“Your conscious life”, neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran declares, “is nothing but an elaborate post-hoc rationalization of things you really do for other reasons”. This is the general position of a disparate group of researchers who insist that free will is merely an illusion, a self-deception we conduct upon ourselves. That we frequently deceive ourselves in these ways is hardly news – philosophers and clergy from the sixteenth century onwards were already discussing this oh-so-human capacity, and older references can also been found. What has made these ‘new illusionists’ into something newsworthy has been their willingness to inflate these claims into the broadest strokes: it is not that there is a risk of self-deceit, there is no free will at all, because what really motivates human action is never occurring at a conscious level.
The historical context for the contemporary dismissal of our conscious lives have been concisely discussed by Mary Midgley in her book Are You An Illusion? She quotes co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick, as giving one of the clearest examples of this fairly recent trend, when he wrote (in 1994): “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules.” Midgley raises a proverbial eyebrow at Crick’s use of ‘in fact’, and justifiably questions whether what we are dealing with here really is a factual concern. This is clearly a case of scientists muscling in on philosophical turf – and one should always be careful when claiming authority over somewhere that’s already populated.
As it happens, the new illusionists are latecomers to a game that is as old as philosophy – and in this case, both in its Western and its Eastern traditions. The core of the philosophical conflict has primarily been over the question of how human freedom relates to the apparent causal nature of the physical world. The common sense perspective is philosophically defended by supporters of what are known as libertarian positions – we have a genuine capacity to choose. This was a particularly important argument in Medieval Europe since such freedom had both theological and juridical implications: you cannot blame someone unless they have responsibility for their own actions. But there are two other main camps opposed to this understanding.
The incompatablist position is arguably the default position on free will at the moment. Since cause follows effect so reliably (the standard argument goes), free will would seem to be excluded since in a deterministic universe there is no room for it. Free choice must mean the possibility of having chosen differently – which determinism presumably excludes. The new illusionists come at this position armed with experiments that purport to provide proof of a slightly different kind – namely that our conscious deliberations aren’t evidence of free decision making anyway, since we act unconsciously. The outcome of such lines of attack are still firmly incompatablist, however: free will is excluded by arguments about (psychological) causation.
Back in 1738, the Scottish philosopher and intellectual rake David Hume turned the two established positions over free will on their head with a robust compatabilist argument. Libertarian claims could not be correct since to suggest a different decision could have been made amounted to breaking causality by bringing in a random element. Yet if chance was involved in our decision making, we could hardly claim to have ownership over our choices! Hume carefully defined necessity and liberty and demonstrated an absence of contradiction. The assumption that ‘we could have chosen differently’ has a rather suspicious meaning when it is examined closely, and we need determinism to make sense of our choices (Hume suggests), lest they unravel into randomness.
The argument advanced by Hume, if accepted, would destroy the credibility of every hokey science fiction tale that hangs on a branching timeline where a character makes different choices. If his argument is accepted, these no longer make a lick of sense: from where could this different outcome spring, exactly? If it comes from chance, there can be no coherent claim for the will to command our actions. But if it comes from elsewhere, are we committed to some extra-physical component of mind to explain how multiple outcomes could emerge from the same decision?
Free will cannot mean that in a parallel universe you chose differently: a different outcome would mark a different person. This has been my understanding of the problem of free will ever since I read Hume. We make an utterly metaphysical (i.e. untestable) assumption when we think ‘choosing freely’ must mean the possibility of different outcomes, since we only ever exist within time, and within just one sequence of events. Incompatablist arguments are making untestable assumptions on a grand yet oft-unnoticed scale. But whilst I found Hume's arguments very compelling on this subject, something always felt out of place in his account. It has taken me some time to track it down.
In a fascinating book thriving in the interface between philosophy and empirical research, Nancey Murphy, George Ellis, and Timothy O’Connor collect a host of perspectives on what contemporary neurobiology means for the discussion of free will. Entitled Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will, the most liberating aspect of this volume’s eclectic discussions is its clear recognition that the traditional debate about free will has run aground over its assumptions about determinism. In a decidedly Humean move, the editors recognise that libertarian vs. incompatablist arguments are held up on a perception of causality that is essentially reductionistic – they presuppose a single dimension of causation, from the ‘bottom’ upwards.
Contemporary researchers give ample examples of emergent behaviours that contradict reductionism, and thus display what can be termed downward causation. In a 2006 paper, for instance, philosopher Robert C. Bishop points to Rayleigh-Bénard convection as a simple paradigm case: self-organising non-linear structures in heated fluids (convection cells) must be understood at a scale above that of individual molecules or the entire phenomena is incomprehensible. Bishop correctly recognises the importance of this case for metaphysics and philosophy of mind, since it demonstrates (without any torturous assumptions) that treating causal relations as merely one-directional isn't even sufficient for physical systems, let alone living organisms, or complex minds.
For the traditional arguments regarding free will, the entire conceptual framework is thrown open by bringing into doubt the more simplistic conceptions of causality. It is no longer plausible to assign responsibility for cause and effect in a purely linear and reductionistic fashion, as if atoms were the sole foundational element of reality. Rather, there is a growing recognition in both philosophy and the sciences that downward causation is both plausible and indeed necessary to explain all manner of complex systems. In the case of human behaviour in particular, our symbolic faculties, such as language and mathematics, create spaces for downward causation whereby understanding what counts as a ‘cause’ has to mean much more than simply reducing our focus to the sub-atomic.
As the 2012 volume (which is based on a workshop from 2007) explores, these changes in empirical understanding massively reframe the free will argument, and undermine new illusionist claims. Two such viewpoints are discussed at length: Benjamin Libet’s neurobiological research that suggests our brains begin responding before we are consciously aware of willing an action, and Daniel Wegner’s psychological work separating the feeling of volition from the mental causes of action. Both Wegner and Libet are looking to deflate conventional views on free will. The philosophical push-back demonstrates once again a confusion of concepts, particularly in Timothy O’Connor's chapter, which simultaneously debugs both the new illusionists and conventional understandings of free will, sketching a new framework for understanding volitional behaviour.
In the broadest strokes, however, all the new illusionists are offering self-defeating accounts. This is a point mentioned by numerous authors in the aforementioned anthology, and also by Allen Wood in his discussion of Fichte’s notions of absolute freedom. The essential problem is that if, as Ramachandran and others assert, our entire conscious life is an illusion, there can be no scientific investigation of any credence –these too must be reduced to “elaborate post-hoc rationalization”. Fichte’s arguments, from the tail end of Hume's century but buffed-up by Wood’s contemporary scholarship, form a sharp point of rebuttal. If there is no free will, then there can be no concept whatsoever of understanding, at least as it is usually considered. To understand inherently implies a wavering between possibilities before settling upon one as the adequate explanation. All the sciences depend upon this mental phenomena. Yet if determinism destroys the possibility of free will (or, in the contemporary argument, conscious thought is mere confabulation) this must also make the sciences impossible, since this wavering between possibilities is the essence of free decision-making.
Thus it transpires that it’s the new illusionist arguments that are far too cheap to be taken seriously. But by engaging with them, philosophers once again show the benefits of inter-disciplinary discourse, and the productive gains available when the sciences exchange ideas with philosophy. The classical free will problem is not resolved (nor can it be, because of its inherent metaphysical assumptions), but perhaps we have at long last begun to move beyond it into a new and productive understanding of the relationships between volition and action.
The opening image is Hilma af Klint’s Free Will (1907). No copyright infringement is entailed by displaying this image.