Does Free Will Exist?

Stuart Schneiderman

MONDAY, JUNE 6, 2016

Does Free Will Exist?

The title intrigues. In it Steven Cave announces that there is no such thing as free will. Apparently, neuroscience has looked into the workings of the brain and has not seen anything that looks like free will. That is, scientists do not see a mental action preceding the brain function that directs a physical action.


Then again, other scientists have discovered, and as we have reported here, that when people are told that there is no free will they tend to misbehave far more frequently than they do when they are told that they have free will. Disbelieving in free will appears to be a license for amoral behavior.


Of course, this all assumes that free will is a thing at all, or that anyone has ever thought it was. Not to be too persnickety, but have you ever seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelled an idea? You have not. Yet, we all assume that ideas exist. We assume that certain laws direct the actions of the planets and the plants. And we have never seen these laws. We do not know where they are. But we know that they exist. Or so we say.


The concept of free will predates neuroscience by millennia. One might even say that it is the foundation of Western civilization. Since the neuroscientists do not seem to understand it, allow me to explain: free will means that you are responsible for your actions, regardless of how you were or were not tempted. Whatever irrational forces were pushing and pulling you in one direction or another, you are still responsible for what you did.


Free will determines moral responsibility; it does not refer to a mental state preceding a physical action.


Free will means that when you did X, you could have done otherwise. It suggests that your actions were not strictly determined and that therefore you were exercising a choice. And it says that, as a moral being, you should be treated as though you were making a free choice.


Clearly, this is not true in all cases. Our judicial system recognizes situations where an individual can be exculpated because he could not have done otherwise. It might have been because he had a brain disease or defect, but, whatever the reason, we accept what is called the insanity defense in courtrooms. This has been determined by millennia of jurisprudence.


The neuroscientists, for their part, do not believe in free will and believe that it has been a scourge—because it has made people judgmental. Thus, they believe that everyone should be allowed to plead insanity, because all actions are as determined as were those of the man who has a brain tumor. Are you beginning to suspect that this is all a con visited on up by the criminal defense attorney bar?


In place of prison, people who commit crimes would be locked up in psychiatric hospitals… to receive brain-altering treatment. Now, where have we heard that before?


It is also fair to note that while the determinists are obsessed with question of criminal responsibility, there is a lot more to human behavior than not committing crimes. What would they say about taking responsibility for failing at a task: for losing at chess or for leading your nation into an economic decline. Which genes can we identify that caused you to lose or to fail? Does neuroscience pretend that it will make failure and bad manners obsolete?


If you eliminate free will from the equation, you arrive at strict determinism. Some say that this comes from Darwin. This may or may not be a correct understanding of the theory of evolution, but it does suggest that human beings do not have choices over what they do and do not do.


Cave summarizes the argument:


The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect…. If we have evolved, then mental faculties like intelligence must be hereditary. But we use those faculties—which some people have to a greater degree than others—to make decisions. So our ability to choose our fate is not free, but depends on our biological inheritance.


Beyond the fact that the thought is muddled, determinists are saying that there is no significant difference between human beings and ants and bees. There is no real difference between bee hives and human communities. If ants do not have free will and if bees do not choose freely what to do, then human beings do not either.


In Cave’s words:


It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.


It’s nice in theory, but do you really believe that you can predict anyone’s behavior with 100% accuracy? Can you predict the moves a chess player will make by studying brain waves? Do you believe that he has no real choices, thus that his play of the game is predetermined? Can you predict who will or will not commit a crime or mismanage his company according to brain chemistry?


There is something profoundly dehumanizing in this silliness. Do you really believe that all human societies are organized in precisely the same way and that we can predict the course of history by studying brain waves?


As it happens, free will has a track record. It has given us liberal democracy and free enterprise, among other things. What has scientific determinism and anti-free willism given us?


One understands that the neuroscientists will reject this association, but the most extravagant and ambitious attempt to produce a culture based on scientific determinism has been Communism. It might not have been what the neuroscientists and the new atheists had it mind. But what they had in mind does not really count when faced with outcomes produced when these ideas were put into practice.


If they are really doing empirical research they should accept that it is possible for the outcomes produced when their ideas are put into practice might not affirm their hypotheses. If they do not, they are polemicists, not scientists.


Are the neuroscientists responsible for these outcomes? Since they do not believe in responsibility, they would naturally reject all responsibility.


Communists did not believe in free will. They did not believe in private property. They did not believe that you should decide how to conduct your life or what to do with your property. They did not believe in allowing you a choice of what you would or would not do. The Party decided that you should be sent to the countryside to care for pig sties. If you disagreed they would either kill you or send you to a psychiatric facility for treatment. You could disagree with the choices that the Party made. If you did you were mentally ill or suffering from a brain defect. Tens of millions of people starved to death; tens of millions of people were killed… for this dumb idea.


One should add, as more than a few people have mentioned, who is going to decide what is good and bad, right or wrong for you or for your family? A neuroscientist in a laboratory.


A hack like Sam Harris proclaims that neuroscience is going to make you the best version of yourself. But, who is going to decide what is best for you? And what if your best is not the best for the community? Someone is going to have to decide between good and bad. Do you want to entrust your future to Sam Harris? If you do, you need treatment.


Even the lighter application must give us pause. Haven’t certain members of the psychiatric community sold us on the virtues of the latest and greatest medication on the grounds, not that it was going to make you feel better but that it was going to make you into another person, or even a better version of yourself?


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