A debate has been raging between neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers for decades: do we have free will?
One side argues that we obviously do. The main reason? Because we have the experience of it every second. You can decide what to do at any given time. When you decide between a cup of tea and coffee, you are making that decision free from coercion, free from external pressures. This reality seems so self-evident that I’ll leave this camp at that.
The other camp, led by Sam Harris, defends that we don’t possess free will. That’s the more interesting argument, since it’s so counterintuitive. It’s also correct, I believe. Here’s what it says:
You are the combination of the genetics you’ve inherited and the experiences you’ve had. Together, plus some randomness, they determine all your decisions. You chose the cup of coffee because all your genetics and experiences and randomness led you to pick that option at that time. If we were to rewind and replay this decision 100 times and with the same random component, you’d choose that same coffee cup 100% of the time. That’s not free will. That’s determinism from nature and nurture plus a bit of randomness mixed in.
Why would this theory be true?
First, we all follow some sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Most humans want the same types of things, which limits the diversity of potential things we might want to a pretty narrow set.
That means our desires are heavily defined by our evolution and our condition in life: if your basic needs aren’t met, that’s what you’ll want.
On top of this narrow set of wants, our reasoning is pretty flawed, biased by hundreds of factors that we don’t control.
I know a thing or two about these biases because I spent years making video games, which are applied psychology machines: interfaces devoid of function that are so good at shaping your behavior that you keep using them for hours without much thought. I tested with actual users the engagement of randomness, the influence of social proof, the endowment effect, scarcity, anchoring…
These factors are insidiously hidden to us, but they are still there, determining our behavior. There’s the case of the Israeli judges who handed down more or less lenient rulings depending on how hungry they were. Then there’s the school teacher who became a pedophile because of a brain tumor. The desire went away after the extirpation. When the desire came back, doctors looked at the brain and noticed the tumor was returning.
Perhaps the most famous test of free will is the one where subjects recorded the exact second when they became conscious of the willingness to flick their wrist. Scientists found that you could tell from monitoring the brain that the wrist was going to flick half a second before the person knew.
As Sam Harris says:
“These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. 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.”
According to this position, free will doesn’t exist.
“The phrase free will describes what it feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in consciousness. Our ‘freedom’ constitutes nothing more than this illusory feeling of control.”—Sam Harris.
Without free will, how do our decisions emerge then? This is the crux of the idea:
“Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn't choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime — by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this?”—Sam Harris.
One of the best things this conclusion achieves is compassion:
The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environments, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for?—Sam Harris.
If we generalize:
“If we recognize that even the most ‘evil’ or dangerous people in existence are, at root, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.”—Sam Harris.
I believe this interpretation of free will right, and it means that in a neurological sense free will doesn’t exist. However, free will doesn’t need to be neurological.
Does God Exist?
If you ask the atheist Richard Dawkins if God exists, he’ll say: “Very probably not”. But if you ask him if the concept of god exists, he’ll say, “Of course it does!”
The behavior of hundreds of millions of people are driven every day by the belief in god. It shapes people’s behavior so much that you can say god exists as a meme, as an idea, a concept that dramatically influences people’s actions.
The same is true for free will. It might or might not exist literally as a property of the brain. But it definitely exists as a concept that influences people’s actions. And free will influences them for good.
No Free Will?
If you believe there’s no free will, you’ll act as if you didn’t have any agency. As if you had no influence over what you can or can’t do. You will blame everyone but yourself for everything bad that happens. From a study:
“When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.” The Atlantic.
According to research, people who don’t believe in free will:
Are later for work
Are rated as less capable
Are worse at their job or in academics
Are less likely to help friends
Are less likely to give money to the poor
Are less committed to relationships
Think life is less meaningful
Are less creative
Are more conformist
Are less willing to learn from their mistakes
Conversely, there’s a lot of research proving that the more you believe in your agency, the more you have agency. It’s true of the Pygmalion Effect, where a student performs better when a mentor keeps them more accountable and expects more of them. A growth mindset follows the same lines: the more you believe in yourself and in your capacity for improvement, the more you will improve. A belief in free will is valuable across the board.
All of this is inconvenient for these researchers, because they think free will doesn’t exist, but they see how people who stop believing in free will become worse-off. It puts them in a bind: Should we lie to the public? Or should they be like an atheist preaching the existence of a peaceful god?
They are making a key mistake.
When people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. They act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts. They act as if they have less free will.
Conversely, those who believe in free will take more responsibility for their actions. They have more free will.
Put in another way: you develop free will when you believe in free will.
Free will exists because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The more you believe in free will, the more you act according to it, and hence the more you have free will. Free will is one of the few things that you can simply wish into existence.
