Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In Defense Of Free Will

Honest discussions of free will are bound to become unsettling, if one is brave enough to go the distance.  After reading Free Will by Sam Harris, one is definitely left unsettled.  We all have the feeling of free will - that we choose what we do or don't do, and that we have control over our thoughts and actions.  The beating of our hearts may be involuntary, but we definitely decide whether or not to drink that glass of water.  The idea that this could be an illusion flies in the face of our intuition and subjective experience.  Yet, Harris makes a very compelling case that our sense of free will is exactly that - an illusion.  This is not to say that a choice wasn't made to pick up that glass of water…it's to say that it wasn't you who made it.  The experience of that action tricks you into believing you were the cause, when in fact you weren’t.  As to who or what is doing the choosing, if not you, the decision to drink that water presumably resulted from brain states, neuronal patterns, and/or prior chains of events, all of which you have absolutely no control over.

Most people (including me) find such a prospect depressing.  We'd like to think that we can take pride in our accomplishments and bear the responsibility for our actions - that our decision to run into that burning building to save those puppies was not the result of neurons that just happened to fire, but rather that those neurons fired because of a meaningful choice that we made.  We'd also like to think that the serial killers and rapists of the world are responsible for their actions too, and not victims of their brain states and neurophysiology.  Of course, the way that each person is neurologically and biochemically wired is certainly relevant to our actions and behavior, but we’d like to think such wiring does not encompass the entirety of why we do what we do.

Now it should be pointed out that whether or not you have free will is inconsequential from the standpoint of your personal experience - you feel like you have control over your thoughts and actions, regardless of whether you actually do or don't.  So in one sense, free will's truth or falsity is completely irrelevant, practically speaking.  However, for the inquisitive among us, we'd still like to know what's really going on under the hood.

It should also be pointed out that a lack of free will would not mean your experiences aren't genuine - they absolutely are - it would just mean that you are a helpless puppet along for a ride in a car that you are not driving.  Similarly, it would not mean that you don't possess genuine knowledge, weigh career options, waver between dinner choices, plan out vacations, ponder your existence, react to the behavior of others, learn, problem solve, etc - you would still be doing all of these things, just not in the sense that matters - it would mean your biological system is doing them, while the consciously self-aware you (the real you) is merely experiencing the process.

So I've been attempting to make sense of this issue for quite a while now, because I abhor the idea that we are merely selves helplessly trapped in bodies, and that life is nothing but a bunch of billiard balls set into motion on a cosmic pool table in which all of our future paths and interactions are entirely pre-determined or otherwise predictable from principles of physics and mathematics.  But as much as I don’t want this to be the case, one can't (or shouldn't) ignore evidence just because it's inconvenient or displeasing, and the fact of the matter is that Harris makes a very compelling case that free will does not exist.  The stakes are high, my friends.  

Fortunately, after long and careful consideration, I suspect there may still be hope after all.  What follows is my defense of free will, for the good of the land - because who better to reconcile Harris's anti-free will arguments than someone with no significant philosophical accomplishments or PhDs to his name?  Yes, it must be me.  Besides, as an undergraduate I got a minor in philosophy, so step off, bitches.  Now if my efforts should miserably fail, then I suppose it won't really be me failing, since as it would turn out I would not have actually chosen (in the meaningful sense) to write this in the first place…a realization that should hopefully remove any potential embarrassment in the event someone comes along and utterly destroys this defense.

Additionally, just to be clear, although I'm claiming that free will does exist, I'm not suggesting that we are in control of 100% of ourselves - just that we exert meaningful control to some degree.  Free will doesn't require that we are in control of every influence, impulse, and desire, but rather that we have the ability to resist, adhere, and add to that tapestry with consciously intended behavior.  Obviously things like our nervous system are on autopilot, and I fully concede that other aspects seem to be as well, such as various emotional triggers and behavioral / facial knee-jerk reactions (see Paul Ekman's Emotions Revealed for an interesting discussion to that end).  I acknowledge the autonomy of such mechanisms, concede the relevance of our genetic and chemical predispositions, etc, but I maintain that there is still more to the story … more pieces to the puzzle … more cushion for the pushin' (well, maybe not that last one).

Harris essentially makes two main arguments against free will, which when taken together are quite formidable.  I will summarize each and then bring the hellfire, but I encourage you to read Harris's full manuscript, as the author naturally goes into greater depth and explores other areas in addition to these.

Argument 1

Experiments in neuroscience have shown that people do not become aware of the decisions they make until after those decisions are already made.  If one is not aware of their decision until after the decision is made, one cannot be said to have made the decision in the first place.

Argument 2

Our thoughts and feelings drive our behavior.  Introspection makes it clear that we do not choose our thoughts and feelings, but instead, simply experience them as they pop into our awareness.  If we have no control over what we think and feel, then we have no control over our actions and behavior, and thus, no causal agency with respect to our lives at all.  Since this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in, it follows that we do not possess free will.

