Making Decisions is Not Free-Will

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.

6 thoughts on “Making Decisions is Not Free-Will

  1. I understand your position on free will and agree with it, however counter-intuitive it might feel to me.
    But I always like to test my stances and thus I ask honest questions:

    Lets say I accept the new (to me) knowledge that free will is just an illusion. But in any case, I (“choose”) to act as if I do have free will, and thus continue to strive for economic, social, and health betterment, as opposed to succumbing to sloth and gluttony for example.
    Is it just my good fortune (by chance) that I am acting this way, since the accumulation of all my past experiences, inputs, and acquired knowledge lead me to believe that this is the best option?
    I suppose the answer could be yes.
    And I suppose that some other person could end up with a different result, reacting to this knowledge by succumbing to depression, sloth, gluttony,gambling, etc,, simply because his brain state at that moment led to that reaction.

    I am just trying to gauge whether the model of “free will” is at least valid from a model standpoint (for our body size), even though it is not accurate in the details, much like classical Newtonian Physics vs Quantum Mechanics.


    1. I think it’s a model we have evolved with, and one which has been encouraged by philosophy, and one which persists through the inability to detect our neurons in action. So, yes, it’s a model I’m quite happy to employ in daily language. I am even happy to use it when talking about not having free will. I can say, “I freely choose to support the notion that we don’t have free will.” This does not cause any cognitive dissonance because I know that the first part, ‘I freely choose’ is a model I’m using to explain that in fact I am compelled to choose that we don;t have free will.

      There’s a similar issue regarding teleological language in books on evolution. Evolution does not involve any ‘design’, so nothing that has evolved has any designed or intended ‘purpose’. Yet even knowing this it is convenient to say things like, “The human eye is designed to project a focused image onto the retina. The purpose of the human eye is to enable the human to see using part of the electromagnetic spectrum.” No teleology is implied by this metaphorically teleological language.

  2. More thoughts:
    I suppose , on the flip side, that proponents of free will need to ask themselves honest questions as well:

    When a wild bird notices a human form getting too flies away, when you turn the light on in the kitchen..a cockroach on the counter scurries away sensing danger….are these creatures exercising free will? To be fair, it would tentatively appear so, but the argument could be made that they are just instinctively “reacting” to sensory stimuli ..reacting without thinking.
    Now lets say there is no sudden danger…the cockroach in the dark chooses to go left on the counter rather than right? Did he comfortably exercise free will? It would appear so unless you say, ahh..he must have just smelled or otherwise sensed something towards the left…
    So, to summarize…for creatures ever less complex than is easy for humans to rationalize that those smaller creatures are not thinking or exercising free will..they are just compulsively and instinctively reacting to sensory stimuli…
    I can then easily rationalize and conclude that we humans in fact are more complex creatures with ever more complex brains as opposed to cockroaches and such..and we have a greater gamut of sensory experiences that we can react to…sure we can react to a sudden bright light…or to a strange human form..or to a strange large cat…but we can also react to beautiful music, a joke, an idea, a thought, a sudden death of a loved one….
    As humans…are we then using free will in the formal sense of the concept..or are we simply reacting to things in a much much more complex way…but it is nevertheless a reaction in our brains which automatically just follows the laws of physics?

  3. Another thought. Sorry for the rambling.
    What is the positive consequence of seeing ourselves as biological machines?

    Every machine can be considered an input/output device.
    Usually better inputs lead to better outputs which often tend to attract better inputs, creating a positive feedback loop. Let me explain.

    Lets say a man owns a decent quality widget manufacturing machine. He puts in raw materials and widgets pop out at the other end. The machine is good and produces good widgets. So the man, who is an intelligent and reasonable man, decides to invest some of his profits on the widgets and upgrade the machine with better more quality components, he also relocates the machine to a brand new environmentally controlled and modern building. Thus the machine is now an improved machine, producing better quality widgets and making its owner happier and wealthier.

    In this analogy, we humans are the widget machine, what is the lesson we can take away from this?
    Since we are machines…we should seek to receive better and better inputs to our machine system, surround ourselves with better and better people..and our output will be better and we ourselves will also improve, and presumably…be happier. So seeing ourselves as machines does not have to be so dire. 🙂

  4. “Sorry for the rambling.” – I can hardly complain, given the title of this blog.