Remember those criminals? The factors that determine their actions included their genes, their upbringing, their influences, and their ideas. If you insert from outside ideas of free will into their thinking, they will have more of it.
This is what this article is hoping to achieve. It is inserting the concept that free will exists—as a self-fulfilling prophecy—into your brains, and hoping to spread the idea, so that more and more people can accept it and act accordingly. It’s wishing free will into existence.
Free will might not exist from a neurological perspective, and understanding that might be good for compassion. But free will exists as an idea, and the more you believe in the idea of free will, the more free will you have.
So let’s agree that free will exists. Let’s take ownership over our lives, and summon free will into existence. And let the neuroscientists play with their tools for a few more decades until they solve the brain part of the question.
You didn't answer the second question from your own perspective! Such a thoughtful article though.
You concluded that free will doesn't exist, and asked us to believe in it anyway, since wishing free will into existence was possible - so, the argument should really be that you can predict "short term" decisions, but not longer term ones. This is exactly how things work in physics of the universe and math as well: local extrapolation is possible, but longer term is not. In particular, it is hard to predict what _effect_ such decisions (believing in free will, becoming more educated, decisions that go good/bad) will have on future decisions. In particular, I believe sleeping also changes the brain (neural connections, etc.) in ways that are difficult to predict - hence some randomness. So, you've convinced me short term free will probably does not exist: it's too late. Longer term free will could exist, in the sense that desiring a change could, by adaptation of the brain, cause it to happen. You know, if you truly desire it. Which would be a choice.
Arguably, that is how prayer works as well.
Which brings us back to: does God exist. As a mathematician and someone who believes in the scientific method, I believe the "logically correct answer" is agnosticism, since science can't prove or disprove God exists (proving God exists is obviously impossible: how could mere humans know what makes a being a God? But proving God does not exist is also impossible, because it requires one to have the knowledge of a God. So, if God or Gods do not exist, the only ones who can be certain of such a fact are Gods themselves - hence why many humans essentially view themselves as Gods - maybe Egyptian pharaohs back in the day had a point). Interestingly, the hitch hiker's guide series has a great take on this topic (God does not exist: God says you must have faith, but this one invention obviously is a gift from God, so not believing in God is foolish. Therefore, since faith is no longer required, God can no longer exist.) So does the D & D world (power of a God depends on their followers belief in them: without followers, there isn't faith in the God. Without the faith of people in the world, a God can obviously do nothing in a world in which they cannot actively intervene, for it would prevent the world's inhabitants from truly being "alive". Indeed, most religions correctly note that one can only experience the presence of God through either the actions of others, or experiencing an individual "oneness" with God that _has been experienced similarly by followers before us_. So it's all based on what "feels" like God.) I am a Christian scientist, by the way, and my choice to believe in God/Jesus has a lot to do with the type of life I have lived and the type of life I want to live, which is why this article resonates so well with me.
At the end of the day, these are fantastic philosophical questions, whose consideration will... you guessed it... shape the brain in ways that we cannot fully understand. And thus, will impact one's choices... at least, in the longer term... in ways that are utterly unpredictable. Science cannot explain everything - and accepting that again has mighty ramifications on the choices and beliefs a person might have.
Free will has been a bug a boo item for many thousands of years. In those traditions were reasoning alone is the faculty used for exploring its nature, the question “does free will exist” is nothing more than a 'black hole', where the only truth is emptiness. Many ancient traditions understood correctly what 'free will' is, while science no matter the number of disciplines involved simply cannot escape the limits of its (science) origins. Free will is a 'gift' so to speak, and from where and why are not relevant. It is the capacity to see and choose a path of creative (transcendent) outcome. Be it convenient, or otherwise, your choosing the early model of Maslow's Hierarchy is part of the general issue of not seeing the whole for want of its parts. The model to be used to address the question replaces “Self-Actualization” with “Cognitive Needs”, “Aesthetic Needs”, “Self Actualization”, and “Transcendence”. It should be evident that the lower levels of 'choice', in the hierarchy, are mostly mechanical, in the sense of being an animal. The higher one goes in the hierarchy the greater the 'need' for diminishing the part of “I need” to responsible (holistic) outcomes. The 'imprinting' process of human growth from birth to maturity is full of 'first time' events of learning; and then 'cognitively' using the means and outcome of these 'first time' events over and over with variation. So yes, a lot of the decision making scientist focus on it nothing more than a 'repeat'. The whole manner of looking and testing for this 'free will' misses the point; free will is a complex hierarchical process involving all the aspects of cognition, intuition, beliefs, values with the possibility of a transcendent outcome. And yes choices made at this level, after the first, become repeat decisions. If one's view of knowledge is that it is not limited, not closed, then one needs a decision 'apparatus' that is also open.