Free will persists even if your brain made you do it

The free will debate has been going on for millenia and, like most philosophical debates, shows little chance of being settled anytime soon.  A significant part of the debate is definitional: what do we mean when we say “free will.”  We can argue endlessly about what the term should mean, but it turns out that what most of us actually mean by it is something that can be studied empirically.

Free will persists even if your brain made you do it – health – 19 September 2014 – New Scientist.

For those who argue that what we know about neuroscience is incompatible with free will, predicting what our brain is about to do should reveal the illusory nature of free will, and lead people to reject it. Experimental philosopher Eddy Nahmias at Georgia State University in Atlanta dubs this view “willusionism”. He recently set out to test it.

Nahmias and colleagues borrowed an idea from Harris, and gave 278 people a story describing a future neuroimaging technology that allows perfect prediction of decisions based on a person’s neural activity, recorded in a special skull cap. In this future world, a woman called Jill is fitted with a skull cap for a month, which allows scientists to predict everything she’ll decide and do with 100 per cent accuracy, including how she’ll vote in upcoming elections. To some, the fact that Jill is totally predictable – like the trajectory of balls bouncing around a pool table – is clearly incompatible with her having free will in the first place.

The team found that 92 per cent of participants said that Jill voted of her own free will, contrary to the expectation of the willusionists.

In other words, determinism, even if strictly true, doesn’t preclude most people’s intuitions about free will.  But then, if the ability to predict what someone will do doesn’t erase free will, what does?

In another version of story, the scientists didn’t merely predict which way Jill would vote – they also manipulated her choice via the skull cap. With that scenario, most participants said that Jill did not vote of her own free will.

To find out why prediction didn’t impact beliefs about free will but manipulation did, the researchers posed a series of questions about why Jill behaved as she did in the different scenarios, and whether she remained responsible for her behaviour.

They found that even when Jill’s behaviour could be predicted, people still thought she acted on her own reasons, and remained responsible for them. When she was manipulated, she acted on someone else’s reasons and the responsibility was no longer her own.

Most people’s intuitive conception of free will appears to be the freedom to act on one’s own desires, even if those desires are determined by our experiences, our genetics, and the laws of physics.  It’s only when one is forced to act on someone else’s desires that free will disappears.

This intuition appears to broadly match the compatibilist understanding of free will held by most philosophers.  It isn’t libertarian free will, which sees our will as free from the workings of the universe and, as one of the theodices (one of the defenses against theological problem of evil) is the version typically debated by atheists and religious apologists.

The results of this study match my own intuitions.  I’m not convinced that strict determinism is true (mostly due to quantum physics and chaos theory), but I don’t see that as really rescuing libertarian free will, which I find incoherent.  Regardless of whether or not the mind lies completely within the brain, its operations will be constrained by its experiences and nature, even if part of that nature is immaterial.

But I do see the term “free will” remaining useful to describe our ability to act on our own desires, and to pragmatically hold people accountable for their choices, with the strong caution that those choices were constrained by their experiences and genetics.  There, but for the whims of chance, go any of us.

What is your definition of free will?  Do you think we have it?  Are you a determinist?  If so, do you think determinism rules out free will?  What role does responsibility play?

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18 Responses to Free will persists even if your brain made you do it

  1. Dang. I always have claimed that our shared folk intuitions support libertarianism and not compatibilism. Guess I didn’t get the memo that everyone else had a different assumption. Suppose I have to kiss that ‘argument from folk psychology’ goodbye.

    I’m not certain that experimental philosophy isn’t entirely misguided, but it is an interesting development in the history of philosophy.

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  2. john zande says:

    Romantically speaking, perhaps its the case we only had true free will at one point in our lives. Long ago, during aborisation, we made a choice which wasn’t driven, or nudged, by something else… and from then on, determinism has pretty much ruled the day. Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “…which allows scientists to predict everything she’ll decide and do with 100 per cent accuracy, including how she’ll vote in upcoming elections.”

    I chuckled at this, thinking, “I can predict how people will vote based on their cars.” 🙂 Well, not really. I do have a Republican friend who drives a Prius, so there goes that.

