Saturday, August 12, 2017

My Three Arguments for Free Will

Stuart K. Hayashi


There are three arguments repeatedly given against free will; I shall address them here.

Portrait of Spinoza from 1665; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



1 of 3: Does the Law of Cause-and-Effect Preclude Free Will, As Spinoza Insists?
For a long time, I struggled with Baruch Spinoza's argument against free will, which says that the Law of Causality/the Law of Cause-and-Effect precludes any entity from possessing free will. You may recall that I dealt with that argument before here, but, as a refresher, the argument goes: when we observe the Law of Identity with natural objects, we find that once we understand their nature, they become eminently predictable. For example, rain clouds, rocks, asteroids, and comets are all entities, each has its own nature. We can think of what happens when a rain cloud drops rain drops on a rock. What happens is that the rain pouring down on the rock will cause the rock to erode. Based on the respective natures of rain clouds and rocks, we know that any time a rain cloud rains down on a rock, the rain pouring down will cause a specific effect, the effect being the erosion of the rock. Once we know the natures of entities, we observe that under the same circumstances in the future, the entities will behave in the same manner as they did before; they are mechanistic and predictable. When rain falls on a rock, the rock will erode, and we know that the rock, by its nature, will not behave in any other manner; for the rock unexpectedly to react differently would be contrary to the rock's identity.

Spinoza's argument continues that humans are entities. Doesn't this mean that once we know the nature of human beings, it follows that once we know how a human will behave in a specific circumstance, that circumstance's re-occurrence will cause the human to behave exactly the same as before? Doesn't that mean that human beings, then, are just as mechanistic and predictable in their actions as a rock that has rain drops pouring down on it? Does the application of the Law of Identity and the Law of Causality (and the Law of Causality is the Law of Identity as applied to action) preclude free will in human beings? Spinoza says the answer is yes.

I like neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga's reply to Spinoza. Spinoza overlooked the occurrences of emergent properties. To recognize emergent properties in Nature is to reconcile the Law of Causality with free will. The idea behind Emergent Properties is that a set of components can be arranged in various fashions and, usually, nothing new happens; those components remain nothing more than the sum of the parts. However, there are cases in which those components, being arranged in a particular fashion, will educe an unprecedented phenomenon.

An example would be how the first microorganisms emerged from nonliving matter. For billions of years, the exact same chemicals existed on Earth. The chemicals react with one another but, for the most part, those reactions do not educe any unprecedented phenomenon. But one fateful day, when those chemicals were arranged in a particularly fortuitous fashion, it resulted not only in a chemical reaction, but a chemical reaction unlike any other. If you arrange chemicals in most arrangements, nothing new happens. However, one day four billion years ago, the chemicals were arranged in such a fashion that the first primitive organisms emerged: living organisms emerged from nonliving matter. That new phenomenon is the Emergent Property.

The net profit in utility that emerges from voluntary trade and cooperation is also an Emergent Property. Suppose that when you and I work alone, you produce 100 units of wealth, and I produce only 17. However, what if we work together to produce a new machine that is more efficient than what any one person could do through manual labor? As a consequence of our working together, you produce 10,000 units of wealth, whereas I produce 300. That net gain in productivity is also an Emergent Property.

The Big Bang would also be an Emergent Property. For an unspecified duration, the universe existed in one particular form. However, some components within the universe formed a particular fortuitous arrangement, setting off the Big Bang, causing the universe to take on another form (the present form).

Michael Gazzaniga says that the emergence of free will from entities that previously had no free will, is itself an Emergent Property. The first organisms, such as bacteria and protists and insects, are relatively mechanistic and predictable; beetles and cockroaches are like machines made out of meat. But mutations happened and caused organisms to grow ever more complex. In our primate ancestors, the matter eventually became arranged in some fortuitous fashion that sparked some new unprecedented phenomenon: volition.

Hence, the Law of Causality does not preclude free will. Rather, the cause-and-effect chain of events ultimately produced one particularly fortuitous effect, the fortuitous effect being that our species possesses the faculty of volition.



