A puppet is free so long as he loves his strings.
What do you desire? What are your deepest goals for life? Some desire marriage, while others value the independent life. Still more want children; others, none. One desires success, while another simply wants to enjoy themselves.
Why do we differ so much? More to the point, where do these desires came from? Do we sit down and consciously choose them?
Chances are, you don’t. In fact, you likely have as much choice over your desires as you do over your height, IQ, sexual orientation, or hair/skin color.
We subconsciously convince ourselves that we desire something.
In psychology, this principle is called confabulation. It can occur when someone asks you a question, assuming you should know the answer. To save face, you may provide a plausible answer, subconsciously convincing yourself of your own certainty, simply because you verbally stated it.
We all do this to some degree, though more vivid cases would be people with schizophrenia, dementia, brain damage, or after undergoing hypnosis. If you ask them to explain their behaviour or recall the events during a period they can’t recall, they’ll tell you a story. Though, it may not be factually true, it is their truth in that moment. You’ll find more examples at the bottom of this article, sandwiched between book suggestions and citations.
A shocking neuropsychological experiment elaborates this effect, raising troubling questions about our role as conscious agents of our own actions:
Physiologist, Benjamin Libet, used EEG scans (also later using fMRI scans) to watch participants’ brains while they waited to hit a button. A special clock allowed them to indicate when they had decided to act. Meanwhile, the experimenter monitored their brain activity. On average, their brain made its decision ~300ms before the participant had consciously decided to move. That may not seem like a lot of time, but it’s huge when viewed in terms of events in the brain. Later research used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to sway the participant toward a choice. People typically chose to use their dominant hand 60% of the time, but when influenced by the TMS, they could cause the participant to switch to their off hand 80% of the time. When asked why they changed their choice at the last moment, they often offered that they simply “changed [their] mind”. Indeed.
After the first instance of that experiment, it sent out sizable shockwaves among the philosophical and academic communities. It has been replicated many times by many different people with different equipment – and has been successfully replicated in abundance. People may disagree whether this has any implications on will. Perhaps our brain has free will, but our conscious self doesn’t. That’s still personal freedom, right?
In another psychological experiment, there were two large ropes hanging from the ceiling, one at each end of the room. Participants were tasked with tying the ropes together, but neither was long enough to simply walk it over to the other. Participants had a hard time working out a solution until the experimenter entered the room and “accidentally” bumped into the rope, causing it to sway subtly. Afterwards, when the participants found the solution by swinging one of the ropes, they were asked how they came to this solution. Most gave a plausible explanation, but practically none credited the professor’s “accidental” bump that was actually pre-planned to sway their thinking.
We think we make our own choices, but simply being asked about them will cause us to conjure plausible reasons because we feel we should have reasons. And we believe them, even if there are objective, external explanations outside of our awareness. As Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga put it:
Our conscious self is simply an interpreter that spins plausible stories for our behaviour after the fact. Many times these stories are right.
Our explanations for our behaviour is often no better than a semi-informed observer might venture. Generally, we collectively don’t even have a very good track record guessing how something will make us feel.
Those experiments, on their own, land some hard blows to free will. A brain scan can say what we’re going to do before we’re even aware of it, some magnetic interference can change that decision, and outside forces can influence our decisions without us knowing. Are we actually choosing or are we like antennae, receiving signals from outside our awareness? Perhaps we make decisions in the same sense that our bodies “choose” to make red blood cells or breath while we sleep.
Let’s take one last swing at this downed horse. There was a study where participants had to unscramble word jumbles. One group had words that were related to the elderly, while the other group had words unrelated to the aged. The words weren’t explicit in their meaning, but were associated with being old, such as “florida”, “grey”, etc. Disguised to measure cognitive ability, the experimenters were actually timing the participants as they walked down the long hallway back to the main office. People in the elderly-related group walked significantly slower. If asked, would they even notice that they had walked slower? If they did, would they say it was due to thinking about the elderly? (In case you’re wondering, the experimenter’s interpretation was that this effect is an evolutionary mechanism for people to move more slowly in contexts with older people because moving quickly could be dangerous for them.)
Does free will even exist?
