Michael Gazzaniga on free will – is free will talk without meaning?

The third of the recent pieces on free will in The Chronicle of Higher Education is by Michael S. Gazzaniga. He (or perhaps a sub-editor or someone) has chosen to entitle this: “Free Will Is an Illusion, but You’re Still Responsible for Your Actions”.

An interesting feature of this one is the way its author dismisses the whole concept of free will as “without meaning” – asking rhetorically whether robots, ants, and chimpanzees have free will. The implication, I suppose, although Gazzaniga doesn’t quite spell this out, is that we don’t have free will, either, since we are sufficiently like these things for the purpose. He asks, still rhetorically, “Is there really something in all of these machines that needs to be free, and if so, from what?” He goes on to say that no one thing is in charge of us, according to modern neuroscience, “with its ever-increasing mechanistic understanding of how the brain enables mind”.

Something about this is attractive (too me, at least). I must say that a lot of free will talk – for example that in the work of religious apologists – strikes me as sanctimonious nonsense, often full of intellectual confusion. So why not cut through it all and simply abandon talk of free will once and for all?

Still, the argument Gazzanniga sketches in his piece is not very strong. I take it that what he is really getting at is that we are relevantly like other things – robots, ants, and chimpanzees – in that we are deterministic physical systems with no single centre of control from some kind of (non-physical?) commander of the whole thing. If the idea of free will seems silly for robots, ants, and chimpanzees, then it should damn well seem silly for human beings! So the thought seems to go. I say “deterministic physical systems” because at one point Gazzaniga refers, as if it’s important, to “brain determinism”; he tells us that this has no effect on personal responsibility, even though it (apparently) prevents us from having free will. (This will be news to those philosophers who actually define free will as having personal responsibility for our actions. But so it goes.)

But when Gazzaniga asks what robots, ants, and chimps need to be free from , that question does not easily translate to human beings. It is not just obvious that there is nothing that human beings need to be free from, even if our brains function deterministically. The fact remains that you and I are conscious beings with certain values that we’d consciously like to honour, certain desires that we’d consciously like to satisfy, certain goals or outcomes that we’d consciously like to achieve or bring about. We may also have various unconscious desires, etc., but for the moment it’s enough to observe that we have these conscious ones. It doesn’t matter if my current desire for a cup of hot chocolate is itself identical to or supervenient upon some aspect of my neurophysiology that undergoes causally deterministic transformations – that can’t take away from the fact that I have the desire. (Frustratingly, we ran out of hot chocolate here last night, and my desire not to go to the trouble of heading off to the supermarket for fresh supplies is currently more salient to me than my desire for the chocolate.)

My desire for hot chocolate right now is a rather weak and trivial one; however, there are other things that matter more to me, such as success in finishing the books that I’m working on at the moment and seeing them through to publication … and there are other things that matter to me even more, and which I seem to be able to influence, such as the happiness of various friends and loved ones. A robot has no such desires – it may be programmed to achieve certain goals, but it cannot consciously desire anything. In the absence of conscious desires, I don’t believe we can meaningfully talk about its possessing unconscious desires, either. If we talk about a robot having desires, this is just a metaphor or an instrumentally useful manner of speaking. Something similar applies, probably, to an ant. What about a chimpanzee? Well, we just don’t know enough about what it is like to be a chimpanzee, but the more like us chimpanzees are in possessing conscious desires, values, goals, a sense of the future, and the like, the less obvious it is that we can’t meaningfully talk about a chimp having free will. A very advanced chimp (or, if it comes to that, a very advanced robot or ant) with those cognitive characteristics might have much the same concerns about its choices and actions as we do. It is not obvious that that sort of chimp (or robot, or ant) would lack free will.

If I possess conscious desires, etc., and if you are capable of communicating with me (as you are), then you can reassure me that I am capable, at least in many cases, of acting in ways that reflect those desires, etc., together with my beliefs about the world. I will only be able to act in ways that fall within my physical and cognitive capacities, I concede, but within those limits (and doubtless others) I’ll be able to act on my desires (values, etc.). What is important to me is that my actions genuinely reflect my desires – that I am not, for example, being tricked or manipulated in some way that is inconsistent with this – and my choices and actions are not subject to onerous constraints above and beyond the limits imposed by my ordinary capacities. E.g., I’m not in jail or acting with a gun at my head.

I want to be able to act in a way that expresses my desires, is not the result of some kind of trickery, coercion or compulsion by others, and is the product of having at least some opportunity to deliberate: I don’t want to act without appropriate time (appropriateness being a highly flexible, pluralist, and case-specific concept, however) to work out what I want to do. This is not intended to be a complete or rigorous list, but it’s a reasonable sketch of what I and others want we say that we want to be able to act “of our own free will”. A life in which we typically act of our own free will is one that we generally aspire to.

I’ve glossed over the issue of capacities here, because it adds a complication. None of us is omnipotent, and most of us could, conceivably, be far more capable even within a normal human range. But we are generally fairly accepting of mere limitations in our capacities, at least if they are not massive compared to those of the people around us, or massively inadequate to what we regard as living a worthwhile life. Inadequate capacities to satisfy our desires are not usually what we have in mind when we discuss free will, though the level of my capacities can indeed affect my options, affect my vulnerability to coercion, etc. Questions about free will and questions about capacities cannot be kept completely separate.

