The metaphysical concept of free will is dead – if not buried. Biologists, you would think, would have none of it. They would object to the idea that a biological fact, such as an organism’s behavior, emerges from nothing. In particular, biologists will object to any kind of dualism more strongly than psychologists would. They understand better than we do that the brain runs the show and the brain is only [no offense] a biological machine.
To rescue the concept of free will from the metaphysical midden, biologists must [a] argue strictly along material lines and [b] outflank Hume’s dichotomy of chance and determinism. Brembs (2010) thinks he has done this. His solution is to point to the astounding behavioral variability of which an organism is capable. Producing variable instead of stereotypic behavior allows an organism to evade predators, outmaneuver rivals, and find new food and mating opportunities. Keeping behavior variable is creative and it is adaptive. I could not agree more.
Behavior is free, Brembs suggests, if it is more variable than the stimuli that precede it. If there is no surplus in variability, a behavior is just a response; if there is a surplus, there is action. Organisms that move without being obviously moved by an external force seem to locomote. Brembs offers examples of invertebrates that move about, although conditions have not changed. The more they move and the more unpredictably they do so, the freer they are. I don’t agree.
Consider the behavior of tethered flies. “Even though there was nothing in the environment prompting the animals to change their behavior, they kept initiating turning manoeuvres in all directions. Clearly, each of these manoeuvres was a self-initiated, spontaneous action and not a response to some triggering , external stimulus” (p. 934).
What about internal stimuli? Being a fantastically complicated machine, the brain continuously stimulates itself or rather its many parts stimulate one another. Since we have agreed that there can be no truly spontaneous, metaphysically inspired novel events, then what appears to be spontaneous and novel to the observer must be the result of rich but covert activity. You will, for example, wake up in the morning – eventually – even if you slept in a sensory deprivation chamber; and so would a reptile (I can’t vouch for invertebrates). Should we conclude that waking up is freely willed? Brembs might have to answer in the affirmative because he takes care to exclude consciousness (as we know it) from his definition of free will, which enables him to include invertebrates. It seems to me that behavior is either a response to antecedent stimuli (i.e., determined) or it is truly random, which takes me back to Hume’s dichotomy.
If you don't find the waking-up example convincing, what about certain types of psychotic behavior? Some psychotic behavior is stereotyped, but some is variable, not contingent on its surroundings, and thus "crazy" in naive terms. The internal, self-stimulating processes of the psychotic mind are certainly not free. If the mind were free, it would stop itself from this kind of self-stimulation and end the suffering.
Brembs thinks that “the Humean dichotomy of chance and necessity is invalid for complex processes such as evolution and brain functioning. Such phenomena incorporate multiple components that are both lawful and indeterminate” (p. 933). What are those components that are both lawful and indeterminate? I doubt that even the fly’s turning behavior is indeterminate. If it were truly random, then in what way would it be lawful? To say that behavior is lawfully random would be to make a mockery of the word lawful. And what about evolution? If we take Darwin’s non-teleological view, we see random variation and the reinforcement of that which works, after the fact. Evolution does not “initiate” variation “in order to” test hypotheses, as Brembs believes his flies do.
Brembs takes a stab at Laplacian determinism by banking on self-organization and unpredictability. Indeed, the study of animals’ self-organizational and other-deceptive capacities is a deep fount of fascination. The inconvenient truth about self-organization is that it is not unique to animals, let alone human animals. Self-organization is all over nature. Self-organization is nature. Plants have it, the weather has it, the whole planet has it (Lorenz, 1963). Anyone who wishes to offer a perspective on free will must beware of not explaining too much. If free will (without consciousness) comes cheap in our universe, human exceptionalism goes down the drain again, lost to those who wish to save it and who are anxious to hold humans responsible for their actions – and punish them. The arguments Brembs presents are more aligned with naturalism than he seems to realize.
The self-organization we see everywhere and which defies prediction can be modeled by chaos mathematics (Hofstadter, 1979). From small initial differences and simple recursive formulas, astonishing and unpredicted variation emerges; and it is all so lawful and deterministic. A mind that works like that can’t help but be puzzled when looking at itself. It cannot comprehend how its phenomenal complexity has risen up from the relentless grinding of simple algorithms. In desperation, this mind fancies itself to be free. It accepts the hypothesis of freedom because the alternative is just too darn difficult. The flies have one advantage over us: They don’t worry about it.
Brembs, B. (2010). Toward a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates. Proc. R. Soc. B 2011 278, 930-939.
Hofstadter, D. R. (1979). Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid. New York: Basic Books.
Lorenz, E. N. (1963). Deterministic non-periodic flow. Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, 20, 130–141.