Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

What Is Free Will?

Human actions produced by brain mechanisms are freeish rather than free.

In March, I attended a fascinating conference in Geneva on the ethical and social implications of the Human Brain Project. This project is spending a billion Euros over 10 years to study how brains work, with applications to mental illness and the development of new kinds of brain-like robots. Several of the ethicists who spoke at the conference were concerned about the implications of the project for the traditional idea of free will. Could progress on understanding brain mechanisms result in abandonment of the widespread belief that people's actions are free?

In a recent blog post, I boldly asserted that there is no free will because there is no will. I have recently changed my mind, because I now see how the kinds of neural theories that my colleagues and I have been developing can have room for will. The actions that result from neural processes might even be considered to be free in a weak sense that I will call “freeish”.

The reason that I concluded that there is no will is that our new model of intention and action does not seem to have any place or need in it for will. The interactions of multiple brain areas, such as the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate and the amygdala, yield actions without any mechanism or operation that involves will. But I recently realized that combining the neural model of intention and action with other new neural theories of emotion and consciousness produces a way of understanding what will might be.

On the expanded view, will is the ability to make choices resulting from the interaction of numerous brain areas, all of which are relevant to understanding intention, action, emotion, and consciousness. It is important to distinguish between automatic and deliberate actions. Many of our routine actions are largely unconscious, for example putting on a coat by putting one sleeve in and then the other. At the other extreme, consider a decision that I recently made about whether to accept an invitation to speak at a conference in India. On the one hand, I wanted to visit India and see the Taj Mahal, which is in Agra the site of the conference. On the other hand, the two flights each way would take almost 24 hours and involve substantial amounts of jet lag, severely cutting into my sabbatical plans to write a book on brain, mind, and society. The decision not to go to India took me several days and was based on extensive conscious deliberation, explainable by combining existing neural models of intention and consciousness.

If will exists as this kind of complicated neural process, is it free? Obviously, it is not free in the way that the actions of a nonmaterial, immortal soul are supposed to be free, operating independently of causal forces. My decision to turn down the trip to India had many causal forces operating at neural and molecular levels. However in line with the compatibilist (soft determinist) approach to the free will problem, it is important to note that my decision was unaffected by external coercion, internal mental illness, and random quantum fluctuations. More positively, my decision required much conscious deliberation as opposed to routine automatic behaviors. Therefore, I now think that there are at least some cases of human action that result from a sort of will that deserves to be called freeish. Freeish will may not be all that one could want from a religious perspective, but it suffices for allowing human actions to be valuable, meaningful, and responsible.

Paul Thagard, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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