Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

Dan Dennett has provided Sam Harris with a refutation of the incompatibilist notion of free will, and support for the compatibilist view.

Dennett fails totally. Here’s the post.

Dennett still does not get the incompatibilist perspective. In fact part of the problem is the philosophical literature. It is typically hopelessly loaded with fine-tuned and rather meaningless variations on the issues of free will. Continue reading “Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy”

The Confusing Philosophy of Free-will

Over at Jerry Coyne’s place Brad asked for some links to the topic. Physicalist commenter offered some that included a link to this page at Stanford.

Unfortuneately the ‘incompatibilst’ term there is not the same use of the term on the JC post comments.

And so welcome to the wonderful mixed up world of philosophy.

I’ll make some general points but also try to focus on this issue of incompatibilism. It’s worth asking ‘incompatible with what?’ and then note the following points.

1) The incompatibilists (I’ll get to incompatibilist later) commenting on the JC post are determinists who claim that free-will is incompatible with determinism, and that we live in a deterministic universe, and so there is no free-will. But this particular free-will that is rejected is that of dualism – the notion of the mind being something separate from the body, that for religious believers has some existence of its own that might live on after death of the body, such as the soul. We incompatibilists determinists think there’s no evidence for such a mind, and that everything is physical, and so the brain is a physical system and that free-will is merely the human feeling that we do have such a mind. This is why we think free-will is an illusion – that is the dualist free-will is an illusion.

2) Compatibilists also think everything is physical. They don’t think there is a separate mind, or a soul. They are not dualists in this respect. But, they think that what happens in a human brain is so complex and so self-contained that it does make sense to think of it as free-will.

One part of the dispute is about whether, for low level philosophical and scientific purposes, we should abandon the use of the term ‘free-will’ to describe what both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on. There are other issues, such as that about the attribution of responsibility, that seem to cloud the dibate, but the core issue is whether we should use the term free-will for what both sides really do agree on, that is what is happening in a brain, particular when some behaviours are framed as (a) ‘it makes decisions’ (compatibilist) or (b) ‘is caused to produce an outcome that we commonly call a decision’ (incompatibilist)

3) The term ‘determinist’ sometimes causes confusion because we all accept that quantum physics introduces indeterminism into our understanding of the universe. There are several sub-issues here. Even a fully deterministic universe would still be indeterminate to humans because it is too complex to determine all the detailed outcomes. And quantum events, once they occur, have deterministic effects. And quantum effects are not sufficient to give back the dualist the free-will they are looking for. All this has to be accounted for when interpreting how incompatibilists determinists use the term determinism. Many, possibly most, compatibilists will also agree with these points, so determinism isn’t specifically a problem of contention. Except that a few compatibilists do wonder if quantum effects play a part in what they perceive to be free-will. Having said that, non-compatibilists would probably agree that quantum effects can have a moment-by-moment effect that makes the universe and any brain process (e.g. a decision) indeterminate, but would still not call this free-will. So, even give or take some variation in the strictness of the use of the term ‘determinism’ many compatibilists and incompatibilists still agree on the physical basis of brain function and still dispute the use of the term ‘free-will’.

4) Now for the Stanford ‘Incompatibilism’. The title and the introduction to that article use the term to describe what is essentially a dualist free-will account. It is portraying incompatibilists as those people who think that there is a free-will that is incompatible with determinism. Meanwhile in our discussion here some of us have picked up on the use of ‘incompatibilists’ as being the determinists that think free-will is incompatible with determinism.

From the Stanford article: “According to McCann (1998: 163-64), when one makes a decision, intrinsic to the decision is one’s intending to make that very decision.”

When compatibilists make such statements the determinists see this as a dualist statement – but in this instance it is a dualist statement. The qestion is, what caused the ‘intending’? Answer: physical activity in the brain. What caused ‘that’ physical activity? Answer: more physical activity. The problem for determinists is that when compatibilists make such statements we know they don’t really mean dualist free-will decision, but the compatibilists object when we say this is not free-will because it is still a determined outcome.

More from Stanford: “Kane holds that a free decision or other free action is one for which the agent is “ultimately responsible” (1996b: 35). Ultimate responsibility for an action requires either that the action not be causally determined or, if the action is causally determined, that any determining cause of it either be or result (at least in part) from some action by that agent that was not causally determined (and for which the agent was ultimately responsible).” [my emphasis]

This is pure dualism. This is not the determinism that we incompatibilists or determinists here are suggesting is the case. This is not the free-will of compatibilists.

There is a distinction that isn’t made clear. Determinist incompatibilists are those (including me) that infer from all available evidence that the universe is deterministic (broadly) and that non-material minds do not exist, and therefore free-will is an illusion. Dualist incompatibilists are those dualists (proponents of a non-material mind, or a soul) that infer from their conviction to dualism that determinism cannot be a full description of the universe. Quite often we find philosophers not being clear on this distinction, declaring incompatibilism an unsustainable position because they are only thinking about the dualist incompatibilists. Dan Dennett seems muddle on this point – at least as he writes in his derision of incompatibilism.

5) What’s been happening in the particular JC post is that we’ve adapted the language to use the terms compatibilist and incompatibilists (using the latter as opposed to determinist).

Now it may well be that we non-professional-philosophers do misuse philosophical terms sometimes, but we’re in good (bad) company, since many professional philosphers seem to change the meaning of words at the behest of their own free-will (ahem, which they don’t have, of course).

This is also why this ground is covered so often in so many ways, why points are made and re-made in different terms. It’s all part of the process of trying to understand what the hell is going on in the context of incomplete science, and a mad history of philosophy that’s all over the place.

Some people deride this process (Oh no! Jerry Coyne is banging on about free-will again! Enough already!). Well, maybe they can only take so much. But for the rest of us these are interesting points, with interesting outcomes (how we view responsibility) that depend on how we view human behaviour, and even how we frame it (free-will as an illusion or a reality).

So, I’m afraid you’ll have to wade through a lot of crap from all sides. At least you can narrow it down to what is basically a love-fest threesome: dualist (actual separate free-will), compatibilist (an emergent free-will worth having), incompatibilists (free-will is an illusion). They are the three main categories, with lots of overlap.

My Problems With Compatibilist Free-Will

While trying to get to grips with compatibilit free-will I’ve been looking at stuff from Dan Dennette and David Chalmers. Then along comes this post from Jerry Coyne. Trying to clarify my appreciation of the compatibilist case I asked specific questions of ‘Another Matt’, and had the response I was sort of hoping for (i.e. it confirmed what I thought was the physicalist case from compatibilists) from ‘coelsblog’

So, at least in the causal chain I think compatibilists and incompatibilists are on the same planet. But several points of contention remain, as I see it, as an incompatibilist. Not all compatibilists need hold all these points of view, but that some do, and that these points are raised frequently, causes misunderstanding for an incompatibilist such as myself. This is why I think many incompatibilists see compatibilists being closer to dualism than the underlying physicalism that many compatibilists really hold to.

