On the Conversation Surrounding Free Will


     Arguably one the greatest single inheritances from the Christian Tradition, our notion of Free Will has come under scrutiny over the past few decades as neuroscience and behavioral psychology have more and more eroded the notion of Free Will as traditionally understood—some rejecting any notion of Free Will at all.

     But that is already getting ahead of things—a few definitions will be necessary at the start before diving in. For many arguments over Free Will consist of interlocutors who both argue from the basis of different definitions of the philosophical concept. As I wish this to be instructive to those who have perhaps never considered the question of whether or not they have “Free Will” (or what such a statement means), as well as those who have studied a great deal already and given the weighty matter much thought, the four variously overlapping schools of thought regarding Free Will also will be given brief summarization.





“Free in the sense that one is able to choose otherwise, or at minimum that one is able not to choose or act as one does, and up to one in the sense that they are the source of their action.”


This definition will seem generally familiar, and comes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As its author goes on to extensively note, however, this definition is not without serious criticisms. While this is the Free Will most of us have the impression of having, and which most closely aligns with the Libertarian school of Free Will to be discussed below, questions immediately arise upon serious consideration and deconstruction of the definition:


First, what does it mean that ideas generally seem to spring from the depths of the unconscious mind?


 The notion that we consciously choose what to think about or respond to is a fallacy easy to penetrate by simply going to a quiet room and demanding that your mind think of nothing. Unless you are particularly practiced at meditation you are likely to fail miserably. My guess is that most readers will be unable to control their mind into maintaining a state of total blankness for no more than fifteen seconds on the high end. Thoughts simply appear in our consciousness.


That being said, if one stops to take note of day-to-day life it will become immediately clear that not all information is processed by the brain in the same way. Me being consciously aware of the passing of a buzzing fly and me then subsequently picking up the magazine beside me and going in pursuit until the damned annoying buzzing has been stopped are clearly the work of two different mental processes, and neuroscience confirms that in fact two different areas of the brain are responsible for these phenomenon.[2]


An additional question from this obviously follows: Was I free or not to be annoyed by the buzzing of the passing fly?


Likewise, if, in fact, we must be free to be able to choose otherwise to have Free Will, then what does it mean that—in the case of the fly—we really just seem to have a reaction. The noise might not bother me under some circumstances, but under others it bothers me tremendously. You can argue, of course, that these are determined by external environmental factors (my state of attention, other noises or distractions—in a crowded, noisy bar I would be unlikely to even register the passing of the fly at all—not even subconsciously)—but in such a case the answer to the question of whether or not you were free to be annoyed or not by the buzzing fly seems to be that you didn’t.


Several other points about Libertarian Free Will can be similarly dissected and shown to be corrosive to the position[3]—to the point that it is not seriously put forth by academics outside the generally religiously minded.[4]


For unless you believe in an immaterial soul or consciousness beamed down from heaven to you, then you are left to accept that your brain is the source of your consciousness and that the way your brain processes the world around you is determined by it’s evolved biological structure;[5] additionally, one is forced to concede that the influence of our environment (material well-being or not well-being) and culture (the various cultural norms, politics, religions, family dynamics, et cetera) prevent one seeing the world “Objectively”—or least, it prevents them the individual from seeing the world in any way they chose.[6]


If these premises are accepted then Libertarian Free Will—the kind of Free Will we all grow up with the very real impression of having[7]—should now be dead to you. For Libertarian Free Will demands the impossible: that we are the ultimate originators and sustainers of our thoughts and actions.



The Four General Schools of Thought Regarding Free Will


Determinism – the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to any conscious deliberation. This way of thinking has become quite vogue—especially since the experiments first conducted, by Libet among others, that showed the decision to move ones hand was made subconsciously several seconds before the individual was conscious of this decision. Properly followed through upon, hard determinism completely destroys any basis for criminal punishment—a point we will return to later in reference to a particular popular little red book.[8]


Indeterminism – the doctrine that not every event is necessarily deterministic—an element of randomness can cause different outcomes based on the same set of prior circumstances. If you turned back the universe to precisely five seconds ago I could have typed this sentence other than how I did. (It doesn’t necessarily follow that I will, only that I could have). While possible if further progress in quantum physics reveals that a level of quantum indeterminacy has some macro-impact on our understanding of Agent Causality, this idea of “could have done otherwise” does not accord itself well with the body of evidence so far assembled, as exampled above.[9]


Compatibilism – That the universe is causally deterministic is generally accepted, however, various human beings are possessed of various degrees of freedom, expressed in the form of control over their behavior. A radical redefining of Free Will, this seems to hold true, and will be further examined.


