Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have. Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.
If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”?
The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false.
The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.
One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it.
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.
Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.
There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor does it depend upon it). A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, whereas an involuntary action isn’t. Needless to say, this difference is reflected at the level of the brain. And what a person consciously intends to do says a lot about him. It makes sense to treat a man who enjoys murdering children differently from one who accidentally hit and killed a child with his car—because the conscious intentions of the former give us a lot of information about how he is likely to behave in the future.
Of course, this insight does not make social and political freedom any less important. The freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was.
You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.
In the philosophical literature, one finds three main approaches to the problem: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism.
Today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist—because we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.
However, the “free will” that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have.
Compatibilists generally claim that a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions.
If you want a second scoop of ice cream and no one is forcing you to eat it, then eating a second scoop is fully demonstrative of your freedom of will. The truth, however, is that people claim greater autonomy than this. Our moral intuitions and sense of personal agency are anchored to a felt sense that we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions.
My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. Why didn’t I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to me. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not.
And there is no way I can influence my desires—for what tools of influence would I use? Other desires? To say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have lived in a different universe had I been in a different universe. Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.
At this moment, you are making countless unconscious “decisions” with organs other than your brain—but these are not events for which you feel responsible. Are you producing red blood cells and digestive enzymes at this moment?
Your body is doing these things, of course, but if it “decided” to do otherwise, you would be the victim of these changes, rather than their cause. To say that you are responsible for everything that goes on inside your skin because it’s all “you” is to make a claim that bears absolutely no relationship to the feelings of agency and moral responsibility that have made the idea of free will an enduring problem for philosophy.
We know, in fact, that we sometimes feel responsible for events over which we have no causal influence. Given the right experimental manipulations, people can be led to believe that they consciously intended an action when they neither chose it nor had control over their movements. In one experiment, subjects were asked to select pictures on a screen using a computer’s cursor. They tended to believe that they had intentionally guided the cursor to a specific image even when it was under the full control of another person, as long as they heard the name of the image just before the cursor stopped.12 People who are susceptible to hypnosis can be given elaborate suggestions to perform odd tasks, and when asked why they have done these things, many will confabulate—giving reasons for their behavior that have nothing to do with its actual cause.
How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t. To say that “my brain” decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and that this is the basis for my freedom, is to ignore the very source of our belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency. People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about.
Consequently, some scientists and philosophers hope that chance or quantum uncertainty can make room for free will.
The sound of the leaf blower intrudes, but I can seize the spotlight of my attention in the next moment and aim it elsewhere. This difference between nonvolitional and volitional states of mind is reflected at the level of the brain—for they are governed by different systems. And the difference between them must, in part, produce the felt sense that there is a conscious self endowed with freedom of will.
The phrase “free will” describes what it feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in consciousness. Thoughts like “What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know—I’ll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish” convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. But from a deeper perspective (speaking both objectively and subjectively), thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.
And we know that the brain systems that allow us to reflect upon our experience are different from those involved when we automatically react to stimuli. So consciousness, in this sense, is not inconsequential
As Dan Dennett and many others have pointed out, people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen;
Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.
You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.
Many people worry that free will is a necessary illusion—and that without it we will fail to live creative and fulfilling lives. This concern isn’t entirely unjustified. One study found that having subjects read an argument against the existence of free will made them more likely to cheat on a subsequent exam.Another found such subjects to be less helpful and more aggressive.
Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.
Our interests in life are not always served by viewing people and things as collections of atoms—but this doesn’t negate the truth or utility of physics.
Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can—paradoxically—allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).
The great worry, of course, is that an honest discussion of the underlying causes of human behavior appears to leave no room for moral responsibility. If we view people as neuronal weather patterns, how can we coherently speak about right and wrong or good and evil?
To say that I was responsible for my behavior is simply to say that what I did was sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them. If I had found myself standing in the market naked, intent upon stealing as many tins of anchovies as I could carry, my behavior would be totally out of character; I would feel that I was not in my right mind, or that I was otherwise not responsible for my actions.
And it works this miracle even if the man’s subjective experience was identical to that of the psychopath in case 4—for the moment we understand that his feelings had a physical cause, a brain tumor, we cannot help seeing him as a victim of his own biology.
What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm. Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.
Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel. Once again, even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the picture does not change: Anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly unlucky.
Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself.
The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior.
Viewing human beings as natural phenomena need not damage our system of criminal justice. If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. We fight emerging epidemics—and even the occasional wild animal—without attributing free will to them.
Clearly, vengeance answers to a powerful psychological need in many of us. We are deeply disposed to perceive people as the authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do us, and to feel that these transgressions must be punished.
However, it may be that a sham form of retribution would still be moral—even necessary—if it led people to behave better than they otherwise would.
Even if you have struggled to make the most of what nature gave you, you must still admit that your ability and inclination to struggle is part of your inheritance. How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition. Of course, conservatives are right to think that we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can. And it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society. But this does not mean that we must be taken in by the illusion of free will.
We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change. We do not change ourselves, precisely—because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing—but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us. It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell of free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful.
Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth.