Society featured

Free Will: Good Riddance

January 17, 2024

I never cared much for arguments about free will, one way or the other. I put free will into a similar category to other wastes of time in philosophy, like the Great Deceiver concept or the trolley problem. Angels on the head of a pin, anyone? It seemed like one of those unresolvable debates that has persisted for centuries: a tar baby that one would be foolish to punch.

If an opinion was demanded of me, I would say without particular conviction that I leaned toward a position that free will was an illusion, but that I was happy to behave as if I had free will, and then get on with life. My leaning toward illusory free will stemmed from a sense that our decision center is no more than a bolus of interconnected neurons, shaped by many influences in the physical universe.

After listening to a podcast featuring Robert Sapolsky based on his new book Determined (which I have not read yet), I found my position coming into focus. A large majority of people in our society—over 80%—believe in free will. Indeed, it is often pointed out that our criminal justice system is predicated on the concept. Some folks (called compatibilists) adopt a squishy compromise position that attempts to assess how “internal” a decision is (good luck with that). Few members of modernity reject free will completely, but that’s where Sapolsky landed, and I found his arguments to be persuasive.

recent article by Richard Heinberg explored the interaction between belief in free will and our response to the meta-crisis: can we save the world if we don’t have free will as a motivating engine? Although I am somewhat reluctant to weigh in on the pernicious free will topic, what the hell. I find myself compelled to do so.

Free Will vs. Determinism

I am not one of those people who thinks that absence of free will means everything is set in stone, playing out like clockwork. No. The universe is far messier and more interesting than that. No atom knows what it’s going to do from one moment to the next. Entangled quantum probabilities preclude perfect predictability (say that five times, fast!). On the macroscopic scale, hopelessly complex interactions generate “sensitive dependence to initial conditions” (e.g., the butterfly effect)—a hallmark of chaos. Boring clockwork determinism isn’t the way of things.

Are our decisions subject to these elements of indeterminacy? Maybe. Why not? When we’re teetering on a decision and have no idea ourselves which way we’ll go, it seems quite possible that the initial impulse that starts the neural avalanche in one direction or the other could come down to a random event at the quantum scale. While such a process would dispense with the idea that our actions are deterministic, the result still does not constitute free will. Rather, it simply reflects a consequence of yet another physical process in the chain of events.

We have moved beyond thinking that a divine hand is necessary to keep Earth in its orbit around the sun: gravity suffices. Many have discovered for themselves that moral and prosocial behavior does not require belief in a punitive god: evolution has seen to it that social animals know how to behave reasonably. Likewise, free will seems to fall into this same category: a facile cop-out to explain biophysically sophisticated and amazing behaviors in terms of a fanciful bit of magic. We need not resort to such beliefs to behave responsibly.

Free of What?

A colleague, Ben McCall, helpfully posed the question about free will this way: “free of what?” For a decision to exhibit free will, what must it be free of? Must it operate outside of mundane influences from the physical world: physics, evolution, genetics, arrangement of neurons, history, upbringing, life experience, hormone levels, last meal, last interaction, or what?

Sapolsky, when asked if a set of experimental results could convince him that free will exists, said: “Sure.” He went on to describe what would have to be shown, which amounts to a demonstration that a decision is made despite the tangle of physical, cultural, and physiological influences—an insertion of something outside of these mundane elements: an override. As mentioned above, the insertion of chaos and quantum indeterminacy into a decision does not constitute some sort of “free” override of what remains a purely physical process. Sapolsky would want to see evidence that a decision would come out the same way independent of the litany of physical influences. Of course, this is not a viable experiment to perform conclusively, but it does illustrate the principle at stake.

Some may interpret free will as free of constraint. First off: no such thing—the physical universe is heavily constrained, and we do not have the freedom to act in defiance of those constraints. More generously, maybe the sentiment is that multiple options exist, and we might choose any among them. Okay, but what bizarre physical universe would not present options for our brains to process? Every being makes decisions between various (legitimate) choices, and those decisions have unforeseeable consequences that can impact survival. Crucially, each of these decisions is governed by physics, evolution, genetics, arrangement of neurons, history, upbringing, life experience, hormone levels, last meal, last interaction, etc., shaped in a feedback loop by survival odds at the species level. Sometimes those elements stack up to make a decision a “no-brainer,” like choosing between cake or death.  Harder decisions involve a battle of sorts within the brain, perhaps not too dissimilar to how bees select a new home site in a dance-off—a phenomenon that I will return to shortly.

Substance vs. Soul

An override to mundane physical influences sounds to me like a force that acts outside of physics. It evokes the dualist stance that stuck with us from the Enlightenment: mind and body as separate substances on different planes. In short: a soul. Indeed, one study found a great degree of correlation between dualist beliefs and belief in free will: stronger than the correlation between free will and deterministic beliefs, in fact.

