January 2, 2012

On the question of whether we have free will

I don't know what to think about the topic of free will. Sam Harris argues, in his new book Free Will (which I haven't read; it will come out in March), that free will does not exist. Biologist Jerry Coyne agrees. In his column Why you don't really have free will he says that while we feel like we have free will, we actually do not. He also says that there's not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will and a few important upsides. One of the upsides he mentions is that it will become much easier to empathize with other people once we realize that their behavior is caused by genes and environments, not by free will.

Researchers in the field of priming speak in terms of the automaticity of being. John Bargh said: "Most of a person's everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance. Psychologist Daniel Wegner, author of The Illusion of Conscious Will, seems to go even one step further when he said: "... will is not a psychological force that causes action. Rather as a perception that results from interpretation. It is a conscious experience that may only map rather weakly, or perhaps not at all, into the actual causal relationships between the person's cognition and action."

A completely opposite position is taken by Valery Chirkov, who writes, in a chapter in Human Autonomy in Cross-Cultural Context: "One of the reasons for writing this chapter is my strong belief that the thesis that human autonomy is an illusion is not only mistaken, but is also dangerous for the further development of our civilization. This is because this thesis moves one of the fundamental conditions for people's humanness and well-being into the domain of relativity, social negotiation, and linguistic construction, leaving people without solid grounding for their search for better lives."  Chirkov mentions the work of Daniel Dennett who has proposed that freedom evolves: as we evolved there has been a gradual increase in our degrees of freedom.

I am left in confusion. Is the question of whether we have free will even well framed? Should we approach it in discontinuous terms (do we or don't we have free will?) or would it be better to frame it into continuous terms (to what extent do we or can we have free will?). Might it be true that free will is an illusion yet that this illusion contributes to our wellbeing (see the research on self-determination theory which shows that the perception (?) of the fulfillment of our need for autonomy contributes to our well-being)? Is the question of whether we have free will even an important one? Which perspective is more convincing: Coyne's perspective that letting go of the illusion of free will will make us more empathic or Chirkov's perspective that losing our belief in autonomy will discourage us from trying to improve our lives?


  1. Obviously if there is no free will then we have no choice whether to believe in it or not.

  2. Hm.. that is one clever thought. My head now is spinning even more

  3. Interesting indeed. I think it comes down to defining what free will means. As a radical behaviourist I don't think we have free will either because of how we have been conditioned to act according to the social and physical environment we live in. We are not "free to do what we want"; rather we act in similar ways that have worked for us in the past. We can only act upon opportunities the environment (and our genetics) have afforded us. Herein, we have choices since at any given moment we are faced with a number of opportunities to act upon, but the options to choose from are not freely determined.

    It's always interesting how people cringe at the thought of not having free will. It does not make us less human or any less unique. Emotions, thoughts, feelings, creativity, the act of making a choice are all behaviours that we have learned. Some are better (e.g., more creative) at doing them then others. Others find aspects of engaging in them more pleasing (i.e., reinforcing) than some. No two people have the same learning history with their social and physical environment. Since our world is a rich environment when it comes to opportunities to act and engage, this gives us the illusion of free will.

  4. Hi Tricia Lee,

    Thank you for your comment. As I've said, I have no strong opinion about this.

    I absolutely agree that our freedom is limited by biology and environment. But I am not convinced that we don't have any freedom at all.

    Are you saying we have no degrees of freedom at all? I don't understand the argument behind that? From what does that follow?

  5. Again, I think it comes down to what free will is defined as. If it means to have no outside influence, then I would argue that no, we don't have any free will. Everything we do is influenced or related to someone and something. But as humans we have numerous options and we can make choices that will work for or against us. In some ways, this ability to choose may afford us freedom.

  6. What I find confusing when it comes to free will, is the either - or notion that prevails in most discussions. Either we have free will, or we haven't.

    Is there no potential for development? Whatever people's stand is on this question - the either/or seems to be set in stone. Is it really, I wonder.

