"Totally coup, yo."

TWiC #10: Free Will and Other Fairy Tales




[I should probably point out that I started writing this post before I heard that Sam Harris just released a short book / long pamphlet about this subject. You'll just have to take my word for it.]

Being a connoisseur of crazy ideas carries with it a sort of demarcation problem. Is there a clearly defined line between a belief being totally unreasonable and kooky, and a belief which is just simply wrong? What kind of method can we use to tell the difference?

Sometimes it can be tough to distinguish between one unjustified belief categorized as crackpottery while another equally unjustified belief escapes unscathed simply because it’s popular. As it goes with pornography and Supreme Court justices, we might not be able to clearly define woo, but we can know it when we see it. As hazily defined a term as it is, maybe it would help the cause to expand its definition to the point where it makes more people re-examine their positions.

When I was doing a little research to prepare for an interview with Sarah Posner a couple weeks ago, I stumbled across a blog post on her site Religion Dispatches called Dear Scientists: Please Stop Bashing Free Will! by John Horgan. Horgan writes for Scientific American, so it’s not like he’s stupid. But even smart people can be tricked into believing stupid things for stupid reasons. Free will is one of those unjustified beliefs that’s so ubiquitous that even a science writer will openly defend it using the kinds of arguments he’d be among the first to counter when used to promote creationism or cryptozoology.

Bigfoot and Ronald McDonald, seen here believing in free will.

I didn’t bring this (or problems I have with other RD contributors) up with Posner because 1. she pretty much only covers the intersection of religion and politics and this didn’t apply to that at all, and 2. the post in question is over a year old. But the existence of free will isn’t one that seems likely to go away any sooner than theism, so maybe the fact that my specific response is way overdue isn’t so important in the big scheme of things. So I thought I’d take this point by point and explain why Horgan is wrong.


It all starts off with an abridged version of the case against free will, which is a good way to start off a persuasive essay meant to counter an already established case. And he does a decent job of describing how free will skeptics back up their claims with empirical research. So there’s no real straw man in the opening paragraphs. You would expect Horgan to then go on to refute each point. But you’d be wrong for expecting that here. Instead, he just goes off on speculative tangents which are irrelevant to the question at hand of whether or not free will is real.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll take just one example of the research Horgan outlines to set up the case against free will. Subjects were asked to choose to move their fingers and also to pinpoint the exact moment when they made that decision. Apparently there should be a 0.2 second delay between the choice and the action due to how long it takes to transmit an electrical signal via nerves from the brain to the finger muscles. Instead, researchers found there was a 0.3 second delay. This was statistically significant and indicated that the choice to move one’s fingers was in a sense already made before the subject was even consciously aware of having made such a choice.

In other words, when we make a decision the mental process we go through which we call “making a choice” is part of something which has already started outside of our consciousness and not the initiation of a whole new thing itself. At least that’s what this research implies, and in that way it challenges belief in free will. Being aware of this, here’s how Horgan responds:

I choose to reject this conclusion… Yes, researchers have demonstrated that all our thoughts and actions are underpinned by physiological processes, but what else could they have found? Evidence of an immaterial soul?

Putting aside his trollspeak in “choosing to reject this conclusion” (he’s fully aware that such a choice is the result of natural processes and not of his own “free will”), there is a pretty simple answer to his question. Instead of a 0.3 second lag between the choice and the action, Benjamin Libet and his colleagues could have found a 0.2 second lag. That would have indicated that the conscious choice of the subject initiated the physical process of moving their fingers. For some reason I suspect Horgan would have no problem using that kind of result as evidence to rationalize his free will belief which he accepts for emotional reasons. But that’s not what happened, and if you believe science works you have to follow the evidence where it leads.

Science has discovered nothing that contradicts free will.

Horgan just got through summarizing the research free will skeptics cite to back up their case. Disagreeing with them is fine, but he would’ve been better off explaining why they’re wrong. Instead he just asserts their wrongness and then proceeds to create straw men and spin old wives’ tales about “common sense:”

To deny free will’s existence is to deny that our conscious, psychological deliberations—Should I ask my girlfriend to marry me? Should I major in engineering or art?—influence our actions. Such a conclusion flies in the face of common sense. Of course, sometimes we deliberate insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, or we fail to act upon our resolution. But not always. Sometimes we consciously choose to do something and we do it. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it often does.

Nobody is suggesting that the illusion of free will is a manifestation of how we deliberate insincerely. Whether we’re honest with ourselves or not, the decision we make is part of an incredibly complex chain of events governed by the physical laws of the Universe. The decisions we make don’t operate outside of that chain of events. The part of that chain of events that happens to take place in between our ears is not special. It’s just another link. Not magic. At least that’s what the research Horgan refuses to directly address or counter seems to indicate.

