IT SEEMS OBVIOUS to me that I have free will. When I have just made a decision, say, to go to a concert, I feel that I could have chosen to do something else. Yet many philosophers say this instinct is wrong. According to their view, free will is a figment of our imagination. No one has it or ever will. Rather our choices are either determined—necessary outcomes of the events that have happened in the past—or they are random.
Our intuitions about free will, however, challenge this nihilistic view. We could, of course, simply dismiss our intuitions as wrong. But psychology suggests that doing so would be premature: our hunches often track the truth pretty well [see “The Powers and Perils of Intuition,” by David G. Myers; Scientific American Mind, June/July 2007]. For example, if you do not know the answer to a question on a test, your first guess is more likely to be right. In both philosophy and science, we may feel there is something fishy about an argument or an experiment before we can identify exactly what the problem is.
The debate over free will is one example in which our intuitions conflict with scientific and philosophical arguments. Something similar holds for intuitions about consciousness, morality, and a host of other existential concerns. Typically philosophers deal with these issues through careful thought and discourse with other theorists. In the past decade, however, a small group of philosophers have adopted more data-driven methods to illuminate some of these confounding questions. These so-called experimental philosophers administer surveys, measure reaction times and image brains to understand the sources of our instincts. If we can figure out why we feel we have free will, for example, or why we think that consciousness consists of something more than patterns of neural activity in our brain, we might know whether to give credence to those feelings. That is, if we can show that our intuitions about free will emerge from an untrustworthy process, we may decide not to trust those beliefs.
To discover the psychological basis for philosophical problems, experimental philosophers often survey people about their views on charged issues. For instance, scholars have argued about whether individuals actually believe that their choices are independent of the past and the laws of nature. Experimental philosophers have tried to resolve the debate by asking study participants whether they agree with descriptions such as the following:
Imagine a universe in which everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. So what happened in the beginning of the universe caused what happened next and so on, right up to the present. If John decided to have french fries at lunch one day, this decision, like all others, was caused by what happened before it.
When surveyed, Americans say they disagree with such descriptions of the universe. From inquiries in other countries, researchers have found that Chinese, Colombians and Indians share this opinion: individual choice is not determined. Why do humans hold this view? One promising explanation is that we presume that we can generally sense all the influences on our decision making—and because we cannot detect deterministic influences, we discount them.
Of course, people do not believe they have conscious access to everything in their mind. We do not presume to intuit the causes of headaches, memory formation or visual processing. But research indicates that people do think they can access the factors affecting their choices.
Yet psychologists widely agree that unconscious processes exert a powerful influence over our choices. In one study, for example, participants solved word puzzles in which the words were either associated with rudeness or politeness. Those exposed to rudeness words were much more likely to interrupt the experimenter in a subsequent part of the task. When debriefed, none of the subjects showed any awareness that the word puzzles had affected their behavior. That scenario is just one of many in which our decisions are directed by forces lurking beneath our awareness.
Thus, ironically, because our subconscious is so powerful in other ways, we cannot truly trust it when considering our notion of free will. We still do not know conclusively that our choices are determined. Our intuition, however, provides no good reason to think that they are not. If our instinct cannot support the idea of free will, then we lose our main rationale for resisting the claim that free will is an illusion.
Is Consciousness Just a Brain Process?
Though a young movement, experimental philosophy is broad in scope. Its proponents apply their methods to varied philosophical problems, including questions about the nature of the self. For example, what (if anything) makes you the same person from childhood to adulthood? They investigate issues in ethics, too: Do people think that morality is objective, as is mathematics, and if so, why? Akin to the question of free will, they are also tackling the dissonance between our intuitions and scientific theories of consciousness.
Scientists have postulated that consciousness is populations of neurons firing in certain brain areas, no more and no less. To most people, however, it seems bizarre to think that the distinctive tang of kumquats, say, is just a pattern of neural activation.
