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The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?

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More and more I question the degree to which animals (and plants) have free will. Oliver Burkman in the Guardian summarizes some recent thinking on the issue.

Towards the end of a conversation dwelling on some of the deepest metaphysical puzzles regarding the nature of human existence, the philosopher Galen Strawson paused, then asked me: “Have you spoken to anyone else yet who’s received weird email?” He navigated to a file on his computer and began reading from the alarming messages he and several other scholars had received over the past few years. Some were plaintive, others abusive, but all were fiercely accusatory. “Last year you all played a part in destroying my life,” one person wrote. “I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did … Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.” “Rot in your own shit Galen,” read another note, sent in early 2015. “Your wife, your kids your friends, you have smeared all there [sic] achievements you utter fucking prick,” wrote the same person, who subsequently warned: “I’m going to fuck you up.” And then, days later, under the subject line “Hello”: “I’m coming for you.” “This was one where we had to involve the police,” Strawson said. Thereafter, the violent threats ceased.

It isn’t unheard of for philosophers to receive death threats. The Australian ethicist Peter Singer, for example, has received many, in response to his argument that, in highly exceptional circumstances, it might be morally justifiable to kill newborn babies with severe disabilities. But Strawson, like others on the receiving end of this particular wave of abuse, had merely expressed a longstanding position in an ancient debate that strikes many as the ultimate in “armchair philosophy”, wholly detached from the emotive entanglements of real life. They all deny that human beings possess free will. They argue that our choices are determined by forces beyond our ultimate control – perhaps even predetermined all the way back to the big bang – and that therefore nobody is ever wholly responsible for their actions. Reading back over the emails, Strawson, who gives the impression of someone far more forgiving of other people’s flaws than of his own, found himself empathising with his harassers’ distress. “I think for these people it’s just an existential catastrophe,” he said. “And I think I can see why.”

The difficulty in explaining the enigma of free will to those unfamiliar with the subject isn’t that it’s complex or obscure. It’s that the experience of possessing free will – the feeling that we are the authors of our choices – is so utterly basic to everyone’s existence that it can be hard to get enough mental distance to see what’s going on. Suppose you find yourself feeling moderately hungry one afternoon, so you walk to the fruit bowl in your kitchen, where you see one apple and one banana. As it happens, you choose the banana. But it seems absolutely obvious that you were free to choose the apple – or neither, or both – instead. That’s free will: were you to rewind the tape of world history, to the instant just before you made your decision, with everything in the universe exactly the same, you’d have been able to make a different one.

Nothing could be more self-evident. And yet according to a growing chorus of philosophers and scientists, who have a variety of different reasons for their view, it also can’t possibly be the case. “This sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics,” says one of the most strident of the free will sceptics, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. Leading psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom agree, as apparently did the late Stephen Hawking, along with numerous prominent neuroscientists, including VS Ramachandran, who called free will “an inherently flawed and incoherent concept” in his endorsement of Sam Harris’s bestselling 2012 book Free Will, which also makes that argument. According to the public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari, free will is an anachronistic myth – useful in the past, perhaps, as a way of motivating people to fight against tyrants or oppressive ideologies, but rendered obsolete by the power of modern data science to know us better than we know ourselves, and thus to predict and manipulate our choices.

Arguments against free will go back millennia, but the latest resurgence of scepticism has been driven by advances in neuroscience during the past few decades. Now that it’s possible to observe – thanks to neuroimaging – the physical brain activity associated with our decisions, it’s easier to think of those decisions as just another part of the mechanics of the material universe, in which “free will” plays no role. And from the 1980s onwards, various specific neuroscientific findings have offered troubling clues that our so-called free choices might actually originate in our brains several milliseconds, or even much longer, before we’re first aware of even thinking of them.

Despite the criticism that this is all just armchair philosophy, the truth is that the stakes could hardly be higher. Were free will to be shown to be nonexistent – and were we truly to absorb the fact – it would “precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution”, Harris has written. Arguably, we would be forced to conclude that it was unreasonable ever to praise or blame anyone for their actions, since they weren’t truly responsible for deciding to do them; or to feel guilt for one’s misdeeds, pride in one’s accomplishments, or gratitude for others’ kindness. And we might come to feel that it was morally unjustifiable to mete out retributive punishment to criminals, since they had no ultimate choice about their wrongdoing. Some worry that it might fatally corrode all human relations, since romantic love, friendship and neighbourly civility alike all depend on the assumption of choice: any loving or respectful gesture has to be voluntary for it to count.

Peer over the precipice of the free will debate for a while, and you begin to appreciate how an already psychologically vulnerable person might be nudged into a breakdown, as was apparently the case with Strawson’s email correspondents. Harris has taken to prefacing his podcasts on free will with disclaimers, urging those who find the topic emotionally distressing to give them a miss. And Saul Smilansky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel, who believes the popular notion of free will is a mistake, told me that if a graduate student who was prone to depression sought to study the subject with him, he would try to dissuade them. “Look, I’m naturally a buoyant person,” he said. “I have the mentality of a village idiot: it’s easy to make me happy. Nevertheless, the free will problem is really depressing if you take it seriously. It hasn’t made me happy, and in retrospect, if I were at graduate school again, maybe a different topic would have been preferable.”