    I see two useful consequences of the biological machines metaphor.

    The first is that it allows us to investigate the human brain-body systems mechanistically, using full reductionism, without the nonsensical fears that are often imposed into the study of humans – the fears expressed by the likes of Raymond Tallis, who fears for the loss of our humanity in using such models. His mistake is to think we must be committed to only one model. The reductionist models, or biology, chemistry, physics, are the most useful when it comes to understanding how the world works. But other higher level ‘humanistic’ models (e.g. hope, love, beauty, etc.) are useful too.

    The second is that it can help us pull away from the less useful and grievously mistaken interpretation of human behaviour that much philosophy and theology produces. The notion of ‘sin’ is entirely diminishing, divisive and unhelpful, when considering human behaviour that most of us don’t like. Sociopaths have differences in their brains. We need to understand their brains and how they differ from nice empathetic brains. We need to understand how all humans work in all their diversity. The simplistic notions of sin and evil don’t contribute anything here. They are simplistic labels that dismiss understanding out of fear.

  5. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am regarding the causal nature of our “decision” making process. As before, I may use common terms like “decide” “choose” “should” “ought” etc just for simplicity and clarity even though my view regarding those terms is not the conventional view.

    We frequently hear the term “state of mind”, or “mood”, as in when others advise us to do so-and-so to put us in a good mood or state of mind. Exercising and eating healthy foods are commonly considered good inputs that can put you in a positive state whereas sitting and eating unhealthy foods do the opposite.
    It is very feasible to project that at the moment of time of making any decision of import(decision X) a person’s state of mind at that moment in time will be an incredible influencing factor in determining the outcome of that decision.

    So many things can alter a state of mind at any given time:
    One can get irritated by the noise and chaos of children running around and not cleaning their room.
    One can get upset that their boyfriend/girlfriend has not called. One can be uplifted by nice music.
    Financial issues. Health issues. Work related issue. The list goes on and on……our brain is constantly being bombarded with inputs from our outside environment and also from our internally generated thoughts…both “good” and “bad” inputs…all being mixed together and analyzed in the brain, which ultimately determines a persons state of mind at any given moment….and thus influencing the outcome of decisonX.
    How many times have we said…”sorry I did/said that” I was not feeling well, upset, drunk..etc etc etc at the time.
    We are quite aware of the recent influences which affect our state of mind…but it is natural for us to be somewhat unaware of all of the built up influences throughout or life that have shaped and molded our body/brain system into what it is now and at the time of decisionX.

    I understand that the crux of this debate probably revolves around issues of personal responsibility and assigning blame and intent. But speaking only for myself, I can say that my outlook regarding the actions of others has only changed in a subtle way..and changed for the positive, not negative. Obviously we would still have to deal with people that do harm to others..somewhat similar to the way that we would seek to protect society from a wild bear running loose in the neighborhood, all without the need to assign malicious intent on the part of the bear. Beings that can cause harm to others simply need to be dealt with in the most appropriate way, depending on the situation. Adopting this viewpoint does not mean that everyone gets a free pass…the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes acceptable social behavior would still be determined by our laws, as always. I could envision that adopting this viewpoint would lead to a greater effort to combat crime by means of prevention and focusing more on early childhood development. Its a very complex issue in need of much improvement.

    Recently, for myself, coming to this realization and mentally packaging this idea into a concise concept has only helped me,- it has in no way dehumanized myself or others.
    I can see other people’s mistakes in a much broader context and in a more forgiving and understanding way, realizing that other people are also biological automatons shaped by all their previous influences and experiences, and more than likely they will respond positively to positive inputs and react negatively to negative inputs, so this has increased my efforts to reach out to others in a positive way.

    Of course, in nature there are no guarantees…we could suddenly be struck by lightning or be attacked by a rabid dog or run over by a truck, or mugged….no one can completely avoid random tragedies, but by understanding the real nature of ourselves and this universe we will likely improve our odds of producing positive outcomes.

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