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Why Our Will Causes Things (1/2)

Ever since Homer and Hesiod, the famous Greek poets, humans have discussed free will. The characters of the Odyssey are described in the genre of tragedy, with their entire narratives predestined by the whimsical gods. The characters themselves are without any real possibility of changing this narrative: they are left to observe what the gods have in store for them. The modern argument against free will is all too similar. While the ancient Greeks pointed to the gods, the modernists point to the quasi-gods named ‘the laws of physics.’ I soon explain what I mean by this.

In the Newtonian picture of the universe, appearing by the end of the 17th Century, it was natural to envisage the atomic constituents of the world as tiny marbles—these marbles are the atoms. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace even pictured a supreme intellect that knew the location and momentum of every little atom in the universe, and therefore could predict the entire span of the universe, from beginning to end.

In this Newtonian picture, the atoms constitute everything at all levels of the universe, including us, the human beings. Furthermore, these atoms are subject to fixed, non-personal laws of nature, determining all outcomes at every level. If this is true, it is impossible for the human will to exert any causal influence, to interfere intentionally with its proceedings (or narrative, if you like). 

Such a rigid determinism, where every cause necessitates its effect, leaves little room for free will. With the introduction of quantum theory, there emerged a sparse hope for some freedom in quantum randomness. But obviously, pure randomness will not provide any support for any genuine human will. A pair of dice are not freer than dominos.

Does this imply there is no such thing as free will? The modern discussion on free will has primarily focused on these four propositions:

  1. Determinism is true, or determinism is not true;
  2. Determinism implies necessitation, so;
  3. If determinism is true, there is no free will; and
  4. If determinism is not true, there is no free will.

This gives us three main positions, that most contemporary philosophers rally around. Libertarians believe determinism is false, and reject (3). Compatibilists believe determinism is true, but reject (2). Third, there are those who reject the reality of free will; and they usually accept all four propositions.

Unfortunately, this implies that the modern discussion on free will tends to be irrelevant. As I shall explain, it consists of several categorical errors, preventing us from engaging with the key issues. A full-scale discussion would require a book. In this essay, I focus on two topics, which are both important and always implicitly engaged with in the discussion, but seldomly explicitly addressed: (1) causality, and (2) mereology. Causality investigates how change may occur as cause brings about effect. The latter deals with the question of what it means to be a thing—which I return to the in the second and final part of this essay.

The importance of will

Why does it feel so important—to most of us, at least—that free will is real? We all live as if our thoughts, intentions and choices make a causal difference in our every day life. At an existential level, it is impossible to adjust to the idea that our will might not be free. If we cannot initiate change, then there is no need to pretend to change our beliefs, or even trust them. The act of trust itself requires some active assent of our will. It feels important that we really exist as a persistent 'self,' and can exert some sort of influence on the world, at least occasionally.

If there is no freedom of will, that would seems to entail the position of epiphenomenalism in philosophy of mind. In epiphenomenalism, all causal relations go in the direction from the physical to the mental, with no possibility for the reverse. According to the epiphenomenalist position, our relation to the world is comparable to sitting at the top level of a red London double decker. You might enjoy the ride, and hope to experience a view, but you can forget about communicating with the driver downstairs. It is the tragedy of the Greek gods all over again.

Most philosophers agree that some form of free will is necessary in order to have moral responsibility. We do not blame people for actions if they are unable to do otherwise. Imagine three people, Aaron, Brian and Chris, all standing at a train station. Aaron intentionally pushes an unknowing Brian at Chris, so that Chris falls upon the railway, and is smashed by an oncoming train and dies. In this scenario, we will blame Aaron, even though it was Brian that was in direct physical contact with Chris.

We would say that Brian was merely instrumental to the intention of Aaron. But if there is no free will, it seems to be the case that we all play a similar instrumental role to Brian: the laws of nature work out its dictatorship on matter, including you and me. Then we can be neither praised nor blamed for any of our beliefs, intentions or actions. However, even thinkers that write books on how free will is an illusion, like Sam Harris, need to presuppose that their mental life is somehow able to influence how their fingers dance across the keyboard to construct meaningful sentences and logically structured argumentation.

Taking freedom in definitions

A source of confusion in the discussion on free will, is the lack of clear definitions. When philosophers use differing definitions, one is frequently talking about different things. In Harris’ little pamphlet, where he quickly states that free will is an illusion already at page five, he also writes this (2012, p. 3):

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.

Few philosophers would propose that we need full control of all these factors in order to defend free will. Indeed, it is simply not true. Why should free will be incompatible with the fact that our experience of hunger, for instance, is dependent on the signals of neurons, which again find their source in basic, biological needs? Naturally, we need not have to control all the factors that create or regulate our experience or thought of hunger. The important thing, is how we are able to respond towards something that will help us obtain a good—which in this case is the satisfaction of hunger. Free will is to be able, for instance, to choose between eating a vegan salad, beef or a yoghurt in response to the hunger experience. It is also to be able to decide whether to eat now or in a couple of hours, or perhaps even respond to the desire by ignoring it, if one for instance practices a religious fast or want to lose weight.

