Suppose that I choose a light salad instead of a delicious, but fattening steak at my local restaurant.
Did I exercise some strength of will and make a free choice?
Sam Harris * says no: ““Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making.”
Michael Shermer ** elaborates on this denial of free will: “Every step in the causal chain above is fully determined by forces and conditions not of my choosing, from my evolved taste preferences to my learned social status concerns—causal pathways laid down by my ancestors and parents, culture and society, peer groups and friends, mentors and teachers, and historical contingencies going all the way back to my birth and before.”
Shermer continues: “Neuroscience supports this belief. The late physiologist Benjamin Libet noted in EEG readings of subjects engaged in a task requiring them to press a button when they felt like it that half a second before the decision was consciously made the brain’s motor cortex lit up. Research has extended the time between subcortical brain activation and conscious awareness to a full seven to 10 seconds. A new study found activity in a tiny clump of 256 neurons that enabled scientists to predict with 80 percent accuracy which choice a subject would make before the person himself knew. Very likely, just before I became consciously aware of my menu selections, part of my brain had already made those choices.”
“Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control,” Harris concludes. “We do not have the freedom we think we have.”
But Shermer argues the contrary view: “…if we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.
“Support for this hypothesis may be found in a 2007 study in the Journal of Neuroscience by neuroscientists Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who employed a task similar to that used by Libet but in which subjects could veto their initial decision to press a button at the last moment. The scientists discovered a specific brain area called the left dorsal frontomedian cortex that becomes activated during such intentional inhibitions of an action: “Our results suggest that the human brain network for intentional action includes a control structure for self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions.” That’s a free won’t.”
Shermer is surely correct and Harris incorrect on the question of free will. Shermer makes reference to some interesting neurological evidence for the inhibition-of-impulses process in our brains, something that I had not heard before. But this conforms to what a number of philosophers and psychologists have long argued: namely, that we’re able to make significant choices between contrary alternatives despite that fact that whatever we choose to do can be neurologically explained in terms of a number of brain processes, which we don’t control and of which we’re not even aware. Yes, there are conditions (disease, injury) which rule out a person’s ability to make significant choices, but these are exceptions to the general rule that most of us can make significant choices (for which we’re held responsible or given credit) between a variety of alternatives.
The ability to make significant choices between various alternatives and act on them is what normally passes for free will, or as Daniel Dennett expressed it in his book, Elbow Room, the only ‘free will’ worth having.
A good part of the problem originates with terminology, in my opinion. Traditionally philosophers have misinterpreted the terms “free” and “will” in the complex term “free will.” The tendency has been to take “free” as implying absolute freedom, an act or process not conditioned by any causal factors. Thus, whenever the scientist can analyze an action as caused by certain neurological or genetic factors (or conditioned by environmental factors) many philosophers mistakenly classify the action as determined, hence, not a free act. Such reasoning ignores the fact the freedom involved in human action is usually a degree of freedom, often an absence of coercion or overwhelming compulsion; but not at all freedom which rules out all factors, neurological or environmental conditions, which condition the action.
The other tendency is to focus on the term “will” and see free will as some mysterious faculty that humans possess. Then, when the sciences show that there isn’t any such faculty doubts arise as to the possession of free will. Free will is not a faculty (faculty of the soul, as some old school philosophers held); it is a capacity or disposition assignable to ordinary persons acting in the world; and it has not been proven to be absent, as many enthusiasts of the neurological sciences mistakenly hold.
Jerry Sandusky, the assistant coach charged with pedophilia (2012), may have been moved by impulses beyond his control and acted out his desire for sex with children. But many people have had similar compulsions (not necessarily pedophilia, but other undesirable, harmful impulses) pressing on them and manage to resist them. People are not slaves of their impulses or compulsions, although we all fail to resist them from time to time. But we are capable of resisting them. At least to this degree, we do have a measure of ‘free will.’
* see Harris’s recent book, Free Will (Free Press, 2012)
** See Shermer’s article at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-free-will-collides-with-unconscious-impulses
I don’t understand your reasoning. You agree that brain processes operate deterministically yet at the same time agree with Shermer that we have a “degree of freedom”. Your explanation is that ” freedom requires an absence of coercion or overwhelming compulsion; but need not rule out neurological or environmental conditions, which condition the action.” On what basis do you say that free will is only impossible in the face of pathology or coercion? This may be a good definition for legal and social purposes, but how is it relevant to a discussion of the mechanism by which the brain produces behavior? It is obvious that all brain activity is “conditioned by its conditions” (as you say rather circularly), but this does not change the fact that these decisions are still the result of deterministic brain processes. If decisions are free from the determinism of brain processes, then by what mechanism do you propose they are made? And if you deny determinism, then isn’t the idea of free will simply a secular version of the idea of a soul, just like intelligent design is a secular version of creationism?
Shermer’s argument for free will is as follows: “…if we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.
The “power to do otherwise” is simply part of the decision making process. To call the affect of this power “real decisions” (as opposed to pseudo-decisions?) claims a distinction that simply does not exist. Decisions are not made by the brain and then overridden by some separate, higher power. It is all brain activity, including the conscious decision to resist temptation. Calling this “free won’t” doesn’t change this reality.
The fact that I can conceptualize choice does not mean that I (as an agent independent of my brain) actually have a choice. This conceptualization is part of the brain’s decision-making process. Conscious awareness does affect the decisions we make, but this conscious awareness is (sometimes) part of the brain’s decision-making process and is just as much the result of brain activity as any unconscious activity. To think of it as a function that can override brain activity is simply false. Either the brain determines decisions or it does not. If you believe it does not then you are a dualist, not a materialist. Compatabilism is simply a case of wanting to have your cake and eat it too.