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Finding Freedom in a Determined Universe

February 6, 2018

Foreword to Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converged to Produce a Beautiful Illusion, by Dan Barker (Sterling. 2018. ISBN 9781454927358).

Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converged to Produce a Beautiful Illusion (book cover)

In 1985, the physiologist Benjamin Libet conducted a series of experiments that involved taking EEG readings of subjects’ brains engaged in a task that required them to press a button at random intervals whenever they felt like it during the session. Results: several seconds before the “decision” was consciously made by the subject, the brain’s motor cortex was activated.1 The neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes employed fMRI brain scans in a 2011 study in which subjects inside the scanner were instructed to press one of two buttons whenever they wanted while observing a series of random letters. The subjects were told to verbally report which letter was on the screen when they “decided” to press the button. Results: the time between brain activation and conscious awareness of a “choice” was several seconds, and in some cases a full seven seconds.2

In these studies, and others, scientists measuring subjects’ brains know which decision they would make before the subjects themselves know it! That is spooky, and if these results don’t bother you then you’re not thinking hard enough about them. What they imply is that we are not free to choose in the way we think we are. We feel free, but that’s just what our conscious self believes because it doesn’t know about the inputs feeding into it from below that have already made the choice. As the neuroscientist Sam Harris articulated it in his widely-read book Free Will, “Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.”3

The principle of determinism holds that every event in the universe has a prior cause. If all effects have causes, including human thoughts and actions, then where in the causal chain does the act of choice enter? Even if there were a Mini-Me up there calling the shots, his little brain would have to be just as determined as my big brain, so for Mini-Me to have free will he would have to have a miniMini-Me inside of him pulling his strings, and miniMini-Me would himself need an itty-bitty miniMini-Me inside of his brain…ad infinitum. And if you believe in souls, this fails in the same way as Mini-Me does. A soul inside of you pulling your strings does not grant you freedom; it just means the soul is in control. And having a soul would mean that there’s a mini-soul inside the soul directing its actions, and so forth. It would seem that if determinism is true then we do not have free will. And yet…we feel free. We feel like we make choices.

Herein lies the problem, which helps explain the results of a 2009 survey of 3,226 philosophy professors and grad students asked to weigh in on 30 different subjects of concern in their field, from a priori knowledge, aesthetic value, and God to knowledge, mind, and moral realism.4 On the topic of “free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will,” the survey found the following results:

Accept or lean toward %
Compatibilism 59.1%
Other 14.9%
Libertarianism 13.7%
No free will 12.2%

By far, the majority of professional philosophers hold the position that free will and determinism are compatible.

Now, from a scientific perspective it shouldn’t matter how many people support one or another position. Only the quality of the evidence and arguments should matter. As Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory titled A Hundred Authors Against Einstein, “Why one hundred? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”5 But there is something revealing about these figures, and that is this: if the most qualified people to assess a problem are not in agreement on an answer—and the free-will/determinism problem has been around for thousands of years—it may be that it is an insoluble one. For example, is it really reasonable for the 12.2 percent of philosophers who are determinists to conclude that 59.1 percent of their professional colleagues are simply wrong in taking the compatibilist position? Isn’t it more likely that the issue comes down to language and what is meant by the terms “free will” and “determinism”?

This is what I strongly suspect, and in my book The Moral Arc I worked out how accepting a determined universe does not preclude retaining free will and moral responsibility through four compatibilist workarounds: (1) modular mind—even though a brain consists of many neural networks in which one network may make a choice that another network finds about later, they are all still operating in a single brain; (2) free won’t—vetoing competing impulses and choosing one thought or action over another); (3) choice as part of the causal net—wherein our volitional acts are part of the determined universe but are still our choices; (4) degrees of moral freedom—a range of choice options varying by degrees of complexity and the number of intervening variables.6

1. Modular Mind

If a subcortical region of my brain sends a signal to a cortical region of my brain to inform it of a preference, it is still my brain making the choice. It is still me—an autonomous volitional being—making choices, regardless of which part of me is actually making the decision. In his book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban shows how the brain evolved as a modular multitasking problem-solving organ—a Swiss Army Knife of practical tools in the old metaphor, or an app-loaded iPhone in Kurzban’s upgrade.7 There is no unified “self” that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. Instead, we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules that are often at odds with one another, and the decision-making process often happens unconsciously, so it seems as if choices are being made for us from we know not where. But the brain scan studies reveal the source and process of neural decision making, allowing us to build volition back into our brains. There is, after all, a Mini-Me—lots of them in fact—all of them with preferences, many of them in competition with one another, and all of them inside of a single brain.