    I suppose my definition of free will—well, not so much a definition—is that we have it when we feel ourselves making choices. I realize that doesn’t sound very rigorous. But like I’ve said before, I can’t imagine a scenario in which my direct and persistent experience of free will could be utterly undermined.

    I would agree with those polled in the thought experiment. In the first case, Jill has free will. In the second, she doesn’t. But I also highly suspect the second case is not possible. Thinkable, yes, but not possible. In the second scenario the person whose mind is being manipulated would either know it’s happening or the scientists would have to erase her memory and ability to reason. I can’t imagine mind control at that level, I suppose.

    “Are you a determinist? If so, do you think determinism rules out free will?”

    I thought determinism was the opposite of free will, by definition?

    “What role does responsibility play?”

    In the first case where the scientists can ‘read’ Jill’s thoughts, I think she’s still responsible for her actions. The moral element is still at play here, since she still has free will. In the second, definitely not.

    “Most people’s intuitive conception of free will appears to be the freedom to act on one’s own desires, even if those desires are determined by our experiences, our genetics, and the laws of physics. It’s only when one is forced to act on someone else’s desires that free will disappears.”

    This is such an interesting topic. I might have to write a post about freedom and various conceptions of it. Some philosophers say you have to not only act on your desires to be free, but also know what’s good for you. Interesting, n’est ce-pas?

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    • Thanks for the responses! Your definition reminds me of a similar one posted by another blogger (whose name is totally escaping me right now) that defined free will as the experience of making choices, which I believe he then attempted to rigorously defend.

      On mind control, here’s an interesting question. If someone could reprogram your desires, making you desire something you currently don’t, and you then chose to act on those new desires, would you be acting with free will? In my mind, the fact that the new desire was implanted is significant, but I could see a case being made that the original desires were simply older implants from experience and genetics.

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      • It’s an interesting question!

        I think with the “older implants” from experience and genetics there’s still free will. There’s a broad spectrum of things that are determined for you—I’d prefer to call it disposition—but the detailed stuff still has to be worked out. And, of course, it’s possible to break free from genetics and experience, but very hard.

        On the reprogramming question, I think it depends on how these desires were “implanted” and how arbitrary they are. If suddenly I find myself zapped by scientists to desire standing on my head while singing Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”, then I would want to say I’ve lost my free will because I’ve lost my sanity…Actually, I might try it just for fun. A good way to work on my French 🙂

        There was a professor at Marlboro College who swore up and down that the “mad Russian” he went to had effectively hypnotized him to get him to quit smoking. Even in that case I’d say he still had free will—he wanted to quit, but didn’t have the, um, will power to do it. So he went to a magic man to change his desires…but, of course, according to a higher desire.

        So suppose you’re implanted with an irrational desire. You still have the choice on how to act upon that desire. You still have free will. You can choose NOT to act on that desire, if you think it’s bad for you. In order to truly implant any desire whatsoever, there would have to be a removal of rationality as well, because reason would quickly overtake anything ridiculous. But supposing it’s not ridiculous? Suppose it’s simply a matter of quitting smoking or eating more vegetables? I’d say you still have free will.

        I think freedom and/or free will are connected with rationality in some way, but I’m not quite sure how yet.

        Think of law. We can plead ‘insanity’ and get out of responsibility.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “You can choose NOT to act on that desire, if you think it’s bad for you.”

          Hmmm. What motivates us to override a desire? Reason? What motivates us to reason? Another desire? Eventually, if we dig down through the layers, don’t we get down to a foundation of brute desires? So ultimately, desires override desires? Aren’t our choices made from a collection of competing desires of varying strengths?

          Please don’t feel any obligation to answer any of that. Just food for thought.

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          • I think it’s a very good question. I feel within myself desires that I don’t really desire. Every freaking day, in fact. Plato would say we desire nothing but what’s good for us, but lack the knowledge of what’s good. I sort of agree with him, but he oversimplifies the matter. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he’s spot on, but makes it seem a lot less problematic and difficult. In any case, the way he puts it makes people cringe, so I shouldn’t have even mentioned him.