  7. Thanks Tricia and Rima!

    Tricia, I agree it depends on what how we define free will. I agree that everything we do is in interaction with everything around us. Then, when you say "as humans we have numerous options and we can make choices" that sounds like free will to me.

    Rima, I agree. That is what I meant too when I proposed to think about this question in continuous terms (to what extent do we or can we have free will?)

  8. Well I'm pretty much convinced at this point of two things regarding this question:

    (1) Volition doesn't work physically the way we perceive it to work subjectively. That's the 'illusion' part of the argument and perhaps part of why the philosopher's notion of free will seems so incompatible with the physical world (as in the 'uncaused cause' sort of thing). There's a lot of evidence from closely observing people making decisions showing that they aren't doing what they think they're doing and are being very significantly influenced by things they don't realize are influencing them.

    (2) If I am actually bringing about a state of affairs that I want to bring about, and I manage this trick in spite of changing circumstances that oppose me, then I do have volition in some sense. Even the illusions from (1) above don't negate tbe basic fact of having goals and intentions and behaving consistently with plans and decisions that bring them about. Personally I doubt that entire picture is illusory even if the details of what is happening physically are obscure.

    That defense of raw volition, such as it is, doesn't solve the problem though because that's still the subjective perception of the situation.

    The difficulty hre I think is in determining what the "I" is composed of physically and how its apparent representation of a goal gets translated to effective action in the face of contingencies. Dennett does an ingenious job of using computer models as intuition pumps to show how degrees of freedom can potentially arise out of physically constrained forces. Thus decision making can happen even in a computational world. The leap to "free will" is then similar to his leap from the agency of a thermostat to that of a cell, clever but not entirely persuasive. Likewise he resolves the subjective/objective perspective problem by waving it away as a non-issue and not everyone is persuaded by that either. I'm ambivalent about it. I often think he's got to be right, but then I'm not entirely sure.

    As with many dilemmas in philosophy, much comes down to the difficulty (or perhaps impossibility?) of reconciling the subjective perception of the situation with the physical causal descriptions we want to use to understand things better.

  9. An afterthought about the classical free will and determinism argument.
    As far as Coyne and Harris are concerned, I think the "free will" they argue against is very similar to the classical philosophical notion for which we have no physical causal model anyway. The classical model pits an uncaused cause subjectively perceived against a Laplacian perfect mechanical causal model. It would be a nearly impossible challenge to reconcile either side of that dialectic with current physics.

    So their argument pretty much comes down to arguing that something incompatible with the physical world doesn't exist in the physical world. Then they want to assume that the only alternative is spooky causation, which they of course don't abide.

    I would argue instead that they are arguing against an anachronism and that the more interesting question is how things capable of acting intentionally come about in a physical world. Cells act intentionally in some sense I suspect and people act intentionally, and probably just about everything in between.


  10. Hi Todd,

    Thanks for these marvellous comments. Reading them, I think that we think a lot alike on this topic.

    After I had written the post I kept thinking about it for a while and I had a brief exchange with Keith Stanovitch (author of, among other books, The Robot’s Rebellion).

    Keith had another interesting point. He said: "Most talk about free will reflects linguistic problems in conceptualizing self referential entities. Our natural language does not map easily into the concepts of cognitive science or the neurophysiological knowledge that we have of the brain."

    Thinking about all these things I think that the definition of the terms is essential. When we ask: “Do we have free will?”, we should not only make clear what we mean by “free” and “will”, be also by “we”. Is “we” only our conscious awareness or is the autonomous mind also included?

  11. Thanks Coert, yes we seem to be thinking very similarly here. I imagine he's right. Not only do our formal causal models not quite map every aspect of reality at once, leading to the Laplacian problem of perfect prediction, nor our intuition about our own will map to the causal models we do have (leading to the apparent impossibility of of putative free will), but our natural language for our intuitions doesn't quite map onto the scientific models either. Our discussions need to navigate these gaps, and people are going to resolve the ambiguities in different ways.


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