March 9, 2012 10:11 pm

Fight your fate

Do advances in neuroscience give the lie to free will?

Willpower: Rediscovering our Greatest Strength, by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 304 pages

Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, by Michael S Gazzaniga, Constable and Robinson, RRP£14.99, 260 pages

Free Will, by Sam Harris, Free Press, RRP$9.99, 96 pages

Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility, by Tamler Sommers, Princeton University Press, RRP£27.95, 246 pages

I assume that right now, you are not following these words because there is a gun pointed at your head or you’ve been hypnotised. Until such time as a benign dictator makes reading the FT compulsory, it seems the most self-evident fact in the world that people who buy it do so of their own free will. Yet for centuries there have been those who have argued that “seems” is all there is to this feeling of freedom.

Advances in neuroscience have given the free will deniers new impetus. The ace in the pack is the work of the late Benjamin Libet, which neuroscientist Sam Harris says in Free Will shows that “some moments before you are aware of what you will do next ... 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.” For the likes of Harris, evidence like this shows that the absence of free will is now scientific fact, not philosophical theory.

 

But as other new books on the same issue show, it’s far more complicated than that. Michael Gazzaniga, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, also acknowledges the soundness of Libet’s research, yet his answer to his book’s eponymous question Who’s in Charge? is that you are. Then you have philosopher Tamler Sommers not disputing that free will is an illusion but arguing in Relative Justice that ideas such as moral responsibility are not as threatened by this as much as we might fear. Finally, there is the eminent psychologist Roy F Baumeister, with the aid of science journalist John Tierney, making a powerful case for the Willpower of his book’s title, which almost completely bypasses the whole free will debate. What’s going on?

Seeing how Baumeister dodges the issue helps us get to the heart of it. For him, willpower is the ability to exercise self-control consciously. Despite the fact that the mind is subject to innumerable unconscious influences, caused by such raw biological factors as low glucose levels in the bloodstream, we do still have a remarkable degree of willpower. His book is both a compendious outline of the research that backs this up and a kind of how-to guide that helps stiffen our resolve.

For example, we have less energy to make decisions if we’re tired, hungry or have made many already, so we should avoid sweating the small stuff, eat a good breakfast and make critical choices before lunch. At the same time, just as exercise leaves us feeling tired but makes us fitter in the long run, so self-control is like a muscle that strengthens with practice.

If Baumeister is right – and surely in broad terms he must be – how can anyone seriously doubt that we do indeed have free will? Because in an important sense what Baumeister calls willpower has nothing to do with free will at all. The existence of willpower shows that we are able to use conscious thought to control our actions, but it does not show that we control our conscious thoughts.

This, Harris argues, we cannot do. According to the determinist view he endorses, we are just immeasurably more sophisticated versions of thermostats. They too make “decisions” – to turn the heating up, down or off – but only because of a combination of how they are constituted, how they’ve been programmed and what’s going in their environment. We make more choices with brains that are much more complex, but the underlying principles are the same: we’re just one more link in the purposeless chain of nature’s causes and effects. The feeling that we are free is simply an illusion. We are like conscious puppets who, not feeling our strings pulled, falsely believe we have none.

 

Harris is deeply unimpressed by compatibilism, the main challenger to his free-will debunking stance. Compatibilism accepts the determinists’ claim that we are no more free from nature’s chain of cause and effect than plants and rocks. But just as long as we biological machines generate our own choices and actions internally, free from coercion or outside pressure, we have free will. That’s all there is to it.

For a hard-nosed determinist such as Harris, this “amounts to nothing more than the assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings”. But he gives the view too short shrift. Harris delivers his apparently decisive blows only to “the popular notion of free will” or “the kind of free will that most people seem to cherish”. But compatibilists know their view is revisionary. It has to be, because common-sense free will is incoherent. To be able to make a choice that did not depend on how we had been shaped by past events would be to choose randomly, not freely. True freedom is to act according to our desires, beliefs and natures, not to do just anything that might pop into our heads.

Never one to reveal much by way of self-doubt, Harris reads here like an intelligent partisan. Michael Gazzaniga is both more modest and nuanced. His Who’s in Charge? shows that neuroscience has both more and less to say about free will than Harris would have you believe.