It’s not that we think the emotional input of decision-making doesn’t matter. We just don’t pretend that such emotions are uncaused. The causes of our emotions also have causes, and so on. Refusing to acknowledge this, Horgan presses on. Apparently he’s now under the impression that he’s successfully defended his free will belief and writes the rest of his worthless tripe as if we’re all now on his side:

Moreover, free will must exist, if some creatures have more of it than others. My teenage daughter and son have more free will—more choices to consider and select from—than they did when they were infants. They also have more than our dog Merlin does.

So free will must exist if free will exists. When you start off assuming free will exists, it’s pretty easy to make the case for the existence of free will. Certain apologists for theism call this kind of defense presuppositionalism. If you just presuppose that a God exists on faith alone, every other criticism can be defended from that internally consistent worldview. Horgan’s doing the same here with free will. For someone as interested more in the literary and philosophical arguments than the scientific ones (at least he appears that way here), you’d think Horgan would know a tautology when he sees one.

I have (on my good days) more free will than adults my age suffering from schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Try telling prisoners or paraplegics that there is no free will, and that choices are illusory. “Let’s change places,” they might respond, “since you have nothing to lose.”

Maybe Horgan should tell those same people they should just choose to not be schizophrenic. Or that they should choose to not be in prison. Or they should choose to keep their limbs. When it comes to brain disorders, he’s actually showing how real physical things can cause or determine our actions. But Horgan seems to think these points actually work for him, not against him. He might as well be pretending Phineas Gage had free will after a railroad spike got lodged in his brain and turned him into a compulsive gambler.

We also need the concept of free will, much more than we need the concept of God. Our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consign our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society. Choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful.

For one thing, all of this is irrelevant to whether or not free will is real. If he’s trying to say here that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not and that we should believe in it anyway, he should probably try that on its own instead of mishmashing it in with a weak case for free will being real. It’s like a creationist saying that 1. evolution isn’t real, and 2. if we teach our children that we come from monkeys, they’ll start acting like monkeys. If Horgan thinks a lack of free will makes life meaningless, that is his problem. Probably some ancient people thought life would lack meaning if the Earth revolved around the Sun, but that didn’t change the way our solar system works.

Fortunately, there is a way of looking at life without free will that’s more uplifting than Horgan’s myopic and poorly researched view. If we perceive ourselves as an accumulation of causes instead of little un-caused causes that do things just because, it’s much easier to deal with things that upset most people. When someone is being a jerk by doing something stupid, like turning without a signal or writing an ignorant blog post about how you believe in free will for stupid reasons, we can see that there might be reasons why the person is acting that way instead of just branding them evil.

A lack of belief in free will can also be an exercise in humility – an exercise Horgan would probably benefit greatly from. With free will, people can tend to overstate the case for their own greatness and ignore all the little contributing factors and causes that led to them being in the position they’re in. With free will comes the whole myth of the “self-made man” who pulls himself up by his bootstraps – and all the terrible policies that go along with it. It’s no accident that we use the word libertarian to describe both individualist political philosophy and the metaphysical position opposing determinism.

Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a “God of the gaps,” who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.

It’s as if Horgan isn’t even aware that the God of the Gaps argument is a version of the argumentum ad ignorantiam logical fallacy. We don’t know what happened during the imaginary time before the Big Bang, and we don’t know every last imaginary aspect of human consciousness. So therefore it’s all magic. Hey theologians! There’s lots of room to hide your God here in psychology! Come on in!

What’s even funnier about this is that earlier Horgan seemed to be equating atheistic determinism with theistic pre-determinism. Remember how earlier he dishonestly claimed we shouldn’t “consign our fate to our genes or God?” Now he’s aligning his own free will belief at its rightful place next to belief in gods and ghosts and spirits and demons and that sort of thing. This should be insulting to religious people: When Horgan can compare someone else’s beliefs to religion, then religion’s bad; but when it starts to seem like his beliefs look more like religion, then it’s great!

And mercifully, he ends it all with this:

I don’t believe in God—at least, not a God described in any text I know of—but I do believe in free will.

The way this is framed seems to me like Horgan thinks we should have some unjustified belief and that our skepticism is some kind of deficiency. He doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe in free will. Why not say you don’t believe in God and you believe in free will? Is not believing in a God supposed to be some sort of defect for which we need to counter with belief in other nonsense? If his position is as empirically supported as he kind of sort of seems to claim at certain points in this blog post, then it shouldn’t matter which other unrelated positions you hold. If you just go by evidence, you don’t have to worry about that.

But it seems like in this case, Horgan doesn’t care much about the evidence. He acknowledges it exists, but then ignores it. There’s no criticism of the scientists’ methodology or interpretations. He doesn’t even call for repeated experiments or further peer review. His case for free will is all just a bunch of fluff of the sort you’d get in angry letters creationists send to Scientific American.

