Opinion Columns & Blogs

Humans have ability of free will (at least, we think we do)

Is free will an illusion?

I recently found myself defending a person’s actions on grounds that the person likely suffers from a psychological disorder. It was pointed out that the person otherwise is highly functional and successful. This got me thinking about free will and led me to the recent writings of four academics, each with different perspectives on this thought-puzzle.

Researchers Allan Siegel and John Douard examined studies looking at whether violent or aggressive behavior can be explained by biochemical processes in the brain. The research suggests that significant variations in brain neurochemistry, especially low brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, strongly affect the likelihood of committing a violent crime.

The authors then looked at neurological mechanisms that potentially could override these biochemical predictors. They assert that through education such as anger management, the neurons of the prefrontal cortex can be conditioned to modify how one expresses angry feelings that one cannot control having.

To them, free will resides in the capacity to become reason-responsive through education. However, they produce no empirical studies showing the efficacy of educational conditioning on individuals with abnormal neurochemistry.

Philosopher Richard Holten looked at the question why volunteers who read passages on how free will is an illusion become more likely to cheat and hurt others. He concludes the subjects mistake determinism for fatalism. The fatalist believes that no matter what he does, he will be destined to the same outcome and to try otherwise is futile. The determinist believes that his actions do matter and will control the outcome, but believes that there are causes for each of those actions.

Holten surmised that the subjects exposed to deterministic readings gave up exercising self-control – which he calls the essence of free will – because they believed it was futile. Holten conjectures that with proper education about determinism, the subjects would not find their actions futile.

I am skeptical. If I seriously believe that my choices are determined from a string of causes going back to the big bang, isn’t that still demotivating, albeit perhaps less than a belief in fatalism?

Neurobiologist Bjorn Brembs offers a scientific definition of free will to replace the “outdated” metaphysical concept. He explains how invertebrates, as well as vertebrates, have evolved neurological processes that produce unpredictable behavior, rather than automated behavior. If a predator or competitor knows how you will act, your survival chances are reduced. The slug, fly and human share common neurological mechanisms in making a choice as to how much to eat or which direction to move. Thus, free will is a product of evolution and should be understood in terms of the unpredictability of choices. How such choices can be “free” in a deterministic world, the professor does not explain.

Psychologist Steven Pinker argues that understanding consciousness, self and free will is beyond the cognitive equipment of humans, like our inability to see ultraviolet light or rotate an object in the fourth dimension. He does, however, recognize a special status for consciousness, self, and free will. The experience of seeing red, having a sense of self, or choosing can never be equated with biochemical processes as they have a fundamentally different character.

I wonder whether free will and consciousness are best understood as brute facts of the universe. We have direct empirical experience they exist. Is that direct experience more “metaphysical” than the existence of baryons, quarks, mesons and most recently dark matter and energy? Could the choices a living organism makes themselves be a fundamental force – akin to gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear forces – that is exceedingly weak and difficult to measure? Does not the possibility of rationality presuppose something like this? What would be the point of trying to understand the world if we are not free to assent to a proposition because we perceive it to be true but rather assent because we are biochemically determined?

Brian Faller, a local attorney, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at brianfaller@comcast.net.