Free Will Is Real: But it's mentalistic, not mechanistic

Determinism relates to mechanistic cognition, free will to mentalism

Posted Apr 28, 2010

Free will is one of those things people argue about endlessly, and the reason is that they are confusing two different cognitive realities, one relating to mentalism, and one to mechanism. The former is the cognitive universe of other people, who have minds, motives—and yes, freedom of choice. The latter relates to the physical world of unthinking objects where Newtonian, relativistic, or quantum mechanical causality determines outcomes (depending on the scale being considered).

To the extent that the brain is a physical object, there is now overwhelming and widely replicated proof that conscious choices are pre-determined by mechanisms which take place at the level of individual neurons—and which clearly do not possess the mental attribute of free will. One of the earliest demonstrations involved wiring people’s brains via scalp electrodes to a switch which determined which way a carousel would rotate, and then asking them to chose a direction of rotation. To the amazement of the subjects, the carousel began to turn in the desired direction before they had indicated their choice!

Christopher Badcock after B. Libet 1999
Source: Christopher Badcock after B. Libet 1999

The scalp electrodes were picking up so-called readiness potentials. These occur 550 milliseconds before the act they initiate. Subjects become consciously aware of their intention to act 350-400 milliseconds after the readiness potential starts, allowing consciousness a veto in the 200 milliseconds or so before the motor act runs to completion. However, because our conscious awareness lags behind the brain mechanisms causing our decisions, we effectively project our awareness of them backwards, so that we do not normally notice the lag (above). Mechanistically speaking, you could say that we live in a virtual present slightly offset from the real present, and that although we may not have free will at the level of the neuron, we do have free won’t at the conscious level.

Why? Because consciousness is a mental state, and because free will is a reality in the mentalistic universe of other people’s minds even if it is not in the physical world of the brain. This is why consciousness needs a veto: only consciousness can allow for the mental factor of other people’s possible reactions. Consider a simple scenario: that of a fugitive and his pursuers. The fugitive, by definition, is free—indeed, he is determined to remain free. But the question is: how free? And in what sense is he free?

Suppose the pursuers know that the fugitive is likely to resort to location A with the highest probability (his home, say), B with less probability (his family perhaps), or C with less likelihood still (for example, acquaintances), and so on, with decreasing probability for each subsequent suspected place of refuge. If the fugitive thinks for a moment, he immediately realizes that the pursuers will think this. In other words, he becomes conscious of what they might do, and in practice exercises normal mind-reading skills (something which an autistic fugitive might not do at all, or do badly). What this means is that the fugitive instantly sees that, wherever he goes, he is not free to visit A, almost certainly not B, and probably not C either. However, knowing that his pursuers cannot cover all possible refuges at one time, he might decide to go to some very improbable ones, say X, Y, or Z. But there again, he might reflect that, if he is sure his pursuers will foresee that he might think this, he might consider A, B, or C after all on the premise that, since he is expected to go there first, they will not look for him there if they anticipate his reaction to their reaction. Nevertheless, the fugitive cannot rule out his pursuers foreseeing this in its turn and therefore continuing to search for him at A, B, and C—which once again suggests somewhere like X, Y or Z… 

Considerations like this show that free will is a reality, but it is one that relates to the mental world of other people, not to the physical world of neurons. In practice, we have little choice but to believe in free will because the alternatives—thinking that people are pre-determined robots or that their behavior is totally random—would put us at a severe disadvantage in situations like this. Indeed, it would effectively make us autistic in this respect—something that doesn’t pay if you are keen on preserving your freedom!

Indeed, as a fellow neuroscience contributor points out, a recent study found that belief in the reality of free will is a better predictor of career attitudes and actual job performance than other well-established predictors such as conscientiousness, locus of control, and Protestant work ethic. The authors speculate that this is presumably because belief in free will facilitates exerting control over one’s actions, just as I argue here. But more generally, the explanation must be that appreciating the reality of free will is tantamount to having good mentalistic skills where reading other people’s minds and behaviour is concerned, and this is clearly a major factor in success at work—as many autistics who lack such skills learn to their cost.