Free Will / Free Won’t: Conclusion

This is the fifth and final part of the talk ‘Free Will / Free Won’t’. Notes in the text in the form [ABC] can be found by following the above link. It brings points together from the previous parts to present an overall position on the ‘problem’ of free will. Particular justification are generally to be found in those earlier parts [OTH].

21. A Physicalist Approach

‘Free Will’ is an out-of-date term, too closely associated with a dualist way of thinking. It doesn’t make sense to continue using the term if a physicalist stance is adopted. It only exists as much as phlogiston still exists as a concept, even though it has been superceded by a superior theory of combustion.

We are making progress in relating (correlating) physical events to conscious events, in both directions: ‘observing’ , for example, via fMRI scans and very-crudely ‘controlling’ via TMS [HAG]. There is no argument that physicalist stance should be discounted. At this stage, physicalist theories of the high-level functioning of the brain are simplistic. The diagrams that have been presented here showing the brain crudely divided up, reductively cutting up the brain into smaller entities, are particularly simplistic. They are ridiculously wrong but at least they are stepping stones to better theories. In contrast, dualism cannot make any progress.

(At the same time, I would want to counter the arrogance of sciences claims to answer everything [INS].)

22. Will and Freedom are Separate

We must make a distinction between [WEG]:

  •  ‘phenomenal will’: the feeling of Conscious Will, the experience as reported by ourselves, and
  •  ‘empirical will’: the will that physically causes action. Our ability to act.

It is better to talk about these concepts separately. In this talk, I have referred to these as ‘Conscious will’ and ‘Freedom’ respectively. We can have freedom without conscious will. And we can have conscious will without freedom.

23. Conscious Will is not an Illusion

Despite Wegner’s reference to the illusion of conscious will, there is no illusion. ‘Conscious will’ exists and the term emphasizes its dependence on consciousness. By calling it an illusion, Wegner is just highlighting the separateness of phenomenal and empirical will. ‘Conscious will’ is an experience like other experiences. We cannot have conscious will without consciousness, just like we cannot have the experience of blue without consciousness. But we can be conscious but blind and we can be conscious and lack the feeling of conscious will. The feeling of Conscious will is no more an illusion than the seeing of blue is an illusion. Think what would a reason for us being able to sense electromagnetic radiation around 475 nanometres (‘blue’) sound like? Wegner’s hypothesis for the reason for experiencing conscious will is a good one – the attribution of authorship.

24. We have Freedom

We have freedom as agents (an agent is something that is both able to affect its physical environment and be affected by its physical environment). We are complex agents in a chaotic world. Event horizons expand rapidly [CHA]:

  • The volume of space that affects us expands rapidly as we try to predict further into the future.
  • The volume of space that we can affects expands rapidly as we consider events further into the future.

There is no all-knowing agent (within the agent’s environment) – ‘Laplace’s demon’ is a problem for theology only.

Our freedom arises from three things:

  • our own complexity,
  • our environment and
  • time.

There is no need to resort to quantum indeterminacy (a libertarian device). There is no need to resort to non-physical realms of existence (dualist device). The basis for our freedom is epistemological rather than ontological [EPI].

Freedom depends on information – what is known and what is not known by agents. We know more about what we are going to do than other agents do. But we are not able to know what we will be doing very far ahead because of the complexity of our environment.

25. Time is an important factor in our freedom.

The ‘free won’t’ model provides us with an evolutionary account for how brains have become more complex and yet not just shifted our freedom from one narrow range of timescales to another. It has allowed our freedom to increase across a wider timescale:

  • Over a short timescale (about a second): our behaviour is reflexive.
  • Over a longer timescale (minutes to years): our behaviour can be deliberative.


26. Where Next?: Morality

Most discussions of ‘free will’ cover the moral dimension because of the consequences of not having it. Indeed, most popular articles in the subject are motivated by the moral dimension because it is this that makes the topic interesting for so many: if we do not really have free will, how can we be held responsible for what we do? But this talk has not touched on this at all until now. This talk is only a precursor to that discussion.

Whilst taking inspiration from biology, it has deliberately stayed abstract and agnostic in terms of the ‘being’ it is applied to (human/animal/robot/alien) – whether it is made up of gooey biological stuff or otherwise. For example, I have deliberately avoided getting too specific to the actual details of the human brain. This allows this talk to be a springboard in two very different directions:

1.      The implications of this physicalist stance of free will on us. That is the topic of this short section. And

2.      Investigating the implementation-agnostic concept of freedom further. That is the topic of the next section.

A basic idea in ethics is that we mustn’t confuse an ‘is’ with an ‘ought’. Put crudely, neuroscience tells us what is; in what way does what we now know about the brain then affect how we ought to behave? We should be wary going from one to the other. Here are just two ‘neuroethical’ accounts:

The dualist view holds the homunculus within ourselves as being morally responsible for our actions. Hence our notion of responsibility is a dualist one. If we have updated our notion of  ‘free will’ away from a dualist position but still maintain our old notions of freedom and responsibility, things start to go wrong. For example:

  • Determinism may reduce our belief in our willpower. There is evidence that if we believe our willpower is limited it is self-fulfilling and it results in reduction of our conscious will [WAL].
  • A personal belief in free will would seem to make us behave better. There is evidence that if we accept a deterministic understanding of free will, we are given the excuse to behave as we like and become more opportunist [VOH].

So our notion of responsibility needs upgrading too, to one in which determinism and being held responsible for actions are compatible. I suspect it will be consequentialist: less about the need for retribution against offending agents and more about how we design/engineer society to get the behaviour out of individuals we want in the longer term.


27. Where Next?: Freedom

The compatibilist concept of freedom in a deterministic world needs to be substantiated.  Something is needed (see my ‘Quantifying Freedom, Part 1’ failed attempt) to try to bridge the enormous gulf between the freedom of an extremely primitive organism and that of humans; to be able to relate one to the other.

Some avenues of interest I am taking are [GER]:

  • The neuroscientific work of Bjoern Brembs (UBerlin) [BRE] and Martin Heisenberg (emeritus U Wurzburg) [HEI], both looking at free will in relatively simple organisms such as fruit flies and bacteria. Also, Brembs internal pseudorandomness as a source of freedom.
  • Hans Briegel’s (U Innsbruck) work of the free will of non-biological agents [BRI].
  • Karl Friston’s (UCL) ‘Free energy’ principle [FRI].
  • Jorge Wagensberg’s (U Barcelona) ‘Complexity versus Uncertainty’  .
  • Agency and free will, for example Christian List’s (LSE) ‘On Free Will and Determinism’.
  • and the relationship between freedom, intelligence and entropy.

28. Further Reading

The major sources for this talk were:

  • Daniel Wegner’s ‘The Illusion of Conscious Will’,
  • Daniel Dennett’s ‘Freedom Evolves’

and a number of short papers by Rodney Brooks:

Other significant sources (such as Marvin Minsky, Tamar Gendler and Iain McGilchrist) are referenced in the text or in the notes.

The moral aspects of free will will continue to produce research programs and books on the subject. Two such of the moment are:

  • Sam Harris’s book simply entitled ‘Free Will’, due out at the end of February 2012.
  • The ‘Big Questions in Free Will’, 4-year, $4.4-million programme funded by the John Templeton Foundation, involving philosophers and neuroscientists such as Alfred Mele and Patrick Haggard.

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One Response to Free Will / Free Won’t: Conclusion

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    Sam Harris feels that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can and do make choices, but seldom freely. In my free ebook, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a chapter called “Outside the box.” Here are three paragraphs from it:

    What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

    “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between heaven and Earth…between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

    Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

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