1) Language and Level

A great deal of the disagreement does seem to revolve around the use of language and, for want of a better word, the ‘level’ at which autonomy is considered. From my response to Another Matt at Comment 7, and coelsblog’s response to me, that at least this incompatibilist agrees with all the underlying physics of that compatibilist, and that the main disagreement is what we are prepared to call free-will.

It seems that the compatibilist, while arguing about the appearance of human behaviour from what we all agree ‘appears’ to be the free-will perspective, is prepared to label that level of autonomy as free-will, while the incompatibilist is focused on stressing the reliance of this higher level autonomy on the physical foundation from which it emerges. The incompatibilist claim that free-will is an illusion is both explicitly denying dualist free-will, a view that the compatibilist agrees with, but also stresses that it’s the dualist free-will that is the illusion, and as such does not like to name the higher level autonomy as free-will bcause that causes confusion elsewhere.

2) Property Dualism (PD)

This page seems to contain a concise statement of property dualism:

“Like materialism, it holds that there is only one type of substance: physical. Property dualism denies the existence of immaterial minds that somehow interact with the physical world, animating unconscious bodies.

Where property dualism parts with materialism is that it does not attempt to reduce mental states to physical states. Mental states, according to the property dualist, are irreducible; there is no purely physical analysis of mind.”

This sounds like the incoherrent guff of irreducible complexity from ID proponents. Everything we know of is reducible to physical laws, except the mind? As much as dualism is denined in one breath it seems to be re-introduced in its negative guise of something not being reducible to physical explanation. In this sense it also sounds very much like sophisticated theology: of course there is no actual ontological God entity, but still, God is within us, we are God, God is the mystery of the univerese, blah, blah, blah.

Property dualism of mind seems no more coherent than property dualism of biology, or chemistry. It comes across to me as two hidden assumptions:

(i) I (the property dualist) want there to be free-will, for some reason. This might be because I fear the consequences for social order (see point 3), or because I fear the implied fatalism.

(ii) I am using the argument from incredulity, because I really can’t see how my conscious subjective experience can be explained.

Not very convincing positions to hold. PD seems to be an invented philosophical notion the sole purpose of which is to uphold a position one is already committed to. Big fail.

3) Fear of Consequences

Dan Dennett in this conversation makes this point very clearly.

“Free-will worth wanting … responsibility … all compatible with science … if only that’s what scientists were telling us … but scientists have been on a rampage writing ill-considered public announcements about free-will which … in some case verge on social irresponsibility … The recent flood of books by neuroscientists has very little worthwhile stuff and a lot that’s seriously confused; and now, as we’re actually beginning to get some scientific confirmation, it makes a difference … because … some research shows that if you present people with the claim that science has shown that we don’t really have free-will … they will actually behave less morally; they will be more apt to cheat.”

Yeah, OK, let’s pretend guns don’t exist, because if we say they do they might be used to kill people. I find it astonishing that a philosopher would use an argument from social concern to attack an argument from evidence – evidence that he actually agrees with: that there is no contra-causal free-will. Dennett wants to insist on using the label associated with dualism, because that might persuade people to be good; or, that to remove that label and emphasise the reality of physicalism might lead them to be bad? This doesn’t fit with Dennett’s arguments against religion, where he acknowledges that religion might persuade some people to be good, but that’s not a good enough reason to claim religious beliefs as truths.

Now Dennett may well be a comptibilist from point (1); but then he should stick to arguing that point instead of using the ‘fear of consequences’ argument that is also used by the religious .

Of course the fears are unfounded. There is no escape from responsibility in incompatibilism. Deterministically caused autonomy results in a focul point of action and responsibility: the human being. Avoiding the notion of free-will that is clouded by religious notions, such as the notion of evil, allows us to weigh the attribution responsibility more rationally and less emotively.

4) Qualia

Qualia appears to be a made-up concept used to give a name to internal brain states, as observed by the brain, to give impetus to the notion that these brain states, these qualia, are inexplicable, irreducble, in terms of physical brain states.

This is associated with point (2), but it’s also associated specifically with questions like “What does it feel like to be a bat?”

The idea that this cannot be answered, the incredulity gap again, is what proponents of qualia are relying on.

My view is that qualia, like any other metaphor or model, might have its uses, but it does not pose a problem to the physicalist explanation of subjective experience. The way I look at subjective experience, which of course is a subjective view, is as follows.

Any animal brain senses its environment, and also senses its own body and acts as a control system that allows the animal to survive in its environment. Part of that process is prediction – the automatic prediction of the path a prey animal is taking as it is pursued, for example. This involves feedback systems that continuously monitor and react to the environment, and the animal’s own body.

From there a ‘more advanced’ brain can also start to include itself as part of the environment – it can monitor its own processes, to a limited extent. This is rudimentary self-awareness. It aids survival because it allows the animal to not only improve its basic motor responses to the environment but also helps it to improve its own ‘mental’ processing of those responses: adaptive programming.

Below this conscious level there is still subjective experience of the brain body system doing its basic stuff – still a subjective perspective, but not conscious, or not self-aware, not the ‘higher level’ conscious subjective experience that this post addresses. The autonomic nervous system, or any non-biological feedback system, could be said to have this low level subjective experience by virtue of the feedback mechanisms it employs – the sensing of one’s own state.

When an animal acquires a conscious self-aware subjective experience, in addition to the non-aware non-conscious subjective experience, then ‘this’ is what it feels like (i.e. how we feel about our subjective experience).

So, when wondering what it feels like to be a bat we can only guess that a bat might or might not have sufficient capability to actually be aware of what it feels like to be a bat

What we can say is that our high level subjective experience is what it feels like to have higher level subjective experiences. Neither us or bats can say what it feels like to have lower level subjective experiences because there is no mechanism available to report those experiences to the self, to the higher level, in our case, and possibly no self to which such experiences could be reported if there were such a mechanism for a bat. Some lower level subjective experiences become higer level subjective experiences by simply delivering messages into the parts of the brain that are aware – e.g. for pain.

I realise I’m taking a liberty with the use of ‘subjective experience’, but I’m extending it into the unconscious with some justification I think. These lower level experiences are certainly subjective in the sense that they belong to, are experienced by, only those parts of the system that experience them. And I think this move has greater justification than inventing a qualia of the gaps.

5) ‘I’

Who is this ‘I’ or ‘Me’?

Many compatibilist statements that resemble this one, “Do humans choose their actions freely”, can be normalised to the first person I/me: “Do I choose my actions freely”

Some similar examples, taken from Jerry Coyne’s post:

  • “exercising their own power of will” -> “exercising my own power of will”
  • “who selects one of these options and enacts it” -> “I select one of these options and enact it”
  • “because I choose to when I might have other thoughts” – Normalised.
  • “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” – Normalised.

This one attributed to Dennett here:

  • “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit themselves and their own purpose” – “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit me and my own purpose”

My question to compatibilists is, what is this ‘I’ if it is not the physical brain-body system? Many, if not all, compatiblists seem to resort to this ‘I’ without explaining what it is, what mechanism is used, what process, what entity it is. Could some compatibilist explain what this ‘I’ is.

