Text of a talk by Frank S. Robinson


I came here today of my own free will. Or did I truly have a choice? This issue of free will has vexed philosophers for ages. I'm here today to resolve it once and for all.

By the way, a version of my presentation will appear soon in Philosophy Now magazine. Minus the sex parts.

We've learned a great deal about the brain, and it might seem that the more neuroscience advances, the less room there is for free will. We're told it's actually an illusion; that even the self is an illusion. A book making that argument was written by Sam Harris, one of the famous "new atheist" authors. Another of them is Daniel Dennett, a professor at Tufts University. In 2003 he wrote Freedom Evolves, arguing that we do have a kind of free will after all.

Now, the religious believe in free will. It's their answer for the existence of evil: God is good but gave people free will to do evil. But the problem is, can you really have free will if God is omniscient and knows what you will do? Of course, there is no God, but the problem of free will is actually somewhat analogous. The nub of the matter is causation; the concept of determinism. That everything that happens is caused, determined, by things that happened before. Dennett refers to "Laplace's demon." Laplace was a French thinker who posited that if a mind could know every detail of the state of the Universe at a given moment, it would know what will happen next. That mind is Laplace's demon -- the equivalent of an omniscient god. But Dennett says this ignores the random chance factor. And quantum mechanics tells us that, at the subatomic level at least, things do happen randomly, without preceding causes. So Laplace's demon could actually never know what happens next.

Nevertheless, the deterministic argument against free will says that everything your brain does and decides is a result of causes beyond your conscious control. That there isn't really even a you in there that decides anything. That if you pick chocolate over vanilla, it's because of something that happened among your brain neurons, due in turn to the structure of that neural network, which was shaped by your biology, your genes, by everything that happened in your life till then, and indeed everything all the way back to the Big Bang. That's what caused your choice; not you.

As if you're analogous to a computer program that cannot "choose" how it behaves. Like a chess program that, faced with the same board configuration, will make the same move every time. That's determinism. The antithesis of free will.

Now, you might point out that we're acting on motives and desires, which a computer program doesn't have. But as Schopenhauer said, "a man can do what he wants but cannot will what he wants." In other words, you can choose chocolate over vanilla, but can't choose to have a preference for chocolate. Or: which gender you desire sex with. Moreover, Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness showed that not only don't we choose our desires, we don't even know what they truly are, or how you will actually feel if a desire is fulfilled. (George Bernard Shaw said there are two big disappointments in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.)

* * *

Now, what does the word "you" really mean anyway? In the rest of this talk, whenever I use the word "you," picture it in italics, with quotation marks around it. This is the problem of the self, of consciousness, entwined with the problem of free will. We all know what having a conscious self feels like. Sort of. But hard as I try to wrap my head around it, to grasp the true essence of my being me, it's impossible. Philosopher David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his self. One cannot wrap one's head around one's head.

Another philosopher, Rene Descartes, conceived mind as something existing separately from our physical bodies. Like a soul. This is called "Cartesian dualism," but it's really woo-woo supernaturalism. Instead, mind and self can only be produced by (or emerge from) physical brain activity. No other possibility can be explained.

Recently a commenter on my blog insisted there's plenty of science proving that people can experience things even with zero brain function. Basically, it's near-death experiences. Well, hello, near-death is not death. If your brain is really dead, you can't be experiencing anything. End of story.

But what does it actually mean to experience something?

Let's consider how we experience vision. Images get translated into pulses along the optic nerve into the brain. We have to collate two different images, one from each eye, gauge distance, adjust for perspective, parse rapid motion, etc. Pretty complicated. And we not only see what's before us, but also things we remember, or even things we imagine. All of it could be encoded (like in a computer) into 1s and 0s -- zillions of them. But then how does the mind turn that back into a picture? Seen by "you?" We imagine what's been called a "Cartesian theatre" (from Descartes again), with a projection screen, viewed by a little person in there (called a "homunculus"). But how does the homunculus see? Is there another smaller one inside his brain? And so on endlessly?

A more helpful concept is representation, applicable to all mental processing. (No sensation without representation!) Nothing can be experienced directly in the brain. If it's raining it can't be wet inside your brain. If you have a stomach ache, you can't have a stomach ache in your brain. But what your brain does is construct a representation of the stomach ache, or the rain shower. Like an artist painting a scene on his canvas. And how exactly does the brain do that? We're still working on that.

