I have been making an informal study of the concept of libertarian free will for about a year now. Based on what I have learned, I reject the idea that people have libertarian free will. I also think it’s a damaging concept to embrace.
My interest in free will is meant to help me to better understand myself and others. It is part of my quest for personal growth. This effort is interesting and satisfying to me, but it is frustrating at times. The concepts involved are subtle and hard to grasp. When I discuss this topic with others, they sometimes seem to be become anxious. Perhaps they feel threatened by relinquishing the sense of control that comes with believing in the notion of free will.” Given the complexity of this topic, that’s an understandable concern.
My study of free will has given me greater peace of mind, because:
- I am less bothered by the negative things that other people may do.
- I am less tormented over difficult decisions I made in the past that I still grieve to some extent.
- I can make sense of the actions of other people without appealing to seemingly mystical mechanisms needed to explain how free will could even be possible,
- I am more able to treat people justly, owing to some study of what I believe are the damaging effects of retributive justice.
Libertarian Free Will
“Free will is defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.”
My position is that the something more component does not exist. In other words, our genetic and environmental history, and the possible stochastic laws of nature, fully determine our every thought and action, and there is no getting around this or getting outside of it.
It Could Not Have Been Otherwise
Advocates of libertarian free will often make the claim that, “It could have been otherwise.” But it is my opinion that we usually assume a degree of freedom in decision-making that a person simply does not have. For example, you might look backward in time and think, “You know, I could have bought stock in Microsoft when it first went public.”
My view is that you could not, in fact, have decided to buy the Microsoft stock at that time. At the moment that you decided against buying stock in Microsoft, I believe that you had no possibility of having done otherwise. Your decision was guided by personal characteristics – risk tolerance, chief among them – that were, in turn, guided by your genetic makeup and the sum of your experiences up until that date, i.e. your environmental history. I believe that no higher process outside your unique combination of characteristics and history is available that would have allowed you to make a different decision at that time.
Had your brain been in a slightly different state just prior to your decision to skip purchasing the initial public offering of Microsoft stock, then you might have pulled the trigger, bought the stock and become a millionaire. But it was not. The state of your brain at the time of your decision took you in a particular direction and you were not free to consciously choose otherwise.
Saying “I Make Decisions” Does Not Help
Your brain began to form when you were conceived. It has continued to change ever since. The processes of making and breaking neural connections in your brain are continuous and unceasing until your death. Because of this, you have never had exactly the same brain at two moments, no matter how finely you attempt to divide time.
Your brain acts on the basis of the inputs it receives and its current state. You are not conscious of most of what your brain does, and you are not in control of it. Thinking that you have some meta-level of cognitive control of your thoughts is an error. You don’t first think, “I’ll have this thought,” and then have it. You simply have the thought without any precursor. As Sam Harris puts it, your thoughts just appear out of a black void into which you cannot peer. There is a voice in your head that just says things.
We face alternatives at every point in our lives: Are we going to have the chicken or the fish? Are we going to say something in this situation or not? Am I going to get out of bed or will I hit the snooze button again?
We contemplate these choices and our brain selects a course of action. So in this sense, yes, we make decisions. But what we do not have is a meta-level process sitting above all of this that would have allowed us to make a decision other than the one we made when we made it.
Free will advocates seem to assert that this meta-level process exists and is the thing that puts the “free” in “free will.” I think this is an error. While we all have a very strong sense of being free to make any decision we want, there is no evidence to suggest that this is more than an illusion. There is, on the other hand, evidence to suggest that this apparent freedom is an illusion, such as the experiments by Dr. Benjamin Libet and others who have conducted similar experiments suggesting that consciousness is a following process in the brain.
Advocates of free will sometimes claim that this free-will meta-mechanism is either an emergent property of the mind or a yet-to-be discovered new law of physics.
What You Do Matters Greatly
Every action you take affects the future course of your life, but you cannot know with certainty what effects a particular action will have. It may be an action that ultimately causes you to meet the person of your dreams, such that you will go on to a long, wonderful life. On the other than, it may be an action that causes you to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and be killed. You simply cannot know.
So what we all do is to play the odds. We go with the actions that seem most likely to serve us well. I know that I could be hit by a bus tomorrow, but I still had to get dressed this morning. So I agonized briefly over what shirt to wear to work today. Eventually, my brain picked one and I put it on. When my brain finally decided what shirt I would wear, the decision could not have been otherwise.
People who wish to believe in libertarian free will often use this argument: “Well, if you have no free will, why don’t you just sit on the couch and just wait and see how your life turns out?”