To me, a determinist, the ‘I’ seems like a label for the as yet poorly understood complex events that go on in a brain and result in that brain ‘making a decision’. It’s the ‘self’ that experiences self when a michine can examine its own examining processes, when a computer program can monitor its own programming. This process will be determined by all the past history of the development and learning of that brain, and the current inputs that cause the brain to think a decision is necessary. The process will appear as one that has a most recent causal focal point in that brain – that brain has had data wizzing about according to how brains work, and has eventually come up with an output, a decision. Because the brain isn’t fully aware of all this processing now, and the detailed history of development and learning that brought it to this point is not evidence that the brain just ‘made up its own mind’ in any sense that is similar to what a dualist mind would supposedly do. This is the problem with compatibilism for me, this ‘I’ that goes so unexplained that it sounds like a free uncaused mind.

This is how I see it: we are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. When “I” say “my brain” is doing it, that’s my brain talking about itself in the first and third person, as the first person possessive of the second. I am me, the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”. We don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. There is no other credible possibility on the table.

It sounds like the compatibilist is saying that, yes, it’s all physical, but that it transforms into something that is not physical and yet isn’t dualism. There seems to be a mysterious gap that compatibilists argue for, while we incompatibilists insist that no matter how complicated it gets there is no room for anything other than causal determinism. Either that or the compatibilists simply can’t get their own brains around their own understanding of free will.


Though I can see where compatibilists and incompatibilists agree, within elements of point (1), on the physical basis for consciousness and free-will, I also see the labelling of free-will, property dualism, and fear of consequences, qualia, ‘I’, all as positions held by dualists, including the religious, and that’s why I see the compatibilist case not being distinct enough, such that it does lead incompatibilists to see compatibilists being closer to dualists in many respects.

Compatibilists sometimes wonder why incompatibilists make them out to be dualists. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it might not actually be a duck, but it’s easy to make the mistake. Point (1) I can agree on to a great extent – that’s where the common ground lies.

It’s still fine for incompatibilists to use terms normally associated with free-will when appropriate – e.g. in every day language. I don’t have a problem using the ‘free-will’ metaphor, any more than using other metaphors. I might say, “I’m flying!”, meaning that whatever I’m doing I’m doing at higher than normal rate; but if I thought I was literally flying it would be an illusion (or a delusion, according to how I felt I was literally flying). I’m happy to use metaphorical language of free-will, knowing it’s metaphorical, while even at the same time realising that to some extent my brain still feels the illusion to be true.

Ontological Determinism, Epistemological Indeterminism, Laplace’s Demon

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

What follows is putting aside any quantum stuff for the purposes of this point about the difference between ontological determinism and epistemological indeterminism. Adding ontological indeterminism, through quantum indeterminacy or some other means, doesn’t really alter the points made. It also ignores relativistic effects.

This is purely about classical determinism and how, if that were the case in our universe, we still have problems of indeterminism. It’s also about the implications for our view of free-will.

But it begins with a response to some fears of determinism.

In Sean Carroll’s post on Determinism (in the context of Free will) a comment by Katherine included two quotes. One was from Stephen Hawking:

The ideas about scientific theories outlined above assume we are rational beings who are free to observe the universe as we want and to draw logical deductions from what we see. In such a scheme it is reasonable to suppose that we might progress ever closer toward the laws that govern the universe. Yet if there really is a complete unified theory, it would also presumably determine our actions. And so the theory itself would determine the outcome of our search for it! And why should it determine that we come to the right conclusions from the evidence? Might it not equally well determine that we draw the wrong conclusion? Or no conclusion at all?

Well, “Yes” to the last two questions, and “It needn’t” to the first of the last three.

Katherine also quotes Conway and Kochen in a similar mood:

It is hard to take science seriously in a universe that in fact controls all the choices experimenters think they make. Nature could be in an insidious conspiracy to ‘confirm’ laws by denying us the freedom to make the tests that would refute them. Physical induction, the primary tool of science, disappears if we are denied access to random samples.

Well, so what. To paraphrase Lawrence Krauss, science tells us how the universe is, not how we want it to be. If we learn from science that the universe is deterministic, and it happens to be that way, then yes, that determinism determined that that is what we would find. And if we conclude it isn’t deterministic and yet it actually is, then determinism has determined that we make that mistake. We’re stuck with that. Does that make you, the budding Nobel Physicist just embarking on your studies give up and throw in the towel? Well, that was determined too. It’s no good denying determinism because we don’t like it. We should only deny it if we figure out that it isn’t the case (and accept we may have been determined to make that mistake).

If the universe is totally deterministic then that is what it is. If we do eventually observe that this is the case, then this is what we observe, no matter how much it messes with our minds (which too would be determined, obviously). It could be that the determined universe does determine evolution and that our current interpretation of evolution is describing how we see it so far. Natural selection would then simply be the determined outcome of prior states and processes.

A different deterministic universe might have determined no evolution and no entities with self-awareness that could observe the universe the way we do. It’s laws may have had room for evolution, but it simply might not have occurred given the a different starting state.

The Conway and Kochen paper was intent on saving free-will, which seems to be necessary for some people. But why the desire to save free-will? Now, I don’t think we have free-will, that is real free-will beloved of dualists and theists. I do actually think, for now, that we are effectively mechanistic systems. What I’m not clear about is the extent to which determinism holds (given that there are possibilities that allow for quantum mechanics being deterministic – the jury is still out). But I don’t think that has any consequences for any physicalist version of free-will that matters.

So, whether we like it or not, no matter what the implications are for free-will, what if the universe is actually deterministic?

Thinking for the moment about entities within the universe, I don’t see how determinism precludes there being such entities that observe and alter the universe (i.e. ones that do science). It just means that the altered states are just more bits of the determined outcome.

There’s a significant difference between a deterministic system and the capacity for some entity to determine (calculate) its states – the capacity to actually do the math to predict some total state in the future. That a system is deterministic does not require that the system, or any bit in it (e.g. us) actually has to do any predicting of any sort. It just plays out, as determined by its laws (as those laws are, not necessarily as we currently understand them).

Determinism rarely requires that perfect prediction be practically possible – only prediction in theory. – Wiki on Determinism.

To actually determine any one complete state from the starting state you must be an outside observer. The problem for an observer inside the system being observed is that they are part of the system. The observer needs the capacity (e.g. memory + processing system) in order to contain every little detail of the system. But then that capacity (memory + processing system) is also part of the observed system, and so you need more capacity to store data about the state of that sub-system, … This is part of the point of Laplace’s demon, that requires ‘arbitrary’ capacity to do the maths. Perhaps it should be phrased as ‘adequate’ capacity, and it should be made clear that the demon can’t be part of the system.

So, even if the universe is ontologically deterministic, it must be epistemologically indeterminate to internal entities.

Whether it is epistemologically deterministic to external entities is another matter – e.g. Leplace’s demon, God or some other deity, or some other non-intelligent entity like a universe-computer.

But I don’t see reason to suppose that a deterministic universe requires either an observer, or a creator. We have a dataset of 1, as Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of pointing out. We haven’t the slightest clue as to what’s required in the business of universe creation (active agent) or coming into being (passive mechanistic systems).