Radical doubts about free will often arise out of the realisation that thought is essentially a product of the brain and so, it seems, entirely determined by physical processes. It is easy then to jump to the conclusion that consciousness is doing no work, that we are, as the philosopher John Searle memorably put it, like the froth on the sea thinking “gee – pulling these waves backward and forward is really hard work”.

But this picture is too simplistic. It assumes that the real cause of anything that happens in the world is to be explained at the most basic physical level. So if thoughts are produced by brains, brains comprise cells, and cells are ultimately just collections of fermions and bosons, then thoughts are caused by nothing more than fermions and bosons, and they cause nothing themselves.

 

As Gazzaniga explains with clarity and understated authority, this is based on a false picture of nature operating in a simple “bottom up” way. This kind of crude reductionism has been superseded by an understanding of “complex systems” and “emergent properties”, which gives a scientific explanation of how wholes can be more than the sums of their parts. For example, when atoms get together to form an eagle, the animal has properties such as colour, consciousness and sense perception that do not appear in the list of the properties of atoms. But what’s more, you can’t explain these emergent properties by breaking down the workings of the bird into the workings of atoms. Nor can you build up the other way: you could not predict the properties of birds from the laws of physics and the properties of the atoms that comprise them.

The vital upshot of this is that it is just wrong to think of causation as all occurring at the fundamental, subatomic level of organisation. As an emergent property, conscious thought can affect how we can behave, without us having to postulate some kind of weird, non-material soul. We are built of atoms, but we are neither controlled by them nor control them from the outside. Control is exerted by the whole system, not by its parts or anything external to it. This account may not solve the thorniest philosophical issues of free will but it moves us forward in our understanding of what neuroscience adds to the debate.

But perhaps the greatest mystery of free will is how it can be that on both major axes of the debate – whether it exists and whether it matters if it does – intelligent, informed opinion can be found at both ends. That might be a clue that this is a question without a definitive, factual answer.

 

In his academic but accessible Relative Justice, the philosopher Tamler Sommers takes such a “metasceptical” position, not on free will itself, of which he is plain sceptical, but on the major issue connected with it: moral responsibility. Courts, laws and philosophers all have views about when criminals are responsible for their actions and when they are not, based on whether the person is judged to be ill, mentally retarded, temporarily insane, under the influence of drugs and so on. Sommers’ argument is that the case for or against drawing the line in different places almost always rests on intuitions about what responsibility requires that are assumed to be widely shared. But by looking at the evidence of anthropology and history, Sommers makes a compelling case that no such universal intuitions exist.

Most strikingly, he challenges what he calls the “control condition”: the widely held assumption, considered as pretty much common sense, that you are only responsible for actions you have control over. But how then do you make sense of Koreans apologising and feeling ashamed when one of their compatriots went on a killing spree at Virginia Tech University, as though they shared responsibility for the crime? Why did the Ancient Greeks not find it strange that Agamemnon was held responsible in a myth for killing his daughter, even though Zeus had made him unable to do otherwise? The short answer is that the “control condition” is far from a universal intuition about the grounds of responsibility at all. “The judgment of Agamemnon is not illogical,” writes Sommers, “ it is counterintuitive from a contemporary Western perspective.” And the best explanation of such wildly divergent intuitions is that although there are limits on which theories of moral responsibility are reasonable, there is no such thing as the single objectively correct one.

This is a penetrating and far-reaching book that suggests – to me at least – that the focus of the free will debate has been in all the wrong places. As Gazzaniga and Baumeister show, we may not have as much conscious control over our actions as we think we do, but people who deny we have any at all have simply drawn the wrong lessons from neuroscience. At the same time, as Harris shows, having the ability to control our actions with our thoughts is not the same as having the ability to be the ultimate originators of our own thoughts. If we ask whether that debunks free will, we’re bound to end up in a largely terminological dispute about what free will really is, based on intuitions that have no universal validity.

We’d be better off thinking about the implications of the facts we can all agree about. Sommers shows that even if you want to insist that we don’t have free will, we still have recognisable, if subtly altered, forms of many of the cherished notions we assume depend on it, like love, responsibility and morality. Even Harris argues that as a “biological puppet” aware of your lack of free will you can, paradoxically, “grab hold of one of your strings” and “steer a more intelligent course through our lives”. That’s what matters, and if you don’t want to call it free will, feel free to call it what you will.

Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)

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