Our instincts about consciousness are triggered by specific cues, experimental philosophers explain, among them the existence of eyes and the appearance of goal-directed behavior, but not neurons. Studies indicate that people’s intuitions tell them that insects—which, of course, have eyes and show goal-directed behavior—can feel happiness, pain and anger.
The problem is that insects very likely lack the neural wherewithal for these sensations and emotions. What is more, engineers have programmed robots to display simple goal-directed behaviors, and these robots can produce the uncanny impression that they have feelings, even though the machines are not remotely plausible candidates for having awareness. In short, our instincts can lead us astray on this matter, too. Maybe consciousness does not have to be something different from—or above and beyond—brain processes.
Philosophical conflicts over such concepts as free will and consciousness often have their roots in ordinary intuitions, and the historical debates often end in stalemates. Experimental philosophers maintain that we can move past some of these impasses if we understand the nature of our gut feelings. This nascent field will probably not produce a silver bullet to fully restore or discredit our beliefs in free will and other potential illusions. But by understanding why we find certain philosophical views intuitively compelling, we might find ourselves in a position to recognize that, in some cases, we have little reason to hold onto our hunches.
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Think of someone that you dislike. Let’s call this person X. Now, imagine that you were born with X’s “genetic material.” That is, imagine that you had X’s looks, body odor, inherent tastes, intelligence, aptitudes, etc. Imagine, further, that you had X’s upbringing and life-experiences as well; so, imagine that you had X’s parents growing up, and that you grew up in the same country, city, and neighborhood in which X grew up, etc.
Would behave any differently from how X behaves?
Most people realize, perhaps after a moment of startled pause, that the answer to the question is “No.”
The question helps people realize that their thoughts and actions are determined entirely by their genetic and social conditioning. In other words, it helps people intuitively grasp the idea that free will is an illusion.
Over the past few decades, gathering evidence from both psychology and the neurosciences has provided convincing support for the idea that free will is an illusion. (Read this and this, but for a contrarian view, also read this.) Of course, most people can’t relate to the idea that free will is an illusion, and there’s a good reason why. It feels as if we exercise free will all the time. For instance, it seems that you are exercising free will in choosing to read this article. Similarly, it seems that you exercise free will when you deny yourself the pleasure of eating tasty-but-unhealthy food, or when you overcome laziness to work out at the gym.
But these choices do not necessarily reflect free will. To understand why, consider why you sometimes deny yourself an unhealthy-but-tasty snack. It’s because you were, at some point in your life, made to recognize the long-term negative effects of eating such food. Perhaps you noticed that consuming unhealthy food makes you feel heavy, or that regularly consuming such food makes your blood pressure shoot up. Or perhaps your doctor told you that you need to stop eating unhealthy food; or maybe you read about the negative effects of consuming unhealthy food in a magazine. In other words, you deny yourself the pleasure of consuming unhealthy food because of exposure to external inputs—feedback from your body or from others—over which you had no control. Had you been exposed to a different set of inputs—e.g., despite consuming unhealthy food, your health did not suffer, or your doctor never dissuaded you from eating unhealthy food—you wouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure of eating tasty-but-unhealthy food.
If you think carefully about any decision you have made in the past, you will recognize that all of them were ultimately based on similar—genetic or social—inputs to which you had been exposed. And you will also discover that you had no control over these inputs, which means that you had no free will in taking the decisions you did. For instance, you had no choice in where, to whom, and in what period of time, you were born. You also had no choice in the kind of neighbors and friends to whom you were exposed during early childhood. You therefore had no choice in how you made your decisions during that time.
It might seem, at first blush, that many of the decisions you made later—during late childhood or adolescence—were based on free will, but that is not the case. The decisions you made during late childhood and adolescence were based on the tastes, opinions, and attitudes you had developed in your early childhood, and on those to which you were exposed through your family, friends, media, or the natural environment. And so on, which means that the decision you now make are based on the tastes, opinions and attitudes you have developed over the years or on those to which you are now exposed through contact with the external environment. Looked at in this light, belief in free will is itself a consequence of genetic and social inputs: without the development of the neocortex and without exposure to the idea of free will from societal inputs, we wouldn't believe in free will.