The only practical matter for now, to us, is that the universe is practicably indeterminate, because we’re in it. Quantum effects only add to that indeterminacy. In this sense, whether ontological determinism actually holds or not isn’t important.

But as a convenient model determinism is helpful because it should make us think twice about attributing mysterious explanations (like dualist free-will, or the soul) to indeterminate events, or attributing agency where we have no reason to. If we can overcome the fear of determinism and its threat to our hubris of being human and special and immune to the discoveries of science, and just be prepared to face up to what science exposes of the universe to us, or about us, then maybe we can move on from some of the ancient myths that still hold us back.

See also: Re-running The Universe: Determinism, Indeterminism, Quantum Stuff

A Scientific Free-Will: In Oppostion To Deterministic Free-Will

This is a review of the points covered in this paper:

Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates by Björn Brembs.

Thanks to Bruno for the link.

The paper dismisses the ‘real’ (metaphysical) free-will of dualism and theism (the soul?), but is more specifically aimed at giving a scientific account of free-will, but one that is not constrained to a completely illusory free-will as suggested by determinism.

It is not as clear as this paper claims that the universe is not deterministic. It might not be, but we as human animals have a specific difficulty in establishing this.

I’m quite happy to say we don’t know what ultimate reality is, if there is an ultimate reality. I’m quite happy to say we can’t be sure that the universe is actually deterministic. But all of science seems to be based on determinism. Well, at least it depends on causality. There is the notion of causality without determinism, but this seems a bit of a cheat. In most respect causation and determinism can be used interchangeably.

This paper seems to be based on the conflation of underlying state of affairs (the universe is deterministic or not) and what humans can deduce from it (to humans the universe is indeterminate).

So throughout I’ll try to distinguish between these:

Determinism, non-determinism – the extent to which fundamentally the universe is deterministic in the sense that any event is caused by one or more other events in a causal chain so that the outcome is determined by prior events. This is really an ontological position, about what the universe is and how it behaves. There are variations.

Determinacy, indeterminacy – the extent to which any one part of a deterministic system can or cannot know all about (and possibly may know nothing about) some other part. This determinacy is essentially an epistemological notion, in human terms, or an informational notion in a more general sense.

2 – The rejection of determinism

I don’t see any reason to suppose that current science demonstrates that the universe is non-deterministic. Section 2 is not very convincing in its rejection of determinism since at least some of the examples specifically do not refute determinism. The ‘chance’ aspects of quantum mechanics are not unanimously agreed to be non-deterministic – though our limited understanding of it may give us the impression it is non-deterministic. Double slit experiments do not speak to determinism or non-determinism – they only imply that our models (wave v particle) are insufficient alone to describe such phenomena.

Even Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle does not refute determinism as clearly as some people make out. Determinism isn’t about being able to actually measure what will happen, it’s about what does happen as the result of an event that occurs. There are all sorts of details that are confusing about the ‘measurement’ of a particles position and velocity, to do with what is actually doing the measuring (and lots of nonsense about it being a conscious being, as opposed to mere interaction with anything, including other particles).

The real issues of determinism are not to do with quantum mechanics. There’s the possibility that quantum mechanics phenomena are deterministic. The problem is more fundamental than current science can explain. For example, if this universe is deterministic then was it too ’caused’ or is it just deterministic from the Big Bang onwards. An infinite regress of deterministic universes seems to be unpalatable for some reason, but I can’t figure out why. It’s not as if we have direct experience of anything outside our universe to come to any opinion about whether infinite regress is de rigueur for universal creation systems or not. We’re simply in the dark on all of this.

So, what we are left with is that the universe appears deterministic, and much of our classical science uses that fact – and brain science is classical science down to the level of molecules and the chemistry of the brain. There’s no convincing argument that quantum mechanics is truly non-deterministic, as opposed to simply being indeterminate. Applying quantum ideas to brain science is just as much a shot in the dark as the ‘metaphysical’ free-will it is supposed to avoid. deterministic models are sufficient for brain science, until such time as real evidence to the contrary appears

3. Behavioural variability as an adaptive trait

Some scholars have resorted to quantum uncertainty in the brain as the solution, providing the necessary discontinuity in the causal chain of events. This is not unrealistic, as there is evidence that biological organisms can evolve to take advantage of quantum effects. For instance, plants use quantum coherence when harvesting light in their photosynthetic complexes.

There are forms of indeterminism that are still causal. I’m not sure where this discontinuity in the causal chain might be.

This doesn’t do anything but introduce the above uncertainties in our understanding of physics, but this doesn’t refute determinism at this level. If some quantum event occurs in a plant, and that causes a molecule in the plant to absorb some light with the consequential result of photosynthesis in action, then that quantum event ’caused’, ‘determined’ that the reaction would take place. What quantum uncertainty fails to do in such cases is explain how anything is remotely certain or predictable.

But to attribute this to free-will is no different than talking about sodium ions. Whether one particular sodium ion makes it through a sodium channel in a particular neuron will ‘determine’ whether that neuron fires or not – and if that particular neuron constitutes a tipping point in some micro decision that the brain makes, then that micro-decision will fire or not, and that in turn will contribute to the way a larger decision occurs. Quantum events are so far below the level at which we can analyse human decisions that for any particular decision they are not worth considering. There is sufficient indeterminacy in any classical assessment of the brain without having to look for quantum effects to explain indeterminacy.

Quantum events are a fundamental part of electronics, but you can bet that most proponents of free-will very specifically do not attribute consciousness and free-will to electronic systems – i.e. computers.

Moreover, and more importantly, the pure chance of quantum indeterminism alone is not what anyone would call ‘freedom’. ‘For surely my actions should be caused because I want them to happen for one or more reasons rather that they happen by chance’. This is precisely where the biological mechanisms underlying the generation of behavioural variability can provide a viable concept of free will.

Part of the problem here is that this paper is essentially re-defining free-will in a materialistic scientific sense, and yet still requires a ‘degree’ of freedom to describe personal agency. But on the whole this paper still makes ‘real’ free-will just as illusory as is described by determinism.

Biologists need not resort to quantum mechanics to understand that deterministic behaviour can never be evolutionarily stable. Evolution is a competitive business and predictability is one thing that will make sure that a competitor will be out of business soon. There are many illuminating examples of selection pressures favouring unpredictability…

‘Unpredictable’ to who? To the animals that are in the middle of the evolutionary process. The selection pressures are deterministic pressures that drive individual animals behaviour, but those behaviours can still be adequately indeterminate to other animals, and, to a great extent, to themselves. This is a fine example of conflating non-determinism with the indeterminacy of knowledge (information) to an individual entity.

Escape behaviours are analysed at a macro level of a complex individual, and at best the response of bulk areas of the brain of the a complex individual. The C-start example is illustrating the causal complexity of events – the snake does ’cause’ or ‘determine’ that the fish responds to the snake’s advantage. This is hardly a refutation of determinism.

