"A human may very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he
Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don't
The New York Times Science Section, January 2, 2007
By Dennis Overbye
I was a free man until they brought the dessert menu around. There was one of those
molten chocolate cakes, and I was suddenly being dragged into a vortex,
swirling helplessly toward caloric doom, sucked toward the edge of a
black (chocolate) hole. Visions of my father's heart attack danced
before my glazed eyes. My wife, Nancy, had a resigned look on her face.
endlessly replayed whenever we go out, is never in doubt, though I often
cover my tracks by offering to split my dessert with the table. O.K., I
can imagine what you're thinking. There but for the grace of God.
Having just lived
through another New Year's Eve, many of you have just resolved to be
better, wiser, stronger and richer in the coming months and years. After
all, we're free humans, not slaves, robots or animals doomed to repeat
the same boring mistakes over and over again. As William James wrote in
1890, the whole "sting and excitement" of life comes from "our sense
that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another,
and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged
innumerable ages ago." Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted
for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest
that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious
decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.
As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the
heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether
we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.
"Is it an illusion?
That's the question," said Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at
Elizabethtown College in Maryland. Another question, he added, is
whether talking about this in public will fan the culture wars.
"If people freak at
evolution, etc.," he wrote in an e-mail message, "how much more will
they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing
more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now
clearly warranted or is it premature?"
Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has
written extensively about free will, said that "when we consider whether
free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What
seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair." Mark
Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological
Disorders and Stroke, said,
"Free will does exist, but it's a perception, not a power or a driving force. People
experience free will. They have the sense they are free.
"The more you
scrutinize it, the more you realize you don't have it," he said.
That is hardly a
new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as
Einstein paraphrased it, that "a human can very well do what he wants,
but cannot will what he wants."
others, found that a comforting idea. "This knowledge of the non-freedom
of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too
seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging
individuals," he said.
How comforted or
depressed this makes you might depend on what you mean by free will. The
traditional definition is called "libertarian" or "deep" free will. It
holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not
predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole
chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in
its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.
At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could
have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any
damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.
"That strikes many
people as incoherent," said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every
physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either
deterministic or random. "Both are bad news for free will," he said. So
if human actions can't be caused and aren't random, he said, "It must be—what—some weird magical power?"
People who believe
already that humans are magic will have no problem with that. But
whatever that power is - call it soul or the spirit - those people have
to explain how it could stand independent of the physical universe and
yet reach from the immaterial world and meddle in our own, jiggling
brain cells that lead us to say the words "molten chocolate."
A vote in favor of
free will comes from some physicists, who say it is a prerequisite for
inventing theories and planning experiments.
That is especially true when it comes to quantum mechanics, the strange paradoxical theory
that ascribes a microscopic randomness to the foundation of reality.
Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, said
recently that quantum randomness was "not a proof, just a hint, telling
us we have free will."
Is there any evidence beyond our own intuitions and introspections that humans work
Two Tips of the Iceberg
In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San
Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram
and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button
or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.
Dr. Libet found
that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second
before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.
The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather
than the other way around.
In short, the
conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain
was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey
making up a story about what the tiger had already done.
Dr. Libet's results have been reproduced again and again over the years, along with other
experiments that suggest that people can be easily fooled when it comes
to assuming ownership of their actions. Patients with tics or certain
diseases, like chorea, cannot say whether their movements are voluntary
or involuntary, Dr. Hallett said.
In some experiments, subjects have been tricked into believing they are
responding to stimuli they couldn't have seen in time to respond to, or
into taking credit or blame for things they couldn't have done. Take,
for example, the "voodoo experiment" by Dan Wegner, a psychologist at
Harvard, and Emily Pronin of Princeton. In the experiment, two people
are invited to play witch doctor.
One person, the
subject, puts a curse on the other by sticking pins into a doll. The
second person, however, is in on the experiment, and by prior
arrangement with the doctors, acts either obnoxious, so that the
pin-sticker dislikes him, or nice.
After a while, the
ostensible victim complains of a headache. In cases in which he or she
was unlikable, the subject tended to claim responsibility for causing
the headache, an example of the "magical thinking" that makes baseball
fans put on their rally caps.
