06 February 2015

Do We Have Freewill?

In the latter half of the 20th century a series of pioneering experiments by Benjamin Libet, a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Francisco, demonstrated a rather startling phenomenon. Libet was able to show that a conscious decision to flex one's wrist was preceded by brain activity which prepared to make the movement. It appeared that we decide unconsciously to make the move, the brain prepares to send the signal to move, and only then do we become conscious of having made a decision. This experiment and others like it have been interpreted by many as showing that freewill is "an illusion". In this essay I explore this argument and outline an important counter-argument by Patricia S. Churchland, Professor Emerita of Philosophy at UC, San Diego. I also look briefly at the determinist argument that some physicists profess. Freewill is not a particularly interesting problem, but since a lot of people talk about it, this is my two cents worth.

Is My Unconscious Part of 'Me'?

The first assumption to look at in the claims based on Libet is the idea that unconscious mental activity is somehow excluded from the freewill debate, even though it occurs in the same brain. But if my unconscious mental activity is not 'mine' then whose is it? The conclusion seems to be that when a decision is made unconsciously, even though it is our brain that makes the decision, that the decision does not count as freewill. Churchland sees this as a manifestation of matter/spirit dualism that separates out reason as a function of spirit. As I explain in my essay on this metaphor, having associated reason with spirit (arguing that reason itself is the essence of being human) it is entailed in the metaphor to then see reason as  "good" and the unconscious as more closely related to matter and therefore "bad". Additionally, reason appears to be under our control and the unconscious is not. Indeed part of the power of the Libet results is that it shows that reason is not under "our" control at all. It begins to look like a byproduct or an afterthought. However the general view of reason is in desperate need of an overhaul. 

I've gone over this material many times now: Damasio and others have shown that all decisions involve weighting of information via emotional resonances. In making a decision we defer to our emotions and find reasons afterwards (See Facts and Feelings). The practical demonstration of this is found in the advertising industry which, since the 1920s and the interventions of Edward Bernays, has appealed to desires rather than to reason when selling products and ideas. Bernays was able to apply his uncle Sigmund Freud's ideas to changing views. Most famously he convinced women to break the social taboo on women smoking by linking cigarettes with suffragettes. He did this by paying debutantes to pose smoking cigarettes during a parade, and alerting the press so they published the pictures under headlines touting cancer-sticks as "torches of freedom" and thus doomed several generations of women to horrible deaths from cancer and emphysema. (See Culture Wars, or The Society Pages) Sometimes taboos are good! In addition I've repeated cited the argument by Mercier & Sperber that in fact individuals are terrible at reasoning (An Argumentative Theory of Reason). We almost always fall into bias or fallacy when trying to reason on our own. They argue that this is not the case in small groups where different ideas can be kicked around and the group reasons collectively. Small groups are much better at reasoning. 

So it appears that the idea that conscious reasoning is what defines humans is long past it's use-by date. Any theory which even implicitly relies on this definition of reason ought to be discounted. Human beings make use of a range of faculties, including emotions and unconscious processes to make all decisions. Nor is it true to say that sapience is restricted to humans. We have now documented self-awareness and tool making in a number of species. Somehow the antiquated idea about reason being our highest and defining faculty still seems to be invoked, but we ought to be very wary of this. 

What Kind of Free Will are we Talking About?

Patricia Churchland makes a very important distinction about who means what by "freewill". Most philosophers and many scientists use freewill as a shorthand for "contracausal freewill". This is the kind of freewill described by Immanuel Kant. Churchland says contracausal freewill means that:
"... your decisions are not caused by anything at all—not by your goals, emotions, motives, knowledge, or whatever. Somehow, according to this idea, your will (whatever that is) creates a decision by reason (whatever that is)." (2013: 179; emphasis in the original)
When some scientist says, on the basis of Libet, that we have no freewill, this is what they appear to mean. They are arguing that we have no contracausal freewill, because conscious reason comes into play late in the decision process. Apart from the fact that this definition of freewill is counterintuitive and seems unlikely to non-philosophers, we've already undermined some of the key assumptions involved in it. As discussed above, Churchland sees that entailed in this view is the idea of a non-physical soul. By disconnecting the decision making process from our bodily processes (like emotions) and assigning it to "pure" reason, those who use this definition seem to be subscribing to a matter/spirit dualism in which reason is a function of spirit not of body. 