And maybe we all have a little Sacred Cow somewhere that needs some critical examination. For some people, it’s a lot easier to kill off belief in the big God that exists somewhere out there than it is to do the same for the little God inside. And maybe we’ll never rid even ourselves of all irrational beliefs, but we might as well attack the ones we can recognize, popular or otherwise.


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  • http://buffalobeast.com/?tag=caigoy-authors Mike C.

    Good old appeal to consequences. You’d better believe in it, because if it’s not… you’ll wind up in hell, or magically swapping bodies.

    I don’t think that’s what Horgan was saying there. I took it to mean he was equating options with free will. A prisoner doesn’t have many options and therefore has less free will than someone in the outside world. Which, to Horgan, means that free will must exist – mostly because he assumed it did from the beginning. I don’t think he meant the hypothetical amputee or prisoner was threatening anyone with a body swap scenario.

    I know it’s an upsetting prospect to think the whole human experience is a big Rube Goldberg machine, but it doesn’t exactly affect anything we’re doing.

    Criminal justice would probably be different if people didn’t believe so much in free will. There would have to be more of a focus on rehabilitation than on punishment. If you talk to any law-and-order type about reforming the prison system (or spending more on poverty programs for that matter), chances are they’ll respond by talking about how criminals and the poor made bad decisions and must somehow be punished. They won’t want to talk about the complex mixture of causes that led to them making bad decisions, which really would deal with the root cause of problems like crime and poverty. Somehow criminals and the poor should have just risen above all of the mitigating factors in their lives and Done The Right Thing all on their own. But since that’s all based on magical thinking involving free will, it rarely actually happens. They don’t recognize this so conservatives would rather focus on trying to fix the individual person and their irresponsible use of free will instead of social causes of social problems.

    I don’t find comfort in thinking there’s a reason people do stupid things, even if that reason is physical determinism. It echoes the “it’s all good” philosophies of Eastern religion that always grated on me—because no, it’s not all good. Blunting our emotions with nihilism doesn’t change anything.

    I don’t see what’s necessarily nihilistic about determinism. There’s a certain superficial way of looking at it that might seem that way, but whether or not it’s comforting is kind of beside the point. The main point is that the evidence seems to indicate that Horgan is wrong. Complaining about how people might do bad things if they don’t believe in free will or that not believing in free will makes him sad is like saying that if you teach kids evolution, they’ll act like monkeys. Or that knowing that you share common ancestors with chimpanzees makes you sad. Feelings don’t change the facts.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      Ah! Sorry! I meant to reply to that and use the text in that comment to quote, but somehow I ended up editing the original comment itself. D’OH.

  • http://buffalobeast.com/?tag=caigoy-authors Mike C.

    “You’d better believe in it, because if it’s not” should be “You’d better believe in it, because if not”.

    Damn it.

  • FlayingMarsyas

    Many who insist upon the existence of “free will” end up conflating this idea with ideas about choice, autonomy, and identity.

    Being free to choose between limited options is not the same as the concept of free will, since preference is determined by a combination of genes and environment.

    Autonomy is not the same as free will, since all my abilities and limitations to move and act are determined by genetic and environmental factors.

    And my identity as a being who moves and acts separately from other beings has no bearing on my lack of control over the genetic and environmental influences which differentiate myself from others.

    The red herring of ethical accountability also gets dragged in quite often. However, if the ethical imperative is to protect rather than to punish, then the problem isn’t as insoluble as some would make it out to be.

  • http://buffalobeast.com/?tag=caigoy-authors MIke C.

    This is disorienting.

    Free will probably doesn’t exist—unless there’s some unlikely quantum component to consciousness, and there’s no reason to assume there is—but it might as well. That’s my point. Without access to a snapshot of the events and trajectories in play at a given time, there’s no predicting what’s about to happen—not even within ourselves. It’s too abstract to be of any consequence currently.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      Even if there were a quantum component to consciousness, you don’t get free will from that. You just get randomness. That would just mean that the causes of our decisions are based on some quantum fluctuation, which if anything is even more nihilistic than causal determinism. But that’s all a very long shot / The Secret / Deepak Chopra kind of craziness.

      Maybe we can’t predict which atom of carbon is going to decay at every given milisecond, but we can probably gain a lot from paying more attention to the causes which contribute to or even compel a person’s decisions in life. It makes us more understanding and sympathetic, and not least of all more realistic.

  • http://buffalobeast.com/?tag=caigoy-authors Mike C.

    What I meant was that if our thought processes were occurring in some other way, not bound to chemical reactions, the possibility would remain that those were the result, not the cause. This is speculative and baseless, and actually a repetition of something I’d once argued against. But, anyway.