This is missing the point. Your brain will not allow you to sit on the couch for very long. After a few hours, the desire to get up and act will be overwhelming. Your real-world problems will continue to mount as you struggle valiantly to remain on the couch. Eventually, your brain will force you to get up off the couch and do something. Even if you want to remain on the couch, you will be forced off it by the restless activity in your brain.
In summary, what we do or don’t do affects the course of our lives, but we are not free to do anything other than what our brains cause us to do, moment by moment, over the course of our lives.
Thoughts Just Appear In Consciousness
Have you noticed that thoughts just appear in consciousness?
You may be sitting at your desk, working, and all of a sudden, you’re aware of some random thought. You can try to redirect your focus and you may succeed for a few seconds or maybe a minute, but then another random thought appears.
Even when you are focused on the task at hand, you’re not consciously selecting the thoughts you think.
If you cannot control which thoughts come up for you, how can you be said to have free will?
When a thought of yours appears in consciousness it comes from a dark wilderness that you cannot explore.
One of my Facebook friends once wrote the following:
I don’t get out much. I don’t. At the bar last night, I noticed how every single man checked out every single woman in sight.
I asked my husband, “How often do men think about women?”
He said, “All the time.”
She accepted that her husband could not control what thoughts appeared in his consciousness. She indicated that understanding this was helpful to her in accepting that this is simply the reality of the situation, and that he was not doing it intentionally. She later wrote, “Well, when you understand that something cannot be changed, you can deal with it a lot better.”
There Is Nothing To Fear
I think that people find a certain level of comfort in believing in libertarian free will. I have also noticed that when I discuss my free will skepticism with others, it seems to provoke anxious reactions in them.
I do not have this anxiety. My thinking is this: The content of my brain matters greatly. Good content makes it more likely that I will make good decisions. Therefore, 1) I am likely to be on a good course, and 2) I have no rational reason to be afraid.
If you’re familiar with the concept of attractors in chaos theory, my sense is that the concepts that interest me today are attractors, and they are pulling me (and will continue to pull me) in a good (life-affirming) direction.
If this is true, what is there to fear?
The Video That Got Me Started
Sam Harris gave a talk at the 2012 Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia. I thought it was very well done and convincing. I recommend this video as a starting point for anyone who wishes to make a serious study of this topic:
My Obligatory Video
I enjoy making short videos to try to better share my thinking on different topics. Here’s one that I made on the topic of free will. I think it came out pretty well. If you watch it, I would dearly love to hear your thoughts about it:
The Meme Mentioned in the Video
Toward the end of the video I make reference to a meme, or cartoon. That meme is here:
Discussing Free Will Is Typically Unpopular
The question of whether we have free will or not often makes people uncomfortable. I think I can sense anxiety in people when I bring up the topic.
Sam Harris said essentially the same thing in his video. He refers to the topic as “One of the most sensitive issues I have had the privilege to touch.”
He gives good reasons for this. For example, religions usually depend on the concept of free will to avoid having to have a real answer to the question of why there is evil in the world. According to religions, individuals have free will. If bad things happen here on Earth, it’s not God’s fault, because we have free will. So, people who are highly invested in their religious beliefs are likely to be reluctant to explore the possibility that something so fundamental to their world view might be wrong.
There is another possible cause for the apparent stress provoked by discussions of free will. As animals, one of the most fear-provoking things that can happen to us is to be restrained by a predator. For most of our history, being in the jaws of a predator meant death was a few seconds away, at most. I think that accepting that we do not have free will may evoke a similar sort of fear – that of being trapped, being at the mercy of a malevolent predator. (And now, if you wonder why people sometimes enjoy being restrained during sex, you have a fresh lead to pursue.)
In general, I have concluded that it’s a poor idea to try to discuss this topic with casual friends. I have found a few that embrace the subject willingly, even though it might be scary for them. We have had some good discussions.
Why does the question of free will matter?
The question of whether or not we have free will matters because our view on the question often determines whether or not we treat other people justly. Treating people justly is necessary if we are to flourish.
I will try to illustrate this with an example.
Let’s say that Joe and Sally have been married for several years. Joe is a project manager at a construction company and Sally works in the billing office of a local dentist.
One fine day, both Joe and Sally go to work. There is nothing terribly special about this day – a Wednesday, as it happens – except for the fact that it is also the date of their wedding anniversary. Joe and Sally have reached the five year mark in their marriage.
Joe’s work day is somewhat hectic. The thought that today might be his wedding anniversary never occurs to him. Since he has not set a calendar reminder, he does not get an email or any other prompt to remind him of this fact. Over the course of the whole day, nothing causes Joe to wonder whether today might be five years since he and Sally were married. And so, Joe comes home looking forward to seeing Sally, but also, without anything special to celebrate their anniversary. No card, no flowers, no reservations at a nice restaurant, no plans for a nice evening with his wife.
