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Free will
May 16, 2014, 11:23p - Consciousness

As a conscious human, I feel as if I'm in control of my actions. When I'm considering what to drink with dinner and get a beer, that action is preceded by the conscious feeling of having made a choice. This contrasts with situations where actions are taken without any feeling of choosing: when I do something when I'm drunk, or when I do something in (most of) my dreams, or when I do something due to an addiction. Although from the outside one might call these "choices" or "decisions", from the inside these actions are *not* accompanied by the feeling of choosing. They are simply actions, and they just happen.

It is exactly this feeling of choosing that serves as the best evidence for free will. By free will, I mean the idea that a person has the capacity to make a true choice, independent of the causal chain of the natural world. It's my impression that most people believe that they have free will; I also believed this, until about 5 years ago.

The problem with the idea of free will is that there is no evidence for it besides this feeling of choosing. Instead, there is very compelling evidence against it. The modern view of the world is that events happen in one giant chain of cause and effect. There is no evidence that anything can intervene from the outside to disrupt this chain. All inputs into the chain at a given moment in time are already a part of the chain, and are therefore already determined by previous parts of the chain. While some might want to believe that it is their soul that swoops down to intervene in the natural chain, there is unfortunately no evidence for this. Science has shown that the world evolves in time according to rules, and what one day appears to be a deviation from the rule the next day is encapsulated in an updated rule instead. The modern view of nature as a chain of cause and effect is called "determinism".

The one hole that appears in deterministic nature is that at the lowest scale nature does not seem to follow deterministic rules, but instead follows the probabilistic rules described by quantum mechanics. While some will argue that this opens a door for free will, there are 2 reasons why this doesn't make sense to me. First, the effects of our free will seem to occur at the macroscopic scale where determinism, not probabilism, reigns supreme. While I don't quite understand how the world transitions from probabilites at the microscopic scale to definite events at the macroscopic scale (and I'm not sure anyone does), the transition clearly occurs such that at scales larger than molecules the deterministic chain remains. Second, even if probabilites could manifest at macroscopic scales, they would still remain probabilities, which would inject a random component into the deterministic process. But our experience of choosing doesn't feel random at all. So if the basis of free will lies in quantum probabilites, then some transformation from chance to directed decision would need to occur.

Given these issues, I think it's best to reexamine our interpretation of the feeling of choosing. Instead of interpreting it as evidence for free will, a second interpretation seems more plausible to me. When we have the feeling of choosing, two things are happening in the brain. First, the brain non-consciously integrates information about the situation and arrives at an intended action. Second, the brain generates the conscious feeling of choosing that we experience. Depending on the state of the brain, it generates this feeling of choosing to different degrees. In my dreams it doesn't generate this experience at all. Even most of the activites I do in a day, such as typing or driving, are not accompanied by a feeling of choosing to press the letter "A" or to push down on the gas pedal. So sometimes the brain generates this feeling of choosing, but most of the time it does not.

So I am drawn to the conclusion that although we have a feeling of choosing, we don't have free will.

Some people worry that in the absence of free will, our everyday notions of responsibility will be devestated. I will discuss this in the next blog post.

Read comments (3) - Comment

Marlon - May 18, 2014, 11:40a
If free will is a feeling are there findings which support this, like the presence of endorphins or something? There should be some neurological changes that occur during isolated decision making in a controlled environment. One problem is how to correlate "a unit of decision making" as it happens in our minds... with anything physiologically - to me this is the problem a priori. Can we define a choice that is novel made in circumstances which are completely unknown, i.e. made by the individual and not programmed by your friends, parents, or Nabisco, for example.

If we could locate a novel decision point for said individual, then we could look to see if there are any "feelings" that can be measured, altered, induced (like pleasure, love, pain or hate) when the individual is presented with unknowns. My hunch is most people don't even really know when they are presented with unknowns, or to the contrary, when they have encountered the same set of choices before, and this feeling of having made a decision happens irregardless of the facts.

I look at determinism from a non-physical approach. People 99% of the time are completely unaware of the social conditions and training which have pre-empted our feeling of decision making. So there most certainly is "a feeling" that we have make decisions even though we haven't, even if science never finds any of the physical bio-markers. But this doesn't mean in the absence of pre-determined situations that some .1% of decisions aren't self-determined, it just means people follow predictable, or at least, traceable social patterns, principles, ideologies, ethical behaviors, most of the time. And when and if there are anomalies, we as decision feeling receptors, may not even be aware of either the time we are pre-determined, or of the time that we just defied the entire rule system.

Ultimately I think this oblivious feeling of decision making is a good thing for survival, as automatons it means we can break new ground without being aware of the risks or rewards.

nikhil - May 20, 2014, 6:34a
Hi Marlon,

Good to hear from you. There is very little research on the mechanism of the feeling of free will. The most famous experiment on free will is one by Libet in the 80s. In this experiment, Libet measured an EEG signal that preceded a subject's decision to move their finger. This experiment suggested that brain events might precede the decision to act, at least in these narrow circumstances, and called into question the idea that we make decisions somehow independent of our brains. But there aren't any good studies of the molecular basis for the feeling of free will, as far as I know. It is generally difficult to measure molecular events in humans in real-time.

And like you point out, a lot of the decisions we think we're making independently are likely the result of social influences that we may have forgotten (e.g. advertising, cultural expectations).

Towards the end of your comment, you seem inclined to think that true free will might actually occur during some small fraction of the decisions that we make (e.g. 0.1%). But as I see it, determinism precludes even this. On what grounds do you think true free will can occur at all? Or are you simply referring to a more authentic feeling of free will only occurring a fraction of the time?

Ameya - Nov 26, 2014, 3:10a
If I didn't know mushrooms were edible, I'd have never eaten one, ever. How many people are actually aware of freedom (to even think)? It is hard to handle. It is hard to even imagine. From a collective point of view, free will is possibly being supressed un-(collective-concious)ly (if that even exists, Mr. Jung!) for survival of the human species. From my personal experience, realizing that I am actually free is quite disorienting: to the extent of losing the meaning of life. A bunch of people going through the same existential crisis together , convincing 'true' freedom to the masses and being successful about it would be enough to disrupt a country's economy, I feel.

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