standing on the shoulders of giants) but that what I do know merely scratches the surface of the reality in which I am immersed. But here's the point. I consciously attempt to apply a mechanistic analysis. I'll refer you to the writings of a brilliant philosopher of science, William Bechtel (I had the privilege of sitting in on a few of his graduate seminars at Washington University. Here's a bit on the mechanistic method:… (this is an article focusing primarily on the work of Stuart Kauffman). Is it reductionistic? Absolutely. But it is also emergentist. Welcome to our onion-like world, and be prepared to encounter it as an adventure that involves knitting together (or trying to knit) the layers of phenomenon we encounter. And yes, we agree that "structure, is as important to understanding the system as its material parts." This is one of Bechtel's central points.

      Bottom line: The smallest particle is not my holy grail. Rather, I seek comprehensive understanding. Fear has a way of warping understanding. I seek enough courage to lead me to the truth. It it often terrifying. What if what we see is all there is? What if meaning oozes from our hypothalamus, rather than from anything traditionally conceived to be objective? So much we don't yet know.

      And I did enjoy the Albert Einstein quote at the end of your comment.

  16. John Jordan says:

    Grumpy, I apologise if I caused any confusion with my talk of anticipatory systems. Certainly, said process occurs via a biochemical mechanism, for that is how things are achieved. However, Rosen’s central argument was that the sum of all mechanisms (or of all mechanistic models) is NOT an organism (or model of an organism).

    I brought up the topic of anticipatory systems to expand the ‘constellation of causes’ considered when trying to establish the cause of a human decision. Namely, the Aristotelian ‘final cause’ must be re-introduced to scientific discourse – the ultimate reason for the action. Yes, yes, I know, this flirts dangerously with teleology and heavens-forbid! divine plan, but hear this devout atheist out! Normally, only the material and efficient cause are considered in answering ‘why’? Consider a house.

    Raw materials = material cause

    Builders = efficient cause

    Blueprint the builders use = formal cause (defines what the efficient cause can achieve)

    Because someone needs a place to live = final cause

    Now, genetics admits the ‘formal cause’, the organisms ‘blueprint’, but so far, the final cause has been left out in the cold.

    An example – consider the dramatic coat changes of the artic hare. Steel grey in summer, white in winter. There is no doubt that the changes occur via a biochemical mechanism, but why are these mechanisms running?

    I would say that it is because information regarding seasonal change is encoded in the hare, much like the oak tree, and it is anticipating/expecting winter. The ‘final cause’ is to blend in with its surroundings. It is not running blind (doesn’t mean its expectations are correct of course!)

    Put the oak tree in Kenya and you won’t see said changes taking place. They do not run blindly, there is a reason for their behavior. Of course, it occurs because of biochemical mechanisms, how could it occur otherwise? But the mechanisms do no tell you ‘why’ it is happening, merely the ‘how’ of the process.

    I think this is the root of the problem, confusing ‘why’ our decisions are made (emergent/holist approach) with the ‘how’ they occur (mechanisms/reductionist approach). Then again, perhaps it is I who is confused! If you forbid the final cause, then the reasons we make a decision, our will, is reduced to a dumb procession of molecules and no more.

    I have avoided, so far, human consciousness as it complicates matters, but you can see with the tree and the hare, that there are ultimate reasons for their behavior, even in the absence of a nervous system.

    Note -when I say a mechanism, I use Robert Rosen’s precise definition, which states that a mechanism is a simple system, with only linear chains of entailment, it is open to efficient causation. An organism, a complex system, has closed loops, and can have linear chains, of entailment. It is closed to efficient causation. Complex systems have semantic aspects (external referents), unlike simple systems, which are fully syntactic, i.e. meaningless symbols (particles, people etc) pushed about by definite forces.

    About the mosquito. Perhaps it bites whoever is convenient? They aren’t very hardy fliers – air-conditioning units in a room are usually enough to put an end to their flying. Do you have ‘free will’ over where you go on holidays? i.e. where you fly? No doubt it is constrained by your tastes, your finances, airport location, airlines selling cheap seats etc, Does that make your will any less free?

    I know from many years of trying to swot flies that they tend to avoid swatters rather well, balancing the need to feed my on picnic with the need to avoid death – these proposed ‘quantum fluctuations’ would seem to be rather non-random!