Note that if the Mauthner cell was to respond to ‘randomness’ then its response would be non-deterministic, and the fish would not respond with the C-start behaviour so predictably – the snake has learned (in the evolutionary sense) to take advantage of that predictable response, the determinacy of the outcome of an action. The whole notion of non-determinism is its own demise, or else nothing would be predictable at all. The unpredictability of behaviour we find in biological systems can be sufficiently described by indeterminacy of complex classical systems.

All the examples in section 3 are examples of how deterministic systems are subject to influences that to those systems are indeterminate; so looked at in isolation it looks like the system has some unpredictability. But that does not mean it isn’t part of some wider system were all the component events are ‘determined’ by prior events.

In evolutionary terms it is put as random mutation and natural selection. But here the ‘random’ mutation is only apparently random to us, because of the vast complexity and the inaccessibility of the DNA that is mutating. But for any DNA molecule that mutates there will be an obvious causal event at the molecular level that caused that molecule to mutate (e.g. chemically driven mutation), or it might result from some atomic decay process, maybe triggered by a passing subatomic particle. Some of these physical events at this level are at the forefront of particle physics, but do not as yet refute a deterministic mutation, and so do not imply that evolution is a non-deterministic process.

The best adapted survive (the natural selection bit) because of causal events in their environment (their environment includes their own bodies; and brains, for entities that have them).

4. Brains are in control of variability

These observations suggest that there must be mechanisms by which brains control the variability they inject into their motor output. Some components of these mechanisms have been studied. For instance, tethered flies can be trained to reduce the range of the variability in their turning manoeuvres.

Well, then the training has causally determined that their behaviour should change, by mechanisms relating to how all animals with brains learn (see Eric Kandel and others on memory, learning, conditioning).

Variability is not shown to be non-deterministic by this section. In fact it gives some good examples to support the deterministic world view – even though the determinism is many levels removed, to the extent that most animal behaviour patterns are statistical outcomes of extremely complex causal systems.

5. What are the neural mechanisms generating behavioural variability?

Instead, a nonlinear signature was found, suggesting that fly brains operate at critically, meaning that they are mathematically unstable, which, in turn, implies an evolved mechanism rendering brains highly susceptible to the smallest differences in initial conditions and amplifying them exponentially [63]. Put differently, fly brains have evolved to generate unpredictable turning manoeuvres.

Instability is not non-determinism. It just means that a particular system or part of a system is finely tuned to respond (be caused to change) by small changes to its inputs (its environment). It is still a deterministic system, just less predictable to other systems nearby, particularly those trying to predict the outcome based on immediate stimulus alone. Of course there are all the precursor developments that put the system into that unstable state. The various learning and conditioning examples given by Eric Kandel illustrate the variability of neuronal systems depending on the frequency and type of stimulus. This does not mean that within these neurons the processes are not deterministic.

6. Determinism versus indeterminism is a false dichotomy

Together with Hume, most would probably subscribe to the notion that ’tis impossible to admit of any medium betwixt chance and an absolute necessity’ [75]. For example, Steven Pinker (1997, p. 54) concurs that ‘A random event does not fit the concept of free will any more than a lawful one does, and could not serve as the long-sought locus of moral responsibility’ [76].


However, to consider chance and lawfulness as the two mutually exclusive sides of our reality is only one way to look at the issue.

The problem here is that this paper is confusing ‘determinism’, the underlying mechanism that ‘drives’ events, with ‘indeterminacy’, the inability of any system (including but not restricted to humans) to ‘determine’ or predict what a particular outcome will be.

The unstable nonlinearity, which makes brains exquisitely sensitive to small perturbations, may be the behavioural correlate of amplification mechanisms such as those described for the barrel cortex [74].


This nonlinear signature eliminates the two alternatives, which both would run counter to free will, namely complete (or quantum) randomness and pure, Laplacian determinism.

No it does not! The stability or instability of particular mechanisms only relates to how sensitive a system is to being ‘determined’ to change by deterministic precursors, it’s stimulus inputs, and its current state in detail. This has been a problem for psychology – the treatment of the brain as a black box. Various stimuli can illicit the same bahaviour, and the same stimuli can illicit different behaviour – even in the same subject – because there is insufficient knowledge about what’s going on inside.

These represent opposite and extreme endpoints in discussions of brain functioning, which hamper the scientific discussion of free will.

They only hamper the science in that many philosophers and theists want there to be some magical ‘real’ free-will that is outside the causal reach of a deterministic universe, and those philosophers and theists are in some cases getting involved in the debate (Bill Klemm being an example of a theist scientist who lets his theism dictate his view in this regard). So this issue of the nature of free-will at a more fundamental level is important, and ongoing.

Instead, much like evolution itself, a scientific concept of free will comes to lie between chance and necessity, with mechanisms incorporating both randomness and lawfulness.

Here the term ‘chance’ can just mean trivial ‘inditerminacy’, but it does not refute philosophical determinism upon which all science is based.

The Humean dichotomy of chance and necessity is invalid for complex processes such as evolution or brain functioning.

In the sense that the distinction is unimportant once the general notion of determinism is accepted and the science moves on, regardless of what some philosophers and theists want to be the case. Brain science can proceed with a deterministic model – it can hardly be said that this model has been exhausted.

Such phenomena incorporate multiple components that are both lawful and indeterminate.

This seems more correct, using the term: ‘indeterminate’. It can be said that it is all lawful (obeying physical laws) and as such any part of it, and the interaction of that part with any other, produces a determinate outcome; but we cannot determine that outcome, primarily because of the complexity.

This breakdown of the determinism/indeterminism dichotomy …

The dichotomy is not determinism/indeterminacy, but determinism/non-determinism. It’s perfectly reasonable in a deterministic universe for it to have parts that are indeterminate to other parts – i.e. one part cannot ‘know’ about another part until such time as the second part impacts on (‘determines’ change in) the first part.

Stochasticity is not a nuisance, or a side effect of our reality. Evolution has shaped our brains to implement ‘stochasticity’ in a controlled way, injecting variability ‘at will’. Without such an implementation, we would not exist.

Yes, fine – if ‘stochastic just means unpredictably variable to us. This is not refuting determinism.

A scientific concept of free will cannot be a qualitative concept. The question is not any more ‘do we have free will?’; the questions is now: ‘how much free will do we have?’; ‘how much does this or that animal have?’. Free will becomes a quantitative trait.

This is really about the extent to which an animal (or any system) is autonomous, in the sense of the extent to which complex processes inside it (mostly its brain, for an animal) ‘determine’ its behaviour. For a more autonomous system it is less immediately dependent on its environment for its behaviour than is a less autonomous one. But both are completely deterministic in that all the processes on the inside and outside are governed by deterministic physical laws – always depending of course on the extent to which low level determinism actually does prevail.

7. Initiating activity: actions versus responses

This is more about the extent to which systems are indeterminate, not about the underlying determinism.