There’s another thing in the vicinity that we seem to want, and this does seem to worry a lot of people. We want to live in a world where our choices and actions have some significant efficacy. Conversely we don’t want to live in a world where, perhaps as a result of the operations of Fate, or Moira, or some other overriding principle or being or force, certain outcomes that are important to us are disconnected from our choices and acts. Some things, such as my death on a certain day, might be imagined to be unavoidably fated – independently of whatever choices I make or what I actually do. In a world like that, it makes intuitive sense to say that I am not free. (I’d like to see some concerted research aimed at testing whether the folk think free will exists in such a world.) Perhaps, on this picture, I can will certain things, all right, but my will has no efficacy (in important respects) because something overrides its effects. So I might as well (in those important respects) give up. This is a counsel to … if not to despair, then to resignation and passivism, or alternatively to imprudence or recklessness.

If someone forgets that these are the sorts of concerns that free will talk is mainly about, he or she may imagine that it is possible to dismiss free will with references to causal determinism at the level of our brains, and with analogies to robots, ants, and the like. But history, experience, and the few empirical studies conducted so far suggest that the concerns I’ve described are, in fact, the sorts of things that bother people. Free will talk may, for all that be confused and misleading, and perhaps we could eventually replace it with more precise kinds of talk that eliminate the expression “free will” altogether – but it does not follow that this sort of talk is, meanwhile, just without any meaning or usefulness.

  1. swallerstein (amos)

    You’re on the right track, Russell.

    (not meaning to imply that I am further down the track than you are. rather, I’m following you
    because you seem more aware of the complexities of experience and less pat than most people who write on the issue are)

  2. We will never know if free will is talk without meaning. If it is determined but we think it free will, that thought is only a determination of what we were meant to think.

  3. I think that this discussion shows how the subject of “free will” is far from over, even when many neuroscientists and philosophers think it is.

  4. michael reidy

    Something about this is attractive (too me, at least). I must say that a lot of free will talk – for example that in the work of religious apologists – strikes me as sanctimonious nonsense, often full of intellectual confusion

    So when I read this remark where there is no distinction drawn between all the various theories that crop up in all the religions from predestination to moira, to kismet to karma, some of them mutually exclusive and some which would be quite intelligible from a secular point of view; I wonder why it was made. It seems the throwaway senseless remark that serves as a tribal signal, a kind of wink. It’s often done unconsciously even by folk such as Russell who would consider themselves intellectually coherent. It’s no more than a verbal tic I suppose but to that extent is unfree. Can such observations be rescued from incoherence. Ctrl+z works well.

  5. Dennis Sceviour

    When I read the remark I thought, “Physician heal thyself.”

  6. Conversely we don’t want to live in a world where, perhaps as a result of the operations of Fate, or Moira, or some other overriding principle or being or force, certain outcomes that are important to us are disconnected from our choices and acts…. In a world like that, it makes intuitive sense to say that I am not free.

    You DO live in a universe like that, you’re just too myopic to see the big picture. The world will be swallowed by fire and the universe will grow into the cold and dark, or a hot big crunch, either way nothing you do matters long term. This is no different to a world where fate works, we just have longer between the fixed points in the narrative.

    I would greatly appreciate some idea as to why conscious awareness makes the slightest bit of difference to your idea of free will.

  7. When I hear or speak of free will, my idea of the words is that of an agent that is able to operate without regard to past and/or present events. I do not believe this is in any way possible in a deterministic world.

    Freedom of choice is completely another concept in which there are no forces outside of the agent that are stopping the agent from carrying out the decision once it is made.

    While it is impossible to know all of the deterministic factors that go into ‘making a decision’, it does not follow that I could have made a different choice. If I do not immediately actualize my choice, new factors may well come into play that will cause a change and a different choice to appear as though ‘I’ had changed my mind rather than that my mind was changed.

    The only room I see for ‘personal responsibility’ is to say that ‘I’ was the proximal cause of an effect that was viewed as positive, neutral, or negative. Deterministic paradigm would suggest that the way to avoid negative cause and effect chains from being produced by conscious causal agents is by causing a change in the agent or removing them from the equation.

    While deterministic theory changes little in the day to day functioning of the individual, it could have a profound effect on social relations. Prevention of maladjustment would become an increasingly important task as society realized its role in the creation of the individuals it produces. The travesty we call our justice system (in the U.S.) would be seen for the cruel joke that it is, etc…

  8. Stephen Lawrnce

    “The fact remains that you and I are conscious beings with certain values that we’d consciously like to honour, certain desires that we’d consciously like to satisfy, certain goals or outcomes that we’d consciously like to achieve or bring about. We may also have various unconscious desires, etc., but for the moment it’s enough to observe that we have these conscious ones.”

    Is this true? What does it mean to have conscious desires. What does it mean to make conscious decisions?

    I would say I’m conscious of desires, I’m conscious of making choices, like I’m conscious of a pain in my toe. I wouldn’t say I have a conscious pain in my toe.

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