The more commonsense variety of freewill is less well defined partly because, like many commonsense definitions, we use it efficiently without fussing over the meaning. To make us more comfortable with the fuzziness of the definition Churchland invokes George Lakoff's ideas about categories being defined by relatedness to a prototype. In this view freewill is not an all or nothing proposition, but some actions are more free than others. Some acts are more typical of freewill than others. And people are somewhat free to choose which actions most represent freedom, since categories are what we impose on experience to help organise it. Most people intuitively understand that sometimes we have more choice than others, or that sometimes people are compelled to chose one option even though in theory they have a choice. This recognition of degrees of freedom seems vital to any sensible theory of how we make choices, especially moral choices. 

Churchland argues that:
"...if contracausal choice is the intended meaning, the claim that free will in that sense is an illusion is only marginally interesting, Because nothing in the law, in child-rearing, or in everyday life depends in any significant way on the idea that free choice requires freedom from all causes." (184)
In other words the freewill that is being denied by philosophers is not very interesting because, being divorced from experience, it's hardly credible anyway. Churchland likens the claim that contracausal freewill is an illusion to announcing that alien abductions are not real. The response is, "So what?", "Who cares?" or "Duh!" Those who deny freewill on the basis of the Libet experiments are not saying anything interesting, though of course at first glance it appears to be a controversial thing to say so the media covers it and the meme gets spread. This whole section of the debate about freewill can safely be shelved with other legacy ideas from philosophy that are no longer relevant. The question is not "Are we free?", but "How free are we now and how free can we be?"

Self Control

Even if there is some doubt about what freewill means, Churchland argues that there is a related concept about which there can be no doubt: self-control. She points out that self-control, the over-riding of impulses to act, takes conscious effort. And in terms of morality, self-control is often just as significant as conscious choice. Morality is very frequently defined in terms of refraining from actions: "thou shalt not..." (in a Christian context) or "I choose to refrain from..." (in a Buddhist setting). Libertarian secularists often complain about religious morality as just being a bunch of rules, but it might be a natural consequence of self-control being a much clearer concept. And although our laws are profoundly influenced by religious models, there has been no significant move away from prohibitive rules even in secular (or nominally secular) countries. 

Most of being a good group member would appear to be inhibiting impulses that go against group norms. Any sociable animal must at times repress selfish impulses in order to benefit the group. Social animals for example prosper by sharing food sources in a way that solitary animals do not. Our motivation for exercising this impulse control vary: fear of reprisal, shame, habit, altruism, and generosity can all come into play. Or we may feel that the "law is an ass" or decide that a small breach of the rules will draw attention to a greater breach (civil disobedience to protest government corruption for example). In other words we can be negatively motivated or positively motivated to follow established norms or to break them.

My reading of Churchland's account of the freewill debate is that for the most part it is poorly framed and thus does not produce interesting results. The reasons for considering contracausal freewill to be the best definition are no longer plausible if they ever were. It serves to confirm that the freewill debate, such as it is, is not particularly interesting. 

Making Moral Judgements

This is not to say that the matter of voluntary actions is unimportant. Social groups operate with norms and rules and when enforcing those norms it's important to know why breaches happened. This is why most legal systems make distinctions of degree in crimes like murder. A murder than is planned months in advance is always seen as a worse crime than one committed in the heat of the moment. A calculated crime is relatively more serious than an impulsive one. This is because consciously breaking the rules is a clear repudiation of those rules. In this case we have serious doubts about the willingness of the person to return to lawfulness. Part of any calculation to commit a crime is usually elaborate planning to avoid detection and punishment. Even if the rule-breaker shows remorse, we have reason to distrust them in the future.

The crime of impulse however is more likely to be understood as a momentary lapse and to be treated more leniently if accompanied by suitable remorse and a willingness to admit fault. Those who plead guilty tend to get lighter punishments. However if someone is prone to repeated crimes of impulse then we tend to treat them like the person who does calculated crimes, because we cannot trust them to keep the rules.