    I don’t see it, Bunting. One could play a hundred poker games, and thinking about determinism wouldn’t be more than a distraction. You can bluff, try to read the other players, but you’d never dip beneath the superficial tells available to psychology. That psychology is a result of physical determinism doesn’t help psychologists (yet).

    Most of what we do is handled at an intuitive level, or based upon triangulations from known facts, none of which is informed by knowing the physical processes happening in anyone’s mind (or even the implications of arbitrary distinctions in observable events, like leaving the house at 12:01, and missing being involved in an accident one would have if they’d left at 12:00).

    You can say, “This is what I expect that person to do,” or “That person did what I expected them to do,” but their thoughts, and the physical dynamics which compose them, aren’t the data you’re extrapolating from.

    Sorry, man, but being “sympathetic” because of it makes it sound a lot like the quasi-spiritual gibberish I was subject to as a kid. Even if, in this case, the claim (determinism) is factually true, I don’t see any more fundamental implications in personal experiences, than I did when a monk said “It was all dharma.”

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      Well there are implications for how criminal justice works. Also for how safety net programs work. Not so much for poker or leaving the house a minute late.

  • admin

    This is all I’m going to say about this:

  • http://buffalobeast.com/?tag=caigoy-authors Mike C.

    I’m scratching my head, bro, and not just because of the rat scabies.

    There’s already a “nature versus nurture” argument in psychology, wherein I’d imagine factors of environment, trauma, and circumstances are accounted for.

    If I were in a hypothetical world where cops and judges weren’t total dicks, and actually cared about a functioning society rather than throwing as many people as possible through a meat grinder, and I was somehow involved in deciding an offender’s fate, I’d still need something specific to work with.

    In a deterministic scenario, we’d be operating under the assumption that whatever was going to happen was “fated” by matter acting predictably under set physical laws, and so everything—including the act of performing the tests—would be a foregone conclusion, yet one of which we were at some point unaware.

    The goal would be figuring out what would happen next, based upon the probability of certain reactions to stimuli in a person’s brain. They’ve done a ton of experiments with this outside of causal determinism, finding out if methadone works, or if they can stop someone getting a boner from seeing pictures of seagulls at imperceptible durations, or whatever.

    The question is less how it works than whether it does, as we often take advantage of physical principles before we understand them.

    Unless I could gather practical data from a person’s brain at a point deeper than psychology, etc., at the behavioral level of cause and effect, to the extent that I could argue that they would or would not do something, I just don’t see how it’s anything but academic, philosophical, or “spiritual” to know there’s a reason.

    Everything happens for a reason. And the reason is all the stuff that happened before it. The problem is we just don’t know what all that stuff is.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      We don’t have to be able to predict the future for the discussion on free will to have an impact. Sure, the implication is that it’s theoretically possible, but until we can know pretty much everything it’s not really relevant.

      Anyway, those cops and judges act in dickish ways because they think criminals are little homunculi who makes all their decisions in a vacuum. That’s why they feel justified in treating criminals harshly, and in punishing them instead of helping them. Cops and judges who take causal factors into account use more rational policies which turn out to be more efficient. You can substitute “cops and judges” with “politicians” and “criminals” with “the poor” to illustrate how the free will/determinism debate affects economic policies in the same way.

  • Mike C.

    You’re spending too much time with logical people, Bunting.

    The ones who rise to authority are Gila monsters; totally incapable of empathy. Their constituents/victims are “better” in the sense that they’re not as skilled in exerting their maliciousness, and wind up settling for vicarious lynchings and massacres. Their resignation, and inverted self-importance, are often confused with humility or good will.

    For the real beasts (the ones with hats or flowing gowns and mallets), causality is just another fact to be casually tossed aside in the stampede of ripping flesh.

    I’m just talking to hear myself. Don’t mind me.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      If that’s the case then the way we deal with them should be informed by how we know they came to be that way through causal factors and not because they’ve independently chosen to be evil with free will. The same kind of approach applies.

  • Greg

    You adequately refuted a spurios argument.
    I think its a shame that you never mentioned compatablism.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      Thanks, Greg. I thought about it, but then this thing would be 3 or 4 times as long and I wanted it to be concise enough so that people who might not be as well versed in this stuff would read it.

  • W. Paul Smith

    For anyone interested in this subject, I would strongly recommend reading long essay by Rudolf Steiner called “The Philosophy of Freedom” in its entirety and as unbiasedly as possible: http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA004/English/RSP1964/GA004_index.html

  • Tostenson

    Before we decide whether or not there is free will, we’d better make up our minds just what “free will” is supposed to be. There is a very old and widely held thesis called “compatibilism” that maintains that free will is perfectly compatible with the strictest form of determinism you care to imagine. That means that even if all our decisions are determined by unconscious brain activity, we can still be choosing freely, and thus we can still be held responsible for our bad choices (or our good ones).

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