“When you explain a behaviour with one of these disciplines, you are implicitly invoking all the [biological] disciplines. Any given type of explanation is the end product of the influences that preceded it. It has to work this way. If you say the behaviour occurred because of the release of neurochemical Y in the brain, you are also saying the behaviour occurred because of the heavy secretion of hormone X this morning increased the levels of neurochemical Y. You are also saying the behaviour occurred because the environment in which that person was raised made her brain more likely to release neurochemical Y in response to certain types of stimuli. And you’re also saying because of the gene that codes for that particular version of neurochemical Y. And if you’ve so much as whispered the word ‘gene’, you’re also saying ‘and because of the millennia of factors that shaped the evolution of that particular gene’. And so on.”
-Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave (2017)
This leads us to the classic philosophical debate between free will and determinism. Of the many choices in life, can any of them be chosen without the direct causal influence of past events and experiences?
Long before you were even an idea, the world existed. That same environment, with your parents and your social group, all raised you. These “background” factors play the largest environmental role on who you came to be, and you chose exactly none of them. Sure, you may have chosen some minor details within the constraints of these tiny boxes, but that’s like an ant choosing to eat from one of two piles of food within a sealed glass box. So much choice!
I used to think of this in relation to the idea of God. People say God created all of us and knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows us so well that he knows what we’ll do in every situation – even ones we’ll never be in. If that’s the case, what kind of jerk created and placed people like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or any other countless killers in history? Who would they have been under different circumstances?
Even removing the Big Man from the picture, these people were still had little choice in temperament or environment. If given the choice, would any of us choose to become serial killers, rapists, pedophiles, or bigots? Hardly. And yet they continue to exist.
Our genes (and other biological factors) affect us more than you may think.
Among the challengers of free will, biodeterminism is a contender. It is the idea that biological factors shape who we are and the choices we make. “Genes!” you may compulsively scream at your screen, and you’d be partially right. But it goes deeper than that, including the things we ingest, and any other factor that might influence how our bodies (re)act. Let’s begin with the gene angle though:
There are incidences of identical twin separated at birth and raised in different households. Decades later, the twins reunite to see their womb-mate sporting the same fashion, hairstyle, and facial hair. It doesn’t stop there. No, some even have similar looking spouses, the same dog breed who happens to have a similar (if not same) name. One example even had this strange twitch they did with their nose that they both called “squidging”.
Another pair were Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein. To their surprise, they discovered at age 35 that they had both edited their high school newspapers, studied film at university, and became writers (their book’s wiki page here). They had been separated deliberately by a Yale University researcher as a part of a controversial study. The study has been sealed until 2066, and will remain that way despite some of the twins/triplets themselves pushing to have the research released. Fun fact: some of the 13 children still don’t know they have a twin. One of the book writing twins told the Telegraph:
Since meeting Elyse, it is undeniable that genetics play a huge role, probably more than 50 percent. It’s not just our taste in music or books; it goes beyond that. In her, I see the same basic personality. And yet, eventually we had to realize that we’re different people with different life histories.
That’s nothing compared to Oskar and Jack. Jack was raised by his Jewish father in Trinidad, while Oskar was raised in Germany… in the 1930’s. That’s right, one labored on an Israeli kibbutz, while the other was a Hitler youth. They couldn’t have been raised in more different situations, yet still came to be quite similar: both were considered short-tempered, meticulous, and drank heavily. As you might guess, when they first met in their 20’s, they could barely speak to one another. They didn’t meet again until into their 50’s. The similarities were striking, as this article by Tracy Reppert puts it:
They wore the same rimmed glasses, the same neatly trimmed mustaches, the same quirky shirts with epaulets and four pockets on the front, the same collection of rubber bands on their wrists. Now in their 50s, they were in the mood to laugh about the similarities that kept coming all week: Both always flushed the toilet before using it, read magazines back to front, dipped buttered toast in coffee, liked to bring a book to restaurants, loved spicy food. And they both still had tantrums, and now anxiety attacks.
To be sure, there were differences. Oskar suffered from narcolepsy, and Jack didn’t. And there was a moment that week when Oskar told Jack that as a boy he admired Hitler. This time, Jack wanted to understand how that is possible. “It shows what a smooth propaganda machine can do to children’s minds,” he said.
Sure, that’s covering the DNA angle. We knew it played a large role in our lives, but I doubt any of us ever wanted to think it played a role this large.
Let’s look at other environmental factors. Think about the times when you are cranky because you’re hungry or dehydrated. You may recognize this and fix the situation, but even then, as Sam Harris put it, you’re simply acknowledging your puppet strings and learning to tug them in a slightly new direction.