If someone sets out to injure a person and that person inadvertently die then this is less serious than if the assailant intended kill. It might still be considered murder depending on how we judge the risk involved. An attack with a weapon is more likely to kill than a fist-fight for example. This situation can be seen in the light of calculation and impulse also. If someone is killed purely by accident, with no intent to harm, we may still be found culpable for depriving them of life, but the consequences may be still less severe. For example neglecting our duty of care while doing an inherently dangerous activity, like driving a car, is still quite a serious crime. But if we were proceeding with due care and a pedestrian crosses the street without looking causing them to be knocked down and killed then we are not culpable even those someone has died.

On the other hand if we kill someone in the process of defending ourselves or our property we may not be culpable at all as long as the force we used is judged to be proportionate to the threat we faced. Police officers and soldiers are seldom held to be culpable of murder when they kill someone in the line of duty, even though the community may feel they should be held accountable. This is extremely controversial, but in a culture where murder is fairly routine the enforcement of law comes with severe risk. It's unreasonable to expect police to risk their lives when apprehending a suspect. Soldiers are not given carte blanche to kill. Under the modern rules of war, they may not purposefully kill civilians for example, though this is not a universally recognised restriction especially in asymmetric war where one side is far more powerful than the other. Soldiers may not only kill enemy combatants, but will be rewarded for doing so. In the Vietnam War, efficiency guru Alain Enthoven used the "body count" as a measure of how well the war was going (he subsequently was brought in to reorganise the British health service by introducing the "target culture").

People can be found not-guilty of even the most serious crimes if they do not have the ability to understand the consequences of their actions - either permanently or temporarily. We often detain such people purely on safety grounds. In making judgements about the severity of breaches of social norms we have to take many degrees of intentionality and self-control into account.

Thus an all-or-nothing freewill is not a very helpful instrument in thinking about morality. Moral judgements can be very complex indeed and always take in the motivations and the underlying mental and emotional state of the perpetrator (and often the victim as well). Thus contracausal freewill is fully irrelevant to how our laws operate and to how common sense morality operates (as already pointed out by Churchland). 

As an aside, it is interesting that the baby boomer counter-culture seemed to be all about allowing one's impulses free reign. From "free love" to "greed is good", sections of the post-war generations felt the need to stop restraining themselves and let it all hang out (as the saying goes). As it turns out the backlash against this call for loosening of social restraints has been a far more significant social movement. Neolibertarianism was driven primarily by conservative business people. They wanted freedom from government control on their collective ability to do business, and conceived of this within strong social boundaries which restricted what was acceptable behaviour. The irony is that Neolibertarians are often authoritarian control freaks. They saw increasing liberalism and individualism as a threat to their way of life and took steps to take back control. Now, ironically, we struggle to pass laws to curb the excesses of those same business people even in the face of global economic instability and catastrophic climate change. We can now talk openly about sex, and women have a great deal more social equality, but the businessmen own a great deal more of the wealth and have virtual control over governments. The ideology of the world's leaders is that nothing ought to restrain the creation of profits and that abstract markets are more efficient than governments (though every empirical fact shows this to be untrue). Conservative elements in society still allow liberalism to make gains, such as same-sex marriage for example, but only where it has no consequences for the wealth of the wealthy. At the same time the threat of terrorism continues to eat away at civil liberties and individual freedoms. So the disinhibition of the 1960s is a pyrrhic victory.

The question of who is responsible for actions has become obscured to some extent by determinist scientists. The media has shown itself time and again to be highly irresponsible when reporting science. Media companies are in the business of entertainment and so news streams are only secondarily about informing us and are primarily about distraction and sensory stimulation. Scientists with a controversial message are more likely to get the oxygen of media attention than those with the more sober message. However there is still an argument about freewill based on the view that the universe is deterministic. We turn now to this argument.

Are We Deterministic Robots?

The view that being able to frame regularities in the universe in mathematical expressions, means that the universe is therefore deterministic is popular amongst physicists. In a deterministic system if we had perfect knowledge of the starting conditions, the elements, and rules, then we could perfectly describe the behaviour of the system indefinitely far into the future. This kind of Determinism was espoused, for example, by Stephen Hawking in his last book The Grand Design:
"so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion." (32)
Sean Carroll has also expressed the view that we're all machines that think. This argument is related to the one I was exploring with regard to the afterlife. Life is made up of atoms and we understand the behaviour of atoms, so we understand the basis upon which life exists, even if we don't quite understand all the processes of life yet. But whereas the claim about the afterlife was strictly limited to the persistence of information about the person after death as governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Entropy always increases in a closed system), this claim about a deterministic universe is unlimited. The unlimited nature of the claim trips it up.