8. Freedom of choice

For instance, isolated leech nervous systems chose either a swimming motor programme or a crawling motor programme to an invariant electrical stimulus [78–80]. Every time the stimulus is applied, a set of neurons in the leech ganglia goes through a so far poorly understood process of decision-making to arrive either at a swimming or at a crawling behaviour. The stimulus situation could not be more perfectly controlled than in an isolated nervous system, excluding any possible spurious stimuli reaching sensory receptors unnoticed by the experimenter. In fact, even hypothetical ‘internal stimuli’, generated somehow by the animal must in this case be coming from the nervous system itself, rendering the concept of ‘stimulus’ in this respect rather useless.

This is expressing only how difficult it is to account for actions within neurons. The inner action of a neuron, with all its internal processes controlling the expression of neurotransmitters, the migration of triggers up and down the inner pathways, such as those determining gene expression and inhibition, all the outside details of what allows the action potential to fire, the stimuli that determine how and when it grows synapses in the local learning memory process, etc. A neuron is already a complex system. It doesn’t matter how precise an external stimulus may be, the subsequent outcomes will be variable. But that does not mean that the countless molecular events going on inside and around the neuron are not deterministic.

Yet, under these ‘carefully controlled experimental circumstances, the animal behaves as it damned well pleases’ (Harvard Law of Animal Behaviour) [34].

This itself is just an expression of the indeterminacy of the measured system, not that it actually does have ‘real’ free-will, or that the underlying physics is non-determinate.

Seymour Benzer, one of the founders of Neurogenetics, captured this phenomenon in the description of his first phototaxis experiments in 1967: ‘ … if you put flies at one end of a tube and a light at the other end, the flies will run to the light. But I noticed that not every fly will run every time. If you separate the ones that ran or did not run and test them again, you find, again, the same percentage will run. But an individual fly will make its own decision’.

Distinguish ‘real’ free-will from indeterminacy. That each fly ‘will make its own decision’ is an expression of this indeterminacy, not only in the minds of the experimenters, but also to the fly. The fly does not ‘know’ or decide of its own ‘real’ free-will – it simply ‘behaves’ in accordance to the multitude of complex deterministic operations that are going on inside its tiny little brain, and within that brain’s 100,000 neurons. One hundred thousand neurons in a fruit fly! How the hell is a simple light box experiment supposed to expose the determinism or non-determinism of the underlying countless number of molecules within each of those neurons to an extent that would make the fly behaviour ‘non-determinate’? The behaviour is only ‘indeterminate’ due to this complexity.

All these experiments are bulk property statistical experiments, at least on some scale. When trying to measure the behaviour of flies with a light box the outcome is bound to be a statistical measure of the indeterminate behaviour of countless deterministic events at the scale of the neuron, and below that at the molecule, and below that of the atomic and subatomic activity.

John Searle has described free will as the belief ‘that we could often have done otherwise than we in fact did’ [92]. Taylor & Dennett cite the maxim ‘I could have done otherwise’ [93]. Clearly, leeches and flies could and can behave differently in identical environments.

But the crucial point here is that they could not know that they could have done otherwise, or that they would have done.

In some cases we may loose nearly all our autonomy. A man falls off a cliff and smashes on the rocks below. I say, “Wow, once he started falling, did he have to die?” and John Searle says, “He could have done otherwise.” – What? he could have used his free-will to fly back up to the cliff? We acknowledge some obvious restrictions to our free-will.

In other cases what’s going on when a bunch of neurons spark around in our heads and ‘decide’ to raise our left hand or right hand, the notion that we ‘could have done otherwise’ doesn’t really capture the internal complexity of that event, and certainly doesn’t demonstrate ‘real’ free-will, and certainly doesn’t refute determinism.

While some argue that unpredictable (or random) choice does not qualify for their definition of free will [2], it is precisely the freedom from the chains of causality that most scholars see as a crucial prerequisite for free will.

This confuses indeterminacy, chance (whatever that is) and ‘real’ free-will – unless of course we re-define free-will just to mean outcomes of complex deterministic yet indeterminate systems.

9. Consciousness and freedom

It thus is no coincidence that we all feel that we possess a certain degree of freedom of choice.

Because we cannot determine all the micro-deterministic events that drive our internal decision making processes. It’s quite plausible, and consistent with classical deterministic physics, that a system that is limited-self-aware (has some data about itself, but cannot monitor most of itself, particularly its central control system) that it has some representation of itself as spontaneously making decisions.

It makes sense that depriving humans of such freedom is frequently used as punishment and the deprived do invariably perceive this limited freedom as undesirable.

We only feel this is the case because we have innate (determined by evolution and development) physiological drives that emerge as emotional desires to have freedom of motion. One feature that distinguishes most animals from plants is that they must move to survive – to hunt and to avoid being hunted. It seems a good evolutionary adaptation to make restriction of movement an undesirable situation that the whole body fights against – again expressed in some animals, particular humans, as an emotional discomfort in having freedom of movement restricted. But again, not refuting determinism

The concept that we can decide to behave differently even under identical circumstances underlies not only our justice systems.

The circumstances are never the same! Every time an organism responds to some stimulus it changes the organism, which, in whatever minor degree it may be, has the potential to change the response next time the stimulus is applied. And all the time, time is ticking by and the environment is changing.

But be careful, because this link to justice is part of the problem – our illusion that we have ‘real’ free-will can lead to injustice by attributing all responsibility only to the individual. Thankfully there is at least some consideration of extenuating circumstances in many cases – at least in sentencing if not in judgement of guilt.

Electoral systems, our educational systems, parenting and basically all other social systems also presuppose behavioural variability and at least a certain degree of freedom of choice.

This tends to our desire for freedom in that it allows our complex brains a psychological freedom. Many people do question the extent to which democracy implies real freedom (and even question the notion of freedom). It may be that its greatest importance is that it makes us feel free, so satisfying our psychological and physiological desire for freedom of movement – which translated into more abstract terms used by humans means political freedom.

The data reviewed above make clear that the special property of our brain that provides us with this freedom surely is independent of consciousness. Consciousness is not a necessary prerequisite for a scientific concept of free will.

This is a good point – but note that ‘free-will’ here is the re-defined free-will, which from my perspective is still subject to deterministic physical mechanisms. But I agree they are distinct. A system can be autonomous (free) to some degree without being conscious. A tossed stone is free to fly through the air and fall to the ground – but of course this then begs the question of what the ‘free’ in free-will really means. Can a system lack all autonomy (not sure that can be the case) and still be conscious? Not so sure about that one.

We sometimes have to work extremely hard to constrain our behavioural variability in order to behave as predictably as possible.

Yes. Which shows that our will is not as free as we would like it to be. Which begs the question, for the religious, that if God wanted to give us free-will, why is it so un-free from deterministic constraints?

Therefore, the famous experiments of Benjamin Libet and others since then [2,4,5,98–100] only serve to cement the rejection of the metaphysical concept of free will and are not relevant for the concept proposed here.

Here the ‘metaphysical concept of free-will’ is referring to what I’ve been calling ‘real’ free-will. But Libet’s experiments do not cement the rejection of ‘real’ free-will, and I’d have thought they were of interest to this re-defined ‘scientific’ free-will, in that they refer to the timing of brain events and choices made, and the conscious awareness of those choices.