We’ve all heard of the studies in schools where the cafeteria chose to remove deep fried foods from the menu and replaced them with healthier options, such as salads and vegetables instead of fries. This is hearsay as the only research I seem to be able to find is on cognitive effects of better nutrition on kids. We all know fast food is bad for us, so who makes a habit of visiting McDonald’s when they value their health, right?
A post on Slate Star Codex goes into details about how levels of lead, Omega-6 (with low Omega-3) fatty acids, and lack of lithium can all contribute to crime in significant, measurable levels. How responsible is someone for committing a crime when their diet is stacked in such a way that their brain makes them more violent and less prone to impulse control?
Then there are people with mental disorders that are helped through medication. In cases of depression, people who respond successfully to medication sometimes question who their “real self” is, given that their natural state is the depressed one. Typically, this worry dissipates as they’re just happy to be able to live their life. Can’t argue with the results, after all.
Now let’s imagine you’re riding your bike. You’re too cool for helmet hair, which you soon regret after going head first into concrete. You survive, but find yourself with strange new impulses that happen to clash with the law. Clearly, you are a victim of circumstance.
That’s almost exactly what happened back in 2000, where a man who suffered from severe epilepsy underwent surgery to fix it. It was successful, but with rather significant, unforeseen side-effects known as Klüver-Bucy Syndrome. He presented obsessive eating afterwards… as well as hyper sexuality towards images of children. He would spend hours obsessively downloading illicit images onto his computer at night. Once apprehended, he received half the sentence the prosecutor had recommended because the judge determined the man had “presented free will” by abstaining from downloading images on his work computer. As Robert Sapolsky (Behave, 2017) asks:
If a person with Tourettes is able to suppress their tics throughout the work day only to have an explosion of tics as soon as they leave work, does that mean they are choosing to have fits of shouting and tics those other times? Likewise with “Sundowners Syndrome” in cases of dementia: are they choosing to not remember their name at the end of the day, despite being coherent in the morning?
Our reason takes a back seat to our emotions.
In his fantastic book, The Righteous Mind (2012), Jonathan Haidt explains the state of the literature around moral psychology and how it affects our political perspectives. Among his many insights in the book, one particular study involved evoking a sense of disgust in a person, causing them to become situationally more conservative – no matter their original political stance. They varied their form of disgust, but my favourite was that they performed surveys with or without several quick (unseen) spritz of “fart spray”. The noxious smell made people significantly more conservative in all cases.
In case you’re wondering what sort of questions they asked people to tell their political leanings, there were such gems as this:
“Some U.S. states allow first cousins to marry each other. The state you live in does not currently permit first-cousin marriages but is considering legalizing them. What do you think about such legislation?”
Through his research, Haidt explains that Hume’s theory of “The Will and The Passions” was most correct according to modern research. Hume stated:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
Haidt took this and made a more modern metaphor comparing reason to a press secretary. The press secretary is not in charge; their job is to take what the president decides and form it into a palatable argument as best he can to sell to the press. In this metaphor, the passions are the president. The passions/president makes all the decisions, and the press secretary must rationalize them, making our desires and drives appear reasoned and sensible.
We may think we have come to a rational decision, but we’re often simply being fooled by our own rationalization that occurs after the fact. This feeds back into the genetic/biodeterministic argument, as the environmental/biological factors will continually shape our drives. Just as seen in the psychological experiments, we feel like we are in control, but in fact have not recognized the true cause of our own behaviour. We rationalize after the fact, conjuring illusions of control.
Another study (which I regrettably can’t locate), described a scenario where a man is standing in Times Square pronouncing the benefits of communism. I believe this was in a period when the red scare was more prominent in people’s minds. Regardless, they asked the participants one of two questions: “should we allow this man to preach about communism?” Or “should we stop this man from preaching communism?”
Depending on the question asked, they received a different majority answer. To frame it as “allowing” the man to continue is to say that he doesn’t have an inherent right of free speech. It’s something that must be given to him from the powers that be. In that framing, the majority said that no, we should not allow him to to speak openly about communism.
In the framing of “stopping” the man from expressing himself, he has the right and we are taking it away from him. In that framing, the majority answered that yes, we should allow him to speak his mind because it’s wrong to take his right away. Simply rewording the question in subtle ways can significantly affect the response.
How culpable are murderers?