It's a similar story for things like pain and pleasure. What actually happens when you experience something like eating a cookie, or having sex? The experience isn't mainly in the mouth or genitals but in the mind. By creating (from the sensory inputs) a representation. But then how do "you" (without a homunculus) see or experience that representation? Why, of course, by means of a further representation: of yourself having that experience.

But even that's not enough, according to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes' Error. We need yet another, third order representation, so that you not only know it's raining, but know you know it.

This might seem another endless homuncular recursion loop: a representation of the self perceiving a representation of the self perceiving . . . . However, the buck does stop somewhere, because we do know when it's raining, and know we know it, and grab umbrellas.

Meantime, while the mind is continually doing all that work, there's still another representation it has to make: a representation of who "you" are. This includes information like what you do, where you live, other people important to you, knowledge of your past, and ideas about your future. Everything that makes you you. And it's not just filed away; it has to be constantly refreshed and updated. To keep in being the "you" in the mind's representations of you experiencing things like rain or pain.

Again, pretty complicated. Even routine thinking is more complicated than we realize. Steven Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, unpacked all the logic steps to get the answer to a fairly simple question (how two people are related). It filled quite a few pages (reminding me of Russell and Whitehead, in Principia Mathematica, taking 362 pages of logic to get to 1+1 = 2).

All this is relevant to free will. We now see what complex, sophisticated constructions our minds are. Happily, our minds -- just like our computer screens -- hide from us all that internal complexity and give us a smooth simplified interface. But for free will deniers to say it's all just determinism I think is too facile and reductionist a dismissal of all that complexity which, after all, seems engineered precisely in order to produce a "you" that does deliberate to make choices and decisions tailored to circumstances you face.

* * *

Otherwise -- if we're really like robots with deterministic programming we can't control -- our lives might seem meaningless. But that's not how we live them. Getting back to Dennett, he writes that we live in an "atmosphere of free will" -- "the enveloping, enabling, life-shaping, conceptual atmosphere of intentional action, planning and hoping and promising -- and blaming, resenting, punishing and honoring." (And, one might add, of writing books against free will, like Sam Harris did. Wasn't that an exercise of free will?) This is our lived reality and, says Dennett, it's independent of whether determinism is true in some physical sense. Indeed, as a thought experiment, imagine going through one day as though you had no free will, just letting determinism play out. It's absurd. It would actually invert the conundrum -- how could you be sure anything you did was in fact determined and not somehow an exercise of choice?

Determinism and causality are actually tricky concepts. If a ball is going to hit you, but you duck, do you actually avoid something? Or would Laplace's demon have predicted your ducking, so you were never going to be hit? In other words, whatever happens is what had to happen.

Dennett poses the example of a golfer missing a putt who says, "I could have made it." What does that really mean? Repeat the exact circumstances and the result must be the same. However, before he swung, was it possible for him to swing differently than he wound up doing? With a little more concentration, better aim, etc? This is what he means by saying, "I could have made it." Yet his actual swing was the consequence of a million little deterministic factors preceding that moment. So was it all pre-ordained? Or could he have, might he have, swung differently?

Martin Luther, at the Diet of Worms -- no, that was not a menu -- said, "Here I stand, I can do no other." (It sounds better in the original German, Ich kann nicht anders.) And here I stand before you today. Was Luther actually declaring himself devoid of free will? Could he in fact have done otherwise? Could I have?

Dennett says Luther clearly wasn't dodging responsibility. His stand was indeed a supreme exercise of personal will. Perhaps, given everything about his life up to that moment, no way could he have said instead, "Never mind." That sounds like determinism, but would it really negate Luther's free will in saying "Ich kann nicht anders?"

Another character in this story is Haidt's elephant. Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, likened one's conscious self to a rider on an elephant, which is the unconscious. We suppose the rider is the boss, directing the elephant, but it's really the other way around. The rider's role is just to come up with rationalizations for what the elephant wants. (This is a key factor in political opinions.)

And often we behave with no conscious thought at all. When showering, I go through an elaborate sequence of motions as if on autopilot. My conscious mind might be elsewhere (perhaps pondering free will). And how often have I (consciously) deliberated over whether to say a certain thing, only to hear the words pop suddenly out of my mouth? The decision having been made before I realized it.

So while there is a decision-maker in there, its operation is not always transparent to the "self" for whom we imagine it works. Like a factory owner who can see the products coming out of the back room but actually has no idea what his employees do in there to produce them.