Smilansky is an advocate of what he calls “illusionism”, the idea that although free will as conventionally defined is unreal, it’s crucial people go on believing otherwise – from which it follows that an article like this one might be actively dangerous. (Twenty years ago, he said, he might have refused to speak to me, but these days free will scepticism was so widely discussed that “the horse has left the barn”.) “On the deepest level, if people really understood what’s going on – and I don’t think I’ve fully internalised the implications myself, even after all these years – it’s just too frightening and difficult,” Smilansky said. “For anyone who’s morally and emotionally deep, it’s really depressing and destructive. It would really threaten our sense of self, our sense of personal value. The truth is just too awful here.”


The conviction that nobody ever truly chooses freely to do anything – that we’re the puppets of forces beyond our control – often seems to strike its adherents early in their intellectual careers, in a sudden flash of insight. “I was sitting in a carrel in Wolfson College [in Oxford] in 1975, and I had no idea what I was going to write my DPhil thesis about,” Strawson recalled. “I was reading something about Kant’s views on free will, and I was just electrified. That was it.” The logic, once glimpsed, seems coldly inexorable. Start with what seems like an obvious truth: anything that happens in the world, ever, must have been completely caused by things that happened before it. And those things must have been caused by things that happened before them – and so on, backwards to the dawn of time: cause after cause after cause, all of them following the predictable laws of nature, even if we haven’t figured all of those laws out yet. It’s easy enough to grasp this in the context of the straightforwardly physical world of rocks and rivers and internal combustion engines. But surely “one thing leads to another” in the world of decisions and intentions, too. Our decisions and intentions involve neural activity – and why would a neuron be exempt from the laws of physics any more than a rock?

So in the fruit bowl example, there are physiological reasons for your feeling hungry in the first place, and there are causes – in your genes, your upbringing, or your current environment – for your choosing to address your hunger with fruit, rather than a box of doughnuts. And your preference for the banana over the apple, at the moment of supposed choice, must have been caused by what went before, presumably including the pattern of neurons firing in your brain, which was itself caused – and so on back in an unbroken chain to your birth, the meeting of your parents, their births and, eventually, the birth of the cosmos.

But if all that’s true, there’s simply no room for the kind of free will you might imagine yourself to have when you see the apple and banana and wonder which one you’ll choose. To have what’s known in the scholarly jargon as “contra-causal” free will – so that if you rewound the tape of history back to the moment of choice, you could make a different choice – you’d somehow have to slip outside physical reality. To make a choice that wasn’t merely the next link in the unbroken chain of causes, you’d have to be able to stand apart from the whole thing, a ghostly presence separate from the material world yet mysteriously still able to influence it. But of course you can’t actually get to this supposed place that’s external to the universe, separate from all the atoms that comprise it and the laws that govern them. You just are some of the atoms in the universe, governed by the same predictable laws as all the rest.

It was the French polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace, writing in 1814, who most succinctly expressed the puzzle here: how can there be free will, in a universe where events just crank forwards like clockwork? His thought experiment is known as Laplace’s demon, and his argument went as follows: if some hypothetical ultra-intelligent being – or demon – could somehow know the position of every atom in the universe at a single point in time, along with all the laws that governed their interactions, it could predict the future in its entirety. There would be nothing it couldn’t know about the world 100 or 1,000 years hence, down to the slightest quiver of a sparrow’s wing. You might think you made a free choice to marry your partner, or choose a salad with your meal rather than chips; but in fact Laplace’s demon would have known it all along, by extrapolating out along the endless chain of causes. “For such an intellect,” Laplace said, “nothing could be uncertain, and the future, just like the past, would be present before its eyes.”

It’s true that since Laplace’s day, findings in quantum physics have indicated that some events, at the level of atoms and electrons, are genuinely random, which means they would be impossible to predict in advance, even by some hypothetical megabrain. But few people involved in the free will debate think that makes a critical difference. Those tiny fluctuations probably have little relevant impact on life at the scale we live it, as human beings. And in any case, there’s no more freedom in being subject to the random behaviours of electrons than there is in being the slave of predetermined causal laws. Either way, something other than your own free will seems to be pulling your strings.


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B
y far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what it seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness). “For the free will sceptic,” writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, “it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible.” Were we to accept the full implications of that idea, the way we treat each other – and especially the way we treat criminals – might change beyond recognition. [No, it wouldn’t: we don’t have free will to make other choices, remember? – LG]

Consider the case of Charles Whitman. Just after midnight on 1 August 1966, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2021 at 5:48 pm

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