Abandoning Free Will
The human interpreter has set us up for a fall. It has created the illusion of self and, with it, the sense we humans have agency and “freely” make decisions about our actions. In many ways it is a terrific and positive capacity for humans to possess. With increasing intelligence and with a capacity to see relationships beyond what is immediately and perceptually apparent, how long would it be before our species began to wonder what it all meant—what was the meaning of life? The interpreter provides the storyline and narrative, and we all believe we are agents acting of our own free will, making important choices. The illusion is so powerful that there is no amount of analysis that will change our sensation that we are all acting willfully and with purpose. The simple truth is that even the most strident determinists and fatalists at the personal psychological level do not actually believe they are pawns in the brain’s chess game.
Puncturing this illusionary bubble of a single willing self is difficult to say the least. Just as we know but find it difficult to believe that the world is not flat, it too is difficult to believe that we are not totally free agents. We can begin to understand the illusion about free will when we ask the question, What on earth do humans want to be free from? Indeed, what does free will even mean? However actions are caused, we want them to be carried out with accuracy, consistency, and purpose. When we reach for the glass of water, we don’t want our hand suddenly rubbing our eye, or grasping so hard that the glass shatters, or the water to spurt upward from the faucet or turning into mist. We want all the physical and chemical forces in the world to be on our side, serving our nervous and somatic systems so that whatever the job, it gets done right. So we don’t want to be free from the physical laws of nature.
Think about the problem of free will on a social level. While we believe we are always acting freely, we commonly want none of that in others. We expect the taxi driver to take us to our destination and not where he thinks we ought to go. We want our elected politicians to vote on future issues the way we have decided (probably erroneously) they think. We don’t like the idea they are freely wheelin’ and dealin’ when we send them off to Washington (though they probably are). We intensely desire reliability in our elected officials and indeed in our family and friends.
When all the great minds of the past dealt with the question of free will, the stark reality and clarity that we are big animals, albeit with unique attributes, was not fully appreciated and accepted. The powerful idea of determinism, however, was apparent and appreciated. At the same time, and prior to the startling advances in neuroscience, explanations of mechanisms were unknown. Today they are. Today we know we are evolved entities that work like a Swiss clock. Today, more than ever before, we need to know where we stand on the central question of whether not we are agents who are to be held accountable and responsible for our actions. It sure seems like we should be. Put simply: The issue isn’t whether or not we are “free.” The issue is that there is no scientific reason not to hold people accountable and responsible.
As we battle through this, I will attempt to make two main points: First—and this has to do with the very nature of brain-enabled conscious experience itself—we humans enjoy mental states that arise from our underlying neuronal, cell-to-cell interactions. Mental states do not exist without those interactions. At the same time, they cannot be defined or understood by knowing only the cellular interactions. Mental states that emerge from our neural actions do constrain the very brain activity that gave rise to them. Mental states such as beliefs, thoughts, and desires all arise from brain activity and in turn can and do influence our decisions to act one way or another. Ultimately, these interactions will only be understood with a new vocabulary that captures the fact that two different layers of stuff are interacting in such a way that existing alone animates neither. As John Doyle at Caltech puts the issue, “The standard problem is illustrated with hardware and software; software depends on hardware to work, but is also in some sense more ‘fundamental’ in that it is what delivers function. So what causes what? Nothing is mysterious here, but using the language of ‘cause’ seems to muddle it. We should probably come up with new and appropriate language rather than try to get into some Aristotelian categories.” Understanding this nexus and finding the right language to describe it represents, as Doyle says, “the hardest and most unique problem in science.” The freedom that is represented in a choice not to eat the jelly donut comes from a mental layer belief about health and weight, and it can trump the pull to eat the donut because of its yummy taste. The bottom-up pull sometimes loses out to a top-down belief in the battle to initiate an action. And yet the top layer does not function alone or without the participation of the bottom layer.
The second point is how to think about the very concept of personal responsibility in a mechanistic and social world. It is a given that all network systems, social or mechanical, need accountability in order to work. In human societies this is generally referred to as members of a social group possessing personal responsibility. Now is personal responsibility a mechanism that resides in the individual brain? Or is its existence dependent on the presence of a social group? Alternatively, does the concept have meaning only when considering actions within a social group? If there were only one person in the world, would the concept of personal responsibility have any meaning? I would suggest it would not and in that truth, one can see that the concept is wholly dependent on social interactions, the rules of social engagement. It is not something to be found in the brain. Of course, some concepts that would lack meaning if nobody else were around are not wholly dependent on social rules or interactions. If there were only one person, it would be meaningless to say that he is the tallest person or taller than everyone else, but the concept of “taller” is not wholly dependent on social rules.
One cannot emphasize enough how all of this seems like crazy academic intellectual talk. It seems like when I go to a restaurant, my meal selection is a free choice. Or when the alarm goes off in the morning, I can go exercise or roll over, but it is my free choice. Or on the other hand, I can walk into a store and choose not to slip something into my pocket without paying for it. In traditional philosophy, free will is the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice that is not determined by physical forces, Fate, or God. YOU are calling the shots. YOU, a self with a central command center, are in charge, are free from causation, and are doing things. You can be free from outside control, coercion, compulsion, delusion, and inner lack of restraint over your actions. From what we learned in the last chapter, however, the modern perspective is that brains enable minds, and that YOU is your vastly parallel and distributed brain without a central command center. There is no ghost in the machine, no secret stuff that is YOU. That YOU that you are so proud of is a story woven together by your interpreter module to account for as much of your behavior as it can incorporate, and it denies or rationalizes the rest.
We have seen that our functionality is automatic: We putter along perceiving, breathing, making blood cells, and digesting without so much as a thought about it. We also automatically behave in certain ways: We form coalitions, share our food with our children, and pull away from pain. We humans also automatically believe certain things: We believe incest is wrong and flowers aren’t scary. Our left-brain interpreter’s narrative capability is one of the automatic processes, and it gives rise to the illusion of unity or purpose, which is a post hoc phenomenon. Does this mean we are just along for the ride, cruising on autopilot? Our whole life and everything that we do or think is determined? Oh my. As I already said, with what we now know about how the brain operates, it seems that we need to reframe the question about what it means to have free will. What on earth are we really talking about anyway?