* * *

There was a famous experiment, by neurologist Benjamin Libet, which seemingly proved that a conscious decision to act is actually preceded, by some hundreds of milliseconds, by an unconscious triggering event in your brain. In Dennett's words, it seems the "decision bubbles up to consciousness from we know not where."

This has bugged me no end. I'll try to beat it by, say, getting out of bed exactly when I myself decide, bypassing Libet's unconscious brain trigger. I might declare I'll get up on a count of three -- and do it. But where did the decision to count to three come from?

However, even if we do get marching orders "bubbling up," we don't have to execute them. We can veto them. If not free will, this has been called "free won't." It comes from our ability to think about our thoughts. We have impulses, but we evaluate them and can squelch them.

Libet's result implies only a fraction of a second to interpose that "free won't" veto. Yet in fact we do it all the time. And meanwhile, Dennett sees a problem with the Libet experiment. Subjects were told to note the time of a conscious decision, from a rapidly rotating clock dial. But wouldn't there be some time gap between your consciously making the decision and becoming aware that you've done so? And again before registering the clock time? So Dennett suggests Libet really only showed that a conscious decision takes a bit of time -- rather than resulting from a preceding unconscious trigger.

* * *

Now, another fear is that without free will, there's no personal responsibility for anything we do, destroying the moral basis of society. Illustrative was a 2012 article in The Humanist magazine arguing against punishing Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, because the killings were caused by brain events beyond his control.

We have in fact long recognized that there are people with diminished capacity who cannot be held morally responsible for misdeeds. Though we don't want to let all miscreants off the hook. Where do we draw the line? "Free won't" is a helpful concept here. Psychologist Thomas Szasz has argued that we all have antisocial impulses, yet to act upon them crosses a behavioral line that almost everyone can control. So Breivik, even if his delusions were beyond his control, was capable of choosing to stay home rather than kill 77 people. And he can be held responsible for his choice.

* * *

Now, as his book title suggests, Dennett maintains that our conscious self with free will is a product of evolution. Evolution, according to Dawkins's "selfish gene" concept, is all about maximizing gene replication (and nothing else). It's not that genes have motives, it's just math -- genes better at replicating become more numerous. Organisms are their vehicles for reproducing. ("A chicken is just an egg's way to make another egg.")

And Dennett says that for nearly all organisms that ever existed, consciousness was unnecessary. As long as the right behavior was forthcoming, there was no need for it "to be experienced by any thing or anybody."

But as the environment and behavioral challenges grow more complex, that extra layer of cognition does become very advantageous, especially the ability to consider alternative actions. What's called agency. So it did evolve in humans, and to a lesser degree in a few other animals. Why so few? A big brain actually has some disadvantages. It's hard to get large-headed babies born through a small pipe. Also, a big brain sucks up a lot of energy, a nutritional challenge. Our invention of cooking helped with that.

Furthermore, a complex mind with agency is hard to create. We ourselves haven't yet managed to reverse-engineer it. But Dennett says a key role was played by communication in a social context. A lot of other animals do have social webs, and at least rudimentary consciousness. But for humans the big difference is language. Without it we couldn't have such complex cultures, building up and passing along an ever greater knowledge base -- Dennett calls this our "information superhighway." And in turn, making full use of that required a more advanced kind of consciousness. In the creation of which language is itself a key element. (Who has never pondered how hard thinking would be without language?)

Recall the importance of representation. I mentioned the artist and his canvas. Our minds don't have paints, but create word pictures and metaphors. Metaphors are the very essence of our representation, multiplying its power. As Dennett puts it, language makes the brain "a virtual machine for making more virtual machines."

Further, he argues that we evolved not just agency but moral agency; more than just "free won't." The idea is that morality had survival value because it enhanced group cooperation. "Group selection" remains controversial among evolutionary biologists; yet positing that groups where morality took root survived better than others makes much sense in explaining our evolution into moral beings. Or, alternatively: morality is a meme that got into our brains and, like successful genes, proliferated by natural selection, via cultural rather than biological transmission.

* * *

Another book by Dennett, in 1991, was titled Consciousness Explained. It said that the common metaphor of your self as a "captain at the helm" in your mind is wrong. It's really more like a gaggle of crew members fighting over the wheel. In other words, a lot of neurons sparking all over the place; and as with genes, while they're not literally competing, the effect is that what you're thinking at any given moment is a matter of which gang of neurons happens to be on top. That, says Dennett in Freedom Evolves, is how things happening in your brain become conscious.

