Divine Neutrality, Blog. Science, Philosophy


May 11th, 2014

“We must believe in free-will. We have no choice.”

― Isaac Bashevis Singer
tamsnMagGlasThe words, “free will,” as commonly understood, are without meaning. (Explanation here.) They are words that describe an illusion about reality. Like the word, sunset, describes the illusion that the sun is moving whereas, in fact, the sun is not moving. Rather the effect is due to the earth’s spinning.

We don’t want to acknowledge that we have no free will. Free will is precious. We spend the whole of our childhood acquiring our right to decide. The little boy wants ‘to do things by himself’. The little girl wants it her way. Our struggle in adolescence is to get control of our destinies; to finally decide for ourselves; to exercise our own free will instead of conforming to our parents’ constraints. Is it any wonder that we don’t want to lose, to philosophy, this hard won gain.

There is a strong emotional attachment to the idea of having free will. And that attachment is connected to its function in evolutionary success. So we end up with this remarkable fact: although the commonly held notion of free will is an illusion we cannot function without embracing the illusion – without treating it as real.

Wherein lies the illusion? It’s embedded in this portrayal of the popular conception of free will:

Free will is choice from nowhere. But inspired from within. Inspired by the individual entity that defines one as a being distinguishable from all other beings. Free will presumes an essential you that is expressed by your behavior, behavior for which the elemental you is responsible. For which you must accept blame or praise. There is a kernel of you-ness that governs your behavior. What some might call your soul.

The illusion is that there is an elemental you apart from the workings of nature.

There is no elemental you. The experience of you-ness is a natural phenomenon. The experience is something within nature, not outside of it.

If there is no essential you what is it that inhabits your skin and uses your bones and muscles? Answer: Your bones and muscles and skin and viscera and tissues and cavities and microbiota are all the you there is. Imprinted in their molecules are all your past experiences. Like the redwood tree has branded in its tree rings all the vagaries of weather of season’s passed. This is where science will look for the essential you. In your molecular structures. It has no other place to look.

Free will is the name we assign to a feeling. The words ‘headache’ or ‘constipation’ or ‘funniness’ describe feelings.  You find the humor funny. The humor in a joke is not inherent to it. It’s not inherently funny. The humor in it depends upon your culture, your physical well being and your past experiences. Taste is another such feeling. It’s decided by ones natural history. Like them, choice, the exercise of free will, depends upon all that nature has thrust on you.

The feeling of volition – of free will – is comparable to other familiar feelings. Like anger, jealousy, satisfaction, fear – emotions that bridge external events to your internal constitution.

In his very insightful book, “Descartes’ Error” (Putnam, N.Y. 1994), Antonio Damasio details for us the physiological connection between choice (mind) and the body’s construction and history. Descarte’s error is that mind and body are independent disjoint entities. When, in fact, the two are so intertwined that one cannot function without the other. Like two interlocking gears neither does anything without the teeth of the other.

“If you don’t have free will, what guides you”? Answer: A sense of volition. The feeling that you have free will.  Like thirst guides you to drink. Hunger to eat. Yet you eat and drink out of free will. What drives one to sing or to dance? The hunger to do it. Visceral body chemistry. In the brain and in the flesh.

And this body chemistry issues from the embedded experiences of living. Punishments and praise, among the myriad other experiences, leave their scars on brain and tissue. “Nature and nurture … are simply two different ways of making deposits in the brain’s synaptic ledgers” (Joseph LeDoux, “The Synaptic Brain” 2002)

The emotional definition of free will – the illusion portrayed above – uses words that express how it feels rather than how it appears. The operational definition -  behavior without evident coercion – relates to how you know it when you see it; how free will appears. When this operational definition is coupled to a world view of nature – that all behavior is ultimately coerced – any kernel of responsibility for behavior is eliminated! You are never responsible because you are coerced by the exigencies of nature! Blame and praise are part of nature’s coercions.

Practical problems arise from this philosophical world view.

How should society treat criminality if, having no free will, the criminal is not responsible for his or her behavior? How can we assign blame and praise if actions are determined?

How does one who denies free will cope with these problems? How does a free-will-free person behave? Someone, believing in no deity, who accepts that all that happens – even his own choices – are determined by the exigencies of nature. Someone who believes free will is an illusion. How does such a one behave?

Answer: He has no choice but to behave as if free will were real – not an illusion! There is no way to behave otherwise. Nor have the courts and lawyers a choice to behave otherwise. They must carry on with the myth. Blame and praise must be assigned. The myth will be tempered modestly and evolve with time as greater scientific understanding diffuses through society.

Laws embed the prejudices and irrationalities that society holds at any time. Though dubbed sacred they are quite profane. They function to enable societal survival. Morality and principle evolve with time. Justice is a matter of fashion.

    It was once legal to own slaves. Now it is not.
    Homosexuality was formerly a crime. Now it is not.
    For witnesses in traditional Islamic courts one man was worth two women.
    Brain damage has come to be a mitigating factor in judging guilt.
    Adultery is illegal in Alabama and New York. Legal in Oregon and California.