For Sally, the situation is different. She has been looking forward to celebrating her anniversary with Joe. For her, the thought that she would be spending a nice evening with Joe appeared in her consciousness frequently during the day. In fact, it was a little bit hard for her to work, because thoughts about spending time with Joe in the evening kept intruding on her awareness. These thoughts came unbidden, out of the darkness of her brain’s machinations, and imprinted themselves on her consciousness.
When Joe arrives home about an hour after Sally does, it quickly becomes apparent that Joe did not remember that today is their anniversary. Sally is crushed. She wonders how such an important event could not be equally important to Joe.
If Sally believes in libertarian free will, she may be unduly harsh with Joe, in the belief that “it could have been otherwise.” And indeed, if some other chain of events had played out in the past, Joe might have done something differently, months or years ago, to prevent this outcome. For example, many men set a calendar reminder so that they do not forget important dates. Joe could have done that, but he did not, perhaps because that thought also just never crossed his mind.
Let’s re-examine what might happen if Sally does not believe that free will accounts for human behavior. She certainly has the right to her emotions. She is justified in feeling sad. She may also be justified in questioning why Joe didn’t take some commonsense precautions, like setting a calendar reminder, in order not to forget something that he most likely knew was important to her. In the life of an adult, we get and set reminders about important events often enough that it’s hard to believe that it never occurred to Joe that he might one day miss an important date because the thought of it would not pop into his consciousness at the right time. It’s possible, but it seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, if Sally recognizes that people do not have free will, she may be more able to be benevolent towards Joe. They can talk about this issue at some length. Not to blame Joe – but to take positive steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Haranguing Joe is only going to damage their relationship. Working to enlist his help in securing the future of their relationship, however, may be a way for him to gain in self-esteem and the good feelings that come from protecting and helping the people we love.
A Belief in Free Will Is Pervasive in the World
When I look back on my past interactions with others, I recognize times when I punished myself and others more harshly than was proper. I was hard on both myself and others in situations where I could not have done otherwise than I did. I acted improperly and in ways that did not serve me or the people I loved. This was due to a lack of knowledge on my part.
We cannot treat other people justly if we either overstate or understate their capacities. Libertarian free will is incoherent as a concept. No one possesses it.
If a murderer could not have chosen otherwise in the moment, then he is a murderer. So what should be done with murderers? A murderer is a potential danger to others, so sequestration likely makes sense. I have no problem with the concept of separating the more dangerous individuals in a society from the less dangerous individuals. Sequestration in order to communicate that murder is wrong to individuals may also make sense to them. Here, the goal is to make it known to the population at large that if you murder someone, you will lose your freedom for a very long time, and possibly, forever. Capital punishment may make sense for the same reason.
What does not make sense is to mete out extra rations of revenge-punishment based on the idea that the person could have done otherwise. In contemplating why someone chose to murder someone else we should be looking for causes and working to change them so that future murders are prevented. An extra dose of harsh punishment justified based on the false premise of free will makes no sense to me.
Setting aside the concept that free will exists should also lead us to either reform or abandon relationships that do not serve us. Key to doing this is treating people appropriately. If an individual is of value to you, then tell him so, and take other actions to show him that he is valued. This will make it more likely that he will want to remain valuable to you. A belief in an incoherent notion like free will suggests that this cause and effect correlation between one’s behavior in a relationship and the continuing quality of the relationship does not exist, that it is not important. But this is not the usual human experience.
In order to flourish, we must be able to maintain good relationships with good people, and escape bad relationships with bad people. To do this, you have to treat people justly, and if you’re saddled with an incoherent notion like free will, you’re going to do justice wrong from time to time.
Please consider this short video by Gregg Caruso on “The dark side of free will”:
For Further Reference
This video by Sam Harris, presented at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2012, is a good introduction to the topic of free will. Sam speaks with great precision, so listening carefully is important.
Sam Harris also talks about free will here.
This article by Anthony Cashmore is a good written introduction to the problem. I agree with what Cashmore has written in this article.
The following article argues against the “pre-scientific” notion of willpower.
Dr. Jerry Coyne also gave an interesting talk on the topic of free will at “Imagine No Religion 5” which was held in June, 2015, in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
As more and more people come to understand that free will is an illusion, the legal system will change as well. This article, “Neuroscience changes nothing and everything,” discusses this in detail.
I have quite a few additional links to post and will do so as I have time.
As always, I am interested in your thoughts, should you wish to share them.