Imagine a man who was raised by loving parents, had a happy childhood, and an overall great life. One day, he guns a woman down in broad daylight, and is arrested. His explanation is that it seemed like a fun thing to do. What do you think of this man?
Of course, nearly everyone would say he’s a goddamn monster, and we’d feel justified in clawing his eyes out before dragging him naked through the streets.
But what if we discover that there’s a tumor the size of a golf ball in his brain that affects the decision making and moral centers of the brain? He instantaneously transforms from a villifiable monster to a victim worthy of pity, not vengeance.
In fact, such an example did actually exist and tragically occurred in 1966 with the case of Charles Whitman, a man who had before been relatively normal, but on August 1st, he had murdered both his wife and mother, then proceeded to the University of Texas to eventually kill 17, and injure 31 before being gunned down himself by the police. Luckily, he had left a note, a portion of which read:
I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average, reasonable, and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.
Now, despite the horrors he committed – which he felt compelled to commit – he was not fully in control of himself. If asked some time before whether he’d wish this fate upon himself, what are the chances he would recommit to them?
Most of us wish we could change some things about ourselves, but hardly any of us would wish to change what is at our absolute core of ourselves. As pointed out in The Mind Club (2016), the core of our selves is located in our morality. Change a person’s tastes, preferences, mannerisms, and appearance – so long as their morality remains intact, people say they are still the same person. We often wish to continue being who we feel we are, regardless of whether it is for our detriment or betterment. This applies as much to the god-fearing man as the sadist who tortures woodland creatures for fun. How many among us would choose to change what defines us?
But I want to take the argument further still: how can we hold the tumorless man more responsible than the man with the tumor, despite neither man actively, consciously choosing the factors that led him to do these things?
I’m not saying the act was right, nor that we shouldn’t lock both men up because their actions and intents signify what they’ll do in the future. We absolutely should lock them up. But it does, however, force us to reconsider exactly how we deal with each man once they are in the system.
As Robert Sapolsky, author of Behave (2017), said:
If a car’s brakes are faulty, you don’t let it out on the streets. It’s going to kill somebody. You fix it if you can, and if you can’t fix it, you put the car in a garage for the rest of time[.] No one would sit there and say the car had a rotten soul or it’s deserving the punishment by putting it in seclusion in the garage. It’s a mechanical problem. If somebody says ‘wow, that’s so dehumanizing to view us as biological machines’, it’s a hell of a lot better than sermonizing us into having bad souls.
What to do about legal systems?
The only actionable point I can think to take away from these observations is regarding how we treat our criminal and prison populations. After all, our legal system is based on the assumption that we are free to make our own choices, and thus deserve to be punished for breaking the law. I’ve often argued that our penal systems should be geared more toward rehabilitation and less about sheer punishment. Why would we want people in prisons to simply be in a terrible situation, unimproved by the punishment, then released without skills or means to avoid re-offending?
This applies to the vast majority of criminal cases. What about the heinous examples where the victim’s family wish for the perpetrator to suffer? This is entirely understandable. I still maintain that we should aim to fix them, if possible. Even if they are curable, the causes of unthinkable acts will not be fixed over night. But what if they could be?
Suppose there was a pill to fix a psychopathic murderer’s brain so that he was, conclusively, a normal, repentant, healthy human being. Should we refuse to give him this pill for the sake of punishment? It would be like denying a man insulin because he went into a diabetic coma.
A common counterpoint I’ve heard is that we shouldn’t reward people for committing offences by giving them a better life in prison than the honest people who work hard and don’t commit crimes. This is a false dichotomy. How many of you would rather be in prison, with limited freedom and rigid structure, than living a healthy, happy, productive life of freedom? If one wants rigid structure and orders on how to live, they would just join the military. Only people crippled from living too long in jail, ill-equipped for life and set up to fail, would re-offend for the security and familiarity that comes with prison.
We are primates, and we need to recognize that we all respond well to systems of rewards and punishments. The law still needs to be there in order that people will act in the best interest of the whole. It does not require us to have free will for us to logically conclude that we need to have a system that encourages behaviours we want and discourages behaviours we don’t. The main element should always be in favor of healing, lest re-offence occur and cause someone else to experience the same pain that’s been thrust upon victims and their families.