    As an aside, I think insect intelligence is commonly underestimated.. spiders will alter their webs in response to changes in prey size, location, density. I saw this sort of thing on a tv documentary, with a spider adjusting its firstly symmetrical web (between two posts) into a progressively more asymmetric

  17. Doug says:

    I'd suggest that the ability to predicting the behavior of a human at some random time in the future has about the same chance of happening as predicting the weather in my town on the third Wednesday of Jan 2012; slim to none. Chaos theory pretty much precludes this from happening. I'd suggest that I'm at least as complex as a weather system so for that reason, I suggest that free will does exist.

    I do believe that humans tend to respond to inputs in ways that are similar and largely predictable but that does not translate to determinism except within very short time frames under tightly controlled conditions and then with the expectation that there will be person to person variations in the response.

  18. Jordan says:

    I believe in what you say even down to the sub atomic scale. Seeing as all things have a equal and opposite reaction you can say the brain is just a complex computer made up of atom's. We can also say this about everything in the universe if one had the capability to calculate all variables in a given system (the universe) then you would have the ability to look in to the future. All animals have this ability on a far lesser scale just because the brain can calculate movement, is one way of telling the future as we can figure out where things will be in a given time. This is only if are universe works under set laws which is still a debatable theory today so even then your argument is still very debatable. It kinda makes you wonder if there is a destiny not in a religious sense but in a scientific sense. Karma can also play a role in this as well but again in a scientific sense not in a religious sense. What I mean by karma is inside this system everything effects one another meaning me as a person wakes up one day and is angry and decides to be a angry towards others would affect them in a negative way which in turn would make them effect others in a negative way and vice versa.

  19. Cliff says:

    Your definition of free will overlooks a very important factor: desire. It is of no use to be in complete control if you are not fulfilling your desires.

    To that point, then, free will and determinism aren't necessarily at odds. From a folksy point of view, if I don't want what nature's pointin' at me, I probably ain't livin' right. But I'm sure that's hardly scientific enough to stand in this thread.

    The *ONLY* value in free will is the pursuit of happiness. Why drive your Ferrari off into the woods just to spite the road? Just because I do what humans are supposed to doesn't mean I'm not doing what I want to.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Cliff: I very much disagree that the attempt to be "happy" is the meaning of life, if that is what you are suggesting.

      I think you are missing my point. Full-fledged determinism is absolutely compatible with THINKING or BELIEVING that you are "free." What you FEEL does not prove or disprove determinism.

  20. Erich Vieth says:

    More proof that the debate over "free will" is fraught with definitional ambiguity:

    "To summarize, freewill is not choice free from the "wiring" of our brains, our genes, or chemical factors. It does not mean that we are free from environmental influences, our life's experiences, or prior thoughts and decisions. Freewill is the extra freedom – the extra ability that we have – to create and evaluate options by projecting and understanding their implications. Freewill is the ability to make conscious choices; choices made with awareness and understanding of their possible and probable consequences, and of the fact that we (our minds) are doing the choosing. The question of whether these intelligent choices are products of mechanistic processes and whether they are deterministic is not contained in the definition, and requires further investigation."

    This is not what I am referring to when I refer to "free will." That I might be aware of my plight does not make us free, as most people use the term. By "free will" most people mean that in some sense our choices are not completely determined by something else, that the thing in me that makes choices is in some way outside of the causal chain that connects the rest of the physical world. But secondly, most of those who believe in "free will" insist that he or she can nevertheless control what he or she does. To my understanding, these two ideas conflict. To the extent that my dog's brain could somehow become unhinged from the rest of the physical causal world, my dog would have lost control over its cognition, it has become the opposite of being free. My dog would, in that case, be acting randomly or capriciously. I believe that being in control absolutely requires being connect to the causal world in physical ways.

  21. Erich Vieth says:

    Wikipedia has an entry on the Neuroscience of Free Will:

    "[A] person's brain seems to commit to certain decisions before the person becomes aware of having made them. Early studies found delays of about half a second; with contemporary brain scanning technology, scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice.[1] These findings may not be sufficient to contradict free will, as it would be quite likely that a large range of cognitive operations are necessary to freely press a button.

    Another proposed explanation is a 'forward model of motor control', which is mentioned below. The idea is that our conscious self does not cause all behaviours. Instead, the conscious self is alerted (through various sensations) to behaviours that the rest of the brain and body are already planning and performing. To be clear, this model does not deny that consciousness affects behaviour; it does not forbid conscious experience from being used as input by unconscious processes – information that might modify a behaviour in progress. The key is that the unconscious processes play a much larger role in behaviour. This model thus challenges some conceptions of free will, since self awareness may only recognize a feeling of will, which appears before an action."

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