Libertarianism – As previously stated, you must be the ultimate originator and sustainer of your thoughts and actions. Two conditions are also generally given as required: First, that one could have done otherwise. Second, that the universe not be deterministic as that makes the possibility of doing otherwise, well, impossible.[10]



A Few Things Before Proceeding Further


Alternate possibilities did exist prior to your making whatever decision you made, however at a certain point a neuron or group of neurons were fired that made that decision irrevocable. While prior acts of limited control over one’s behavior may have altered circumstances whereby that particular neuron or group of neurons were not fired that does not mean retrospectively that one could have done otherwise—the universe existing as it did in the nanosecond prior to the decision being made. There is simply no evidence, at this point, suggesting this should be the case, including those who hold out hopes that some level of quantum indeterminism will thereby validate Libertarian notions of Free Will in a universe of at least partial cosmic Indeterminism.


There does seem to be an element of indeterminism, but the source of that indeterminism is—at this point—best explained by the degrees of freedom made possible by System 2 acts of reflective self-control.


For example: You are walking along through the woods, thinking of nothing in particular, but certainly not consciously noting where you are walking. You suddenly find yourself focusing on the brush through which you are tramping. Your visual cortex had already processed the topographical details of the terrain ahead and determined additional focus was needed to avoid the treachery of a fallen log a few feet ahead. You can now take deliberative thought as to how best to bypass this impediment. This deliberative process is bound by a set of given parameters based on your physical and cognitive capabilities—both determined by your given genetics and past experiences—as well as your experiential reflections on those past experiences that your subconscious mind pushes forward in that moment as pertinent enough to merit consideration in the present circumstances.


The fact that in the first case those genetic inheritances were beyond the control of the individual, while in the second case the influence of a given environment or past circumstance on an individual is not totally independent of the actions of the individual—but are nonetheless causally deterministic—these do not seem logically to thereby invalidate the making of a deliberate choice by the individual within a certain limited set of parameters. 


As I see it there are fundamentally two questions: What do “Free” and “Will” have to do with one another? And is limited control over biologically and environmentally determined factors satisfactory to label an Agent seriously responsible for those actions?[11]


Must we be able to claim Absolute Responsibility for our self-authorship in order to claim “Free Will”?



A Further Look at Compatibilism, particularly as it relates to Determinism


I have elected to focus on the disagreements that exist between these two schools, as my time is limited and they appear the most intellectually coherent based on the evidence provided by science and philosophy up to this point. They share a great deal of common ground—both accepting the existence of a deterministic universe, and the inability of the individual to control what one thinks about or how one feels about given things.


To the extreme are those of the Determinist camp who demand, in order that the standard of Free Will be met, that human beings possess the capability of aforementioned absolute authorship of the self—conscious progenitor of all their values. 


If that is the standard by which whether or not human beings have Free Will then the answer is “No” we do not have Free Will.


However, why should that be the standard be automatically accepted? Particularly as it is clearly full of intellectual holes.


Knowledge of where every impulse comes from? You were the author (for even if it was your unconscious mind it was still your mind) but you cannot name it’s precise motivation due to the fact that your neurobiology was crafted by evolutionary pressures to omit wasting conscious attention on details of little relevance to survival other than as points of space, which can be used to orient the self in relation to things of potential usefulness—snakes, fires, fresh fruits, et cetera. Why should this standard of Free Will, illogically high, be held? It clearly bears no relation to Facticity—being, as it is, an intellectual artifact of Western Culture inherited by our Judeo-Christian intellectual roots.


Sam Harris, a vocal public champion of Determinism, much as he does when focusing his erudite pen upon religion, produces an absolutist claim based on a refutation of a thing, the rejection of which does not automatically logically legitimize the adoption of that absolutist claim.