Conscious reflection, meditation or discussion may help with difficult decisions, but this is not even necessarily the case. The degree to which our conscious efforts can affect our decisions is therefore central to any discussion about the degree of responsibility our freedom entails, but not to the freedom itself.

This is the interesting point when it comes to responsibility and the autonomy of an individual. If two men are walking towards me and one attacks me and the other then defends me, then I can attribute immediate causation (identify the most significant entities in the causal chain of events). I can say that the action of one and not the other determined that I had a nose bleed. But there may be many prior causes that determined why I was struck by the first man, and this is where responsibility and determinisms and the extent of autonomy come into play.

10. The Self and Agency

In contrast to consciousness, an important part of a scientific concept of free will is the concept of ‘self’. It is important to realize that the organism generates an action itself, spontaneously. In chemistry, spontaneous reactions occur when there is a chemical imbalance. The system is said to be far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Biological organisms are constantly held far from equilibrium, they are considered open thermodynamic systems. However, in contrast to physical or chemical open systems, some of the spontaneous actions initiated by biological organisms help keep the organism away from equilibrium. Every action that promotes survival or acquires energy sustains the energy flow through the open system, prompting Georg Litsche to define biological organisms as a separate class of open systems (i.e. ‘subjects’; [101]). Because of this constant supply of energy, it should not be surprising to scientists that actions can be initiated spontaneously and need not be released by external stimuli. In controlled situations where there cannot be sufficient causes outside the organism to make the organism release the particular action, the brain initiates behaviour from within, potentially using a two-stage process as described above. The boy ceases to play and jumps up. This sort of impulsivity is a characteristic of children every parent can attest to. We do not describe the boy’s action with ‘some hidden stimuli made him jump’—he jumped of his own accord. The jump has all the qualities of a beginning. The inference of agency in ourselves, others and even inanimate objects is a central component of how we think. Assigning agency requires a concept of self. How does a brain know what is self?

This paragraph describes the illusion of self and free-will quite well. That the processes that initiate action are sometimes predominantly, and on a small time scale maybe wholly, attributable to internal processes, is the cause of our illusion. Those internal processes are still deterministic at the lower levels, with various collections of internal events coming together to trigger an externally visible behaviour. It’s the fact that we the observers, and sometimes the subject that is performing the behaviour, are not aware of the precursor internal causes that it looks so spontaneous to us – and this is the root of attribution of the concept of free-will. Free-will seems more like a psychological perception than a reality.

One striking characteristic of actions is that an animal normally does not respond to the sensory stimuli it causes by its own actions. The best examples are that it is difficult to tickle oneself…

This is still a comparison of outcomes from deterministic sequences of events. It relates to the complexity of the system and the availability of internal feedback that makes tickling oneself different than being tickled by someone else. If you doubt this distinction then look up Dead Hand (definition 1).

Thus, in order to understand actions, it is necessary to introduce the term self. The concept of self necessarily follows from the insight that animals and humans initiate behaviour by themselves.

As a general convenience in many circumstances I’d agree that this is a good model for such complex systems as humans with the degree of complex indeterminate autonomous behaviour we exhibit.

It would make no sense to assign a behaviour to an organism if any behavioural activity could, in principle, be traced back by a chain of causations to the origin of the universe.

I would agree with this to some extent. In the mugger example I gave above I don’t have to trace causes back to the Big Bang to determine that the most predominant immediate cause of my pain was the mugger, not my defender. This is simple cause and effect, nothing to do with agency in the free-will sense.

In my house the circuit breaker keeps tripping. I discover that unplugging my fridge prevents this, but unplugging all other appliances doesn’t. I blame the fridge and replace it. The problem persists with the new fridge. On further investigation I find the fault is with the wall socket behind the fridge – plug anything there and the breaker trips. This illustrates the problem with the simplistic notion of free-will and personal responsibility. Sometimes we do have to look further than the immediate agent for the behaviour we witness. It might save hanging the wrong man – or in my case replacing a working fridge.

An animal or human being is the agent causing a behaviour, as long as no sufficient causes for this activity to occur are coming from outside the organism.

And here lies the tricky bit. Sometimes those apparent spontaneous and ‘freely-willed’ actions of animals and people are pre-determined by circumstances that conspire to form the decision making process we are witnessing in the present. We could blame a drug user for ‘choosing’ to do drugs – but if such a person is from an abusive drug-taking family then what would we expect them to do? That a man born and raised in Iran is a strident Muslim need be no surprise to us in the West – though Christians don’t necessarily see their route to Christianity being so conformal to prior causes. That a child spontaneously leaps around or shouts odd words might be an indication he has Tourette syndrome, whereas some observers might think him rude. Many human undesirable behaviours previously attributed to free-will have subsequently been attributed to specific conditions beyond the control of the subject. The free-will model – particularly the religious one associated with sinning – isn’t that helpful a model.

Agency is assigned to entities who initiate actions themselves. Agency is crucial for moral responsibility. Behaviour can have good or bad consequences. It is the agent for whom the consequences matter the most and who can be held responsible for them.

And so it is believed by Libertarians, and fundamentalist theists alike. There are no limits to how this simplistic view of our animal nature can be used to limit our freedoms, in the very act of declaring them free.

11. Why still use the term free-will today?

By providing empirical data from invertebrate model systems supporting a materialistic model of free will, I hope to at least start a thought process that abandoning the metaphysical concept of free will does not automatically entail that we are slaves of our genes and our environment, forced to always choose the same option when faced with the same situation.

I do think the ‘materialistic model of free will’ shows the ‘real’ (metaphysical) free-will model to be illusory – or at least illustrates it not to be so straight forward we can go on attributing blame and dishing out punishment willy-nilly. But I do think we can accept quite easily that we are slaves to our genes and environment – but to an indeterminate extent that makes this particular piece of knowledge non-constraining psychologically. As put earlier in the article, but not quite expressed in this sense, it’s the indeterminate nature of games that make them interesting. Flipping a double headed coin is not as interesting a game as flipping a normal coin – and in the case of the latter it makes no difference how deterministic the outcome is from a point of view of the physical laws of the universe, because to us it’s indeterminate. So, we cannot say we are always ‘forced to always choose the same option’, because we are not – the options are determined, but indeterminate to us: psychologically this is free-will. We may be constrained by determinism to make a specific choice on a specific occasion, but the same determinism, effected by other subsequent states, may result in a different choice next time. This time based indeterminacy makes arguments that ‘I could have chosen otherwise’ quite meaningless.

In fact, I am confident I have argued successfully that we would not exist if our brains were not able to make a different choice even in the face of identical circumstances and history.

We have not the slightest clue about rerunning history, but if determinism pertains then history cannot be rerun, but if it could then we’d end up with the same outcome. Only if the universe is truly non-deterministic could it be said that running the universe again would result in different outcomes – but doing so would result in a different universe altogether, at least one in which the person wanting to try this would not exists, and probably the earth would not exist either. If quantum indeterminacy was at work then even with the same starting state we would end up with quite a different universe. The only sense in which this notion of rerunning history and making different decisions makes sense is in fact if ‘real’ free-will was something above and beyond and independent of the otherwise deterministic material reality of the universe.