Scary shit, folks.

Response to Argument 1

One would expect that our awareness of a decision would occur in conjunction with it's formation.  However, a variety of experiments involving EEG and fMRI monitoring of a subject’s brain have demonstrated that a subject's decision to move can apparently be anticipated prior to the subject consciously choosing to move (from 300 ms to as much as 10 seconds beforehand).  The predicted movements in question are general in nature, such as the case of pressing a button.  Note the predictive accuracy is not 100%, and scientists are not able to predict how a subject will press that button (e.g. with her index finger or her elbow), but this is arguably due to the infancy of the field.  

These findings are very intriguing and quite startling.  However, it is important to realize that the duration of the time-lapse between subjects’ awareness of their choice, and the neuronal data that lead to successful predictions of that choice, is inconsequential.  This is to say, whether those neuronal precursors occur 5 nanoseconds or 5 minutes before you feel like you’ve made the choice, both constitute a time-lapse.  A greater time lag may very well be more shocking from a psychological standpoint, but philosophically speaking there is no reason why one duration should be more alarming than another.  So it’s the time-lapse in and of itself that constitutes the real peculiarity - not the specific duration therein.

Also, keep in mind that there is no brain scan technology that can tell us what you are thinking or aware of, so any assessment as to when a person consciously chooses to move can only be inferred, either from the subject’s behavior or from the subject’s first-person report.  For example, your reaction to the smell of something rancid is what informs us that you've had such an experience - e.g. making a disgusting face, or stating "it smells like shit”.  Of course, analyzing brain function can clue us in to the fact that you are thinking / experiencing in general, and seeing activity in the regions associated with our olfactory system can perhaps be indicative of the nature of that experience, but such activity will not tell us what specifically you are experiencing or thinking…we cannot conclude from a brain scan, "she's smelling petunias and thinking about streaking”.  Maybe the future of neuroscience will one day be able to decode and translate the entirety of your brain, inclusive of the specific contents of your thoughts, but until that day comes we should tread carefully in reaching firm conclusions.

The problem with indirectly deducing one’s awareness is that it leads to a great deal of uncertainty, and a person’s subjective self-assessment as to when they were conscious of a given thing is not precise enough for scientific standards.  So attempts to study volition in the laboratory entail an unavoidably flawed protocol, wherein we cannot isolate a subject’s thoughts / intentions / awareness - only the totality of a person’s brain activity is accessible.  The fact that a subject may feel as if he chooses to press a button at 1:15 PM, while a scientist is able to accurately predict that choice at 1:14 PM, is ambiguous in its implications: it could mean the subject did not cause the action (i.e. he has no free will), or it could mean there is some kind of disconnect between the subject’s awareness and his ability to integrate and report that awareness, or it could mean there is a confounding factor involved (e.g. the subject thought about the prospect of pressing the button without actually pressing it, which tipped off the neuroscientist). Furthermore, we can't determine if a movement, such as pressing a button, is encapsulated within one single choice, or is the product of multiple choices chained together (e.g. a decision to move, followed by a decision to move a finger, followed by a decision to commence the movement now); and if the latter, which decision in the chain is the true correlate of the EEG / fMRI readout and which decision correlates to the awareness being reported by the subject?

So we find ourselves in muddy waters.  Of course, we expect that we should be able to precisely pinpoint the inception of a choice in time.  However, it’s interesting to speculate whether this expectation might actually be misguided - what if we are not sufficiently equipped, on a neurobiological level, to determine the precise moment of a choice?  It seems to me that to accurately report when I make a choice, two things are required: 1) that I am capable of actually perceiving when the choice is made, and 2) that I am capable of remembering that information.  Regarding the first requirement, there are countless stimuli that occur too fast for our senses to perceive (e.g. movement of light photons), and perhaps thoughts are simply too fast for our awareness to pin down in time.  But even if I can perceive this, I still have to store the temporal information associated with my choice into some kind of memory, in order to be able to reference and communicate that information to you.  So is it possible that the time-lapse demonstrated within these experiments is suggestive of a deficiency in our capacity to remember when we make the decisions we make?  After all, our memories are certainly limited in a variety of other ways - you can’t remember what you were doing at 7:39 PM last July 2nd, and I can’t remember your name even though you told me five times.  From an evolutionary standpoint, there certainly doesn’t seem to be any advantage to knowing the specific point in time that you decided to eat a berry, for example…only the choice itself and the consequences that follow would be important (e.g. I ate those berries and got sick).  Perhaps our internal assessments as to when we make given choices really are just retroactive educated guesses, not because we don’t actually make choices in the first place, but because we simply can’t remember when we make them.  Maybe our brains do not possess the necessary circuitry to be able to process or retain this type of information, and human beings have some kind of permanent choice-amnesia.  Maybe our heads would explode otherwise.  And just ask yourself, how many people look at their watches and then have to look back a second time because they don’t remember what they just saw a moment ago?  Think about it (but not too hard).

