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The Evidence for Free Will and How Denying It Devaluates Freedom

Denial of free will is based on religious or mystical ideas and can have dire consequences by making it ethical to control the mind.

Statue of Buddha with head destroyed
The Faceless Buddha. Photo by the author.

The denial of free will

Lately, it seems to have become fashionable to say that humans do not have free will. I have heard this at meetings of the skeptic community and it is also one of the mainstays of writer and podcaster Sam Harris.

I see this denial of free will as part of what of I call “modern misanthropy”, an effort to cast human beings as either animals or machines by denying the qualities that we most cherish about ourselves. It is also part of a deterministic view of nature in general, something we could call “radical determinism”. In fact, we do not live in a deterministic world, but that is a problem that I leave for another article.

Free will deniers like to claim that theirs is a view that comes from science, when in fact the view from neuroscience is neutral or supportive of free will. Only by assuming a simplistic view of difficult neuroscience problems can they affirm that it denies free will.

In my view, the key to whether we have free will resides not so much on what we understand as “free will”, but in what we mean by “I” when we say “I have free will”. If we start with the wrong assumptions about who or what we are, we will end up with the wrong conclusions about free will.

I have identified three wrong ideas about the nature of the self that lead to the idea that we do not have free will:

The ghost in the machine

Derived from old religious dogma, this is the idea that we are an immaterial soul that somehow connects with our brain.

The concept of the soul, as found in Christianity and Islam, is that it is the essence of ourselves that survives the death of the body. Many Hindu traditions believe that we are the Atman, an essence that is neither the body nor the mind and that is identical to Brahman, the primal God who created the Universe. The Christian soul or the Hindu Atman is free because it is not material and therefore not subject to the laws of cause-and-effect of the natural world.

Paradoxically, many naturalists seem to buy into this idea in the sense that, once we prove that the soul does not exist, free will disappears because the mind is now subjected to the laws of nature. However, this is not true is we redefine free will as the ability of the mind to direct its own behavior, that is, to generate a subsequent mental state from its previous state.

The homunculus or the command center

Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Consciousness Explained, argues that the old-fashion view of the mind is that of a homunculus in a “Cartesian Theatre”. Homunculus means “a little human”, a being in the center of the mind that watches what comes to the mind through the senses as if watching a screen in a movie theater — the Cartesian Theater. The homunculus then presses some levers that make to body move in a particular way.

Free will, then, resides in the homunculus or a command center in the middle of the mind. Although there is no soul, there is a part of the brain that is the decision-maker.

However, studies of the brain have shown that there is no command center, no privileged brain region that is in charge of making decisions. While it is true that brain areas like the prefrontal cortex or the anterior cingulate cortex play an important role in motivation and decision-making, they can only do this while communicating with other parts of the brain. Emotional states generated in the amygdala and the insula, and motivational/reward pathways linking the ventral tegmental area with the nucleus accumbens, play a large role in directing our actions and our attention.

However, the fact that there is no command center in our brain does not mean that we do not have free will, because free will is not a property of a part of our brain but of the entire brain.

Identifying the self with consciousness

This is perhaps a more subtle version of the idea of the “ghost in the machine” or the “command center”.

For example, for Sam Harris, consciousness is the ultimately undeniable reality because we cannot doubt our own experience. This is pretty much the same idea that Descartes put forward when he said “I think, therefore I am” as the starting point of his philosophy. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio debunked this idea in his book Descartes’ Error, and it is also criticized by Dennett in Consciousness Explained.

Basically, Sam Harris seems to think is that we are our consciousness. Therefore, if we are influenced by something outside consciousness, like an unconscious drive, then we are not free. Since everything that is now conscious was once unconscious, we are driven by impulses outside our conscious self and, therefore we do not have free will.

The problem with this way of thinking is that we are not our consciousness. In this, Harris seems to be overly influenced by Buddhist ideas that give consciousness a mystical importance. However, Buddhism has a contradiction at its core: how to reconcile the idea that we have no souls (‘anatman’ or ‘anatta’, preached by the Buddha himself) with the idea of reincarnation. If we have no soul, what is there to reincarnate? The answer is that karma reincarnates. However, karma is the consequences of our actions, it is not “our self”, so we cannot say that “I” reincarnate. To get around this problem, many Buddhists say that consciousness reincarnates together with karma, “like a flame starting another flame”.

We can see how this confers an immaterial attribute to consciousness: since it can survive death to pass from one body to the next, it is independent of the body and the brain. So we are back to the “ghost in the machine”, only that now it is called consciousness.

