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Is Free Will a Mirage?

September 23 2010 at 4:54 PM

  (Premier Login Oscar50)
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Thursday, September 16, 2010
Irreligiosity - Is Free Will a Mirage?

From the September 11, 2010 edition of the Owen Sound Sun Times:

Free will is the popular belief that human behavior is something more than the unavoidable consequences of a person's genetics and environment. Most of us like to believe that we have free will - we assume that we can freely choose between different flavors of ice cream, which television channel to watch and which newspaper columns to read. By "freely choose", I mean that the decision has not already been predetermined for us by factors outside our control. The notion that a person can freely choose between good and evil lies at the heart of many religions.

Many philosophers and scientists contend that free will is a mirage. Why? Because every supposedly "free" choice we make appears to be the product of causes that determine the choice. While you may think that you have the freedom to buy a one-way ticket to Timbuktu, the reality is you are likely no more free to make that decision than a monarch butterfly is free to decide whether it will migrate south this fall or not. The only difference between you and the monarch is that you are higher functioning and have the ability to buy the ticket or not.

This is not meant to suggest that all human decisions are predictable - decisions are likely affected by subatomic particles subject to quantum indeterminacy. A person might also decide to flip a coin. However, the suggestion that we make decisions free from causal factors that entirely determine those decisions appears to conflict with the best scientific evidence available. Brain researchers have recently found evidence to suggest that certain decisions can be made up to 10 seconds before a decision enters human awareness (see Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain, Nature Neuroscience 11, 543 - 545 (2008)). Simply put, if someone watching your brain scan can tell that you are going to choose chocolate ice cream while you are still mulling between chocolate and vanilla, it is hard to understand how your choice of chocolate was made freely.

If you accept this reasoning, it has some unsettling implications. For example, should criminals be held morally responsible for their crimes if they could not have acted otherwise? If there is no such thing as contra-causal free will (i.e. decisions that are not fully caused), punishing criminals for the sake of retribution is a waste of time. Punishing people for bad behavior because you think they should be punished for making the wrong choice is just as useless as heaping praise on them for doing something good when they supposedly could have chosen to do something bad. The only justifiable reason for punishment should be to deter the offender and others from committing the crime in the future.

Similarly, should a spouse hold their partner morally blameworthy for infidelity? The answer to this question, I believe, is no - not in the sense that a person who decides to cheat on their spouse could have made a different decision. If the spurned spouse's desire is to save the relationship, there may be plenty to be gained by trying to impose moral blame on the cheater but only insofar as that blame might cause the actor to act differently in the future. If the spurned spouse has decided that the marriage has been irreparably harmed, there is truly no point in blaming the actor for something which they did not have the free will to change.

University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True and a blog of the same name) has summed up the prevailing view as follows:

"We simply don't like to think that we're molecular automatons, and so we adopt a definition of free will that makes us think we're free. But as far as I can see, I, like everyone else, am just a molecular puppet. I don't like that much, but that's how it is. I don't like the fact that I'm going to die, either, but you don't see me redefining the notion of "death" to pretend I'm immortal."

None of this is intended to suggest that behavior cannot be influenced. We can exert causes on our own future behavior and that of others. However, once a deed is done it is futile to believe an actor could have freely chosen to act otherwise.

The amusing upshot of this is that I likely had no more free will to write this column than you did to read it!

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