Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?

So reads the title of a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Professor Eddy Nahmias.   It warrants a bit of attention if not for its substance, then at least for what it illustrates about the contemporary state of much academic thought.

The author’s thesis is that neuroscientists are wrong to declare the death (or impending death) of free will.  The author argues that the neuroscientist’s claims are predicated upon impoverished conceptions of free will—conceptions that are no longer held in philosophical circles.

Just because I want to be  helpful, here are a few conceptions of free will that will get you (often very rapidly) in trouble:

Here’s another bad way to go:

And then there’s this all-time favorite:

And this (in any form no matter how attenuated or elegant) is what you will want to avoid:

And for my last bit of help, here is a place where you almost surely do not want to go.  The aesthetics here in combination with the serial latinates ought to be, for readers familiar with this blog, a sure tip-off that this is a dead end–in fact the worst kind of dead end: the extremely elaborated, highly complicated, rigorously hypertrophied deadend.

If you ever encounter anything like this, run.  Change departments.  Reconsider your life/career choices.   Drop out.  Anything.

So much for my attempts to help.   Back to Professor Nahmias’  post.  What interests me with his post is not his description of the over-enthusiasm on the part of the neuroscientists in declaring the death of free will.  In this regard, I found Professor Nahmias’ arguments persuasive.  In fact, to go even further than Professor Nahmias, it is not at all clear just how the neuroscientists could falsify the existence of something (free will) that is so ethereal, underspecified and quasi-theological in character.

So let’s leave the neuroscientists aside.

As for Professor Nahmias’ arguments for free will–these seem considerably weaker.  Consider:

Neuroscientific discoveries over the next century will uncover how consciousness and thinking work the way they do because our complex brains work the way they do…  These discoveries about how our brains work can also explain how free will works rather than explaining it away. 

O.K. and now already, we are into difficulties (not lapses of logic mind you, but difficulties.)  The principal difficulty is found in that phrase “explain how free will works.”   Perhaps science might someday describe how free will works.  But description is not explanation and it is hard to see how a robust explanation of free will would not, in the very fact of its articulation, obliterate its ostensible object of inquiry (free will).  To put it bluntly: once explained it seems unclear how free will could survive the explaining.  Of course, describing how free will operates might be a different matter.  But offering a causal account seems self-defeating–akin to seeking a causal force behind the unmoved mover.

Things get worse:

But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way.  Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. 

Notice that here we are deeply enmeshed in the language of free will:  imagining, deliberating, choosing, planning, and controlling.   Who or what will be doing this?  Answer: Some agency called,  “c-a-p-a-c-i-t-i-e-s”.   What is c-a-p-a-c-i-t-i-e-s?  It’s not entirely clear.  What is clear from the argument is that c-a-p-a-c-i-t-i-e-s  is, at the very least, an agency capable of imagining, deliberating, choosing…   Perhaps this is O.K.  Still it all feels a bit like Moliere’s dormitive principle:  How does opium put men to sleep?  It has a dormitive principle.   How is it that free will is possible?   We have the capacity for it.  Yes right.  If you want more on “faculty explanations” (how is X possible?  It is rendered possible by Y.  What is Y?  Y is the thing that has the potential, capacity, tendency, etc. to produce X) see my essay Law and Phrenology.)

We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. 

Exactly so.  To elaborate just a bit,  “free will” seems to be an indispensable aspect of morality—and its concepts of responsibility, blame, etc.  Dispense with free will and our law and morals will suffer if not a death blow, then at least grievous injury.

Indeed a recent article in Scientific American recounts a study where apparent belief or disbelief in free will seemed to affect people’s propensity to cheat.  (More determinism = more it’s not my fault.)  For my part, I was deeply influenced by determinism when I first encountered it in college (it was a school where you could not possibly fail a course unless you said deliberately mean and vicious things to your professors).   I used determinism to get an extension on my sociology paper.  Said I, in a display of brazenness and freshman aplomb unlikely to be matched by co-blogger:  “Well, I don’t know why I’m late, but it doesn’t matter.  There has to be a cause.”   To which the professor asked for elaboration–someting on the order of: and what cause is that?  My answer was to say that it really didn’t matter what the cause was, but simply that there had to be one and that it had brought about it’s effect–namely, the impending lateness of my paper.   I got the extension.  (To my students: do not try this with me.)

In any event, there is a great deal at stake.

But that, of course, cuts both ways:  There’s a lot at stake too if free will is in fact an illusion.

