Running & Freedom

Photo by Paula O'Neil

Photo by Paula O’Neil

This past Saturday, I was doing my short pre-race day run and, for no apparent reason, my left leg began to hurt badly. I made my way home, estimating the odds of a recovery by Sunday morning. When I got up Sunday, my leg felt better and my short jog before the race went well. Just before the start, I was optimistic: it seemed my leg would be fine. Then the race started. Then the pain.

I hobbled forward and “accelerated” to an 8:30 per minute mile (the downside of a GPS watch is that I cannot lie to myself). The beast of pain grew strong and tore at my will. Behind that armor, my fear and doubt cowered—urging me to drop out with whispered pleas. At that moment of weakness, I considered doing the unthinkable: hobbling over to the curb and leaving the race.

From the inside, that is in my mind, this seemed to be a paradigm example of the freedom of the will: I could elect to push on through the pain or I could decide to take the curb. It was, as it might be said, all up to me. While I was once pulled from a race because of injuries, I had never left one by choice—and I decided that this would not be my first. I kept going and the pain got worse.

At this point, I considered that my pride was pushing me to my destruction—that is, I was not making a good choice but being coerced into making a poor decision. Fortunately, three decades of running had trained me well in pain assessment: like most veteran runners I am reasonably good at distinguishing between what merely hurts and what is actually causing significant damage. Carefully considering the nature of the pain and the condition of my leg, I judged that it was mere pain. While I could still decide to stop, I decided to keep going. I did, however, grab as many of the high caffeine GU packs as I could—I figured that being wired up as much as possible would help with pain management.

Aided by the psychological boost of my self-medication (and commentary from friends about my unusually slow pace), I chose to speed up. By the time I reached mile 5 my leg had gone comfortably numb and I increased my speed even more, steadily catching and passing people. Seven miles went by and then I caught up with a former student. He yelled “I can’t let you pass me Dr. L!” and went into a sprint. I decided to chase after him, believing that I could still hobble a mile even if I was left with only one working leg. Fortunately, the leg held up better than my student—I got past him, then several more people and crossed the finish line running a not too bad 1:36 half-marathon. My leg remained attached to me, thus vindicating my choice. I then chose to stuff pizza into my pizza port—pausing only to cheer on people and pick up my age group award.

As the above narrative indicates, my view is that I was considering my options, assessing information from my body and deciding what to do. That is, I had cast myself as having what philosophers like to label as free will. From the inside, that is what it certainly seems like.

Of course, it would presumably seem the same way from the inside if I lacked free will. Spinoza, for example, claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. As Spinoza saw it, people think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” As such, on Spinoza’s view my “decisions” were not actual decisions. That is, I could not have chosen otherwise—like the stone, I merely did what I did and, in my ignorance, believed that I had decided my course.

Hobbes also takes a somewhat similar view. As he sees it, what I would regard as the decision making process of assessing the pain and then picking my action he would regard as a competition between two pulling forces within the mechanisms of my brain. One force would be pulling towards stopping, the other towards going. Since the forces were closely matched for a moment, it felt as if I was deliberating. But, the matter was determined: the go force was stronger and the outcome was set.

While current science would not bring in Spinoza’s God and would be more complicated than Hobbe’s view of the body, the basic idea would remain the same: the apparent decision making would be best explained by the working of the “neuromachinery” that is me—no choice, merely the workings of a purely mechanical (in the broad sense) organic machine. Naturally, many would through in some quantum talk, but randomness does not provide any more freedom that strict determinism.

While I think that I am free and that I was making choices in the race, I obviously have no way to prove that. At best, all that could be shown was that my “neuromachinery” was working normally and without unusual influence—no tumors, drugs or damage impeding the way it “should” work. Of course, some might take my behavior as clear evidence that there was something wrong, but they would be engaged in poor decision making.

Kant seems to have gotten it quite right: science can never prove that we have free will, but we certainly do want it. And pizza.

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  1. Mike:

    Congratulations on your running speed and endurance. Walking to the corner wears me at this stage of life’s journey.

    Anyway, I suppose that one who denies free will would say that if a group of scientists and doctors had complete information on your genetic makeup, your current physiological state, your biochemical profile, your upbringing, your education, your values, the books you’ve read, your friends and social circle, etc., they could tell you what you will decide, how much effort you will make, how you will react to a given competitive situation simultaneously as you decide, make an effort and compete.
    the women you love and have loved,

  2. that dangling phrase “the women you love and have loved” got dangled inadvertently from the list in the “if” clause.

  3. “Science can never prove that we have free will”. Oh, I think so. But first we need that important check on the meaning of “prove”. The everyday application of the word is, strangely, more like that of a mathematical proof. This is a formalism that provides a unequivocal demonstration (working shown!) of the veracity of a certain relationship, as expressed mathematically. But under the experimental sciences, the old phrase ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ is the appropriate sense of ‘proof’. Thus, to prove means ‘to put to the test’. Now, the ‘proof’ is the evidence that the test produces.