Smuggling metaphysics into science

Metaphysics is, in short, the study of what is in fact real. And our pre-existing beliefs about what is real, affects both the design of our empirical experiments and interpretation of data into an existing picture of reality. Even purported 'scientific' refutations of free will always turn out to be dependent on dubious metaphysical assumptions that are disguised as scientific conclusions. The experiments of neurobiologist Benjamin Libet and social psychologist Daniel Wegner are widely cited examples of such refutations.

In the early 1980s, Libet set up a controlled experiment by instructing participants to sit in a chair, wait for an urge, and then flick their wrist. EEG-technology measured brain activity, and found that activity began 550 milliseconds, just over half a second, before the flicking of the wrist. Strangely, the participants reported that they were not conscious of their urge until 200 milliseconds before the action. The results could be interpreted as the brain already ‘making the choice’ and that we only (350 milliseconds) later become conscious of this choice. This seems to suggest that our conscious experience of willing is only a post hoc illusion.

Wegner, on the other hand, discovered that people sometimes experienced themselves as being the cause of a corresponding effect, even when the effect was all due to unconscious mechanisms. He showed that it is even possible to inflict this experience on people. If I ask you where the Christmas present you intend to give me is hidden, you might sub-consciously move your eyes towards its location. A certain kind of damage to the frontal lobes might even cause something that is called ‘utilization behavior.’ Here, a person could receive a pair of sunglasses, and automatically put them on, or be given a water mug and a glass, and start to pour the water into the mug. Wegner thinks that this automated human behavior either is an oddity, or that the way in which our basic volitional system functions, including the sense of having a will, is the real oddity.

However, upon further investigation, these interpretations are more the result of conceptual confusions than objective facts. An excellent book-length critique can be found in Alfred Mele’s Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (2016). In short, Libet’s experiment is reported very selectively. Libet does not evaluate cases where neural activity is not followed by flexing. Ironically, the experiment presupposes the notion of will. Men in white coats choose to give instructions about the experiments, where they ask participants to choose when to respond to their urge. Hence, if the experiment indeed is possible to conduct, the refutation will be false. Second, a choice of when to flex a wrist is hardly comparable to situations where we engage in deep deliberation, such as giving feedback at one’s workplace, entering marriage, planning a family activity or deciding what to have for dinner.

Luckily, it is not the case that all our actions require much deliberation—think of breathing, walking, or putting your socks on. If this were not the case, life would be very strenuous indeed. But this knowledge about how we function throughout an ordinary day is familiar to all of us. And finally: Since it is impossible to show that a given pattern of brain activity is identical to the choice, more plausible interpretations can be given, such as brain activity prepares someone to make a choice, or even that the activity results from attempting to resist thinking while waiting for the urge to flex. Such experiments are methodologically unable to discover causality anyhow.

With Wegner, there is no reason to believe that the possibility of manipulating beliefs would prove that similar beliefs are always wrong. Even if it is possible to manipulate someone to believe they are perceiving things that are not really there, it does not follow that no perception is reliable, or that we never experience real objects. A soberer interpretation of Wegner’s findings, as discussed by E. J. Lowe, is that we should regard (1) conscious intentions, and (2) subsequent actions as two separate things (2010). But that is just what we would expect in a world of free will: Free will suggests precisely that (1) can cause (2).

The ability of the human mind to initiate real change seems to be presupposed by the design and conduct of these experiments. Causal efficacy of our thoughts is always implied and necessary in designing an experiment, and the utility of reason to interpret the data.

Thus, people as Harris and Wegner maintain a contradictory belief that they themselves are somehow an exception to other human beings: they are reasoning, intending and acting towards conclusions about human behavior. Any reasoning process require deliberate, intentional willing, exemplified in the work of developing the premises and conclusion(s) of an argument. So why should one trust the argument that that there is no free will, when the argument implies that one cannot really evaluate the premises and conclusions freely?

How did the likes of Harris become so confused? How can they write such silly things without bursting into laughter? How can they still believe in these dogmas, even when they are flatly contradicting themselves in the face of overwhelming evidence? It is because, to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “a picture is holding them captive.” They do not seem to be aware of the vast amount of assumptions they are making, and how implausible they are.

In the second part of this essay, I attempt to get past the categorical mistakes discussed here. In this way, we can rediscover a rational fundament that makes free will a basic, intelligible component of humanity—not some mystery. Indeed, I will argue that to be human is to have free will. Thus, if there is no free will, there is no humanity.

Why the Idea of Free Will Is Not That Crazy (2/2)

Why the Idea of Free Will Is Not That Crazy (2/2)

Gardeners, the Natural Conservatives?

Gardeners, the Natural Conservatives?