Free Will

After some lively debate this past week with my friends and colleagues, I found myself revisiting the subject of “free will”. Ironically, while discussing this topic at dinner, we saw Christof Koch, a world renowned expert on Consciousness walk by us in a group of other researchers. It seemed like a sign from the universe our group was onto something.

Personally, I found myself defending a particular position on the question of free will that I had not defended before. The main arguments against the existence of free will that my colleagues were defending seemed to me to be of two varieties:

  1. Free will does not exist because brain activity obeys the laws of physics, physical dynamics are merely played out according to the laws of physics, therefore pre-determined and unable to play out any differently according to “choice”.
  2. Free will does not actually exist, for reasons similar to #1, but it is useful to pretend it exists, and so accepting the illusion of free will as existing is a good thing.

My observations were that #1 seemed like a very strict definition of free will that essentially made it impossible because it defined free will as something that must necessarily only be possible to happen outside of the laws of physics.

My interpretation is that there is a circular argument hiding in this justification, if we can accept one assumption: that we agree that only the laws of physics are at play in our brains. Accepting that everything that happens in our experience of the world is fundamentally measurable, quantifiable, and can be reduced to the matter of our brains (see Materialism). This much I personally accept.

Given that, however, the argument #1 rests on taking the premise of materialism and extending it to the premise that “all events are determined completely by previously existing causes” (here I’m quoting the wiki page on Determinism).

Taking a hard stance that Determinism eliminates free will, in my view, creates a circular argument whereby we have defined free will as a process only possible outside of a material, deterministic universe. And so, accepting a material and deterministic universe, means we cannot accept that free will exists.

To me, this is an uninteresting definition of “free will” – because to me the words suggest that there is a meaningful way in which we make choices for ourselves, can learn and improve ourselves, and have goal directed actions that are based on our past experiences. But the hard stance-based definition of free will would suggest that all of that is swept aside and made meaningless just because we exist in a physical universe. This may come from my personal interest in breaking down how brains make decisions within the boundaries of their physical aspects. Modern neuroscience has done a lot to unpack how different parts of the brain play different roles in making decisions and causing action. As such, I am much more interested in the ways in which our brains give us the ability to take actions differently based on past history, a seemingly perfectly valid and interesting way to address questions of free will in my book.

It turns out that there are branches of philosophy that believe that Determinism is compatible and logically consistent with the notion of free will (Notably, Thomas Aquinas is amongst their adherents), while the others believe it is incompatible (pretty much argument #1 above). Those that believe it is compatible, (known as Compatiblism) rely on a definition of free will that is more akin to what I described above. The meaningful distinction is between actions that come from the individual, rather than those that come from other individuals.

It should be noted that these definitions of free will are pretty different, and may themselves be incompatible. But I’m not sure that makes either of them wrong. Free will, in the sense of personal autonomy, is a key bedrock of moral responsibility and how we structure society. There are huge implications if we were to decide as a society that the hard deterministic stance on free will is the one we applied in a social setting or in laws and government. It would shake to the core the foundation of civil society if we couldn’t hold people responsible for their actions because they didn’t make their own choices.

And so, ultimately, I think I’ve come full circle back to position #2, with a modification. Perhaps we need to split the idea of free will into two; one that the hard determinists / incompatibilists like, which they can have, and another one that compatibilists like and find useful. So long as the philosophical position that free will doesn’t exist doesn’t prevent curiosity and interest in how free will works inside brains, I think I can go along with that.