2 of 3: "The Very Fact That Every Choice of Yours Is a Response to Something External to You, Means Your Choices Are Never Proactive"
There is another type of argument that tries to cite the Law of Causality in an attempt to discredit the concept of free will. I call this argument "You only possess free will if you make choices in a vacuum."

The argument goes: in order for you to have free will truly, you would have to be proactive: you would have to perform actions that are not caused by -- that are not a response to -- any stimulus external to yourself. But the fact is that everything you do is a reaction to some stimulus. Hence, you are purely reactive; everything you do is a response to forces that are external to your conscious control. For example, you might take a particular course of action to obtain food, but that is merely in response to your body first indicating to you that it is hungry. Hence, you do not have free will; you are that rock that merely educes a predictable response to forces outside of itself.

That argument is a straw man, because the fact that you must make choices within a context, in consideration of conditions external to yourself, does not erase the fact that various options remain open to you and that you take the initiative to select among those options.

This notion that you only have free will if you take an action that is independent of any consideration or stimulus outside of your conscious control, is what I call the Rationalistic Interpretation of free will; this (mis)interpretation is quasi-Platonic and quasi-Kantian. The idea is that you make choices outside of any contextual considerations, not prompted by anything outside of yourself. That is, you make choices within a vacuum.

But reality is not like that. Of course there are entities and phenomena that exist outside of yourself. Of course there are circumstances outside of yourself that, despite not having been chosen by you, nonetheless necessitate action (and therefore decision-making) on your part. The Rationalistic argument simply takes for granted that you only have free will if you make choices regardless of context. And, of course, it is impossible to make choices regardless of context, because the "context" consists of the factual considerations all around you. Therefore, the Rationalists conclude that free will is nonexistent. But their argument consists of question-beginning. It is rigged. They try to pre-define free will, describing a situation that cannot exist. Then they simply point out the situation does not exist and thus declare victory over the concept of free will.

But we don't have to accept that false definition of free will. Instead, we define free will according to the facts; we recognize that there is some faculty of choice possessed by human beings; that faculty is what is to be recognized properly as free will.

Yes, the facts of reality cause you to feel hunger, and you must act in response to that; you don't have control over the fact that when your body needs food, you feel hunger. But, contrary to the Rationalists, that your actions constitute a response to such a fact of reality -- a fact you did not choose -- does not preclude you from having any choice per se. You must take a course of action to satisfy that hunger, but there are many avenues available to you by which you might go about to try to address this physiological need. You might forage for food; you might go hunting for it; you might become a farmer and grow it. You might go up to someone with food and ask for some of it. You might do a job to create wealth and trade that wealth for food. Sadly, some people choose to starve themselves (another psychiatric condition that involves selflessness).

We have the "You didn't build that" attack on free will. It is said that Steve Jobs never really produced his wealth, because he was born into fortuitous circumstances that caused him to do what he did; he was just as passive receptacle responding to the external stimuli around him. Steve Jobs was raised in that part of California where there were already computer engineers around him; his friends were the sons of computer engineers. Hence, Steve Jobs had a head start over someone born somewhere else -- say, in the American South -- who easily might have been interested in the same industry if he grew up around people from that industry.

That argument overlooks the fact that many people born in the same circumstances as Steve Jobs could have done what he did, and yet they did not. Many other people around Steve Jobs were born in that area and had friends who whose fathers were computer engineers; some of them were the children of computer engineers. Many people were in the same fortuitous circumstances as Steve Jobs and had the same resources available to them, but did not do what he did. The reason that Steve Jobs did what he did -- which others in the same privileged position did not do -- is that he chose it. He took the initiative to do it. When both person A and person B start off in the same circumstances but person A does something creative and that person B did not do, person A is being proactive. That person A is acting within some context that precipitated action on his part, does not preclude his action from being recognized, properly, as a proactive initiative. Proactivity does not mean acting in a vacuum, absent of any prior considerations or stimuli; to be proactive means that, in light of one's circumstances, one takes the initiative to go beyond what has long been the conventional and expected course of action that has been taken in response to those circumstances.