It is true that we understand the behaviour of atoms at the energy, mass and length scales relevant to living things. But we also have to take into account the nature of complex systems. Even when a complex system is made up of simple elements following simple rules, the behaviour of the system is nondeterministic: we cannot predict it. When a system is made up of complex elements which combine according to complex rules and we get emergent properties at several different levels at once, then that system is decidedly not deterministic. An economy or the weather are not deterministic, not predictable.

As far as life is concerned we don't have perfect knowledge of the starting conditions and nor can we ever gain such knowledge. As far as the universe as a whole this also appears to be true. We can conjecture, but not have perfect knowledge. In fact because of random quantum fluctuations in space-time we can never be entirely sure about the elements in play. And the rules are sufficiently complex that to date no one understands them with anything like perfect knowledge (something acknowledged by Hawking, who goes so far as to say that he doubts we'll ever have a unified set of equations for the universe). The mathematics describing a single sub-atomic particle interacting with all the known fields has yet to be solved: it involves 7 or 9 extra dimensions of space that themselves at so small that they add nothing to the dimensionality we experience.

We can demonstrate the problem by considering a simple pendulum and then adding complexity. A simple pendulum vibrates in two dimensions, with one end fixed. The behaviour of this pendulum follows a simple law: the period of the vibration for small amplitude (θ << 1) is approximated by:

Where L is the length of the pendulum and g is the acceleration due to gravity. In fact for longer amplitudes the equation is more precisely:

This is complicated, but in fact not difficult to solve to an arbitrary level of accuracy (the factors in the series quickly become vanishingly small). For most large clocks only one or two members of the series are required for sufficient accuracy in calculations.

Intuitively we might think that adding a joint to the pendulum halfway along it's length, in effect a pendulum attached to the end of another pendulum, would complicate matters, but not so much. But in fact a double pendulum's motion is chaotic. Technically if we precisely specify the starting conditions we can predict it's motion, but we can only calculate the next moment, by precisely knowing what has happened from time = 0. For each moment in time the calculation gets longer until it very quickly becomes too difficult a problem for all the computing power inherent in the universe. If we start at an arbitrary time we have almost no chance of calculating what will happen next. A double pendulum is still technically deterministic, because it is theoretically possible to know the starting conditions, the precise details of the system, and the rules that must be followed.

If we conceive of an atom as being connected to other atoms by forces, then a system with two atoms would be like a double pendulum with no fixed end and instead of vibrating in only two dimensions they vibrate in three. The motions of these two atoms are chaotic and far more difficult to predict than a simple double pendulum, i.e. far more difficult than virtually impossible.

Now consider than there are of the order of 10100 atoms in the universe and all of them are connected via forces to each other. And we need to keep in mind that atoms, themselves are in fact systems of smaller particles which are again all interacting with all the other particles, and that fundamentally all that we see as particles and forces are simply vibrations of interacting fields that extend throughout the universe. Conceived of as a pendulum the overall motion of the universe is essentially infinitely complex. Even if we could precisely define the first moment in the history of the universe (something we cannot yet do), then by the second moment the vibrations in the various fields would be impossible to calculate. By the time particles appeared on the scene as an emergent property of the cooling universe, the system is already impossible to predict on the lowest scales. A system like this cannot be considered deterministic, even in theory.

What Kind of Ordered Universe Do We See?

So an obvious question then is, why do we see ordered behaviour at all? The order we see emerging from this 3D pendulum with 10100 moving parts is because of emergent properties when looking at different scales. Order, or quasi-order, appears in chaotic systems. Think of a hurricane. From space it looks like a relatively regular spiral, or a circle, even though at ground-level it can be chaotic. Also the intensity of the forces involved follow inverse square laws, or inverse fourth-power laws. In theory all fields extend throughout the universe, but the effects of forces are typically short range. Gravity is the only force with a very long range and that is mainly because the masses involved in cosmological phenomena are unimaginably large.