For example: the Christian and Muslim Gods—et cetera—are all obvious manmade fabrications and therefore God does not exist.


By extension: You are not the absolute author of your intentions as you cannot claim conscious authorship of their origins, given as they are in a deterministic fashion from the environment and the way your neurobiology and cultural lens perceives them, therefore you have no Free Will.


Neither necessarily follows.


Why, also, should we consider thoughts generated by our own brains not of our own origin?


While it may once have made sense, the notion that you are dualistic is no longer rational based on a preponderance of the evidence. Whether you want to divide it up between body and soul (consciousness), or subconscious or conscious, if you are going to divide yourself up according to bodily functions you are uncountably many things—you are nearly infinite if the microbial level is introduced—but certainly not dualistic. Why should the fact that my particular filters—my biology and social conditioning engendered by my environment, and partially shaped by my limited control over my actions—not be claimed as part of myself? Should I not feel a sense of accomplishment at being able to detangle complex philosophical treatises on the basis of my genetically inherited intellect and lottery of birth provided good parentage and access to educational opportunities, while others cannot on the basis of circumstances of material deprivation or genetic malformation?[12]


Is your subconscious not a part of you? I am not conscious of telling my heart to continue to beat. It does so as the result of a subconscious process. However, in light of having done research I know that I can help ensure the continued beating of my heart by making a conscious decision to avoid processed sugars and slothfulness. The level of self-control I am able to exert over myself will have a deterministic origin to be sure; however, that effect is to a limited extent malleable: given nearly analogous but slightly different conditions at a future point I may make different decision entirely.


Because of this Compatibilism maintains, generally, that while you cannot be held completely responsible for your thoughts or actions each may be held responsible relative to their ability to regulate their impulses—those of regularly functioning neurophysiology and non-abusive environmental factors are responsible to a greater degree for their behavior than those suffering brain damage or who grew up in environments that normalized deviant behavior.


The notion that we cannot be at all responsible for our actions seems a very strange extension of the principle of responsibility—can a person not be limitedly responsible?


Human consciousness seems to act more as an editor continually reviewing proposals and rejecting manuscripts on the basis of a certain set of parameters governing their process of deciding which proposals to pursue and which to reject. Why a proposal similar to one already accepted finds itself rejected is often opaque, as most of this filtering of ideas is done subconsciously.


There may be definite reasons. At this point we simply cannot discern them. 


Those in the hard Determinist camp who look at work such as done by Libet, and crow that human beings have no Free Will since our subconscious mind is apparently responsible for generating what is then viewed and processed by the conscious mind a few seconds or milliseconds later—some humility would be refreshing. As anyone who took the time to actually read the study would know, these results were not half as earth-shattering as they were trumpeted to be. Retrospectively, in a highly controlled environment and performing a simple and easily predictive task of either/or, computer algorithms were able to correctly predict the subsequent choice of the individual around 70 percent of the time. No doubt, that’s very interesting. But now we aren’t responsible for our actions—we only think we are?


A reductio ad absurdum if ever there was one.[13]



A Final Note on Determinism and its Relation to Crime and Punishment


While Free Will as traditionally presented in the Western Philosophical tradition has tended to identify human Free Will as the point of origin for a great river of consciousness, from which all thought flows—in light of scientific research the more correct analogy appears to be one in which consciousness is floating along down a river comprised of the unconscious outflowing of the mind. Given the development of certain cognitive abilities—abilities to control one’s impulses and to reason based on experience or theoretical speculation—one can make decisions to try and avoid an upcoming boulder or low hanging branch and how best to go about it—but the individual is powerless to change anything about the properties of the river, the contour of it’s shorelines, one’s own buoyancy—et cetera.


A like analogy, perhaps more comparable to the inner workings of the mind: commercial airliners are flown for the most part by autopilot (the subconscious). However, sensory equipment alerts the pilot (consciousness) when additional scrutiny of a situation (let’s say during turbulent whether or when about to begin the landing cycle) is required that goes beyond the routine of autopilot.