Here’s what these five statements illustrate: what is considered acceptable behavior – legal – varies with time and with place and with scientific understanding. Acceptable behavior evolves. Acceptable behavior is what defines blame or praise. It shapes what you will choose to do. The choice will feel like free will.

We maintain and act upon myths for long periods of time even as our perception of them changes. We quaintly speak of the sun rising and of a beautiful sunset. But Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in the year 1600 for insisting that the sun didn’t move. We all now appreciate that Bruno was right. It is the rotation of the earth that causes these events. But we don’t even have phrases to name this thought colloquially. We proceed with the myth – the sun rises and sets – unperturbed by the lie that the sun is doing the moving.

So it must be with the free will myth. We guide our children by appealing to free will. You can’t quote Spinoza to a five year old. Instead one says, “If you behave yourself, mommy has a reward for you.” How else can one speak to a child? We depend upon the child’s sense of volition. In doing so we are molding the child’s you-ness. Shaping its future choices. In adolescence the condition persists. “If you want to succeed you must work at it,” we advise our youths. The language of motivation rests on our emotional notion of free will. Through the myth of free will great achievements grow. As do gestures of charity and compassion.

Some lengthy time of living must pass before an individual can intellectually even contemplate the idea that free will is an illusion. And even then most people will neither contemplate nor accept it. There are people for whom rationality holds no appeal. Others succumb to unrecognized emotional commitment. The need to believe in free will overwhelms logic. Says William James, “wisdom … is to believe what is in the line of your needs.”  (Is Life Worth Living, essay in The Will To Believe, 1896) The fantasy will never be driven from our midst; of the reality of free will. It’s needed.

You ask, “If we are bound in every way to treat the myth as true why bother thinking about it? It’s effectively true!”

The reason to bother is two-fold:

1. Acquiring understanding about how nature works is one of the delights of being alive. Like dancing. Or loving. Doing things with no use contemplated is the sweetness of life. And using your mind to acquire insight into the workings of your mind is too appealing an exercise to decline. Knowing a truth, useful or not, is irresistible.

2. And who is to know the future use of truths? The world’s most useful and practical tools of thought came from musing with no use envisioned. Euclid’s geometry and Einstein’s relativity are examples.

When a philosophical insight enters the world it need not become voiced popular dogma to have a profound effect. That the intelligencia appreciate it diffuses through society.

Legal arguments will continue to be made that match public sentiment and comprehension. But these change with time. As news of uncovered coercions become more accepted they will be incorporated into the body of law. On a case by case basis. Mitigations will include brain malfunctions and the suffering of abuse. Laws will permit cognitive alternatives. Like, formerly anathema, gay marriage is becoming acceptable now. Though this evolution expresses a philosophical shift none need be named; the free-will-exists myth is preserved even as the system evolves to reveal its mythicity.

It matters little what a man professes “provided only that he follows it out with charitable inconsistency” wrote Samuel Butler in “The Way of All Flesh” (1884). A dictum peculiarly appropriate to moral judgements and to the judicial system in the light of their interminable transmutation.

Knowing that free will is an illusion shapes ones thinking. It makes one humble; not likely to boast of good fortune; more likely to forgive transgressions. To see them as afflictions. It makes one suspicious of certitude. On the other hand such a man is less able to give stirring and inspiring speeches. Such a man will not mobilize the troops effectively. Leadership requires a firm commitment to the myth of free will’s reality.  As belief in the myth is required of his followers. War is the ultimate expression of free-willness. So myth governs reality. That’s how nature weaves her tapistry;  incompatibles intertwined.

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  1. 1

    What an elegantly thought through beautiful essay. I can hear you speaking in my mind while reading this. I love the way you use language.. I have to give it more thought as to where I stand on this but your writing is a PLEASURE to read!

    - Lisa @
  2. 2

    Thank you for your kind and generous words, Lisa.

    - Marvin Chester @
  3. 3

    You don’t have to go to quantum physics to find indeterminism in nature. Complex systems, of which there are countless examples, often contain features which are inherently indeterminate. The indeterminacy tends to be found within bounds of freedom, those bounds being a chaotic tipping point beyond which all bets are off. We may have learned that a city can expect X number violent storms per season, but no metric can determine when those storms will exactly occur. That’s not the nature of the maths. I have studied formulaic utterances, supposedly predictable, but in real discourse always with unpredictable but bounded variations. Our subconscious “decision” to express an idea with a certain ordered collection of words is similarly a cascade of bounded but locally unpredictable selections. Even our conscious choices are likely to be sourced subconsciously in probability estimates (in the case of known unknowns) or an appropriate heuristic (in the case of unknown unknowns – see many papers by Gerd Gigerenza). My guess is that the conscious sense of free will which we have actually operates on a sliding scale of certainty, which in turn depends upon subconscious meta estimates of the bounds within which lower level patterns of selection can trend. One writer who has had some interesting things to say about how human choices are made (though I’m not enthused about his style) is Roger Valiant, “Probably Approximately Correct”. By now we should be way past the simplistic cognitive and knowledge models which historical characters like Descartes had to work with.

    - Thor May @

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