So: why do you still feel there's a "you" in there? Dennett would reply that asking this actually echoes Cartesian dualism, conceiving the "you" as something in addition to all the brain-and-body activity. But what you are, he says, "just is this organization of all the competitive activity between a host of competences that your body has developed." Which you "automatically" know about because it's your body. Yet -- I would point out -- an amoeba has a body without "knowing" anything, certainly not in the self-reflective way "you" do. I think the answer really lies in our layering of representations -- not merely knowing things, but knowing we know them -- unlike an amoeba.

However, there's more to Dennett's thesis. To achieve what I've described, he says, we bootstrap our way to it, by a growing up process entailing interactions between us and our social environments, with back-and-forth communication about reasons for actions, which develops the mind to think in such terms. He also cites a Harry Frankfurt essay saying, "A person can want one thing but want to want something else -- and act on that second-order desire." And that this capacity to reflect on and mediate among one's desires is the essence of personhood. Like your desire to eat that dessert versus your desire to lose weight.

But of course this seems at odds with Schopenhauer, that one can't choose one's desires. And what about the metaphor of crewmen fighting over the wheel, instead of a captain being in charge? In the end, Dennett now actually insists that we can and do use rationality and deliberation to resolve such internal conflicts, and that "there is somebody home" (the self) after all, to take responsibility and be morally accountable.

This might sound like assuming the conclusion. It might even sound like positing a sort of homunculus in there, making decisions. But let me offer my own explanation:

When the crewmen battle over the wheel, saying the outcome is deterministically governed by a long string of preceding causes is again far too simplistic. Viewed more holistically, instead, everything about that competition among neuron groups is a reflection of who you are, your personality and character, constructed over years. Shaped by many deterministic factors beyond your control, yes -- your biology, your genes, your upbringing, experiences, a host of other environmental influences, etc. But also, importantly, shaped by all the choices and decisions you made along the way. We are not wholly self-constructed, but we are partly self-constructed. Many of those past choices and decisions, of course, represented past battles over the wheel by various gangs of crewmen. But in all those too, personality and character factors came into play. And so Luther took his stand because of who he was. And your battle between diet and dessert is decided by the kind of person you are.

Which is not written in stone either. Personality and character change throughout one's life, even sometimes due to a conscious effort to change. At the end of the day, you are, again, at least partly responsible for who you are.

But in any case, even if your choice between cake and diet is attributable to personality and character factors that you can't change for purposes of this decision, the outcome is never a foregone conclusion. Even if most people, most of the time, do behave very predictably, it's not like the chess computer that will play the same move every time. Causation is not compulsion. People are not robots. We do things that defy all expectations. Living refutations of determinist absolutism.

Maybe I can't get out of bed when "I" decide -- yet I could choose to remain in bed.

Well, okay, not indefinitely. But here's a better illustration of the practical reality of free will. Nothing is more deterministically caused than a smoker's lighting up, a consequence of physical addiction on top of psychological and behavioral conditioning, and even social ritual, all creating a powerful craving for a reward. Seemingly a textbook case of B.F. Skinner's deterministic behaviorism. Yet smokers quit! If that's not free will, I don't know what could be.

Now, you might say the quitting itself actually has its own deterministic causes -- predictable by Laplace's demon -- whatever happens is what had to happen. But this loads more weight upon the concept of determinism than it can reasonably be made to carry. In fact, there's no amount of causation, biological or otherwise, that predicts behavior with certainty. Being a pedophile may not be a choice, but that doesn't force you to molest Billie in the playground at six o'clock. There are just too many variables. Including the "free won't" veto power.

And even if the Libet experiment was right -- even if a decision like exactly when to move your finger (or get out of bed) really is deterministically caused -- what has that got to do with the choices and decisions that actually matter in our lives? Here's one final example. When I was in my last year of college, I'd been programmed my whole life to become a doctor. But one night I thought really hard about it, searched my soul, as it were, and reached a decision to go to law school instead. The next morning I presented myself at the Political Science office as a refugee seeking asylum. Concerning a decision like that, the Libet experiment, the whole concept of determinism, tells us nothing.

There's a word for what I'm talking about: compatibilism. A concept of free will that's actually compatible with concepts of causation and determinism.

We started with the question, how can you have free will if an omniscient God knows what you'll do? Well, the answer is, he cannot know. But -- even if God -- or Laplace's demon -- could (hypothetically) predict what your self will do -- so what? It's still your self that does it. A different self would do different. And you're responsible (at least to a considerable degree) for your self.

That is my view of free will.

Here I stand. Ich kann nicht anders.