In the past, we used to gather a mob of people to beat a person to death for doing horrible things. Eventually the government stepped in, taking over that responsibility for us. After that, we had crowds of people enjoying public executions to see that justice is done. Now, hardly anyone shows up to executions. We will eventually be required to adjust past this addiction to vengeance. As Robert Sapolsky (Behave; 2017) put it:
[People need to view it] like a bear or a hurricane. We’re able to do that when it’s absolutely clear that it’s unintentional on the person’s part … and they’re crippled with remorse. We will simply have to expand that further.
We need to rid ourselves of the notion that the majority of people who have done bad things only deserve to be treated badly, as they’ve likely been treated badly their entire lives. If there’s some way to repair the damage done, get them back on their feet, and living a fulfilling life, that should be the course we take. If there’s nothing we can do for them, such as in the cases of psychopaths, then we should put them away with no hope of release. Their lives shouldn’t be miserable pain, but we should see them for the pitiable souls they are, having been ill-equipped before being sent into the world. Psychopaths are born with brain problems and do questionable things; do we blame people without fingers for not being able to play piano?
Before we leave the topic of crime, it should be pointed out that experiments have shown people commit more immoral behaviours (cheating on tests, etc) when made aware of the lack of free will. That in mind, don’t excuse yourself from your own morality. Interestingly though, believing we don’t have free will made women act more forgiving in another experiment, though it showed no significant effect for men.
How can we define ourselves?
There is some irony making these arguments, given that a large part of my spare time revolves around writing advice pieces and reading psychology, business, and other books intended to help me get ahead in life. Just another choice I suppose I didn’t make.
And even after making all these arguments – even if I’ve changed your mind – we all still feel very much in control of our lives. The hallucination persists. Right now, I wanted to write this article, so I wrote it. I feel like I chose to do so.
And, in the end, maybe that’s all that matters.
The Passions and The Will – David Hume
Stumbling Upon Happiness – Daniel Gilbert (2006)
Free Will – Sam Harris (2012)
Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt (2012)
The Mind Club – Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray (2016)
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst – Robert M Sapolsky (2017)
Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
You Are Now Less Dumb – David McRaney
Vodka Taste Testing
I once tricked my friend into tasting two kinds of vodka. He rated the one as terrible, acrid, and gave it a score of about 4. The other was light, flavorful, and enjoyable – a definitely 8 or 9. They were the same vodka. He’s by no means stupid, either, this is just to prove that all of us can be tricked.
Participants were presented with a choice between Kate Upton and Kate Moss. After choosing, participants are then shown the opposite choice they had just chosen. They are then asked to explain why they chose the woman in the photo, more than 70% of people didn’t notice the switch, and were then able to give reasons of why they chose her.
-Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray, The Mind Club (2016)
Like the models experiment, participants were approached in a supermarket for a taste test. They make their choice from two jams: cinnamon apple and grapefruit. After choose a preference between the two, which the experimenter recorded. Participants were asked to sample their favorite jam again and asked to describe why they liked it. Just like the model study, they actually swapped the jams. Fewer than 30% of participants detected the switch, while the rest then came up with explanations for why they liked it.
“An influential 1977 paper by Richard Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson suggests – with respect to processes, not content – our access to what’s going on in our heads may be no more privileged than our access to what’s going on in our livers. In one experiment, Nisbett and Wilson arrayed four pairs of pantyhose on a table in a bargain store, and, in a “Customer Evaluation Survey”, asked customers to say which pair they preferred, and why. People made their choice, typically plumbing for the one on the right, and had no problem explaining their choice with reference to its particular features: the knit, the elasticity, the sheerness, and so on. Which is all very well – except that the researchers had previously discovered that people tended to favor items on the right side of the display, and all the pairs of pantyhose were, in fact, identical.”
-Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics (2008)
If people have just read a paragraph containing the word “Ocean”, they’re more likely to choose Tide, and then explain its cleaning virtues. -Sapolsky, Behave (2017)
Post a picture of eyes on a bus stop (control image was flowers) and people are more likely to pick up litter. Placed in a workplace coffee room and the honor system payment goes up in triplicate. Shown in a computer screen and people become more generous in economic games.
Probably the most famous case of brain damage to ever take place, Phineas had received severe brain damage when an explosive misfired while he was working, sending a railway spike up through his eye socket and out the top of his skull. The mild-mannered, well-liked man became violent, verbally abusive, and seemed unable to control his sexual impulses. He lost his job, his wife left him, and his reputation was ruined. Years after the incident, his brain appeared to have healed somewhat, enabling him to return to something of a normal life, successfully holding down jobs.