In this article, I suggest re-defining the familiar free will in scientific terms rather than giving it up, only because of the historical baggage all its connotations carry with them. One may argue that ‘volition’ would be a more suitable term, less fraught with baggage. However, the current connotations of volition as ‘willpower’ or the forceful, conscious decision to behave against certain motivations render it less useful and less general a term than free will.

Fair points. Deciding what to call it is tricky, given the baggage.

Finally, there may be a societal value in retaining free will as a valid concept, since encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating [103]

But this is a misconception about what is implied by it, as illustrated by Jesus and Mo. And if determinism is the case, and free-will is illusory, then is it really scientifically sound to deny this because some people will entertain this misconception and think they can cheat?

Look at it this way. If I decide to save a drowning man then I was driven to it, deterministically, by all be genetic, developmental, personal societal history and the current state of my brain as I weigh up the danger to myself and the pleas of the drowning man – my action is determined in that sense. But if I say, ah well, what does it matter, I cannot help leaving him to drown – then it’s determined that I do say that, and yes, this then is the determined outcome. Whichever action I take is the determined action. And it may well be that initially the acquisition of determinism as a philosophy of the mind does lead to the outcome that the man drowns. But then so could the ‘real’ free-will model, in that it can be used as an excuse too: he shouldn’t have been messing about near dangerous water, it’s his fault he’s drowning. And in all this either excuse may be a psychological mask for a fear that is preventing me saving the drowning man – my brain deterministically invented excuses either way.

In the end we just do what we do. The psychological approach we have towards it is itself determined. The point is that it is indeterminate to us, so we go on appearing to make choices, and apparently sometimes rationalising those choices later, and that rationalisation is itself a deterministic process going on in the brain.

So the extent to which this entity, me, is autonomous and can make decisions, seems to be down to influences that drive me one way of another. That I will change is inevitable – until my component parts dies and distribute so that there is no longer any value in the concept of ‘me’. That I will change in a way that suits my biological drives is not under my control, beyond this degree of autonomy. I cannot help, it seems, but view the world this way, and go on making the case for determinism this way. Unless this entity, me, is persuaded to some other point of view – entirely deterministically though as yet indeterminate to me.

I no longer agree that ‘ ‘free will’ is (like ‘life’ and ‘love’) one of those culturally useful notions that become meaningless when we try to make them ‘scientific’ ‘ [96]. The scientific understanding of common concepts enrich our lives, they do not impoverish them, as some have argued [100]. This is why scientists have and will continue to try and understand these concepts scientifically or at least see where and how far such attempts will lead them. It is not uncommon in science to use common terms and later realize that the familiar, intuitive understanding of these terms may not be all that accurate. Initially, we thought atoms were indivisible. Today we do not know how far we can divide matter. Initially, we thought species were groups of organisms that could be distinguished from each other by anatomical traits. Today, biologists use a wide variety of species definitions. Initially, we thought free will was a metaphysical entity. Today, I am joining a growing list of colleagues who are suggesting it is a quantitative, biological trait, a natural product of physical laws and biological evolution, a function of brains, maybe their most important one.

Yep. That’s more like it. The trouble is Björn, you can’t help it. You are driven to this point of view by the deterministic causal universe.

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.

Free Will

The concept ‘free-will’ can be considered as one model for how the human organism operates in its outer environment. But this doesn’t show that free-will is not part of the causal framework in which the organism operates. A specific “act of free-will” is simply a model we use to describe what is still basically a causal physical response. It’s the notion of free-will as something independent of all the physical processes that all physicalists are disputing, and in this sense I think autonomous-free-will can be described as an illusion, or at best as a conceptual model.

I say free-will is a ‘model’ of response because thinking in terms of models allows us to accept a level of abstract detachment. We regularly use models for systems – conceptual ideas that represent something on a manageable arbitrary level. We do this probably because we have to – it’s how our brains manage external perceptions as patterns and memories, one of those perceptions being the self, another, free-will, being a model of how that self responds. It may be natural for the organism itself to feel that free-will is something the organism does actively and autonomously simply because of the proximity and complexity of how an act of free-will comes about.

If you accept causality and the level of physicalism that has been discussed here, then I don’t see how free-will in its religious and autonomous senses has any meaning. And without free-will what is religion, other than one more conceptual abstraction of the physical environment of the organism. All religious ideas come to us through reading, listening and seeing – all part of physical environment acting on the organism as a whole, and through layers down to the brain; the brain that already has a history and hence existing interconnections and chemistry that is amenable to these inputs, or not. Even an internally occurring “sign”, a revelation, can be explained as a religious event only in the context of pre-existing knowledge about religion.

For any individual, how does their brain respond to a religious idea (or any input)? As an excited, inhibited, or conditioned response (utilising yet another model of behaviour)? Probably in some complex combination. The emergent response to a religious idea may be whatever the organism’s brain does internally, plus how that operates on the outer organism. So a theist response might be to offer a supportive argument. This particular organism (me) might respond with a criticism. The fact that the response may be complex does not detract from the fact that it came about from a complex interaction of components within the organism, albeit with externally sourced inputs, many of which have been consolidated over time. We call that a free-will response, using the free-will model. But that’s all it is – it is a caused response (still assuming causality).

In this context the only difference between a person performing an act out of ‘free-will’ and one who has been induced into performing the act, say through hypnosis, is that the most influential and most recent causal events that preceded the act came from within the organism for the former, but from outside the organism for the latter.

One of the main objections to physicalist non-autonomous free-will comes about because it’s difficult for some to accept this point of view – but this in itself is a response, to prior physical activity. When you “feel” free-will must be real, that feeling itself is merely a response with a physical base.

The next paragraph is long winded because I’ve gone out the way to put it in terms of a non-agent mechanical reaction. We’re not used to doing this. It’s possible our natural language that describes us as agents that interact is a convenience, and efficiency that has evolved naturally, just as we naturally and conveniently attribute agency and free will to inanimate objects sometimes.

Other objections are associated with justice and culpability. You might ask me, “How can you justify locking up that ‘criminal’ organism, when on your model he didn’t ‘willfully’ carry out the crime?” My response would be, “Well, this organism’s response is to do just that.” All organisms tend to avoid self harm, and through evolved empathetic responses we generally try to avoid harm to others. That particular criminal organism caused harm, albeit indirectly and in a non-autonomous free-will caused sense, so the complex collective socially constructed response of this set of organisms, this social group, is to prevent further harm by locking up that criminal organism. The notion that this sequence of events might act as sufficient causal input to that criminal organism that in time it’s caused actions might be to no longer cause harm to others, is also compatible. Similarly, the desire for retribution can be considered as another physical response. The complexity of these interactions is not evidence against physicalism.

A physicalist view of free-will as an illusion or a model does not entail the collapse of society and morality. It may even inform us better than some of the many arbitrary and conflicting reasonings of the various religions.