Thus, although it might seem like you exercise free will in overcoming temptations or in overriding self-centered interests, this is not the case. Free will is equally uninvolved when you give into temptations and when you curb them.
If free will is an illusion, what are the implications? How should we think or behave differently?
There are two incorrect and two correct conclusions to which most people arrive when they are introduced to the idea that free will is an illusion. The first incorrect conclusion to which many people arrive is the following: “if free will is an illusion, it is OK for me to give into my impulses and temptations.” Several studies have shown that when people are told that free will is an illusion, they are more likely to cheat and less likely to work hard. It is easy to understand why people have this reaction to the idea that free will is an illusion: if giving into temptations is no more or no less an act of free will than is curbing them, why struggle to overcome the temptations?
This way of thinking, however, is incorrect because, although curbing temptations doesn’t involve the free will, the consequences from curbing temptations are very different from those that arise from giving into them. Thus, whether or not you act of out of free will in denying yourself the unhealthy-but-tasty cake, you will still have to face the health consequences of eating unhealthy meals. Likewise, whether or not you acted out of free will in committing a crime, you will still have to face the consequences of your misdeeds. So, from a purely consequentialist perspective, it makes sense to sometimes curb your temptations.
The second incorrect conclusion to which people arrive is related to the first: “if free will is an illusion, there is no use in punishing wrong-doers.” Again, it is easy to see why people think this way. If others did not have a choice in how they behaved, how can they be held culpable? However, although wrong-doers did not have a choice in how they behaved, their behavior still has real and important consequences for the others around them. And more importantly, we know that one of the ways of changing people’s behaviors is by exposing them to a set of external inputs—including punishments—that steer them in a different direction.
Thus, it makes sense to mete out punishments to wrong-doers, so as to dissuade them from committing similar types of misdeeds in the future.
This brings me to the first of the two correct conclusions to which people should—but rarely do—arrive after realizing that free will is an illusion.
This conclusion concerns how we treat others for their misdeeds. Although, for reasons explained above, it is important to punish wrong-doers, those who realize that free will is an illusion should mete out the punishments with compassion. Understanding that free will is an illusion means recognizing that people behave in the only way they know how. As such, it is important to realize that, when people act in harmful ways, it is because they are ignorant of the forces that actually shape their thoughts and behaviors.
There are two main reasons why one should be compassionate even towards those who commit misdeeds, such as hurting others. First, those who commit misdeeds are also hurting themselves. As results from research on emotions show, selfish or hurtful acts generally stem from emotional negativity. In other words, it is those feeling angry, insecure, and stressed—and not those feeling happy, secure and relaxed—who are likely to behave badly. And second, those who behave badly are setting themselves up for negative outcomes in the future. In other words, because those who commit misdeeds are currently suffering from emotional negativity or will suffer from negative outcomes in the future, one should be compassionate towards them.
The second implication centers on the attributions that one should make for one’s successes and failures. As is well known, people generally tend to take credit for their successes, and tend to blame others or the circumstances for their failures.
Those who recognize that free will is an illusion will realize that their successes and failures have much more to do with “luck”—the set of genetic and social inputs to which they have been randomly exposed—than with their “self developed” talents and consciously-made choices. Crediting luck for one’s successes leads one to experience an entirely different set of emotions—gratitude, elevation, love, etc.—than does taking personal credit for them. Likewise, recognizing the role of the inputs that led to failures promotes learning and wisdom. By contrast, blaming others for failures leads to the experience of anger, and the sense of entitlement that, as I discussed in an earlier article, leads to negative consequences and divisiveness.
So, overall, contrary to what one may initially think, realizing that free will is an illusion should lead to greater maturity, compassion, and emotional stability. Hopefully, the ideas in this article serve as the external inputs that steer you in this positive direction.
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Like dominos, thoughts and actions are shaped by forces outside our control.
Punishments can be like signposts in a maze that help redirect people toward desirable behaviors