I’m in the Yes-Yes camp, and I was surprised that doubting one’s own free will was so common among the conference participants. It is striking how unrepresentative this result is for the general population who likes to hold on to the belief that personal choices are undetermined and unpredictable. In a cross-cultural study with participants from the United States, Hong Kong, India and Colombia, Sarkassian et al found that more than two thirds of respondents (82% USA, 85% India, 65% Hong Cong, 77% Colombia) believe that our universe is indeterministic and human decisions are “not completely caused by the past”(exact wording used in the study).
One of the likely reasons many people believe in free will is that if fundamentally there is no such thing as free will, how come that most of us* have the feeling that we do make decisions?
Lacking a good theory of consciousness, it may be that rather than making decisions, the role of our consciousness is to simply provide aggregated information about what our brain and body was doing, is currently doing, and provide a crude extrapolation of this information into the future. As we grow up, we become better at predicting what will be happening next –in our surrounding as well as with our own body and mind – and may mistake our prediction of what we will be doing for an intent to do it, and our imperfection of making precise predictions creates the illusion that we had a choice. (I doubt I'm the first to have this thought. If you know a reference with similar spirit, please let me know.)
This would mean, if you slap your forehead now, rather than consciously deciding to do so and making the choice to perform this action (which we may call the “standard interpretation”) your neuronal network has arrived at the necessary state that immediately precedes this action and your consciousness notes that next thing that will likely happen is you’ll be slapping your forehead, which it interprets as your impulse to do so (we may call it the “self-extrapolation interpretation”). You are not entirely certain about this since you have learned that your subconscious on occasion makes twists that your consciousness fails to properly predict, thus the possibility remains you’ll not be slapping your forehead after all.
It has in fact been argued that the reason why most people reject determinism it is their inability to predict actions, first by Thomas Reid I am told, and later by Spinoza, not that I actually read either. So possibly theoretical physicists are more inclined to believe in determinism because making precise predictions is their day job ;-)
Sean Carroll recently argued that free will can have a peaceful coexistence with modern science on an emergent level, in an effective description of human beings. That only works though if in the process of arriving at that effective level you throw away information that was fundamentally there. I believe Sean is aware of that when he writes “But we don’t know [all the necessary information to predict human decisions], and we never will, and therefore who cares?”
Well, I'd say that if you make room for free will by neglecting in principle available information, then his notion of free will is an empty concept that, as I've learned from the comments to his blogpost, the philosopher Edward Fredkin more aptly named “pseudo free will.”
I'm only picking around on Sean's post because it's short enough for you to go and read it unlike hundreds of pages that some philosophers have spent to say essentially the same thing. In any case, it is interesting how some scientists desperately try to hold on to some notion of free will in the face of an uncaring universe. I believe one of the reasons is that rejecting free will sheds a light of doubt on ones' moral responsibility, and since I feel personally offended, some words on that.
Morals and Responsibility
Whether the universe evolves deterministically, or whether its time evolution has a random element, an individual, fundamentally, has no choice over his or her actions in either case. It is then difficult to hold somebody responsible for actions if they had no way to make a different choice. This and similar thoughts have spurred a number of studies that claim to have shown that priming people’s belief in a deterministic universe reduces their moral responsibility.
For example, a study by psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler (summary here) had half of the participants read a text passage arguing against the existence of free will. All participants then filled out a survey on their belief in free will and completed an arithmetic test in which they had an option to cheat, but were asked not to. It turned out that disbelief in free will was correlated with the amount of cheating. Also, in the previously mentioned study by Sarkassian et al, most participants held the opinion that in a deterministic universe people are not responsible for their actions.
However, the issue of moral responsibility is a red herring, for morals are human constructs whether or not we have free will . From the viewpoint of natural selection, the reason why most of us don’t go around cheating, stealing, or generally making others suffer is not that it’s illegal or immoral or both, but that our self-extrapolation correctly predicts we will be suffering in return. Not primarily because we may be thrown into jail but because our brains would keep returning to that moment of offense, imagining how other people suffered because of our wrongdoing, telling us that way that we did act against the interests of our species, and more generally reducing our overall fitness.
