Free will

“Do you believe in free will?”

“Yes, I have no choice”

Christopher Hitchens

What is free will? Free will is the ability to choose between different courses of action unimpeded (wikipedia). But what does it mean to be unimpeded? Unimpeded by what? This topic is fascinating to say the least, as it goes to the core of our identity. What are we? Let us go through the concept of free will with a simple example: tea or coffee?

We have the feeling of free will. When I woke up this morning, I could have chosen tea for breakfast. No one was there to impede it. Yet I did not. I chose coffee. The “strong” version of free will, libertarian free will, claims that nothing other than myself caused this choice. If I went back in time, in exactly the same situation a millisecond before the choice, I could have chosen otherwise.

This is, actually, not true. Our decisions to act start in the unconscious part of our brain, and it is only after the action has been initiated that we become aware of it. When I stared at my kitchen today, my unconscious brain “decided” to go for coffee; when I became aware of this, I thought: ok, coffee it is.

This is what Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) showed in their experiment. They asked participants to move their fingers whenever they decided to do so. The idea is to study which parts of the brain activate before the movement. The key bit, however, is awareness. When do they become aware that they have decided to move? Previous studies (most famously Libet and co-authors in the 80s) relied on the subject to report the time of awareness. Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) introduced random signals and asked the subjects to cancel the movement whenever they heard one of these signals. The idea here is that you can only consciously cancel the movement whenever you are aware of its initiation. By analysing these patterns, one can estimate how in advance one becomes aware of the movement. It turns out that there is more than a second between our brain starts the process to move the finger and the moment we become aware of it.

True, the decision seems to come from the unconscious me, but how can I claim freedom in this instance? Imagine that I have a tumour in my brain that craves for coffee. Would I call this freedom? Is the tumour “me”? It seems unlikely. It would be something else, the tumour, deciding for me. But the processes that start my desire for coffee are equally, if not more, mysterious–and therefore I cannot claim any freedom.

One can see the link here with determinism. Is everything determined? If yes, then free will cannot exist. But note that even if there is room for indeterminism, free will does not necessarily follow (a classic “A then B does not imply No A then No B”). A usual source of indeterminism in the universe is quantum physics–but this introduces randomness. Randomness is not freedom–If I had tossed a coin to decide whether to go for tea or coffee (and had to obey the outcome), I would still not be free.

But we have this sense that, if we had known the future–for instance, if I had known that coffee would give me stomachache during the day–I would have chosen otherwise. This is true. In this sense, we can make different choices. But this relies on new information, which means that our brains are different–i.e., different than when we did not have the information–and hence we are not just rewinding time, we are changing the initial conditions. I am, therefore, in a different situation.

Libertarian free will, hence, does not exist. An argument against this claim is that if it does not exist, then nobody is responsible for their actions, and hence punishment is unfair. For instance, if I do not have free will, rather than deciding between tea and coffee in the morning I could have decided to rob a car. Should I be punished if I did? (I did not, by the way).

This argument is flawed to begin with because it claims that, since we do not like to consequences of the non-existence of free will, it has therefore to exist. But I would argue that there are other shortcomings. It highlights a religious concept of guilt and responsibility. Why should we punish someone who steals a car? Because he deserves it; he is evil; he’s committed a sin and has to be cleansed; thou shalt not steal. If he is, however, not free–this all breaks apart.

But this is not the reason to punish him; or, better yet, it is not the reason we should have to punish him. We punish him to deter this action–absent punishment, people would steal more. We also do so to deter him from doing the same. Because it was a conscious decision, we know that whatever process in the brain led to this action, it can be repeated in the future.

It is important to overcome this concept of libertarian free will. A lot of suffering comes from this flawed concept. But it cannot exist, and it does not exist. Our views of morality, justice, and the making of the good society need to be based on this reality.

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