As William James wrote in 1890, the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.I know I'm waaaay out of my depth here, but I find this last explanation the most satisfying, and not just because it gives me some degree of free will (yippee!). My reading of it is that free will is a form of, or a result of, complexity - the outcome of stimuli funnelled through all the baggage and impulses and decision processes of each individual's personality. It's possible that it's not truly random, but it's so close to it that it might as well be - and the conscious mind is not cut out of the loop.
As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.
Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.
“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.
The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.
At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.
“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”
In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.
Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.
The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.
In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.
Naturally, almost everyone has a slant on such experiments and whether or not the word “illusion” should be used in describing free will. Dr. Libet said his results left room for a limited version of free will in the form of a veto power over what we sense ourselves doing. In effect, the unconscious brain proposes and the mind disposes.
The belief that the traditional intuitive notion of a free will divorced from causality is inflated, metaphysical nonsense, Dr. Dennett says reflecting an outdated dualistic view of the world.
Rather, Dr. Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.
“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.
“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”
In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”
Other philosophers disagree on the degree and nature of such “freedom.” Their arguments partly turn on the extent to which collections of things, whether electrons or people, can transcend their origins and produce novel phenomena.
These so-called emergent phenomena, like brains and stock markets, or the idea of democracy, grow naturally in accordance with the laws of physics, so the story goes.... A knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes — it’s physics all the way down. But does the same apply to the stock market or to the brain? Are the rules elusive just because we can’t solve the equations or because something fundamentally new happens when we increase numbers and levels of complexity?
And that's the problem I have with the monkey-on-a-tiger analogy (much as I like monkeys) - it's simply too mechanistic and autonomic. I'm sure there are people who act solely on basic animal instinct and then rationalize lofty and noble reasons behind their actions (i.e., Republicans), but people in general are capable of more, and many in fact dedicate themselves to various forms of self-denial where they steadfastly refuse to yield to their base instincts. Any conception of free will needs to make very generous allowances for self-control and individual codes of behavior.
My all-time favorite "solution" to the problem of free will in a mechanistic universe was that of Liebniz, who posited that the physical and mental universes were separate but synchronized, so that all your preprogrammed thoughts and sensations would unfold at the exact same time that the physical universe provided their cues. In other words, your mind would be set to experience pain at 11:25:13.71 AM next Monday, at the precise instant that the physical universe would give you a paper cut.
Which brings me to a more basic question: Why exactly is free will a "problem" in the first place? What's wrong with the universe unfolding randomly? Why should human reactions be as simple and predictable as those of mindless physical objects? Why shouldn't the human mind be an independent actor as the universe plays out?