Degrees of Freedom

Thoughts on the problem of free will

Posted Aug 15, 2013

After a discussion on free will emerged on a psychology listserv I participate in, I decided to write a blog on it. Or did I?

The question of whether we humans are free agents that can authentically choose what we do (and thus be responsible for it) or if such experience of “choosing” is best considered an illusion determined by other processes is one of the great philosophical debates of all time. Although there are many different elements that go into the problem of free will, the fundamental core issue is the tension between our experience of being free to choose how we act and the fact that we live in a universe that, according to our best science, is determined by the laws of nature.

To get clear on the experience of freedom, consider that virtually all adults have the experience of making choices about how they will behave and then behaving in accordance with those choices. For example, if I ask you to raise either your right or left hand, then you decide to raise one (say the left one), then you go ahead and raise your left hand it seems inescapably obvious that you had the freedom to choose either hand, that you made the choice to raise the left hand and that the choice your made is the cause of why your left hand behaved the way it did.

Is that experience of choosing real or is it an illusion of some sort? When it comes to the issue of free will from a naturalistic standpoint (i.e., with no supernatural concepts like gods, angels or souls), there are basically three positions that have been staked out. One view, often referred to as the libertarian view, argues that we are indeed free agents, that our actions are not pre-determined by physics or anything else, and thus the view of the physically deterministic universe is false or at least incomplete or misleading at some level. This view was strongly endorsed by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who argued that humans are “condemned” to be free and that even if one does not want to be responsible, he cannot help but be responsible for his actions. As Sartre put it, "For I am responsible for my very desire of fleeing responsibilities. To make myself passive in the world, to refuse to act upon things and upon Others is still to choose myself, and suicide is one mode among others of being-in-the-world."

In complete contrast to this, is the view of the determinist. The determinist views the universe as lawful and sees behavior as the inevitable consequence of necessary and sufficient pre-existing conditions. You act the way you do because of your physical make-up. Although you are far more complicated, at rock bottom you ultimately are not unlike a rock that either stays put or slides down a mountain because of the laws of gravity and friction. Your brain, your environmental context, the contours of your beliefs and values, your reinforcement history (or whatever the particular determinist deems to be the “true” causal forces in the universe) all cause you to be the way you are and behave the way you do. The determinists received a big boost from a series of experiments by Benjamin Libet, who had participants move their finger and indicating exactly when they made the choice to do so. His research revealed the existence of a “readiness potential” of brain activation that preceded the experience of conscious choice, and some have interpreted as the death knell of free will. Other psychologists, like Freud, and more recently John Bargh, and Daniel Schacter have pointed out how often human behavior is influenced by forces outside of conscious awareness. The well-known atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris has recently articulated his support for a version of determinism in his blog and new book Free Will.

The libertarian view and the deterministic view are often called incompatibilist positions. Both agree that the human experience of freedom and the notion of a lawful, deterministic universe exist in logical contrast to one another—thus, one or the other is fundamentally incorrect. The third major class of positions on the free will versus determinism debate are called compatibilists.

Compatibilists often start by making the point that one needs to carefully examine the semantic meaning of the concepts prior to jumping to one conclusion as opposed to the other. For example, rather than thinking of free will as a causal concept (the will freely causes actions), it is essential to realize that it is legitimately described as a descriptive concept: that is, choice and volitional control obviously exist at a descriptive level. I had the choice to write this blog in a way that I don’t have the choice to end the violence in Egypt or Syria. Slaves have fewer choices and less freedom than masters; the rich have more freedom than the poor and so on. The point here is that the concept of freedom as a description of whether the individual can initiate the action without overwhelming influence of outside forces is an important point to keep in mind. And, clearly, there are different degrees of freedom in this sense of the word.

My perspective is essentially that of a compatibilist. However, as a psychologist when I read material on free will by philosophers and I am often struck by what is missing…a coherent map of human psychology. (For an interesting book mostly by psychologists on free will, see here). Without a framework for understanding human psychology, it seems extremely difficult to articulate what is meant by free will. My map of human psychology argues that humans have a self-consciousness system which evolved because the evolution of language led the problem of social justification. This means that humans have a psychological sub-system that is involved in the experience of making reflective choices, such as deciding whether to write a blog. Specifically, the private self-consciousness system is a system of justification that narrates events, gives reasons and legitimizes action. It is the “organ of culture” that “downloads” cultural narratives and regulates directed activities over time.

One of the biggest issues in the free will debate is the question of whether the person could have done otherwise. Could I have chosen not to write this blog? Or were my justifications, motives and reinforcement history such that writing this blog was inevitable? I think this way of framing the issue of free will is seriously problematic. Why? Because I am my justifications and my justifications exist as part of the unfolding wave of causality that is the universe. And the framing of the question suggests the existence of an uncaused cause, which I think is a problematic notion. That is why I prefer to think of the issue in terms of self-determination rather than free will.

Self-determination refers to actions that are legitimized by the individual’s justification system. I justified the writing of this blog, meaning that it was determined, in part, by my self-conscious justifications. Certainly there were other factors. If, for example, some major crisis came up in the last 24 hours, then I would not have done it. Moreover, it is possible that other ideas could have emerged from my subconscious mind that led me to justify writing on another topic. In short, certainly my justification system is not the only causal force in my actions, and there are things outside my self-conscious justification system that influence how it evolves. However, descriptively, what is meant when people say something is the product of free will is that the action is legitimized by the individual’s justification system.

Consider the example of raising your hand at the beginning of this blog. From the unified theory vantage point, the question of raising your hand serves as an important stimulus that frames your response. Raising your hand was thus obviously tied to the environmental context. The words were then translated into images and impulses that are part of your subconscious system. Multiple factors outside your self-consciousness system influenced whether you raised your left or right hand. At one point shortly after the question, the action impulse (or Libet’s readiness potential) emerged and your self-consciousness system legitimized raising your left hand. Your self-consciousness legitimizing the expression of the action was what is meant by choice.

In sum, we are clearly part of an unfolding wave of cause and our actions do have causal precursors. However, there is an essential part of our human minds that is self-reflective and legitimizes action. Descriptively, actions that are regulated and legitimized by this system are “chosen” and these are actions that we should be held most responsible for. And, ultimately, it is our self-reflected values where we have the most degrees of freedom.

Here is a brief saying that captures this point:

We cannot choose where we have been;

We cannot choose where we are;

We cannot even choose where we will end up;

Our choice is found in how we legitimize where we want to be

And that ultimately influences where we end up.