Of course, Sam Harris does not believe in reincarnation, but he seems to believe that consciousness is something immaterial. Like some Buddhists, he thinks that we have no self, but that there can be “pure consciousness”.

However, a careful look at what we know about consciousness from brain experiments, like the one taken by Dennett, shows that there is no clear delimitation between the conscious and the unconscious, but a constant flow from one to the other.

We are our unconscious

The true naturalistic view, firmly anchored in neuroscience, biology and the whole scientific worldview is that we are our brains, nothing more and nothing less.

We are what our brain produces, the entirety of our psychological experience that we call our mind. Conscious AND unconscious. Most of the things we enjoy in life, and most of the things that make us suffer, take place unconsciously. That ambient music playing in the background, that subtle smell, that headache that we have successfully pushed out of our attention, they are unconscious and yet have an impact on the quality of our life.

If pressed, we would have a hard time separating the things of which we are conscious from those that happen just beyond our consciousness. If we experienced something but then we forgot about it, is it conscious or unconscious? Many sports, like skiing, riding a bike or martial arts, are done unconsciously. Nevertheless, we say that “I” do these things, not that they are done for us by some parts of our brain foreign to ourselves.

I propose that “I” am the entirety of my brain, of my mind, conscious and unconscious, and that this I has free will.

I am not a puppet of my unconscious because my unconscious is me and I am my unconscious.

By free will, I mean that I constantly confront situations in which I must decide between several options, and I choose them based on the state of my mind.

Free will does not mean to be able to make choices against the laws of nature. It does not mean that I do not have an origin in the natural world or that I am free from death. I am a living being with a limited life span, and I only have free will during that time. Furthermore, my agency changes depending on my abilities: it increased as I grew from childhood to adulthood and it will decrease as I age.

I am also caused, I didn’t come out of nothing. Still, this coalescence of causation that I am can generate its own causes and, therefore, it is free.

Agency and free will

We could say that free will is a particular case of agency.

While free will is the ability to make conscious choices, agency is the property of living beings to internally generate causes according to a pre-programmed goal.

We find this idea in the books by Stuart Kauffman (At Home in the Universe, Investigations): life and evolution are algorithms that run with the ultimate outcome of perpetuating themselves. If they fail to perpetuate, they disappear, making room for other algorithms that more effectively perpetuate themselves. So the algorithm which is life makes us believe that living beings have goals: stay alive and reproduce. Living beings become agents as they execute increasingly complex functions to achieve those goals. They are not independent of causation, it is only that causation has divided into two branches: the internal causation that moves them to stay alive and reproduce and external causation that may aid, hinder or be neutral to that goal. Inasmuch as living being are clusters of internal causes, they are agents.

Humans are agents and are conscious, which means that we have free will. We have the ability to generate causes from the state of our bodies and brains, to generate one mental state from the previous mental state. We are those flowing mental states that cause each other. We are free.

Free will and responsibility

Let me end with two ethical implications.

The denial of free will is framed in the context of moral responsibility. If humans do not have free will, the reasoning goes, then it is wrong to make them responsible for their actions and reward or punish them for what they do. Instead, people who do wrong should be treated as malfunctioning robots in need of reprogramming.

This is cast as a way toward more leniency and compassion towards wrong-doers (there is a great discussion on this in the final chapter of Who's In Charge? by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga).

The idea that the perpetrators of the many hideous crimes that plague history are not responsible for them is morally repugnant to most of us.

Free will and freedom

There is another ethical implication in the denial of free will: the idea that individual freedom is not important. If free will is an illusion, then so is liberty.

This is not just an abstract idea. It has practical implications. If freedom is an illusion, it would be ethical to reach into somebody’s mind and tweak it until they behave in an optimal way. Actually, technologies to achieve this are already available in the form of drugs and electrical, magnetic or genetic manipulations that allow the fine control the brain.

If people do not have free will, then these forms of mind control would not be taking anything away from them. Denial of free will means that liberty, one of the founding principles of modern democracies, is just an illusion. We should be able to discard it in our way to build the perfect society, right?

To be consistent with their ideas, deniers of free will should advocate for benign dictatorships based on mind control as ways to eliminate crime and build the perfect society.

I put this idea at the end of the article so that it wouldn’t be the fallacy of arguing from adverse consequences. The idea that free will exists stands on its own, firmly based in neuroscience.

My point, however, is that belief in the lack of free can have disastrous consequences for our society by undermining the idea that all human beings should be free. It would provide a moral justification to manipulate the human brain without consent.

Who wants to live in a world without freedom?

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