"We made it happen in a lab," Dr. Wegner said.
Is a similar sort
of magical thinking responsible for the experience of free will?
"We see two tips of
the iceberg, the thought and the action," Dr. Wegner said, "and we draw
But most of the
action is going on beneath the surface. Indeed, the conscious mind is
often a drag on many activities. Too much thinking can give a golfer the
yips. Drivers perform better on automatic pilot. Fiction writers report
writing in a kind of trance in which they simply take dictation from the
voices and characters in their head, a grace that is, alas, rarely if
ever granted nonfiction writers.
Naturally, almost everyone has a slant on such experiments and whether or not the word
"illusion" should be used in describing free will. Dr. Libet said his
results left room for a limited version of free will in the form of a
veto power over what we sense ourselves doing. In effect, the
unconscious brain proposes and the mind disposes.
In a 1999 essay, he
wrote that although this might not seem like much, it was enough to
satisfy ethical standards. "Most of the Ten Commandments are 'do not'
orders," he wrote.
But that might seem a pinched and diminished form of free will.
Dr. Dennett, the
Tufts professor, is one of many who have tried to redefine free will in
a way that involves no escape from the materialist world while still
offering enough autonomy for moral responsibility, which seems to be
what everyone cares about.
The belief that the
traditional intuitive notion of a free will divorced from causality is
inflated, metaphysical nonsense, Dr. Dennett says reflecting an outdated
dualistic view of the world. Rather, Dr. Dennett argues, it is precisely
our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us.
Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with
feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think
things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can
"All the varieties
of free will worth having, we have," Dr. Dennett said.
"We have the power
to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes," he said. "We have the
power of imagination, to see and imagine futures."
In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look
ahead and plan.
"That's what makes
us moral agents," Dr. Dennett said. "You don't need a miracle to have
Other philosophers disagree on the degree and nature of such "freedom." Their arguments
partly turn on the extent to which collections of things, whether
electrons or people, can transcend their origins and produce novel phenomena.
emergent phenomena, like brains and stock markets, or the idea of
democracy, grow naturally in accordance with the laws of physics, so the
story goes. But once they are here, they play by new rules, and can even
act on their constituents, as when an artist envisions a teapot and then
sculpts it - a concept sometimes known as "downward causation." A
knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes - it's physics
all the way down. But does the same apply to the stock market or to the
brain? Are the rules elusive just because we can't solve the equations
or because something fundamentally new happens when we increase numbers
and levels of complexity? Opinions vary about whether it will ultimately
prove to be physics all the way down, total
independence from physics, or some shade in between, and thus how free
we are. Dr. Silberstein, the Elizabethtown College professor, said,
"There's nothing in fundamental physics by itself that tells us we can't
have such emergent properties when we get to different levels of complexities."
He waxed poetically as he imagined how the universe would evolve, with more and more
complicated forms emerging from primordial quantum muck as from an
elaborate computer game, in accordance with a few simple rules: "If you
understand, you ought to be awestruck, you ought to be bowled over."
George R. F. Ellis,
a cosmologist at the University of Cape Town, said that freedom could
emerge from this framework as well. "A nuclear bomb, for example,
proceeds to detonate according to the laws of nuclear physics," he
explained in an e-mail message. "Whether it does indeed detonate is
determined by political and ethical considerations, which are of a
completely different order."
I have to admit
that I find these kind of ideas inspiring, if not liberating. But I
worry that I am being sold a sort of psychic perpetual motion machine.
Free wills, ideas, phenomena created by physics but not accountable to
it. Do they offer a release from the chains of determinism or just a
prescription for a very intricate weave of the links? And so I sought
clarity from mathematicians and computer scientists. According to deep
mathematical principles, they say, even machines can become too
complicated to predict their own behavior and would labor under the
delusion of free will. If by free
will we mean the ability to choose, even a simple laptop computer has
some kind of free will, said Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum computing
and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Every time you
click on an icon, he explained, the computer's operating system decides
how to allocate memory space, based on some deterministic instructions.