In fact, that our species still exists and seems to be doing reasonably well means that most of us do not take pleasure in letting others suffer. The reason we don’t perform “immoral” acts is that we can’t: We’re the product of a billion years of natural selection that has done well to sort out those who pose a risk to our future, and we've called the result “moral.” (I am far from saying one can derive morals.)
The less consequences an act has for ones’ own future and that of others the larger the variety in people’s behavior. (There are more people jaywalking than strangling talk show hosts in front of running cameras.) That we have laws enforcing rules is because there remain people among us whose brains are some sigma away from the average and our laws are one more channel of natural selection, keeping these people off the streets, trying to readjust their brain’s functionality, or at least generally making their lives difficult. David Eagleman recently made a very enlightened argument for a rethinking of our justice system in light of neurobiological evidence for our reduced capability to change our brain’s working.
In a world without free will, we should not ask if a person is worth blaming, but simply look for the dominant cause of the problem and take steps to solve it.
Similarly, instead of asking if who is morally responsible we should ask what incentives do people have. The problem with the above mentioned test for moral responsibility in a deterministic universe it that the consequences of the alleged “immoral” act of cheating are entirely negligible. Putting forward the plausible thesis that the illusion of free will is beneficial to our brain’s performance (or otherwise, why is it so universal?), the test subject’s cheating might have been simply a reassurance of their illusion. If one would replace the temptation to cheat on a test with a questionnaire for the participant’s likings in food and then offer snacks, chances are those who were suggested a deterministic universe would feel the urge to select a food they do not usually prefer. Better still, one may have told the test subjects that the better their brains in the deterministic universe are adapted to living a modern life in modern times, the less likely they will be to perform “immoral acts” that violate the (written or unwritten) rules and values of that society (whether that is true or not doesn't matter).
Predetermined Lunch: Not Free Either
That our decisions are determined does not mean that we do not have to make them, which is a common misunderstanding, nicely summarized by Sean Carroll’s anecdote
“John Searle has joked that people who deny free will, when ordering at a restaurant, should say ‘just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.’”
The decision what you will eat may be predetermined, but your brain still has to crunch the numbers and spit out a result. One could equally well joke that your computer, rather than running the code you’ve written, returns it back to you with the remark that the result is predetermined and follows from your input. Which is arguably true, but still somebody or something has to actually perform the calculation. Though in a deterministic universe it is in principle possible, it is highly questionable that the cook will be able to make the prediction about your order in your place, even after asking Laplace’s demon for input.
In other words, even if you don't have a free will, to make a decision you still have to collect all the information you deem necessary and scan your memory and experience to build an opinion, or perform whatever other process you have come to think is a good way to make decisions, may that be rolling a dice or calling your mom. Whether or not you believe you have a freedom in making a decision doesn’t save you the energy needed to do it.
The original version of this post had a poll included on the question "Do you believe in free will?" but the applet is no longer functional. The results were
- I believe human decisions are in principle predictable and there is no free will. 35.4% (45)
- I believe human decisions are in principle predictable, but still there can be free will. 28.3% (36)
- I believe human decisions are not predictable, neither in practice nor in principle, and we have free will. 27.6% (35)
- I believe something else that I'll explain in the comments. 8.7% (11)
* The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, describes Depersonalization Disorder as follows: “The essential features of Depersonalization Disorder are persistent or recurrent episodes of depersonalization characterized by a feeling of detachment or estrangement from one's self. The individual may feel like an automaton or as if he or she is living in a dream or a movie. There may be a sensation of being an outside observer of one's mental processes, one's body, or parts of one's body.”
Thus, interestingly enough, not all of us share the feeling of being in charge of one's actions. That the failure to relate to oneself is filed under "disorder" seems to me to show that believing in free will is beneficial to the individual's functionality and well-being.