            Anyway, we have low desires that make us miserable and higher desires that make us happy. So yes, it’s layers and layers of desires, but with reason they go up and achieve something that make us ultimately happy (because, dare I say, these desire are actually good and we FEEL it), and without reason they go down and make us feel like slaves…in other words, they make us feel not really free, even though we chose them. Does that make sense?

            Sorry about the language. I understand if it doesn’t make sense. I’m getting into the realm of psychology here, which is sticky business.

            Think of addiction. Addicts are miserable. Nobody wants to be miserable. (We can say that without questioning, can’t we?) But they can’t stop, not without a great deal of will power or someone to lock them up in a room and make them detox. So these lower desires can be really powerful, more powerful than reason.

            And I think reason, properly used, can lead to happiness. Which is, I believe, an end in itself.

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          • Actually, I think you found a good way to describe it. Another way might be that we have many short term desires which, through reason, we can know aren’t compatible with our long term desires, such as survival and well-being. As in the case of addiction, we can’t always resist those short term desires, but the motivation to resist comes from those longer term desires. Often, we end up compromising with a ratio between appeasing those short and long term desires.

            Liked by 1 person

      • curiosetta says:

        > If someone could reprogram your desires, making you desire something you currently don’t, and you then chose to act on those new desires, would you be acting with free will?

        If someone reprograms MY desires then (by definition) the new desires I experience are no longer mine. Mind control (in this context) means taking control of ANOTHER’S mind.

        You might claim use of your legs, but if I bind your legs with rope or manipulate them like a string puppet (‘leg control’) you no longer have use of them. But ‘mind control’ or ‘leg control’ have nothing to do with our natural (ie unmolested) capacity to express free will and walk of our own volition.

        Destroying all the fruit of an apple tree (or picking off all of its leaves until it no longer bears fruit) does not affect the natural capacity of apple trees to bear fruit in the form of apples.

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  4. curiosetta says:

    > The free will debate has been going on for millenia

    In the absence of free will there can be no debate. A debate (of this kind) requires each side to make claims of objective truth (X is true, Y is false etc). But in a deterministic universe no such claims can be made because any claim is causally determined, and therefore cannot be considered a preference (choice) for truth over falsehood. Therefore to *debate* free will is to assert that free will exists – whether you are debating ‘for’ or ‘against’ free will makes no difference.

    > To some, the fact that Jill is totally predictable – like the trajectory of balls bouncing around a pool table – is clearly incompatible with her having free will in the first place.

    How so? I test 100 subjects by putting $1000 on table in a room surrounded by deadly venomous snakes. I give them the opportunity to enter the room and try and grab the money. None of them take up the offer making them all thoroughly predictable. In what way does that prove a lack of free will on their part?

    How people vote is usually determined by a mixture of rational self interest, childhood indoctrination and peer pressure…. all of which are very strong motivators which is why most voters very predictable creatures. Being strongly motivated from within and by outside pressures is not the same as not having free will. As long as a choice exists (even if that choice is so undesirable nobody is choosing it) then there is free will.

    > ….. even when Jill’s behaviour could be predicted, people still thought she acted on her own reasons, and remained responsible for them.

    Makes sense. Acting predictably does not mean not having a choice. As long as there is choice there is free will by definition. The predictability of a person’s behaviour does NOT prove a lack of choice for that person.

    You could even argue that predictable behaviour (due to motivations like self preservation, greed etc) point towards free will because if behaviour was truly causal it would include more UNpredictability (like billiard balls after a break). But in the end, predictable/ unpredictable behaviour proves nothing in relation to free will …. it just proves the behaviour can or can’t be predicted.

    > When she was manipulated, she acted on someone else’s reasons and the responsibility was no longer her own.

    Makes sense. If the manipulator took choice out of the equation by manipulating her brain by force then obviously she could not express free will.

    > Most people’s intuitive conception of free will appears to be the freedom to act on one’s own desires, even if those desires are determined by our experiences, our genetics, and the laws of physics.

    A better definition is the possibility of *choosing* how one acts in the midst of competing desires (or in the midst of a singular desire). Free will just means you have a choice in how you act. having a ‘choice’ just means that TWO OR MORE possibilities exist at the same moment in time for that person. In a strictly causal universe NO choices exist for anyone because for each moment in time only ONE possibility ever exists: the precise sum total of all causal factors leading up to that moment.

