Free Will is only Natural

January 19, 2010

It’s only natural to wonder if science will demolish “free will”. You’ve heard the gist of the problem. First, the only thing going on with your choices is brain activity. No spirit, no soul -- just brain involved. Second, you can’t have free will because only your brain is making choices. Don't you wish that you were the one in control, instead of your brain?

The philosophical statement of this “free will” problem goes like this. Consider the following three statements. Some may be true, others false -- but all three can’t be true together. At least one must be false:

1. When I make a “free will” action, the cause of this action is my self-conscious decision beforehand to do it.

2. Some of my actions are “free will” type actions.

3. When I make any action, parts of my brain not directly involved with self-consciousness are the cause of my action.

Neuroscience is suggesting that premise 3 is correct. So, if premise 1 expresses what you mean by “free will” then you never make any “free will” type actions. Sorry, no free will.

Giving up on premise 1, perhaps we should mean something else by “free will” or we could just stop using the term entirely, surrendering it as another exploded myth or illusion. Maybe “free will” should just refer to those actions that your brain chooses, and you are "free" to the extent that you aren’t externally prevented from doing what your brain decides to do. Maybe we don’t really have “internal” or “subjective” freedom, but we can have plenty of external freedom (especially in democracies or anarchies).

Naturalism does NOT require abandoning free will, however. Perhaps it is only natural that we believe in internal free will. Life sure is easier. (Try getting through the day just letting your brain make all the choices rather than paying any self-conscious attention to what you are doing. Just don’t operate heavy machinery during this no-thought experiment.) Why would a persistent conscious illusion, so useful for getting through the day, get built into our mental machinery? Evolution doesn’t leave useless junk around for long, especially if it taking up time and energy.

Premise 1 may be false, but what about this more natural alternative:

4. When I make a “free will” action, the cause of this action is my consciously-guided brain process.

What is a “consciously-guided brain process”? Neuroscientists have little difficulty observing how tasks performed with due attention involve an eruption of brain activity across perceptual, conceptual, and motor areas of the brain, all busily communicating with each other. Self-aware consciousness is obviously doing something important, and the part of the brain involved with self-awareness is interacting with other parts of the brain. What is self-aware consciousness doing? It’s not hard to understand its crucial job: guiding the overall attention to relevant factors in the situation that help the process of performance. Sewing with a sharp needle just works better when you focus your attention on sewing properly.

Some brain scientists are trying to prove that the parts of the brain directly involved with self-consciousness are NEVER causally involved with any actions. These sorts of experiments can’t really demonstrate any such thing. Consider how they always involve a consciously self-aware subject who is paying close attention to the experimenter’s instructions and trying to perform well. See this article .  And these experimental subjects do perform really well. They make “spontaneous” acts, after some training, under the experimenter’s guidance. Ironic how the subjects need to understand what it is they are supposed to be doing. If there was an experiment showing how an unconscious subject can do about as well in these sorts of experiments, then I’d truly be impressed. Obviously self-consciousness is making some difference during the entire process.

The illusion to be dissolved by science is that just your self-conscious awareness by itself has some sort of sole executive power over your conduct. That sort of illusion can get inflated into nasty metaphysical notions about unnatural ghosts in the machine. No ghosts or souls need apply, since these three premises can all be true together:

2. Some of my actions are “free will” type actions.

3*. When I make some actions, parts of my brain not directly involved with self-consciousness are important causes of my action, along with parts of my brain directly involved with self-consciousness.

4. When I make a “free will” action, the cause of this action is my consciously-guided brain process.

Some of your actions are the result of internal free will, quite naturally. It’s a good thing that you naturally are just your brain -- all of your brain.

There is another common sense corollary to this view of free will: free will comes in degrees, roughly proportional to the degree of long-range attention you are able to give to your tasks. Freedom is not an “on-off” matter. If you want to be more free, pay more careful and intelligent attention to what you are doing. That’s a natural freedom we should all try to increase.