Moral responsibility is generally thought to demand the conscious decision of a freely acting agent. By disavowing the notion of human freedom entirely there is no logically consistent basis on which to advocate punishment for criminal deviance on the basis of human responsibility for ones actions. Most admit this. Others, however, maintain that the illusion should be maintained for strictly pragmatic purposes: There is social utility in maintaining criminal punishment—by confining those on a permanent basis we feel pose a threat to society on the basis of their innate and conditioned proclivity toward deviant behavior.


While I hope it goes without saying, I will take the time here to simply note that while Compatibilism agrees with a great deal of what the provisional truths of science and philosophy have revealed to us, there is still enough room to doubt its totally validity.


Ultimately, this question, like the others reflected upon over the course of this treatment, has no definite answer at this point—and perhaps never will.


[1] While it should go without saying that the definitions of the nuanced philosophical schools of thought which I am about to summarize in a sentence or two are generalizations, and that many sub-schools of thought exist within each (some of which are line with what we know of neuropsychology, biology, philosophy, and socio-anthropology), experience has taught me that it is best to include the qualification anyway.


[2] It is reminiscent of the hypothetical System 1 and System 2 types of thinking put forth by the esteemed Noble Laureate, Behavioral Economist Daniel Khaneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.


[3] Consider this head-scratcher: as the universe is either Deterministic or Indeterministic (either causally determined or subject to spontaneous randomness largely irrespective of prior events) then, in the first case, Libertarian Free Will obviously can’t exist as one is simply acting out the iron-clad agenda of the universe—conversely, however, if the universe is the result of randomness then Free Will, according to the Libertarians, as an intellectual concept, makes no sense either. If you choosing to study for a test is the result of a random neuron firing, then in what sense can you say you “freely” chose to study? Additionally, if things happened without respect for what occurred prior to their own occurrence then one would have no way of understanding whether or not their present behavior was reflective of who they were as a person—hence, destroying any notion of an autonomous self making decisions in their interest—they would have no idea what their interest will be!


[4] Such as Dr. Robert Kane.


[5] Which probably for the purposes of preventing the consciousness from being overwhelmed by the sheer, infinitesimally distracting amount of things going on around us filters the surroundings through a subconscious filter sculpted by evolution by natural selection to bring only the most important things about our environment to our conscious attention.


[6] While I pride myself on taking an open-minded stance on new ideas, I cannot help but view these new ideas through the perspective of a 30 year old, American, married father of four whose background is in English and Philosophy, who went to Catholic School, et cetera. Try as I might, and serious study and research could yield tremendous insights, I will never be able to see the world through the eyes of a closeted, bisexual, Islamic woman who grew up and lives in Saudi Arabia.


[7] More on this in a moment.


[8] Free Will by Sam Harris.


[9] The very concept of Free Will in an Indeterministic Universe is simply not intellectually coherent.


[10] As an aside it should be noted that a small school within the broader Libertarian Free Will school, the so-called Soft Determinists, reject this principle.

[11] I say “seriously” because many hard determinists say “No, of course no one is really responsible for their actions”, and then justify continued incarceration and punishment of criminals on the basis of utility—it’s just useful to society to continue punishing these people though they could not have done other than they did. Quite an ethic—what could be said in response to the idea that for those who cannot be cured of (let’s just say, for example) violent outbursts related to psychopathy—that is, no amount of treatment can help this person—they will continue to do violence to others if released from prison no matter what they do—what could be said in response to those using the same basic principles of social utility who might argue we should simply kill such people or abort them in the womb if possible? Why waste resources that could be spent otherwise bettering the lives of the rest of society? The looming logical contradiction is obvious if this proposal is answered by such hard determinists in the negative.

[12] This touches on a topic very germane both to Free Will and to what was pondered briefly in Angst and Expectation: if the Biological Basis is to be taken as a standard for behavior—what qualifies as “Normal” in terms of cognitive function? In the same way, who is to say what level of control over the degrees of freedom possible for humans to realize will be the standard below or above which a person is responsible or not responsible for their actions?


[13] This isn’t, of course, to say that such claims may not turn out to be conclusively proven by scientists at a later date. They may very well be—or not, which is the point.