Special Report

Undermining Free Will

You don't have to read this article. But if you do, could you have chosen otherwise? You probably feel that you were free to skip over it, but were you?

Belief in some measure of free will is common to all cultures and a large part of what makes us human. It is also fundamental to our ethical and legal systems. Yet today's scientists and philosophers are busily chipping away at this social pillar -- apparently without thinking about what might replace it.

What they question is a folk psychology that goes something like this: Inside each of us is a self, a conscious agent who both observes the world and makes decisions. In some cases (though perhaps not all), this agent has a measure of choice and control over his or her actions. From this simple model of human agency flow the familiar notions of responsibility, guilt, blame, and credit. The law, for example, makes a clear distinction between a criminal act carried out by a person under hypnosis or while sleepwalking, and a crime committed in a state of normal awareness with full knowledge of the consequences.

All this may seem like common sense, but philosophers and writers have questioned it for centuries -- and the attack is gathering speed. "All theory is against the freedom of the will," wrote British critic Samuel Johnson. In the 1940s, Oxford University philosophy Professor Gilbert Ryle coined the derisory expression "the ghost in the machine" for the widespread assumption that brains are occupied by immaterial selves that somehow control the activities of our neurons. The contemporary American philosopher Daniel Dennett now refers to the "fragile myth" of "spectral puppeteers" inside our heads.

For skeptics of free will, human decisions are either determined by a person's preexisting nature or, alternatively, are entirely arbitrary and whimsical. Either way, genuine freedom of choice seems elusive. Physicists often fire the opening salvo against free will. In the classical Newtonian scheme, the universe is a gigantic clockwork mechanism, slavishly unfolding according to deterministic laws. How then does a free agent act? There is simply no room in this causally closed system for an immaterial mind to bend the paths of atoms without coming into conflict with physical law. Nor does the famed indeterminacy of quantum mechanics help minds to gain purchase on the material world. Quantum uncertainty cannot create freedom. Genuine freedom requires that our wills determine our actions reliably.

Physicists assert that free will is merely a feeling we have; the mind has no genuine causal efficacy. Whence does this feeling arise? In his 2002 book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner appeals to ingenious laboratory experiments to show how subjects acquire the delusion of being in charge, even when their conscious thoughts do not actually cause the actions they observe.

The rise of modern genetics has also undermined the belief that humans are born with the freedom to shape their individual destinies. Scientists recognize that genes shape our minds as well as our bodies. Evolutionary psychologists seek to root personal qualities such as altruism and aggression in Darwinian mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. "We are survival machines -- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes," writes Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins.

Those aspects of the mind that are not predetermined by genetics lie at the mercy of "memetics." Memes are the mental equivalent of genes -- ideas, beliefs, and fashions that replicate and compete in the manner of genes. British psychologist Susan Blackmore recently contended that our minds are actually nothing but collections of memes that we catch from each other like viruses, and that the familiar sense of "I" is some sort of fiction that memes create for their own agenda.

These ideas are dangerous because there is more than a grain of truth in them. There is an acute risk that they will be oversimplified and used to justify an anything-goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, even genocide. Conversely, people convinced that the concept of individual choice is a myth may passively conform to whatever fate an exploitative social or political system may have decreed for them. If you thought eugenics was a disastrous perversion of science, imagine a world where most people don't believe in free will.

The scientific assault on free will would be less alarming if some new legal and ethical framework existed to take its place. But nobody really has a clue what that new structure might look like. And, remember, the scientists may be wrong to doubt free will. It would be rash to assume that physicists have said the last word on causation, or that cognitive scientists fully understand brain function and consciousness. But even if they are right, and free will really is an illusion, it may still be a fiction worth maintaining. Physicists and philosophers often deploy persuasive arguments in the rarified confines of academe but ignore them for all practical purposes. For example, it is easy to be persuaded that the flow of time is an illusion (in physics, time simply is, it doesn't "pass"). But nobody would conduct their daily affairs without continual reference to past, present, and future. Society would disintegrate without adhering to the fiction that time passes. So it is with the self and its freedom to participate in events. To paraphrase the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, we must believe in free will -- we have no choice.

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