What is Freedom? (14): Do We Have Free Will?

The evidence seems to say “no, there is no free will”. The notion of free will has been the object of criticism and even ridicule for as long as it exists, but it has recently become the target of a truly continuous and seeming devastating scientific onslaught. Study after study argues that we really don’t want what we do or do what we want, that we have no choice in a lot of things we do, and that we don’t decide to act the way we act and can’t act otherwise even if we want to. Here’s a short summary of the evidence:

  • Priming. People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. And it’s not just images. If a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they are not primed (source). If it’s this easy for other people to decide how we act, then we can assume that we often act in ways that they decide.
  • Stereotype threat. When the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. Again, this makes it easy for others to change how we act.
  • Anchoring. In one study, German judges first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9.  As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice.  Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter.  On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months. Yet another example of how we often act not because we freely want (or “willed”) our actions but because of external pressure and manipulation.
  • Learned helplessness. Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. A failure of the will, but a failure determined by outside forces.
  • Adaptive preferences. We settle for second best and call it the best, not because that is our free choice but because the thing that we really believe is best is out of reach. Free will? Meh.
  • Peer effects. Group membership and the presence of role models determine what is the “natural” way to act.
  • Justificational reasoning. When we defend our so-called free and freely willed actions, we tend to do so after the fact and with special attention to the good or bad reasons justifying our actions, at the expense of reasons justifying other kinds of actions. This suggests that we didn’t weigh all the reasons for all possible actions beforehand, and that our actions are therefore not actions we chose to want on the basis of good reasons. Perhaps then our actions are caused by something else, such as habit, conformism, reflexes, tradition etc. Free will is incompatible with those causes.
  • Poverty of willpower. Power of the will seems to be a finite resource that can be depleted. No willpower means no free will.
  • And then there are Benjamin Libet’s infamous studies showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before people are consciously aware of their desires.

I could go on, but this will do. Of course, none of this proves that there is no free will. At most, it makes us realize that free will is severely constrained: if it exists at all, it’s only a partial and intermittent faculty, present in unequal degrees in different people at different times in their lives.

And yet, despite all this evidence, we continue to act as if all people, , with the exception of minors and the mentally handicapped; have free will all of the time. We constantly blame people, we punish and praise them, and we say that they deserve what they get. If I – being a mentally healthy adult (at least according to some) – were to hit the person sitting next to me now, I would be castigated because everyone agrees that I could have acted otherwise. I probably could have, but perhaps I couldn’t. Who’s to tell? Perhaps a little less blame and praise could be one good outcome of psychological research. But I’m not holding my breath. We can follow this advice, or we can all act otherwise, unfortunately.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (37): Our Brains

Using modern brain scanning technology, researchers have found delays of about half a second between a person’s brain committing to certain decisions and the person becoming aware of having made them.

Benjamin Libet is famous – or infamous if you want – for his experiments in the 1980s, showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move. Apparently, brain activity – unconscious buildup of electrical charge within the brain – precedes conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words, unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject. If unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, then there is no free will; or if there is free will it shouldn’t be viewed as the initiating force.

If unconscious brain processes have already taken steps to initiate an action before consciousness is aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated. (source)

An example:

scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice. (source, source)

How can a choice be free if scientists can predict it with relative certainty? It seems that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect, a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on our actions and reactions.

If this demotion of free will is correct – and that’s a big if – then rights violations aren’t caused by people who decide to violate them. They are instead caused by their brains. This is a depressing idea because it implies that we can’t do much about rights violations, short of clinical or chemical interventions in the brain. It also implies that we can’t hold violators responsible for their actions, since it’s their brains rather than their conscious volition that is the real cause of those actions.

More on free will here. More posts in this series are here.