Blog Archives

Masters of the Universe, or Rats in a Maze?

There seems to be a correlation between what people believe about free will and the kind of society they subscribe to.

This is an idea that struck me after reading a review of a new book on the subject of free will,  (you can read the review–by Trevor McCandless, who writes superbly, here). That book is part of a discussion going on not just in print but on the airwaves and elsewhere about what reality, if any, there is to the concept of free will, especially since brain scans seem to show our decisions are made mostly on an unconscious level several seconds before we think about them in any conscious way.

I’ve had a problem with the concept (or “faculty,” as it was known in some circles) of free will ever since I was a child when it struck me that the idea makes no sense, since it presumes an uncaused cause: If something doesn’t force or at least tip the balance between two or more choices, what is the ultimate reason for our decision? Something beyond the bounds of cause and effect? Religious people speak that way about God, but S/he is assumed to be the only uncaused cause.

How we come down on this issue makes a big difference, it seems to me, for  how we view human responsibility, and that view in turn makes a difference for how we structure our society. If we believe in anything like the usual notion of free will, we assign ultimate responsibility for action to the individual, with all the consequences that involves. If we believe our decisions are made essentially apart from any conscious thought processes, we will find it hard to hold the individual to that same standard. And, if you can’t hold the individual fully responsible for her actions, who is responsible?

Our justice system assumes free will and therefore full culpability (except for the insane, whose free will is considered impaired). Our modern religions largely do as well, though historically Christianity at least traditionally seems to have put less emphasis on personal responsibility and attributed more power than we do today to divine or diabolical influence.  “The devil made me do it” nowadays, though, is no more a defense in a court of law than is “The Lord commanded me to do it.” Not, at least, for someone judged to be sane and thereby responsible for her actions. Of course, Jesus said to forgive all wrongs and love our enemies. But does anyone subscribe to that version of Christianity today? Did anyone suggest, for instance, that we forgive and love Osama bin Laden? Certainly not our most Christian president or our most Christian pope.

But if the neurologists are right, if we really only have an illusion that we make decisions “freely,” what does that mean not just for the criminal justice system put for society generally? Does it mean we are all responsible for each other’s actions to a degree it is unfashionable to countenance nowadays? Is the crime of my neighbor, however heinous, my crime as well because I am a part of the matrix that underlies and to some considerable degree determines her behavior — at least in instances where the perpetrator is less able than the rest of us to resist her impulses? If so, if we are in some measure responsible for one another’s decisions, what responsibility does that place on the communal us, the greater society, to look out for the “weak-willed” among us? Is it more realistic to leave punishment up to God (or to no one) and not presume to know who is truly guilty and what punishment they deserve?

These questions seem to me to address not just the notion of free will but the underlying bases for conservative versus liberal politics. The conservative who believes in something like absolute individual rights and individual responsibility espouses one type of social contract. The liberal who believes forces outside ourselves can overcome all but the strongest natures espouses one that supports those who fail or who become vulnerable through circumstances not of their own making. They also believe in mitigating the culpability of those who violate society’s laws, because they have been deprived of its full privileges.

The fact that free will, like consciousness, is self-evident because we experience it does not end the controversy. Nor does the current neurological evidence. We experience gravity as self-evident, after all, but no one actually understands it because our brains are not constructed to understand anything beyond  the physical world as we have known it throughout the course of our development as a species and even before that. We know things fall. But we don’t, and may never, understand why, though we can use the fact of gravity, along with other scientific theories like Quantum indeterminacy, to track asteroids and to make better cell phones. A crow can use a stick to fish something out of a hole without understanding the theory of levers.

Even my childhood sense that “free will” implies an uncaused cause is based on an innate bias that nothing can happen without there being an agent immediately present to effect it. A small child looks instinctively to see what made the ball roll across the room. She doesn’t assume it did so because it was “attracted” gravitationally by another object in the room. She assumes physical contact was made even if the object that made the contact is no longer visible. That’s hard-wired into her. Had she been born in a very different environment, she might understand things that an earthling cannot understand. Our terrestrial Scientific Revolution was predicated on the principle that only physical contact with another body can move an object. That’s good common sense and empirically valid. But Newton proved this idea wrong with his theory of gravity. He was then accused by the scientific community of trying to plunge learning back into the hocus-pocus of the Middle Ages (for a fascinating discussion of this, watch this video of a talk “The Machine, the Ghost and the Limits of Understanding”) Noam Chomsky recently gave in Oslo; he also discusses free will, briefly, both in the talk and in the Q&A). The truth seems to be that we, like the crow, have brains evolved to deal only with what they have needed to deal with. This does not include the orbits of planets or the influence of subatomic particles on each other.

Maybe free will is itself the a product of a physics beyond our ken. Or maybe it is just a sense, an assumption necessary to any sentient creature, that she can make a choice. After all, dogs and cats and even the most primitive species make choices which are just as “free” as any humans make. We don’t need a supernatural force to explain something that may be as necessary and universal to sentient creatures as respiration or sight.  Take away a dog’s inherent belief in her free will and you will have a very dysfunctional dog, just as you would if you removed that assumption from a human being.

Who knows how free free will really is? We probably never will know, just as Chomsky says we will never find gravity or curved space-time to be intelligible because our human brain has a scope and limits that do not extend to that kind of knowledge (just as rats who can solve many vexing solutions to the way through a maze will never negotiate a maze that requires their understanding the concept of prime numbers, their brains not being configured to that “scope and limits”).

But doesn’t it make sense anyhow to allow for the possibility if not the probability that we are not the discrete, autonomous agents we like to think we are, with all the baggage and mischief that entails? Maybe we actually are each part of one another in ways we used to take for granted during so-called primitive periods of our history when we saw how embedded in everything else we really are.  At the very least we ought not to go on thinking we are godlings with unlimited powers of understanding that used to be reserved for the Creator of the universe. A little humility is in order.