Saturday, February 24, 2007

Is Free Will Incredible?

Tibor R. Machan

As someone who became convinced early in my life and even more so in my career as an academic philosopher that human beings normally possess free will, I have been fighting something of an uphill battle about the issue despite how ubiquitous the assumption is that we indeed do have this capacity. Anytime we hold people responsible, or urge that they alter their conduct, resist a temptation, battle some bad habit, and so forth, the free will idea lurks in the background. The criminal and even tort law, of course, assumes people could have done otherwise than they did, all things being equal. Politics, with all of its blaming and praising, is in the same situation, as is personal morality where none of its would make sense unless we had the capacity to choose how we act and thus can be faulted for failing to do what’s right. As the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant said, "ought" implies "can."

On the other hand, in most scientific disciplines, both natural and social, the idea of free will has gotten a very bad rep. Most social scientists want to find the factors or causes that explain how people behave and declare themselves value-free, free, that is, of any moral or ethical evaluation of our conduct. With the rise of the influence of genetics as a field wherein causes of human behavior, even attitudes, feelings, thoughts, ideas, and the rest are explored, the conviction has become virtually universal among scientists of all kids that everything about us is fully, unexceptionably caused by various innate, hard-wired biological attributes or properties or by prompters in the environment.

Most recently, for example, the notion that the habit of smoking is something fully physiological got a boost from findings about someone who had an injury to a part of his brain and suddenly had no inclination to smoke whatsoever. Similar findings have made the news about our intentions—they seem to researchers to be irrelevant to what we do. As the UK weekly, THE WEEK reported in its February 17, 2007, issue: “neuroscientists have, for the first time, used brain imaging techniques to work out people’s future intentions.” Specifically, “the research involved asking volunteers to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers they had not yet seen, before being given a brain scan using a technique called functional magnetic imaging resonance…[and] the researches were able to predict, with a 70% success rate, whether the volunteers would add or subtract the numbers when they were flashed up on screen.”

But it isn’t just some of this, still not fully interpreted, work that gives the determinists their confidence. From early on when the natural sciences got their big boost, around the time of Galileo, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza inferred from the findings of physics and astronomy that free will must be a self-delusion. In the 20th century, with the emergence of quantum physics, some of this came under criticism but even with uncertainty as a feature of the world, most scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, simply said, well we may never be able to fully prove determinism but it is really the only game in town. Such philosophers as Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland followed suit and today there is widespread consensus among both the scientists and the philosophers that the determinism that says all of what we do has to happen as it does and our minds are not in control of our actions seem to carry the day.

Why, then, might one hold out in favor of free will? I am no mystic; I do not believe in “spooky” things, to use Dennett’s way of characterizing the idea of human agency, or self-determination. What then? Is it sheer stubbornness, the desperate need to believe that I am in control of things? Others can do without the idea and so could I if I didn't think determinism makes little sense. And the determinist's idea just doesn’t make sense, in the end.

As I write these lines, I observe that I am in control. Indeed, the very idea that some of these bright folks have a handle on how things are with human behavior couldn’t make sense if they were not free to check it out without prejudice, without having their minds already hard-wired to think in certain ways. And the evidence against free will also seems a bit odd—when one drives down the road and a car suddenly veers into one's lane and one quickly steers to avoid it, how is it that one's intention is predictable? No one knew of the veering of the car and what someone would do—indeed, many may have gotten into a crash at such a point. Too much in our lives is unpredictable quite apart from free will and how we will act in light of such events then could hardly be predicted.

Even that evidence about parts of the brain suggesting that our habits are innate is a bit fishy—all of that may well be a matter of correlation, not causation. Sure, ongoing practices leave traces in the brain, that’s to be expected, and these are likely to become factors in the development of habits. But the initial practices could well have been a matter of free choice.

There’s much more to the discussion. It is a vital one for many reasons. But certain features of our lives, especially those having to do with independent—indeed, scientific—thinking support that there is a central element of freedom in human existence that is impossible to deny.

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