The characteristic ordering (or quasi-ordering) we see depends on the scale we adopt. For example 1g of pure carbon contains about 6 x 1023 atoms. In a previous essay I pointed out that if each atom was one millilitre in volume, that gram of carbon would fill the western Mediterranean Sea. The atoms are in motion, but the motions are many orders of magnitude smaller than a human eye can see. When we look at this many atoms, the tiny motions of each atom are cancelled out by other atoms doing the opposite. Each atom is regular in a number of ways: each carbon atom has six protons and six electrons, and either 6, 7, or 8 neutrons (giving 12C, 13C, and 14C), the chemistry of carbon is very predictable and the shape of its molecules known very precisely. But a diamond, a single gigantic molecule of carbon atoms, does not behave like an individual atom. Crystals are macro-structures that exhibit different kinds of regularities than atoms do. Sit two diamonds together and they do not interact, do not behave as a system at all. Carbon macro-molecules have very different properties to individual carbon atoms. A carbon atom is highly reactive and can form millions of compounds. Diamond by contrast is one of the most inert naturally occurring substances.

Steven Hawking wants us to believe that people are just complex machines. But this is not credible either. Perhaps at some absolute level of abstraction this is true, but not in any meaningful sense. The most complex machines we can make are still less complex than a single cell in our body. We are made from atoms, but millions of billions of billions of atoms, following complex rules; built up from another system of simpler components, also following complex rules, itself the visible manifestation of fields. We could not specify all the atoms of a person and predict what was going to happen next without first calculating every vibration in every field in the entire universe from the first moment in time. With all due respect, Hawking might be a good physicist, but he appears to be a poor philosopher. This may be why he also wrongly claims that philosophy is dead. There is nothing deterministic about a human being, which is why philosophy is very much alive (if not entirely well).

Nothing we know about the emergent properties of collections of Septillions of atoms rules out freewill as an emergent property. Nor are consciousness, or for that matter life itself, ruled out as properties of these unimaginably complex systems. We are very far from having plumbed the depths of the complexity of the universe, despite the fact that the elements and the rules governing the system are quite clear. An analogy here is the chess board. There are 32 pieces on 64 squares and the game has clearly defined rules. We can calculate the theoretical number of different games, and the best computers are better than the best humans, and yet not once has a recorded game ever been the same as a previously recorded game. The difference is that our game has 10100 pieces!

So, Do We Have Freewill?

The answer to the freewill question appears to be the one that is ascribed to the Buddha in last week's sutta translation and commentary. We unquestionably have some choice And at the very least we exercise self-control. Perhaps this is why the Buddhist precepts are phrased in terms of refraining from actions? 

The arguments against freewill that have emerged recently in the scientific community are simply poor philosophy. As Mary Midgley (1979) has said:
"There is now no safer occupation than talking bad science to philosophers, except talking bad philosophy to scientists."
That so many scientists are poor philosophers is of course deeply unhelpful. Midgley had Richard Dawkins firmly in her sights in making this comment. She considered his metaphor of the "selfish gene" to be very poor philosophy indeed (as do I). To be fair Dawkins and his followers thought Midgley completely misunderstood what he was getting at. From my point of view, Dawkins' idea is just a Neolibertarian reading of Darwinism. That's not science, it's not even philosophy really; it's ideology. What's more Neolibertarianism is rooted in the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, which is really rubbish philosophy since it fundamentally misunderstands human beings. Many of these behemoths of popular science are in fact quite poor at philosophy and have created a legacy of poor thinking—especially in the form of unsuitable metaphors—that will continue to haunt intellectuals for many years to come. 

In many ways this debate about freewill is simply silly. It's a legacy of theological debates that were silly to start with. In order to deny freewill one must make a choice. In order to argue against free will, one must make a sustained effort. It's simply not credible. Of course one can choose not to believe in freewill, but that argument is self-defeating. Anti-free will campaigners must argue that they are compelled to believe what they do. This leaves them trying to explain why not everyone is compelled to the same conclusion. If we are not free, then we are apparently not free in a variety of different and conflicting ways. The different conclusions are a powerful argument against determinism if ever there was one. 

Churchland, Patricia S. (2013) Touching A Nerve: The Self as Brain. W. W. Norton & Co. 
Midgley, Mary. (1979) 'Gene-juggling'. Philosophy. 54(210): 439-458.

See also:-
Metzinger, Thomas. (2013) "The myth of cognitive agency: subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy." Frontiers of Psychology, 19 December 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00931. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00931/full
Related Posts with Thumbnails