Free will does not mean that one must act independently of considerations of context. Rather, it is the context in which human beings find themselves that gave rise both to the need and ability to make the very choices that are the exercise of free will.



3 of 3: Your Conscious Mind Makes No Choices; It Only Rationalizes the Action Your Subconscious Pre-Selected for You?
I want to address a final attack on free will, which I have addressed in a previous post: Sam Harris's argument that all conscious decision-making is simply a rationalization for actions that your unconscious "reptilian brain" -- driven by instinct and emotion -- preselected for you.

Sam Harris cites experiments by Benjamin Libet on very simple, specific motor movements, such as whether you move your left index finger instead of your right index finger. The experiments supposedly show that when you are asked to perform a simple task involving such simple movements, the unconscious part of your brain is activated many seconds before the conscious decision-making prefrontal cortex is activated. From these rather simple results, Sam Harris makes the sweeping conclusion that all human actions are therefore governed by the subconscious, and when you activate your prefrontal cortex, what your conscious mind does is not part of the decision-making process at all. Citing Benjamin Libet's experiments, Sam Harris says that your conscious mind definitely does not initiate the decision-making process; the subconscious does. Therefore, concludes Harris, your conscious reasoning has no functioning other than to rationalize the course of action that was already put into motion by your subconscious.

Here is why Sam Harris's argument is one big straw man: Benjamin Libet's experiments only test physiological responses with respect to an isolated motor movement, and a long-term life decision -- such as embarking on a career in chemistry -- is not just one isolated motor movement; it's not one flick of the left index finger.

That your unconscious mind can precede your conscious mind in detecting the need for a decision is not the same as the unconscious mind making the decision for you. Moreover, a conscious choice -- which you can change -- consists not of one motor action but of many motor actions. For example, today I might choose to walk to the grocery store. If I do that, I don't consciously think out of every step of the way: "First I raise my left foot; then I lower my left foot; then I raise my right foot; then I lower my left foot." Of course my conscious mind does not think out every motor movement. Contra Sam Harris, recognition of that fact does not imply that going to the grocery store today was not a conscious choice on my part.

Buried in Sam Harris's citation of Libet's experiments is the assumption that Libet and other researchers can pinpoint the exact moments, on the noumenal level, where the decision-making process respectively begins and ends. Sam Harris has arbitrarily decided that the point in the experiment where the unconscious parts of the brain are activated is the time where the decision-making process begins. And he has arbitrarily decided that the point where the prefrontal cortex experiences blood flow is the time where the decision-making process ends.

In reality, the decision-making process is ongoing; it goes on continuously throughout all of waking experience. One small choice is part of a series of steps encompassing a much larger choice. I have made the life choice to be a writer. When I was six years old, I was drawing monsters (the drawings looked how you would expect a little boy's drawings to look, and I remain proud of them) and my mother, not taking it as seriously as I would, asked me if I wanted to staple the sheets together to make a book. I did that. Days later I stapled other sheets together to make other books. Each page had a drawing on it. Eventually, each drawing had a caption on it. I ended up adding more and more narrative prose. My mother said somewhat casually, "Maybe when you're older you will try to write as a your job." I laughed and said, "Ha ha; maybe." As this went on, I began to contemplate the prospect of that more seriously. Today I do try to write as a job. Sometimes I get very frustrated and wonder if I should quit. My refraining from quitting, counts as part of the choice to take the action of writing. Part of a long-term decision is maintaining one's commitment to it.

The question to ask Sam Harris here is: what point in Stuart's journey here marked, on the noumenal level, the beginning of the decision-making process when it came to his deciding to be a writer? I can tell you that I don't know, at what point, marks the true beginning of the decision-making process. And I'm not too worried about finding what I can call the precise starting point. What matters to me is whether I maintain commitment. The very fact that you keep at a task, when the option of quitting remains possible to you, evinces the presence of free will.