R v. Craddock (1980)(bottom of the first page):
Craddock was a barmaid with a lengthy criminal record: thirty prior sentences for theft, arson and assault. Charged with murdering a co-worker, years of diaries and institutional records indicated a cyclical pattern to her violent behaviour. She was found guilty of manslaughter based on a plea of diminished responsibility; that PMS ‘turned her into a raging animal each month and forced her to act out of character’ (Benedek 1985 p. 24). Sentencing was delayed for three months to see if she would respond to progesterone. Subsequently, the judge also considered PMS as a mitigating factor. As a result, Craddock was placed on probation and court ordered progesterone treatment.
Later that year, Craddock who never had clear recollections of her crimes, received no progesterone for four days. On the fourth day, having fasted, she threw a brick through a window and reported herself to the police. She was arrested, received progesterone and was released by the Magistrate’s Court.
Then, in 1981, Craddock who had changed her surname to Smith, began to receive a lower dosage of progesterone. In April, she attempted suicide, wrote a threatening poison pen letter to a police sergeant and waited behind the police station with a knife. Charged with carrying an offensive weapon, Smith’s defence was the claim of automatism. The judge directed the jury that there was no question of considering this plea because there was no evidence that she had acted unconsciously. Again, the sentence was reduced to probation due to Smith’s PMS.
1Libet, B., Gleason, C.A., Wright, E.W. & Pearl, D.K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 106, 623-642.
2Ammon, K; Gandevia, S C (1990). “Transcranial magnetic stimulation can influence the selection of motor programmes”. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. 53 (8): 705–7.
3Birch, H.G., & Rabinowitz, H.S. (1951). “The negative effect of previous experience on productive thinking”. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 41, 121-125.
4Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.
5Mahoney et al.(2005). Effect of breakfast composition on cognitive processes in elementary school children. Physiology & Behavior 85, 635–645
6Wheatley, T., & Haidt, J. (2005). Hypnotically induced disgust makes moral judgments more severe. Psychological Science, 16, 780-784.
7Schnall, S. et al. (2008). Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2008 August ; 34(8): 1096–1109
8Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G.L., Jordan, H. (2008). Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1096-1109.
9Vohs, K.D., Schooler, J.W. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating. Psychological Science, 19(1), 49-54.
10Caspar, E. et al. (2017). The Influence of (Dis)belief in Free Will on Immoral Behavior. Front. Psychol., 17, January 2017.
6 thoughts on “Are You Truly Free?”
I first heard about “confabulation” when I was a kid reading books on hypnosis. You can give someone a post-hypnotic suggestion, perhaps telling them they will take off their shoe when they hear the word “pickle”, and then tell them they won’t remember. After they wake up, you say the word “pickle”, and they remove their shoe. When you ask them why, they will give you some explanation that they are convinced is true.
But we should keep in mind that, as long as we don’t deliberately deceive it, the “interpreter” part of our brain will give us the truth. We do rely on this process to explain our behavior to ourselves and others. People expect an honest answer when they ask, “Why did you do that?”
There is a two-way interaction between our conscious and unconscious mental processes. In the Libet experiment, for example, the instructions to each subject had to somehow get through an initial conscious evaluation before it could prime his or her unconscious mind to find a solution to the problem. (The problem was how to “randomly” repeat some motion 40 times in two minutes).
Gazzaniga criticized Libet’s interpretation of the data: “”What difference does it make if the brain activity goes on before we are consciously aware of something?” … “That is not where the action is, any more than a transistor is where the software action is.” (Page 141 “Who’s in Charge?”)
We are all influenced by our genetic dispositions. And we are all influenced by the social environment in which we are raised. But it is rarely the case that someone cannot distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, and what is legal and what is criminal.
While a few may commit a crime without consciously deciding to do so, most of us are capable of making a rational choice. Most criminals commit the crime for personal profit, at the expense of others, not because they have a brain tumor.
Our genes are us. Our neurology is us. Whatever our genes and our neurology decide to do, we have decided to do.
Free will is not the absence of prior causation. Free will is when “that which is us” is the same as “that which chooses” what we will do. The “free” in free will is not about freedom from causation (an irrational concept), it is about freedom from external coercion or undue influence.
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Thank you for your well thought out response, you have some well thought out points.
