You wonder if you have free-will. You think you have a choice, “Should I type and ‘x’ next, or a ‘y’?” You decide on ‘y’ and type it. So, you have free-will?
Your typing of x or y does not demonstrate free-will, only the feeling of free-will. That we have free-will may seem obvious, but we must challenge the obvious, as we do with everything we investigate in science – Quantum Mechanics is hardly obvious, but the evidence dissuades us from denying it. Though it may feel obvious to us that we are performing acts of free-will it isn’t actually clear that we are – not in the sense that we commonly understand free-will.
What you are describing, when saying, “I choose to type ‘y’ ” is decision making; and any computer, and even a fridge thermostat, makes decisions. So decision making is compatible with the illusory free-will model of human behaviour.
The Nature of the Illusion
If you were an automaton that responded to external and internal stimuli in accordance with the laws of physics, but part of your brain activity hid the complexity of these interactions to a great extent, what would it feel like when your brain involuntarily announced it was to make a choice, and then made one entirely by causal means? It would feel like you had free-will and freely made the choice? How would you distinguish the difference between this causal deterministic system and one that had the traditional free-will? Any reality of free-will falls out of reach because you can’t distinguish it from the actions of an automaton that has only limited access to its own internal processes and has evolved to think in terms of free-will.
We don’t have any difficulty acknowledging that a tennis racket is not part of us. But it very soon becomes subsumed into our mental feeling as being an ‘extension’ of us when we are in a game.
For some people they become the car they drive. I’ve often found I can read the ‘body language’ of other cars on the road, even if the driver is obscured by reflections on the windscreen. And I’ve been told by other people that they experience this too. Because we can’t easily explain why we feel we are so in tune with a mechanical system doesn’t mean it’s not a mechanical system.
What if that system is our own brain-body system? Since we’ve grown up to become familiar with it, would it be surprising to think that we feel we are it, it is us? Would it be surprising that free-will could be just some means by which an organism interacts with its environment and its own self – an efficient means of monitoring and control that avoids the need to monitor every little detail when trying to predict what will happen next and what to do next?
Some might say that if we can’t distinguish the difference, then it doesn’t matter, let’s call it free-will. Well, most of the time the difference doesn’t matter. Those that think free-will is illusory don’t suddenly shake off the free-will feeling in their daily lives. If it’s such an ingrained psychological phenomenon then it would be difficult to ignore. It takes some effort to think about the consequences of free-will not being what we normally think it is.
We are known to have many feelings that something is the case, when in fact it isn’t. Some of the more obvious instances are when we experience optical illusions, and they are so commonly experienced as such and acknowledged as such that we no longer have the problem appreciating them as such. Many other illusions are harder to analyse, but there are still plenty of them. We know our perceptions are not reliable in many cases.
We know, for example, that bulk matter consists of atoms that individually and in combination are mostly empty space. But the illusion of my solid flesh feels real to me. We don’t have a problem holding these two models of matter in our minds. We are not yet used to holding both models of our behaviour: we are fleshy automatons, but we feel like we have free-will as if it’s some capacity that’s totally independent of the material causal world.
The Alternative Hypothesis
So we know that when investigating aspects of human behaviour we can’t take it for granted that our feelings on the matter are correct. On top of that, everything we know about the universe is based on science, and the fundamental physics that underlies it all – at least that’s our most consistent view. There is no evidence of anything that might be the vehicle for some sort of independent free-will. Dualism remains a speculative idea with no data to support it.
So, if free-will is to be proposed as something extra in this context, extra to the causal physical universe, then it becomes the alternative hypothesis that requires the evidence to support it. The null hypothesis is that the brain is like everything else we find in science – working according to fundamentals of physics. There then remains nothing to support the notion of a real and independent free-will other than the feeling that we have it – the ‘obvious’ that is being challenged.
The consequences of free-will being illusory are many. First, it causes a bit of a problem for those theists who insist it’s a necessary part of their relationship with God. Another is that it can lead to a humanistic view of human behaviour that doesn’t rely on a theistically sourced or motivated compassion. And it avoids many of the pitfalls of an atheistic free-will. It can also be a problematic view for some people – such as some existentialists who dwell on what they perceived to be inevitable nihilism – but I think they haven’t thought it through enough.
What is left of free-will – what is it under a naturalistic physicalist materialist view? It is the specific behaviour of a complex system that has elements of self-awareness, the latter of which is only partial and vague and doesn’t allow the detailed examination of the incredibly complex dynamic interactions within the brain and with its wider environment.
What To Call It
We can still call it ‘limited free-will’, as some people do. But then we must be prepared to keep on explaining what that means in detail. Since we haven’t evolved the need to interpret our autonomous behaviour to any greater extent than we already have it appears ‘free-will’ is a term and a corresponding conceptual notion we are stuck with psychologically. And we have a psychological aversion to being considered automatons – we tend to think of such creatures as zombies. So, we’re in a bit of a fix really, and we don’t have the free-will to get ourselves out of it. Perhaps over time external and internal naturalistic events will accumulate to drive us, against our will, to accept that free-will as we normally think of it is illusory, so that there’s no need to change the name – we just think of it as not being the current common concept of something independent of the material world.