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    • Thanks for your views!

      I’m not quite sure I can see how, even in a hard deterministic universe, where everything is strictly causally determined, that people wouldn’t argue about free will. Wouldn’t our position on whether or not free will exists have been formed as the result of a long chain of causal factors, different for each person, resulting in different opinions, and therefore debate? The final result of such a debate might have been determined at the big bang, but wouldn’t it still happen?

      These questions are somewhat hypothetical to me since, as I mentioned in the post, I’m not a convinced determinist.

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      • curiosetta says:

        > I’m not quite sure I can see how, even in a hard deterministic universe, where everything is strictly causally determined, that people wouldn’t argue about free will.

        Sure, I’m not saying they wouldn’t argue and debate the issue. I’m just saying that by doing so they are claiming free will exists – even if they take a deterministic stance 🙂

        To be a determinist means you assert that determinism is objectively TRUE and free will is objectively FALSE.

        Anyone who claims an objective truth (X is true, Y is false) is by definition expressing a preferred state (X) while rejecting the state (Y). They are literally CHOOSING X over Y. By asserting their ability to make this choice they are asserting their free will. Choice means free will. Things that do not have free will (rocks tumbling down a hill, chemicals in a test tube, grains of sand on a stormy beach) cannot make choices by definition.

        If human behaviour (including human thought) is just the result of strictly causal factors such as genetics, environmental influence, very complex chemical reactions in our brains (etc etc) then our behaviour is fundamentally no different to that of rocks, chemicals in a test tube or grains of sand on a beach. In every case there can be no choosing, no choice and thus no free will.

        The result of taking a deterministic stance is having to stop claiming the ability to choose preferred states (including objective truths), for there can be none in a deterministic universe, by definition. A determinist who claims to be able to ‘debate’, ‘choose’, ‘prefer’ or ‘argue’ in any kind of objective way is a fraud (or just confused).

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think I see what you’re getting at. By choosing to debate about free will, they’re demonstrating their free will by making that choice. As a compatibilist, I agree.

          But I suspect a strict determinist would claim that their decision to debate free will is an illusion, that they never really had a choice about whether or not to debate. A key issue is whether it is valid to regard “choice” as an emergent concept. Since I see everything as emergent (except for possibly elementary particles or fields), I don’t have an issue with it. But my experience is that determinists often do.

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          • curiosetta says:

            > By choosing to debate about free will, they’re demonstrating their free will by making that choice.

            Yes, by choosing to debate ANYTHING in a formal way they are literally claiming to be able to choose X over Y (truth vs falsehood, valid vs invalid etc). If they are not choosing X over Y in a debate then they are not making any objective claims of truth and are therefore acting no differently to a rock rolling down a mountain and hitting signpost X and missing signpost Y.

            > But I suspect a strict determinist would claim that their decision to debate free will is an illusion…

            Then it isn’t a decision (a choice, an act of free will) and they are therefore not debating because they are not CHOOSING (not deciding) one side or another in the debate, they are merely acting as they are causally determined to.

            If they claim deciding/ choosing / preferring/ debating is an illusion there they should stop calling it deciding/ choosing/ preferring / debating!

            If I claim the egg I hold in my hand is an illusion I must stop claiming to be holding a egg 🙂

            > …. that they never really had a choice about whether or not to debate

            If they had no choice then it was not a debate. They are no more ‘debating’ than a falling rock hitting signpost X and not Y is ‘debating’.

            Why should a human who is causally determined to make assertion X be any more of a ‘debater’ than a rock being causally determined to hit signpost X?

            > A key issue is whether it is valid to regard “choice” as an emergent concept.

            But in a deterministic universe there can be no choice because the only possibility that exists is whatever happens to be the sum of all causal factors leading up to that moment. Only one possibility = no choice.

            Determinists claim the ability to choose determinism over free will, even though determinism theory defines choice as an illusion.

            That is a bit like walking 20 miles to give a lecture where you assert that humans do not really have legs.

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          • “If they claim deciding/ choosing / preferring/ debating is an illusion there they should stop calling it deciding/ choosing/ preferring / debating!”

            Well said! I’ll have to remember that riposte.

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