Free Will-y

11 comments January 2nd, 2007at 12:10pm Posted by Eli

NYT tackles the age-old question: Do We Have Free Will?

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.

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?

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.

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?

Entry Filed under: Science


  • 1. charley  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    i figure one chemical cascade leads to another. then you die.

    in between, it can get pretty complicated.

    c’mon, where are the new york photos?

  • 2. Jenny from the Blog  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Amazing that your post mentions Dr. Libet!!!

    I read something recently that taps into the discussion. It’s a memoir of student (Wolfe Lowenthal) of his experiences with his Kung Fu Master (Cheng Man-ch’ing) in the book There are no Secrets, and in it he discusses his 70 year-old master’s super fast reflexes. He says that even though a 70 year-old shouldn’t realistically be able to compete with youngsters, his ability to “sense hands” comes from something else and allows him to “win” every round.

    Cheng often said that when he touched someone he immediately “knew” that person. It became obvious to me that he in some way was “hearing” his opponent’s intent to move early enough to neutralize and counter it. The mechanism appeared to be super-sensing rather than super defensive reflexes.

    And this about Dr. Libet, which I’ve been chewing on for quite a while…

    Recently, I read how scientist Benjamin Libet has found that when a person decides to make a small movement of his finger at an arbitrary time of his choice, a characteristic electrically-detectable change in his brain, called a readiness potential, occurs slightly less than half a second before he becomes aware of his intention to move (and of course still longer before he actually moves the finger.) The brain appears to have made the choice before the person is aware of it. This scientific evidence suggests that Cheng may have been able to hear the readiness potential signal).

    I’m fascinated by this. That an extraordinarily evolved or intuitive person can tap into the thought mechanism of the other before the other is conscious of his own *decision*. It sounds about right to me.

    Thanks, Eli, for a most excellent post!

  • 3. Eli  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    Charley is apparently a determinist whose chemicals like NYC photos.

    The Universe has decreed that I post a few more NJ Christmas photos first, and I am helpless to refuse.

    Jenny, interesting stuff – I wonder how that would actually work. Shallow person that I am, I also wonder how that might be incorporated into a movie. Parenthetically, I’ve always been fascinated with the way kung fu movies comsistentlly portray very old kumg fu masters as practically superhuman, and always wondered how much basis that had in reality. Perhaps the fact that they’re always portrayed by young men in makeup should answer my question, but it could just be that real kung fu masters have no use for movies.

  • 4. Jenny from the Blog  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Eli, I’ve never seen a kung-fu movie I must admit. However, I think a film, even a documentary relating to this phenomena could have a real amount of interest.

    Witness “What the Bleep do we Know”. If you haven’t seen it I recommend because you’ll get something from it, even though you may have to pick and choose.

    The film has its detractors screaming loudly about “junk science” and cults (Ramtha to be specific), and rightly so, but the point is that it managed to break-out and make a ton of money because lots of people today are transfixed with the the subject of quantum physics when it’s at a level they can understand.

  • 5. Jenny from the Blog  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    The idea that some can divine the thoughts of others while they are still incubating is fascinating to the extreme.

    Ha, whether it’s used for good or evil, that’s the question.

    I think so far only wise Kung Fu masters in their dotage have managed to do so with little harm to the planet. ;)

  • 6. Rob  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Why exactly is free will a “problem” in the first place?

    Because it’s one of those terms that we use (like “consciousness”, or, more pertinently, “choice”) that we use all the time, either without actually defining it, or using different definitions of it as we engage in discourse. We use it because it makes us feel good.

  • 7. Eli  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    I think so far only wise Kung Fu masters in their dotage have managed to do so with little harm to the planet. ;)

    Well, and Bush looking into Putin’s soul and (very accurately) recognizing a kindred spirit.

    Because it’s one of those terms that we use (like “consciousness”, or, more pertinently, “choice”) that we use all the time, either without actually defining it, or using different definitions of it as we engage in discourse.

    That’s more of a semantic problem (if it can be considered a problem at all) rather than a philosophical or metaphysical one. In what way does the concept of “free will” gum up the works of the universe? That’s what I don’t really get.

    (Spear and magic, you out there?)

  • 8. charley  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    as shifu used to say

    “if you have to think about it, it’s too late”

    i think he thought i was kind of slow.

    i know he thought americans were kind of dumb. i never argued with him about it. that mother could jump really high. i mean really, really high. his master, and he was a grandmaster, was about 80, and a chain smoker and yet, very impressive.

  • 9. Eli  |  January 2nd, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    Who’s Shifu?

  • 10. Rob  |  January 3rd, 2007 at 5:33 am

    That’s more of a semantic problem

    To begin with, yes, but you can’t really discuss something philosophically unless you’ve determined what exactly you’re talking about. A more common example nowadays is people blithely rattling on about consciousness (are animals conscious?), without ever agreeing, or even trying to agree, on what it means.

    For all its flaws, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, at least makes an effort to define consciousness.

  • 11. charley  |  January 3rd, 2007 at 11:00 am

    Who’s Shifu?

    this is what you call a kung-fu master. unless i spelled it wrong, entirely possible. roughly it means teacher.

    my wife called him seafood.


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