    So, in that sense at least, science has provided, and will continue to provide, (perhaps the only) robust tests – proofs – of those phenomena we have come to label ‘free will’. I am confident that we will find, as for previous biologically-based phenomena that traditional philosophy has explored (such as vision, development and evolution) that introspection proves (!) to be totally inadequate as a means of elucidating reliable knowledge. I also believe that the ‘proving’ will confirm our cherished notion of free will to be the illusion that Mike LaB points to in the reasoning of Spinoza, Hobbes and others. So, science will ‘prove’ free will and, in that proving, in the everyday sense, will ‘disprove’ free will.

    Scientific evidence accumulated in recent years points strongly to consciousness being that part of brain function by which an approximatey coherent narrative of immediate past events (as informed by the senses, then after processing and integration) is run through en route to forming memory. As I suspect many readers of this website will know, deploying a notion of ‘free will’ (in any of its standard versions) in this context becomes very difficult to allow. In essence, our perception of the here and now in consciousness is already ‘too late’ for consciousness (in the form of free will as one of its imputed attributes) to intervene in the physiological and psychological sequence that is leading to immediate future actions. This is a version of consciousness that can be understood by it being a ‘passive viewer’ of such information about events just gone, of actions already in progress and those soon to be manifest whilst the underlying physiological sequences unfold. This view accords with findings from a multitude of ‘Libet-style’ experiments (widely discussed elsewhere). These reveal that the first conscious inklings of our soon-to-be-manifest actions cannot be perceived early enough for the conscious brain to intervene – far less to initiate them. In this interpretation, free will seems to be the convenient fiction that our conscious narrative winds into the ‘storyline’ that emerges from the real decision making that took place, earlier in the sequence, and thus, subconsciously.

    Consider optical illusions that can amuse or surprise us, yet, when conducted as proper experimentation, can reveal details of how our visual system actually works. How hard is it to accept that we have a large blind spot in both visual fields and thus that our visual cortex and further brain processing must ‘fill in’ these gaps. Even when our own blind spots are demonstrated to us, we can’t perceive them. Similarly, it seems ‘obvious’ that we have full-colour vision all the way to the edge of our visual field. Again, very simple tests can demonstrate to us that this is simply not so. Thus, regardless of how vision ‘seems’ to us, however carefully we introspect on the process, the illusions prove utterly dominant. Similarly, we can only hope to gain any understanding of what seems to be free will and consciousness by a scientific ‘proving’ of our brain functions. (Eagleman’s book ‘Icognito’ and Harris’ “Free Will’ each provide readily accessible introductions to this line of argument).

    Meantime Mike, as Steve Winwood and the Spencer-Davis Group had it all those years ago – ‘Keep on running’!

  4. “At best, all that could be shown was that my “neuromachinery” was working normally and without unusual influence—no tumors, drugs or damage impeding the way it “should” work.”

    ” I did, however, grab as many of the high caffeine GU packs as I could…”

    The highest mind is the clearest mind, and only truth will set us free. Free will at last, =

  5. MJA

    Being all GUed up is normal for me. ;)

  6. s.wallerstein,

    Quite so. Folks like Hobbes and Spinoza attributed the mistaken belief in free will to ignorance of the things you mention. As they saw it, if a person had that full picture, she would clearly see that there is no choice or chance.

    That said, there are those who would argue (as is done with God knowing all things) that merely knowing that a person will do X does not entail that X is not free. That is, a person’s choice could be predictable, but also free. While I could have stopped, I would never do so. :)

  7. Mike:

    Hobbes and Spinoza were very intelligent and very honest people. It’s rare that such intelligence is combined with such honesty in the same person. When in doubt, trust their opinion.

    Now if my choices at this exact moment are the product of my genes, my upbringing, my education, my reading, what I ate for lunch, etc., then I cannot choose otherwise.

    I thought that free will is the ability or the capacity to choose otherwise.

    The fact that I lauded Hobbes and Spinoza is only the product of my biography, my physiology, the weather, how tired I am, etc., just as is my decision to participate in this blog. If you call that “free will”, fine, but that’s not what most people mean by “free will”.

  8. Great post. Determinism reigns, but the illusion wins.

  9. Re Kevin 8th Feb.
    That does put it in a nutshell for me.

    It seems to me that we come into this world with absolutely no choice whatsoever who we are and what we shall do. To a large extent our genetic composition will rule our life so in that connection free will, whilst not abolished, does seem to have some fragility when we argue that it exists. Dawkins selfish Gene does seem to have the upper hand with its embodiment i.e. plant or animal, which seem merely to be vehicles for the genes. If I examine a fragment of my life I am aware that it is a continuous system, something in the nature of meteorology, a system of continuous change which can only be understood by humans by an interposing of their constructs of cause and effect. If I look back on what has gone before me this day there is a continuing series of connected events; I cannot remember at any time making a choice to do anything. Things have just happened I can never catch myself in an instance where I was especially conscious of making a choice. Looking back I suppose I can claim that I had lobster soup in preference to tomato soup for lunch at the time all that seemed to happen was, I reached for the lobster soup. Similarly I am not aware at any time making the choice to favour determinism over free will it just seems to have happened. It must seem as if I am a leaf blown around in the wind with no control over anything but paradoxically I do usually seem get what I want.

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