This makes intuitive sense to me. The illusion of free will is connected to self-regard as an “entity”—a being apart from the mechanistic body. Belief in life after death or reincarnation is common in modern cultures, which is tantamount to belief in a soul. After all, what else would we call something that survives without the body? Fun fact: the U.S. air traffic control system counts “souls” aboard an airplane (human only, of course). If free will exists, where else would it originate if not from a presence that works independently from (and in mastery of) the pedestrian, mechanistic body? Either the physical body—including the brain—makes our decisions, or something else transcending the material world does. We have lots of evidence for one of these options, by the way—just sayin’.

Indeed, if a non-material soul is making the decisions and calling the shots for our “higher” functions, why on Earth would we also need such a large meat-brain? Isn’t our outsized capability attributed to a large energy-hungry brain sporting large frontal lobes? It’s just math!

The more secular proponents of free will may reject “soul” and prefer “mind” instead. Is this much different from replacing “meat” with “protein” to soothe our sensibilities? Mind, here, alludes to consciousness: to me another transcendent cop-out that simply labels our forgivable ignorance of a complex emergent phenomenon. Mind over matter? I suspect not.

[Late addition 2024.01.19: What do we make of the fact that a very small amount of mind-altering drug (pill-sized) can utterly transform or incapacitate the “free will” of a person (also think: anesthesia).  Who’s the boss: physics/chemistry, or the ether?  How can free will stand by during such abuse?]

Does Bee Will Exist?

Maybe bees are a useful way to look at this. During the pandemic year I tended bees that moved into my yard, and I closely observed their behaviors. When a “split” happened (which my home-brew continuous-read scale would detect and send a text message alert), I would stand within the air-filling (and pooping) swarm to watch them condense into a bivouac-ball in a nearby bush—where they would stay for one, two, or three days depending on weather (sunny went faster, facilitating navigation). I would watch the scouts’ wiggle dances on the surface of the ball, and initially see multiple sites being advertised (based on orientation and duration of the wiggle). At some point, one of the contenders—perhaps even a new entry—would gather favor as “judges” went to check out the prospects and return to dance enthusiastically for a good spot. Once I saw all scout bees dancing the same location, I knew their exodus was at hand. At some point, over a 30 second period, the ball would disintegrate into the air, and the swarm would head off in precisely the direction I had gleaned from their dance. Every time. Very rewarding to witness.

The bees had many options: not constrained to one. No one bee (certainly not the queen, deeply sequestered in ignorance by a ball of bees) could force the decision. They have a process for weighing options, entertaining several at a time. Early in the process, the colony does not already secretly know which site will emerge as the winner. The collective opinion may ebb and flow as myriad considerations are evaluated—trying to optimize access hole size, chamber size, chamber condition, vulnerability, direction of the opening relative to sun exposure, and tons of other factors. Eventually, they arrive at a consensus and head off.

Does the superorganism (collective of individuals) have free will? Is there a soul? Is there a mind? To all appearances, the bee colony is a living organism that makes a tough decision in the real world—one that will impact its survival and genetic success. I hesitate to proclaim that such a decision is fundamentally different from complex decisions made by human individuals. Rather than punt and ascribe a soul or mind to the collective, perhaps we might simply appreciate the colony as an amazing example of emergent complexity like so many other examples that crop up in all forms of life—like the human body and brain, for example.

I guess I have no objection to labeling the emergent phenomenon of advanced decision making as mind or soul, as long as it is understood that such things are merely temporary products of matter, utterly dependent on its arrangement and biophysical fitness.

All for One, or None for All?

Belief in free will is often a tell-tale sign of human supremacist leanings—pervasive in our culture. It appears that most people who believe in free will do not afford the same quality to any animals besides humans, which is truly bizarre to me. How can that be so? Where is the sharp line? Are we not made of the same atoms, meat, bones, neurons, etc.—based on incremental genetic modifications using essentially the same foundational blueprint as all the rest? What magic happened that could allow us suddenly to override biology? I’m not saying that proponents of human-only free will have no answers to these questions—just that the answers are unsupported by anything other than assertion, rank belief, and a lamentable sense of superiority.

So, is all free will dedicated to one privileged species, or is there none for all species?

Have you ever opened the door to let a pet out, only to watch them hesitate and get stuck deciding whether to go out or stay in? We might even say: “Make up your mind!” Hold up: mind? Animals absolutely make decisions. Moths make decisions based on the world they perceive: is that scent gradient strong enough to be worth following? Amoebas make decisions based on their environments. In the case of the amoeba, we may be able to penetrate deeper into the mechanistic stimulus/response origins of the decision, but then why aren’t moths and humans simply more elaborate versions? Are we not responding to stimuli in sophisticated, yet biologically-based (and culturally programmed) ways?

If humans have free will, then I would think amoebas must, also. I find it simpler to say that none of us do: none of us possess an ethereal override to the (exceedingly complex) mechanisms that govern our decisions. We are all incredible beings, doing extraordinary things in this world—and all without pixie dust.

