Nobody Has Any Idea What They Mean by Freewill Anymore

Artwork: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog | Caspar David Friedrich

Once upon a time the Earth was flat, everything was made of the four elements and people were little glowing balls of light trapped in their bodies. Probably somewhere in your Pituitary gland.

In that setting the idea of freewill is pretty simple. Rocks just do whatever happens to them whereas living things make choices. In this sense you are freer than a rock. Congratulations.

However if we are not little glowing balls – if we are more like very complicated rocks – then things get much more confusing.

We eat because our brain chemistry makes us hungry.

We sleep because melatonin builds up in our blood.

We have sex for the same sorts of reasons.

Chemicals and such.

The Illlusion of Choice

So where does choice come in? Well, honestly we don’t know. Neuroscience has no idea how consciousness happens. But by all measures whatever is going on is doing so in the brain somewhere.

No little glowing balls required.

Some take all of this to mean that, while much more complex than a rock, we are essentially just happening in the same way. We take in sensory data and it triggers all of our actions to simply happen.

But this description is highly reductive. First of all, reality is not as deductive as we once thought it was. A lot of quantum physics is truly random.

In addition, given that we don’t know how the brain works, it’s just irresponsible in general to make metaphysical claims like this.

Some people talk as if the brain literally makes decisions in a deductive manner and then sort of tricks our consciousness into thinking we make real choices.

Pop science sites take one study in particular that shows people make choices before they realize it to prove this. Obviously, it is possible that we simply do some of our thinking unconsciously and then another part puts it all into words. The gap between our thinking and our being able to describe it would give the same effect.

It’s Better to Admit Ignorance than to Glorify a Guess

We simply cannot describe anything about consciousness at this point. We don’t have enough evidence to say.

But it is certainly true that physical things change our choices without our being aware of it. Most strikingly a number of murderers were found to have tumors in a particular brain area. They didn’t murder before, did once it grew and then stopped once it was removed.

But does this really mean that there is no such things as choice?

We don’t know. That is the only responsible answer.

The term freewill probably needs to be retired. It just no longer applies to anything. Any question involved with free will can only elicit the answers: both, neither and we don’t know yet.

And any talk of our not having ‘glowing ball freewill’ tends to give people the impression that science has proven we are just meat robots with delusions of autonomy.

So little glowing balls or meat robots. Those are our choices. Or perhaps the answer is that you simply can’t take describe giant complex systems with the same language that you describe tiny bits of matter.

Not without being very precise about your definitions. And at the moment freewill does not seem to mean anything. Free of what? Physics?

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2 comments

  1. Nice post. The title is either great or infuriating, I can’t decide. Some important points to make:
    “Free will” is incoherent. It doesn’t make sense and can’t. There is no definition of free will that could make sense.

    It does not feel like we have free will if you pay attention to consciousness itself. There is nothing free about the next thought I have. I can’t help but have it.

    Quantum randomness would not result in free will, it would just result in randomness.

    The choice fMRI studies Haynes et al. are important. You should reckon with that more in future posts.

    1. Yes, I agree. It’s not clear what we mean by free in this sense. Something is either random or has a cause, in either case we are not getting what we are looking for with free will.

      And yet we are, at least in some limited sense, the authors of our own actions. We need to get a handle on what we mean by our being free in that sense.

      My guess is that we will not have any hard definition until we have a sense for how consciousness is created in the first place.

      But yes the idea that quantum mechanics somehow magically injects some sort of hall pass for the laws of physics is a cop out.

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