Response to Argument 2  _  (you forgot what Argument 2 was, didn’t you? See what I’m saying? Well go back and reread it, you forgetful bastard)

I agree with Harris that simple introspection makes it obvious that we cannot account for the source of our thoughts and choices. Indeed, it appears as if thoughts come to us, as opposed to from us. Perhaps this explains the origin of phrases such as, “It just occurred to me that your stepson is an asshole”, or “the solution to the equation came to me last night in a dream”, or “It dawned on me this afternoon that I never looked underneath the mattress for her diary”. Regardless, the following line of inquiry is puzzling:  

Why did I do what I did?  Because I chose to do it.  Why did I choose it?  I don’t know - I guess because I chose to choose it..(?)  Why did I choose to choose it?  Etc, etc.  Final answer: I have no idea.

We are woefully inadequate in answering this inquiry, because we have absolutely no idea why we think what we think. But on closer inspection, the fact that we don’t choose our thoughts may not be cause for alarm. After all, what would it mean to choose a thought? It would seem to involve having another thought! Argument 2 is framed in a way that assumes our thoughts need explaining, but in my opinion this is a mental / linguistic parlor trick. Moreover, our perplexity doesn’t go away in abandoning free will, and we could alter the inquiry accordingly:

Why did I do what I did?  Because of neurons firing in the brain.  Why did those neurons fire?  Because of other chemical / biological processes.  Why did those processes occur?  Because of yet other physical states and processes.  And what caused those physical states and processes?  Etc, etc.  Final answer: The Big Bang.  And what caused the Big Bang? … I have no idea.

To the extent one investigates cause and effect, one will always encounter an infinite regress, or some amount of magic will enter the equation - either something must mysteriously arise from nothing without a cause, or there is a mysterious First Cause (wherein that First Cause has no cause or somehow causes itself), or something mysteriously just always is or was.  At a fundamental level, cause and effect is baffling, and there are roadblocks at every turn.

Although scientists don’t know how or why Existence came to be, we all agree that Existence exists nevertheless…in the same way, although we can't account for how or why we make the choices we make, we're making them nonetheless.  We don't need to understand how or why something is, in order for that something to be the case.  Of course, this is not a license to resort to wishful thinking, and it’s important to concede that Harris is not attempting to explain the metaphysics of choice - he's simply saying that whatever its nature, it's not us doing the choosing.  However, this does not resolve the enigma at hand, but simply moves it to a different arena wherein the enigma persists, and without providing an intelligible explanation as to the fundamental source of our thoughts, Argument 2 essentially just amounts to an acknowledgement that we are completely in the dark about the matter. We didn’t know what was going on before Argument 2, and we still don’t know what’s going on after Argument 2. It may be tempting for some to suggest that the Big Bang being responsible for our thoughts and choices is somehow less mysterious compared to that of free will, but pushing a mystery back billions of years doesn’t make it any less of a mystery - it just keeps it out of sight.  It’s smoke and mirrors.

Perhaps this bafflement is the result of asking what in truth are meaningless questions.  Philosopher Alan Watts (along with various Eastern worldviews) would suggest that this discussion of cause and effect and free will assumes that we are independent minds acting on the world, when in fact we are not (see The Book).  Watts would argue that the real illusion is that there are separate things at all; that through your narrowed consciousness you appear to be a separate thing, but in truth, you and every thing that you think is not you are all part of one process of being, as the wave is one with the ocean.  From this perspective, no one is choosing and no one is not choosing - We / I / You / It are just being.

Interestingly enough, consider this: I identify myself as the summation of my mental happenings…I am what I think and feel.  If all of my thoughts and feelings stem from a nebulous source outside of me, then wouldn’t this just mean that my sense of “me” is illusory, and not my autonomy?  In other words, if I am that which thinks and feels, but something else is doing the thinking and feeling, then aren’t I whatever that something else is?  And if that something else is bound within an infinitely regressing causal chain of events, then aren’t I the entirety of that chain?  And if you and everyone else are similarly such things, and we all originate from a single point at the beginning of Time amidst a mystical explosion of something from nothing, then … that would mean We / I / You / It are simply Being.


With or without free will, we can’t account for why we think what we think.  So it comes down to the following: either we are arbiters of our own destiny, making legitimate decisions about what we do and don't do, along with real choices as to how we act and behave…or we are captives, trapped within a body, aware of ourselves but without causal agency, at the complete mercy of thoughts and feelings that are not our own.  Like the Highlanders that came before us, there can only be one.  So which one is it?  You decide (to the degree that you can).