I’ll admit that I sometimes struggle with where to place the “self” in free will, but the way I’m looking at it is as a boulder on a mountain. It sits atop the mountain until something acts up on it. The wind blows, the boulder falls and destroys a village. The boulder could hardly have chosen to do this, yet if we were to replace the boulder with a man and the wind with his environment, we’d say he fully chose to do this.
I agree that if we choose to work with your definition of free will – freedom from coercion or undue influence – then most of us are fairly unconstrained and therefore free. But in that definition, I guess I have the question of when we aren’t unconstrained, as we all have the right to tell a gunman with his gun against our head to go to hell. In addition, one could also argue that economic or social forces constantly restrain us from doing exactly what it is we’d wish to do, as do any basic system society imposes on us.
This was mostly me musing about free will based on the things I’ve been reading and thinking about for a little while, so I appreciate you reading and contributing your thoughts!
If we put a round stone on the slope of a hill, it will roll to the bottom, due to the physical force of gravity. If we put a squirrel on that same slope, it will go uphill, downhill, left, or right depending upon where he thinks he’ll find the next acorn. This is due to a built-in biological drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce. That biological purpose is uniquely encapsulated in every living organism, but is not found in any inanimate object. With intelligent species, we find neurology has evolved to support imagination, evaluation, and choosing. And this is where free will emerges as a real thing in the physical universe.
This does not run counter to determinism, when determinism is correctly defined. Every decision we make of our own free will is also causally inevitable. However, the causes must be expanded to include biological purpose and logical thought.
For example, we cannot explain a car stopping at a red light using only the laws of physics. To understand that event we must also take into account the purpose and the reasoning of the intelligent living object that is behind the wheel. Between the physical stimulus of the red light, and the physical pressure of the foot on the brake, we have the purpose to survive, and the rational calculation that stopping at the red light is the best choice for ensuring survival. And the most relevant law is the social law passed by these intelligent creatures that tells us the red light means we must stop.
Despite these laws, I have been ticketed, more than once, for choosing to not come to a full stop at a Stop sign, but instead treating it as a Yield sign.
It will do me no good to explain to the judge that this event was inevitable, because he will answer that the penalty is also inevitable. And that’s why causal inevitability never comes up in normal conversations.
Everything that happens is always causally inevitable. This fact makes itself irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It is like a constant on both sides of every equation. It can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.
The brain, which uses like 20% of our calories, needs to conserve energy. So it seldom brings up the irrelevant fact of causal inevitability when making a decision. It provides no practical information. All it tells us is that whatever we decide will have always been inevitable. And that is literally a useless fact.
Trying to make something meaningful of this fact of causal inevitability usually ends up in mental errors and paradoxes. And that’s why you find Sam Harris constantly going back and forth in every chapter of his book “Free Will”. He’ll tell you on the one hand that you have no choice and then tell you that you do. He even resorts to mysticism in trying to describe where thoughts come from. They just appear in your head, like magic.
Well, they don’t. When you run into a problem or issue that you need to decide, your conscious mind will prime your unconscious mind with the problem. Then the thoughts, feelings, memories, and so on will appear that are associated with some aspect of that problem or issue. If I’m hungry, I’ll find myself thinking of food. There’s no mystery as to where those thoughts come from.
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I agree with much of what you said, it just seems we have come to differing conclusions.
For the analogy of the stone, you’re right that putting a different creature in the same position as a stone on a hill will render different results, there’s no question of that. The reason I brought it up is that the “physics” that bring about human actions is a similar, albeit much more complicated, form of the physics on the rock falling down the hill. Your analogy of the car is likewise in the same realm as what I was trying to say, so on that we agree.
It would seem that you may fall under either the libertarian or compatibilist camps, where both believe there is some leeway between determinism allowing for free will. I do not.
You’re right that explaining to the judge that you were destined to do something doesn’t make it any more likely that you get off, but if you have a biological argument for it, they may let you off, such as in the extra example I provided of R v. Craddock where the judge would normally have given jail time, instead she received hormone therapy and probation.
There are also examples of our biology interfering with what we wish would be rationally calculated decisions, such as parole boards. Studies have born out that people with parole board hearings immediately at the beginning of the day (after breakfast), and immediately after lunch have significantly higher chances of being granted parole then those directly before lunch or at the very end of the day. The brain does use calories, and it seems blood glucose is the fuel that drives willpower to anything mildly difficult.