O.K. Now we’re in trouble.  “We act…”  Who is this “We” here?  The name of the agency capable of acting with free will?   “We have the opportunity….”  An opportunity?   The sort of thing that establishes the possibility of selection or rejection?    In a free will kind of way?   To put it somewhat churlishly,  is the author saying anything more than:  We have free will when we can act in ways that accord with conditions that enable free will?

Let’s move on:

This conception of free will represents a longstanding and dominant view in philosophy, though it is typically ignored by scientists who conclude that free will is an illusion.  It also turns out that most non-philosophers have intuitions about free and responsible action that track this conception of free will.  Researchers in the new field of experimental philosophy study what “the folk” think about philosophical issues and why. For instance, my collaborators and I have found that most people think that free will and responsibility are compatible with determinism, the thesis that all events are part of a law-like chain of events such that earlier events necessitate later events.[3]

So what?  Folks once believed in Kobolds and wizards.  Burning witches was once the height of common sense.  In my field (law) many people routinely believe that they can actually discern the framers’ intent.   To say it again: So what?

Now, if you sense here a certain impatience on my part with Professor Nahmias’ view, you are right.   The reason is simple.   I have the sense that this is not fundamentally a dispute about free will (its existence or absence) but about other things.  And in fact, Professor Nahmias adverts to these other things when he says:

We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them. 

To put it differently “free will” seems to be an indispensable aspect of morality—and its concepts of responsibility, blame, etc.  Dispense with free will and our law and morals will suffer if not a death blow, then at least grievous injury.  There is, in short, a lot at stake.

But that, of course, cuts both ways:  There’s a lot at stake too if free will is in fact an illusion.

I suppose what gets me is that I’ve never come across a conception of free will that is not either quasi-theological or an unsuccessful attempt at secularization or both.   We continue to be plagued with disciplines that have not come to terms with the residually theological character of their architectures and operations (e.g. moral philosophy and law) and thus persist in mapping out research agendas that are, ab initio, misguided.

Best to leave free will alone and admit that we really don’t know much about what’s happening.   That, of course, is very hard for academics to do:  Academics are not generally rewarded (except in my case) for saying, “We really don’t know much about what’s going on; here are some ways to think about it all.”   On the contrary, academics are generally rewarded for rehearsing and refining the paradigms within which they operate.   (So much the worse for academia.)

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2 Responses to Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?

  1. I found the point at the end about not having heard an explanation of free will that was not theological to be most interesting. I would agree, but I might also add that I have yet to hear an explanation of the non-existence of free will that was not also implicitly based upon quasi-theological principles as well. When science attempts to elevate its theories (all science is technically theoretical after all) to the realm of certainty or knowledge, are they any different from religious fundamentalists who rely on abstract interpretations to elevate certain socio-political beliefs to the level of uncontroverted fact? Paradoxically, this very act seems to undermine the concept of faith or belief in something that is unknowable, and one wonders what scientists–supposedly the seekers of truth and knowledge–should be tempted to make such conclusions given the scant amount of evidence available to give insights into the workings of the human mind.

    I have found the following thought experiment interesting, if not infuriating, in my own attempts to wrestle with the problem of free will in my undergraduate days. I envision myself having an argument with an amorous female companion. In the other room is an identical argument taking place between a different set of lovers. Words are said in both rooms that cannot be taken back, and I leave my room while the other male strikes and beats the woman in the other room before going to the bar to drink. The unanswerable question is whether the difference in reaction to the same set of stimuli is the result of free will or pre-destination. How you answer depends upon which individual;s point of view you consider. The non-violent responder would be happy (dare say even proud) to proclaim his actions were the result of free will, of his own standards of decency in the face of temptation. Of course, the batterer finds it easier to throw up his hands and resign himself to his “fate.” One could also see the non-violent responder believing that his act was the result of predisposition as well, and feeling that he has been blessed by God as a chosen subject.

    Heady subject, good times.

    • Pierre Schlag says:

      Interesting. So, I think your thought experiment illustrates really nicely the politically and morally fraught character of the free will/determinism disputes. My guess is that the intense cultural importance of the disputes keeps us from developing more plausible accounts of what is going on. We continue to argue within the channels of the disputes in large part because these disputes are so deeply institutionalized (law being among the most pre-eminent examples.)

      As to the theological character of the anti-free will views, I certainly wouldn’t discount that theology sometimes (often?) intrudes. And if one wants to “refute” free will, my guess is that the argument will lapse into theology. But the thing that is interesting about the free will views is not simply that the supporting arguments might be theological. It’s that the concept itself is, apart from quasi-theological views, itself unintelligible. Free will presents as if there is something there, and yet when one begins to think about it…
      Perhaps, free will is one of those theoretical unspecifiables?

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