TCS Daily

Are You Free?

By Max Borders - December 13, 2004 12:00 AM

This article is the outgrowth of a debate on objective morality between Ed Hudgins of the Objectivist Center and me, which took place at George Mason University Law School. During our debate, we touched on the question of Free Will. Followers of Ayn Rand -- indeed most folks -- believe we have Free Will. I, however, am not so sure.

"Am I free?" you may ask. First, the bad news: no, you're not.

What you call making choices or exercising your Free Will is an illusion. I realize this seems highly counterintuitive, even absurd to suggest. But the following considerations may convince you that you are not, indeed, free.

First, we must agree that your body (and brain) is made up entirely of physical atoms and molecules. In other words, there is no supernatural essence like a "spirit" that animates your physical body. If we cannot agree on this, the rest of this article is moot.

Now, all of those atoms that make up your body are subject to certain regularities we might call the laws of nature. These are the same sorts of regularities that are exhibited when you pick up an object and it falls after you let go (as you would reasonably expect it to). Or, if you were to push your hand against your coffee cup, you would expect it to move along your desktop. We think similar "nomic" or law-like regularities apply to human beings, as we are a part of the universe by virtue of being physical in our makeup. Another way of talking about all of this is the familiar language of "cause and effect."

There are no causeless effects, it seems -- at least at the macro-level we live in from day to day. Chairs don't fly up into the air and coffee cups don't move across desktops unless some force acts upon them -- "causing" them to move.

So, our bodies and brains are subject to causal laws, as well. Even though the myriad cause-and-effect chains happening in the human body are extremely complex, it is not possible for us to break these causal laws just because we're human. The same can be said for apes, cats, chickens, bugs and bacteria, as all are creatures that belong to the causal-physical world.

Another way to define causation is to say: everything that happens is a result of some antecedent event. That means every single thing that happens in our bodies, from neuronal firing to DNA replication, is an event that is caused. If we were to extend these processes backwards in time, we would find these same regularities hold, otherwise the universe would have turned out to be a place of complete disorder and we would never have evolved.

Here's the problem. In our everyday language, we say we "choose" tea over coffee, or we "make a decision" to turn left or right. But since all of our so-called decisions take place in our physical brains, we are confronted with a very deep problem. When we say we make a choice, aren't we committing ourselves to what I call "self-starter theory?"

Self-starter theory violates everything we intuitively know about cause and effect. That is to say, such a theory commits us to causeless effects. If causeless effects were the norm in the universe we live in, it would be a very strange universe, indeed. Chairs would slide around without any force acting upon them. Coffee cups might float to the ceiling. Gravity might appear to switch on and off at random. But when we say that we have Free Will, we are committing ourselves to the existence of such a strange universe. We are saying that we are somehow able to step outside the causal nature of things -- and the atoms that make up our brain and body simply self-direct, i.e. "self-start." And that's just crazy.

"Ah ha, Max!" you might be thinking. "I don't have to commit to a self-starter universe, because I have read my Heisenberg (particle physics). I know that at the micro-level, things exhibit very strange properties. In fact, the particles' behaviors aren't deterministic, but probabilistic. For example, there may be a 60 percent chance that a photon will curve to the left, and a 40 percent chance it will curve to the right -- if, say, fired from a particle accelerator."

The idea behind this tale of micro-probabilities is that the universe may have a different set of causal laws at the level of the very small. Let us, for the moment, set aside the idea that this may be an issue of our observational limitations and not differing causal-physical laws. Even if the universe were probabilistic at the subatomic level (and that very same subatomic universe were able to exert itself all the way up to the level of people making their so-called "choices"), it would still be very strange to claim that people have Free Will.

Why? I call this the roulette wheel theory of human action. How is it that we have choice, if our choices are the result of probabilities not unlike heads or tails on a nickel? That's not free at all. That would be like claiming that, when asked to choose between tea and coffee, you flipped a coin and assigned heads with tea and tails with coffee. The only difference is that "the coin," as it were, would be inside your head. Again, how is that free?

So, we're back to the drawing board.

"But Max," the astute reader might ask, "haven't you ever heard of Schroedinger's Cat?" The notion is that in many of the cases where micro-particles are observed, observation itself seems to determine the outcome of the probability. It often seems the case that if we look for -- say, the photon -- to curve left, it goes left. Likewise, if we look right, it curves right. But until we make the observation, the probability stays 50/50. Observation, in some sense, "breaks" the probability limbo (ex poste facto we're at 100 percent, i.e. it happened). If this is the metaphysical reality at the micro-level, couldn't we say that human subjectivity -- i.e. experiential awareness and introspection -- is the observational component that breaks the subatomic probability limbo within our brains?

This approach forces us between the horns of a very strange dilemma: commitment to supernatural spirits on one hand, or to what I call a "matryoshka homunculus of infinite regress" on the other. In the first instance, subjectivity of experience is conceived of as a soul or non-physical essence, which somehow causally exerts itself in the physical world. This is rife with problems of Cartesian Dualism in the philosophy of mind, which we will dismiss here as mere metaphysical spookies.

On the second horn, however, we have to take seriously the notion that mind and body are intimately connected, and that our experience isn't something spooky. More specifically, in order to be materialists, we have to believe that human subjectivity depends for its existence on the causal-physical goings on in the brain (e.g. why depressed people feel better when they take Prozac). Enter the matryoshka homunculus of infinite regress.

If observation breaks the probability limbo between two "choices," whatever it is that is doing the observing must be a physical thing -- like a homunculus sitting above our brains and breaking probabilities limbos for our choices. But since that homunculus is also a physical thing subject to causal laws, it too must "choose" whether to observe one option or the other in order to break the probability. Since that probability limbo needs to be broken, we must postulate another observer, i.e. a homunculus, to break the probability. Each homunculus is nested within the next (like a matryoshka) ad infinitum. Now you can see the regress. And of course, this is an absurd result.

So what do we do?

It seems our subjective states force us into the illusion that we are making choices. The unitary nature of consciousness is set up so that, whatever causal track we're riding on, it darn well seems like we're actually in control. But what if we really aren't? If we really aren't in control, how are we to be considered responsible for anything we do?

I'd say we simply have to live in the illusion. We get on with life as if we had Free Will. Many political forms don't depend too much on a presumption of Free Will for their power. But even if they do, we do a pretty good job of living without the idea that everything is somehow predetermined. Political freedom is still good for us. Maybe it was even preordained that I fight for it. And since there is no way to function outside of the illusion, I may as well get on with life. Besides, it's fun to pick on Ayn Rand for her "axioms." (Sorry. I had no choice, Ayn.)

(Note: here is a decent discussion of Free Will by the blogger on Fly Bottle.)


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