The main point of my argument is that we should try to take these factors into account for why people do what they do, and finding ways to actually stop people from committing further crimes. Convicting people is a requirement for this, as we are averse to punishment. In that, I don’t believe looking at causal factors of why things happen is entirely a useless fact. If we give too far into the free will argument, then we take our sight away from causal factors and simply assume that people are the choosers and that it’s simply them. To me, that’s akin to throwing our hands up and filling our prisons because we don’t want to figure out what might be the actual root.
I didn’t find Sam Harris to flip back and forth irrationally in his book, though I may have to re-look at it to see what you mean. I found his arguments calm and measured, as he almost always is. For his statement that your thoughts just appear in your head, I can relate with what he’s saying. Say you’re walking down the street, you’re watching the traffic go by, and trying to recount the things you’ll buy at the grocery store. You find yourself humming a song that you haven’t heard in decades, yet there it is. Why did you start singing that song? Did you prompt yourself somehow? Maybe something in the environment? Likewise with the swinging rope analogy, these ideas came to the people from some prompt that was out of their control. There was a causal factor that remained outside their awareness. This was my interpretation of his idea that our thoughts appear in our heads. We don’t sit down and plan our thoughts; there are events that make them happen, but we don’t choose those events. Even deciding to focus on one particular topic, why did we choose that topic? As I write this, further ideas and examples are popping in my head that I’d read and since forgotten, only springing to mind because of our discussion.
I think the main difference between our thinking is that you’re saying the subconscious routines and other events that are springing forward are still in our control, while I’m saying that even those are being spawned from our environment and biology interacting.
I’ve enjoyed discussing this with you, though it would seem we’re at an impasse.
All the best,
I find explaining free will is much simpler if we presume “perfect” determinism. So-called “hard” determinism is invalid, because it ignores significant causal factors, and treats the concept of causality as if it were an actor in the real world.
People do physics. They calculate the speed and direction required to position a satellite in a stable orbital path. Based upon this calculation, they control the burn of the rocket engines, and precisely alter the trajectory to get the desired result. From this vantage point they observe hurricanes forming and moving toward populations. Based upon this data they evacuate people from specific coastal areas.
But physics cannot do people. There are no laws in physics that describe the behavior of objects that act purposefully (to survive) and deliberately (by calculation, evaluation, and choice). And “hard” determinism just doesn’t get this. It is a very imperfect determinism, leading to many invalid and sometimes ridiculous conclusions.
There are always causes as to why people do what they do. Even the guy shooting from the hotel window upon the concert crowd had some rationale behind his deliberate actions. I suspect he wanted to feel powerful and in control of others. Or perhaps he was just seeking a thrill. Whether he had a brain tumor, or other physiological condition that influenced his behavior will have to wait on the autopsy. Or perhaps his girl friend will eventually shed some light on his thoughts and feelings.
I was never saying that the contributing causes of a crime were useless. In fact, all of the utility of determinism will be found in knowing the specific causes of specific effects. And I don’t know of anyone who suggests we should ignore these contributing social and medical factors. However, it would also be foolish to ignore the process of deliberation, the way the criminal came to the conclusion that it was a good idea for him to commit the crime. In the case of those with a “normal” brain, that process was the final responsible cause of the deliberate act,
The useless fact is the single fact of causal inevitability. Knowing that it was causally inevitable tells us nothing useful, because everything that happens is ALWAYS causally inevitable. This is a triviality that offers no enlightenment. And yet the “hard” determinist will attempt to eliminate free will, responsibility, choice, self, and pretty much all the rest of the dictionary of practical human concepts, based upon that single triviality. They attempt to convince us that the “no free will” exception to responsibility should apply to everyone all the time, because every act is inevitable.
I can give you examples from chapter 4 of Harris’s “Free Will” that demonstrate his waffling. But I should probably do that in a separate comment, given the length of this one.
As to the “mystery” about where thoughts come from, you provided an example when you said, “As I write this, further ideas and examples are popping in my head that I’d read and since forgotten, only springing to mind because of our discussion.” That’s my point. They were not popping out of nowhere, but were answering the question that you deliberately posed to yourself. They were serving a purpose, a purpose that exists within you. Thus, you were controlling which thoughts were popping into your awareness. As to songs coming to mind while you walk down the street, I presume there will be associations linking them to some cue you experienced, or just the associative link from thought to thought. There’s no mystery.
Let me know if you like to see examples from chapter 4, or if you have other questions. By the way, the most recent post in my blog addresses the problem with determinism and how to fix it. Give it a read if you wish.
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