Free Will: Does It Exist?

A recent article in the New York Times Science section addressed the question of the existence of free will. This is the perennial topic for anyone trying to understand himself or herself and the world they live in. The question inevitably places rationalists in a quandary. Most “believe in” science. Science is based on the study of observable cause and effect. This means that when we examine human actions, we do not look for causes in the will of actors but in the concatenation of events that have preceded their actions. But if this is so, then there are no actors, there are only  automatons. An individual cannot know that he has freely willed something to happen. Forgetting his internal life for a moment and analyzing himself from a distance, it would be easy for him to conclude that his life is a complex cycle of cause and effect and nothing more. He doubts that he wills his dream life, and finds it hard subjectively to distinguish his dream life from his daytime life. Although human beings have an irreducible, subjective sense that they are controlling their lives, at least to a degree, they find it impossible to know this objectively about themselves, and apparently equally impossible to know it objectively about others. through the objective study and analysis. The number of variables for a full explnataion of why a person made decision X instead of decision Y would be incalculable. Many possible factors would remain unknown, let alone their etiology. Even a deliberate attempt to escape causation by doing something really wild, by breaking out of one’s usual routine, can be seen as a precaused attempt to prove one’s freedom that is as devoid of freedom (or not) as any other action.

Legal and religious institutions assume free will, or at least are structured as though their sponsors believed in it. Society could punish a crime for purely instrumental reasons: as a deterrent or as a means of taking a dangerous person out of circulation. But it generally has greater pretensions, as when it asks for a person to declare his “guilt”. Much of religious thought in our heritage also assumes that sin is the result of conscious decisions. Therefore, we are left with the uncomfortable religious proposition that God created and decided all things and yet decided to allow a restricted area of freedom so that He might test his creations. He wanted to see what would happen apparently. This is not a very elevated narrative to my mind.

In the science piece, Overbye (“Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t”, January 2) confuses the issue further by implying that conscious decision and free will are two sides of the same coin. They are in fact quite distinct, as a reconsideration of the Libet experiment he describes should suggest. He writes that in the experiment, “The  volunteers were asked to make random motions, like pressing a button. . ., while [Libet] noted the time on a clock.” On the basis of brain imaging techniques, he found that the “brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.” “In short”, we are told, “the conscious brain was playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion . . .” But the experiment did not show that the sense that the individuals were making the decisions were illusory. One could just as reasonably say that the volunteers had evidently decided on another level to do what Libet asked them to do. They then set up a semi-automatic neural response system to carry out this request. It was a two-step process similar to what a tennis player goes through when he plans to go down the line if the serve lands on his right. In the event, the details of his execution may appear unconscious, but the decision to go down the line could arguably be said to have been conscious.

Free will is both an impossibility and a necessity. If I think that I do not have free will, then my expression of this thought is as determined as would be the thought that I have free will, if I do not. In a deterministic universe, we cannot escape the shadow of determinism, even when it falls across our deterministic arguments. I am afraid that understanding free will must forever remain beyond our grasp. What is in our grasp, as the article suggests, is the intuition that without some freedom, our lives would hardly be worth living.

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