2. Free Won’t

If we define free will as the power to do otherwise, a useful approach is to conceptualize “free will” as “free won’t”—i.e., as the power to veto one impulse in favor of another. Free won’t is the capacity to reject a particular action arising from the unconscious neural network, such that any decision to act one way instead of another way is an authentic choice. We have limitations, it’s true—we cannot just do anything we choose—but for the most part we have veto power; we have the capacity to say “no”; we can act this way instead of that way, and that is a real choice.

Support for this hypothesis can be found in a 2007 study conducted by neuroscientists Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who used fMRI brain scans while subjects made choices. But at the last moment the subjects could change their minds and override their initial decision to press a button. When they chose to veto their initial decision, the scientists discovered that a specific area of the brain lit up—the left dorsal frontomedian cortex (dFMC)—an area that is normally active during decision-making behavior, especially during the intentional inhibition of a choice. Tellingly, there were no differences in the brain regions active in preparation of a voluntary action and those involved in inhibiting such actions. “Our results suggest that the human brain network for intentional action includes a control structure for self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions.”8 That is free won’t.

Even Benjamin Libet himself—the instigator of this line of research that has led so many neuroscientists to abandon belief in free will—in the end came down in favor of human nature containing a volitional element: “The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiatives for voluntary actions as ‘bubbling up’ in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiatives may go forward to an action or which ones to veto and abort.”9

What this research implies is that the neural architecture of choice can be modified by experience—in other words, training and practice—which means that in the long run, with better neuroscience and technology, we could not only teach people how to impede their maladaptive impulses to, say, eat unhealthy foods or take dangerous drugs, but also, in principle, we could train criminals to learn to veto their early and dangerous choices in order to make more socially acceptable decisions. And the choice is real in this way: regardless of which part of our brain makes our choices, they are still our choices, and even the apparently subconscious ones can be overridden by conscious effort.

3. Free Choice as Part of the Deterministic Causal Net

The enormity, intricacy, and ultimate unknowability of the causal net of the universe leads us to feel as if we are acting freely. But it is more than a feeling. As with our capacity for free won’t and consciously choosing to override desires bubbling up from the unconscious, our choices are genuine neural processes. As Daniel Dennett argues in his book Freedom Evolves,10 our ancestors made decisions to behave in ways that result in actual consequences for survival and reproduction in our evolutionary history, and this led to the evolution of a neural architecture for behavioral choice.11 Dennett argues that free will arises from a number of our characteristics of cognition, including a sense of being self-aware and aware that others are self-aware; symbolic language that allows us to communicate the fact that we are aware and self-aware; complex neural circuitry that allows for many behavioral options arising out of numerous neural impulses; a theory of mind about others that enables us to think about what they’re thinking about; and evolved moral emotions about right and wrong choices. And because we can communicate complex ideas through language, we have the power to reason about these moral choices. Out of this collection of cognitive characteristics comes free will because we can, and do, weigh the consequences of the many courses of action available to us at any given moment.

4. Moral Degrees of Freedom

A final way to understand volition in a deterministic system is through the concept of “degrees of freedom”—the range of options that an organism has as a result of its complexity and the number of intervening variables acting upon it. Insects, for example, have very few degrees of freedom and are guided mostly by fixed instincts. Reptiles and birds have more degrees of freedom enabled by modifiable instincts that are subject to environmental triggers in critical periods, with subsequent life experience allowing for learned responses to changing environments. Mammals, especially the great apes, have many more degrees of freedom through considerable neural plasticity and learning. And humans have the most degrees of freedom, with our massive cortex and our highly developed culture. Within our own species, some people—psychopaths, the brain damaged, the severely depressed, or the chemically addicted—have fewer degrees of freedom than other people, and the law adjusts for their lowered capacity for legal and moral culpability. But we still hold them accountable for their actions to the extent that they have control over their choices, especially their capacity to, say, veto their criminal impulses.

