Free Will Is Not What You Think It Is

Over at brainblogger there was a post recently (Free Will is NOT An Illusion) which argued against the idea that free will is an illusion. The author argues against the idea that all choices and decisions are made by the subconscious mind, that “the brain makes a subconscious decision before it is realized consciously”. He views this as a misguided notion.  He focuses on certain experiments which purport to show the illusion of free will, and argues that they either have faulty methodology or that the data are misinterpreted. On this point I will tend to agree with the author, Dr. Klemm. The experiments he mentions alone are not enough for us to put aside long held notions of free will. Dr. Klemm is also spot on in his statements regarding the difficulty of distinguishing between the processes involved in consciousness and what we call the subconscious, and how these relate to decision making. The problem as I see it, is that Dr. Klemm began his whole line of reasoning from the wrong set of assumptions. These assumptions can be implicitly seen in the conclusion he reaches at the close of the article:

“In the real world, subconscious and conscious minds interact and share duties. Subconscious mind governs simple or well-learned tasks, like habits or ingrained prejudices, while conscious mind deals with tasks that are complex or novel, like first learning to ride a bike or play sheet music. Most deliberate new learning has to be mediated by free will, because subconscious mind has not yet had a chance to learn.”

What I see as the fundamental error in this line of reasoning is that it assumes without justification that free will lies in the realm of conscious choices. That a conscious choice IS a free choice. Most sophisticated criticisms of the notion of free will don’t assert that humans lack free will because decisions are unconscious (though this is certainly a piece of the puzzle), but because even the conscious process of decision making, choice, and action are themselves lacking in free will. These theories argue that the conscious experience of making a choice is in fact an epiphenomenon (i.e. – your conscious experience is just along for the ride, a passive observer with no causal influence on resulting action) and that the feeling of will that goes along with your conscious life is just that…a “feeling”.

There are many convergent lines of reasoning in support of these types of arguments; the subconscious decision making process theory is just one. Other lines of reasoning take many varied forms including arguments from physics, biology, psychology, neuroscience, and more nuanced philosophical arguments.

There are some particularly interesting neurological disorders with implications for free will. One is the famous alien hand syndrome (think Dr. Strangelove), in which people lose the sense of agency associated with one or more body part. Their hand will act with a “mind of its own”, reaching for things the person doesn’t intend to reach for. One hand will move a certain chess piece, while the other moves a different one. Sometimes the hand still under willful control will be used to stop the alien hand from doing things the individual doesn’t want it to do. This condition isn’t all fun and games though, some people who suffer from it will wake up in the middle of the night with their alien hand strangling them. Research into this syndrome has found that there is a particular area in the brain associated with a person’s sense of agency, damage to parts of that area can lead to selective loss of this “sense”.

There’s an even more extreme condition (whose name is failing me right now, if anyone knows, please let me know) where a person loses all sense of agency completely. They will state that they have no control over their actions at all. They make decisions consciously (i.e – they are conscious of decisions), but they feel they have no causal role in these decisions. This is also one of the symptoms of schizophrenia, in which sufferers often have delusions that their actions are being controlled by an external force. Related forms of psychopathology include individuals who hear thoughts in their head which they attribute to other people, as if someone has somehow deliberately inserted a thought in their head, or alternatively forced them to think a certain thought (a slight but very important difference as it shows a distinction between a sense of agency and a sense of ownership).

These cases show us not that there is some sort of distinction to be made about subconscious decisions and conscious decisions in relation to free will, rather that consciousness itself is not a guarantor of free will. As mentioned above, other arguments focus on biology, in particular our genetic makeup. Specifically, how the resultant organism interacts with its environment, how the brain is changed and what constraints it can do this by. These days there is no real nature vs. nurture debate, as it has long ago been accepted that the reality is some mixture of both. Both sides of this coin manifest themselves in the neuronal firing and synaptic connections in the brain. Genes build bodies with certain tendencies and predispositions to act in certain ways based on their neuronal make up. Our experience prunes, strengthens, and builds connections over time. So in essence, all behavior and decision making is the result of some set of initial conditions which have changed over time according to fixed laws. Current decisions are based on our biology and our experience, our past decisions and their results, and in any given instance there is only one possible outcome given the set of inputs.

Bringing it down to a more fine grained level of physical phenomena, where is there room for free will if at root, all behavior is the three dimensional organizational projection of a bunch of atoms, or protons and electrons interacting according to very rigid laws of physics? Each particular atom has no “will” of its own. And yet some very large collection of atoms are supposed be free in some wholly different way? It’s usually at this point where quantum mechanical theories of free will try to sneak in, but besides questions regarding whether quantum mechanical indeterminacy can even have any affect on higher order constructions of matter, indeterminacy itself grants no free will, it simply grants randomness. To explain free will, we have to be able to explain how a person, with beliefs and desires and values can make a decision that is in some way intentionally willed, but yet in an indeterministic* way. In a way that is free in some metaphysical sense. The quantum indeterminacy of microparticles gives us no solace.

This was not an all out attack on free will, though I’m sure it comes off as one. Rather, it was a few very basic attacks on  a poorly defined conception of free will. A thorough exploration of the topic would take a whole series of posts (which I plan on doing some time in the future). What I want to get across is that whether it’s a holdover from Freud, or whether it has to do with faulty conceptions of consciousness in the first place, we often try to defend free will while not actually talking about free will at all. This seems to permeate our thought on the subject. Dr. Klemm is almost certainly aware of the things I spoke about in this post. Given his background, he probably understands them better than me. But because he has started from a misguided assumption, his conclusions are also misguided. What is a “free” action? What is the nature of “intention”? Who or what is even the agent that has free will? If anything, psychology and neuroscience have dismantled standard conceptions of what a “self” really is, and whether that concept is itself a convenient fiction. Arguing that because decisions are made consciously is itself not a defense of free will, assuming one can be made.

*You could make an argument that free will is compatible with determinism. A tricky philosophical endeavor, one that some heavyweights have attempted to do, so for now I’ll just note that that the argument exists. Feel free (you like that one?) to drop the last six words of that sentence, in lieu of my not making a strong argument here for that point.  Main point still stands…

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