What’s the Point?

The reaction of free-will believers to the proposition that free will is an illusion can be rather revealing. Many will instantly (and hilariously predictably) do something “spontaneous” to demonstrate free will in action. Nice try, meat bag. Saw that coming. Classic subroutine execution.

Of course we are more than inert lumps. Of course we navigate our world, making decisions among multiple options. How would any lifeform sustain itself otherwise?

The free will adherent might challenge me: “what, then, motivates you to write this post, or to warn of existential trouble as you are wont to do via your blog?” Well, how is what I am doing different from the first fox in a den who smells smoke rousing the others for an escape? A bee will do the same. What kind of social animal would I be if I did not remain alert to dangers and warn my fellow humans (upon whom I myself depend within a social group)? How would a social species survive without an evolutionarily-honed survival instinct to sound the alarm when conditions seem to warrant it? Urgency is built-in. The person that I am: my genetics, my background, my environment, my experiential history all contribute to my being that person who starts Do the Math in response to the ensemble of stimuli I have received. It would be very odd and dull indeed if a world without free will suppressed reactions to stimuli—however complex. Likewise, it would be weird if I didn’t act in some way to the inputs I have received. I’m just being my biophysical self, and that’s more than enough for me.

Why bother writing a post about free will? I sense that belief in free will may be detrimental to long term ecological success. It acts to set us apart as privileged inhabitants on the planet. Only by knocking us off our self-aggrandizing pedestal might we open our brains to work with the community of life—as part of it—instead of in opposition to it or mastery over it. Ironically, then, belief in free will can impose unnecessary constraints: acting to close off beneficial choices!

Also ironically, just as a lifelong believer in a deity may feel there’s no point to life if faced with the prospect of that deity’s non-existence, those trapped by staunch belief in free will are more likely to contemplate despondency and resignation when presented with its removal, perhaps as a form of pointless intellectual protest. The rest of the universe barrels along apparently without needing such belief to function, showing no sign of abdicating actions or resigning in defeat. It’s the philosopher’s self-inflicted left-brained paralysis. To them I say: suit yourself—be a lump if you must—we’ll just be over here not moping but reacting proactively to the challenges presented to us by the universe.

Abdication of Responsibility?

Along these lines, some imagine that denying free will amounts to absolving oneself of responsibility. Maybe these are the same sort of people who would be murderers if not for fear of eternal punishment by a god. Why does anyone need the crutch of free will to behave responsibly? As a member of a social species, irresponsibility on my part is not well tolerated by my band, nor by the community of life. It has consequences. I also happen to value some things, so that I act according to those values—which act as weights in evaluating competing neural outcomes. An amoeba values food, and acts to secure it. More sophisticated values likewise stimulate sophisticated responses. It is these values that counter nihilism for me, not belief in free will.

If a person—or any other animal—does something, then the action is attached to the actor, together with the resulting consequences. In other words, that being bears some degree of responsibility. Why should it matter whether the decisions were produced by meat or by ether? Part of being social is owning one’s contributions and costs to the collective. How else would social behaviors evolve if not via response to consequences. Indeed, perhaps it is no mistake that the stimulus/response model suggests a stimulability/responsibility pairing. Linguistically, it is the ability to enact a response that creates responsibility, not free will. Our physicality is what provides the ability to respond, after evaluating the many nuances presented by the stimuli.

The important point is that we have the capacity to evaluate long-term consequences of our actions based on a complex cognitive apparatus. This knowledge provides an input to decisions/responses, with a view to consequences. Lack of free will does nothing to change the options before us, and does not impact consequences.  Enough with the mind games.

The question becomes: is our organism—clearly capable of inflicting great ecological harm—also capable of reacting to warning stimuli so that we might favor options that reduce long-term harm? Can we “save the world” without free will? Will our individual and collective circuitry act responsibly? Only if provided with relevant inputs to inform the process. Only if we stay alert to novel threats to ourselves and to the entire community of life. Let our phenomenal meat-brains, in collective communication do the rest. Yes, it’s possible. What physical principle would stand in the way?

So Let’s Get Going!

It’s okay to let go of the free will illusion. Nothing big changes. The universe will not stop. Just breathe. You will still have a menu of responses available when presented with a range of stimuli. Do your best: aim for long-term benefit. Trust your gut. You’ve got amazing circuitry that has been shaped by evolution, history, life experience, and more. Let it do its job—even if it will forever defy full understanding as to how it works. Don’t let a magical idea bind you to the non-existent ether: accepting a biological basis for our actions in no way diminishes appreciation at a spiritual level for the awesomeness of life in our universe and our lucky seat at the table. So, set aside the security blanket. Cast off the training wheels. Swim without arm floats. Open your eyes underwater. Dare to eat chocolate that has touched peanut butter. You’ll be fine. The result, in fact, is liberating. Our capacity for effecting and celebrating valued outcomes is not diminished.

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.