The law also recognizes degrees of freedom by distinguishing between various grades of murder, which are classified according to circumstance and intent. First-degree murder is the unlawful killing of one human being by another, with malice aforethought—that is murder, both intentional and premeditated. Second-degree murder is the unlawful killing of one human being by another, but without malice aforethought—that is, it is not intentional and premeditated. Voluntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of one human being by another without prior intent to kill, and is committed under circumstances that would “cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed,” as in a crime of passion—a situation that is sometimes called voluntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is neither deliberate nor premeditated and is reserved for fatal accidents due to negligence, for example deaths caused by drunk driving. And, as we shall see below, there are murders caused by mitigating factors such as tumors, PTSD, depression, and so on—factors that are assumed to restrict the autonomy of the accused and are thus taken into account during the sentencing phase of a trial. Finally, there are lawful killings, such as those that occur in war, as a result of self-defense, or capital punishment by a state. All of these ways in which a human life is cut short, either lawfully or unlawfully, by individuals or the state, take into account circumstances, intent, and moral degrees of freedom.12

Dan Barker’s poignantly argued and beautifully presented case for harmonic freedom and social free will gels beautifully with my own and others’ case for how we can be free in a determined universe. Barker is one of our finest minds and most effective activists for atheism, and as a former preacher and theist he knows the necessity of making the case for moral freedom as well if we are to rebut the calumny that atheists have no morality because we don’t believe in moral responsibility (if we’re not free then we can’t be held responsible for our actions). Barker’s harmonic free will, so succinctly presented in this tightly reasoned book, does not deny the scientific reality of determinism, but it does engage us as humans in the social process of being responsible for our choices while interacting with other humans, and in so doing Barker has essentially eliminated the problem of free will and determinism. There is really nothing to resolve.

As an example consider the following thought experiment. John Doe is an exceptionally moral person who is happily married to Jane doe. The chances of John ever cheating on Jane is close to zero. But the odds are not zero because John is human, so let’s say—for the sake of argument—that John has a one-night stand while on the road and Jane finds out. How does John account for his actions? Does he, pace the standard deterministic explanation for human behavior, say something like this to Jane?

Honey, my will is simply not of my own making. My thoughts and intentions emerged from background causes of which I am unaware and over which I exert no conscious control. I do not have the freedom you think I have. I could not have done otherwise…

Could John even finish the thought before the stinging slap of Jane’s hand across his face terminated the rationalization?

If free will is the power to do otherwise, both John and Jane know that, of course, he could have done otherwise, and she reminds him that should those circumstances arise again he damn well better make the right choice…or else. That act to choose to do the right thing…or the wrong thing…is what most of us mean by free will. In this sense I strongly suspect that deep down most determinists are compatibilists when it comes to actually living their lives instead of running thought experiments. And except for those extreme cases of mental illness, chemical addiction, or brain damage, we all have this type of freedom. Our choices may be part of the determined causal net of the universe, but they are still our choices that we make and we should be held accountable for them.

  1. Libet, Benjamin. 1985. “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action.” Behavior and Brain Sciences, 8, 529–66.
  2. Haynes, J. D. 2011. “Decoding and Predicting Intentions.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1224(1), 9–21.
  3. Harris, Sam. 2012. Free Will. New York: Free Press, 5.
  6. Shermer, Michael. 2015. The Moral Arc. New York: Henry Holt.
  7. Kurzban, Robert. 2012. Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite. Princeton University Press.
  8. Brass, Marcel and Patrick Haggard. 2007. “To Do or Not to Do: The Neural Signature of Self Control.” The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(34), 9141–9145.
  9. Libet, Benjamin. 1999. “Do We Have Free Will?” Journal of Consciousness Studies. 6(809), 47–57, 54.
  10. Dennett, Daniel. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking.
  11. For a discussion of how the brain operates to make economic decisions that feel “free” to the decision maker, see: Glimcher, P. W. 2003. Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics. Cambridge: MIT Press. See also Steven Pinker’s excellent discussion on free will and determinism in: Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 175.
  12. Scheb, John M. and John M. Scheb II. 2010. Criminal Law and Procedure. 7th edition. Cengage Learning.
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