But, Dr. Lloyd said, "If I ask how long will it take to boot up five
minutes from now, the operating system will say 'I don't know, wait and
see, and I'll make decisions and let you know.' "
Why can't computers say what they're going to do? In 1930, the Austrian philosopher Kurt
Gödel proved that in any formal system of logic, which includes
mathematics and a kind of idealized computer called a Turing machine,
there are statements that cannot be proven either true or false.
Among them are self-referential statements like the famous paradox stated by the Cretan
philosopher Epimenides, who said that all Cretans are liars: if he is
telling the truth, then, as a Cretan, he is lying. One implication is
that no system can contain a complete representation of itself, or as Janna
Levin, a cosmologist at Barnard College of Columbia University and
author of the 2006 novel about Gödel, "A Madman Dreams of Turing
Machines," said: "Gödel says you can't program intelligence as complex
as yourself. But you can let it evolve. A complex machine would still
suffer from the illusion of free will."
is there is no algorithm, or recipe for computation, to determine when
or if any given computer program will finish some calculation. The only
way to find out is to set it computing and see what happens. Any way to
find out would be tantamount to doing the calculation itself.
"There are no
shortcuts in computation," Dr. Lloyd said.
"That means that the
more reasonably you try to act, the more unpredictable you are, at least
to yourself," Dr. Lloyd said. "Even if your wife knows you will order the chile rellenos, you have to live your life to find out."
To him that sounds
like free will of a sort, for machines as well as for us. Our actions
are determined, but so what? We still don't know what they will be until
the waiter brings the tray.
That works for me,
because I am comfortable with so-called physicalist reasoning, and I'm
always happy to leverage concepts of higher mathematics to cut through
The Magician's Spell
So what about Hitler?
The death of free
will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak
havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility. According to those
who believe that free will and determinism are incompatible, Dr.
Silberstein said in an e-mail message, it would mean that "people are no more
responsible for their actions than asteroids or planets." Anything
would go. Dr. Wegner of Harvard said: "We worry that explaining evil condones it. We have to
maintain our outrage at Hitler. But wouldn't it be nice to have a theory
of evil in advance that could keep him from coming to power?"
He added, "A system a bit more focused on helping people change rather than paying them back
for what they've done might be a good thing." Dr. Wegner said he thought
that exposing free will as an illusion would have little effect on
people's lives or on their feelings of self-worth. Most of them would remain
"It's an illusion,
but it's a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back," he said,
comparing it to a magician's trick that has been seen again and again.
"Even though you know it's a trick, you get fooled every time. The
feelings just don't go away."
In an essay about
free will in 1999, Dr. Libet wound up quoting the writer Isaac Bashevis
Singer, who once said in an interview with the Paris Review, "The
greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true
that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free
choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much
that for this itself, life is worthwhile living."
I could skip the
chocolate cake, I really could, but why bother? Waiter!
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
What are we to say about the above? Is Dr.
Wegner right in his "persistent illusion" conclusion? Is
Schopenhauer absolutely right? Are we just very complex sophisticated
stimulus-response meat sticks? Is our vaunted volition just an illusion
or wishful thinking?
In the last paragraph, Dr. Libet gives us some—a very little—affirmation but is not very helpful in that he does not enlighten us as
to the key for using our "free choice" effectively. So what if we have it!
The questions are: How do
we use it? When do we use it and when do we not use it? In what arena do
we use it? What do we use it on?
One way to think about it is that human volition, which like character
qualities—honor, nobility, compassion, integrity etc.—, and
abilities—mathematical, musical, critical thinking, imagination, etc.—, can
be awakened and developed in the homo sapiens during the process of
nurturing a child into becoming a human being. It can be simplified in this way: 1)
can choose what to believe, 2) We can will how to be, and 3) We can
decide what to do. The operation of the latter two depend at least greatly
if not overwhelmingly upon the first.
It is the thinking on this site that ultimately the lynchpin, the
wellspring, the fulcrum, the taproot for most profoundly effecting one's
life—the entire spectrum of emotion, will, and decisions—is the
choosing of seeking the truth and what to believe. It is on this level, in
this arena that we have the most potent capability to determine who and
what we are and can become.