How free can we be?

I’m a little behind the curve on this, but a Jan. 2 article by Dennis Overbye in The New York Times deals with free will and the latest developments in cognitive science regarding free will. Overbye cites the work of Benjamin Libet who demonstrated (to his satisfaction, anyway) in the 1970s that people act before becoming consciously aware of their choices. Consciousness and apparent free choices seems to follow the mechanism we call our body rather than direct it. It is compared to a monkey riding the back of a tiger and making up a story about how the monkey directed the tiger’s actions.

The no free-will bus campaign
The no free-will bus campaign (Photo credit: morgantj)

To some extent, I guess we all believe that actions are caused by physical laws and past events. Whenever someone commits a horrible crime, we ask, “What would cause someone to do such a thing?” We believe there is an answer, and scientists seek the answers. People who argue most strenuously for free will will generally back off when confronted with their own shyness, depression, impatience, or other trait they’ve tried for years to modify.

A simple test for free will involves the compulsion to crunch on ice. For reasons I don’t understand, people with an iron deficiency will crunch ice compulsively, annoying co-workers, family members, and passers-by. Give them iron, and suddenly they “choose” to stop crunching ice all the time.

English: Daniel Dennett at the 17. Göttinger L...
English: Daniel Dennett at the 17. Göttinger Literaturherbst, October 19th, 2008, in Göttingen, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, is this cause for despair or optimism? Understanding the causes of our actions gives us more tools to help control them (giving iron supplements, for example). At the same time, knowing our actions are caused makes us doubt the free will of the soul (or mind, if you prefer). We feel a loss of dignity, for some reason. Daniel Dennett argues consistently and persistently that recognizing and understanding causal relationships gives us more freedom, not less. When he says “more” freedom, though, he really means more than none, which isn’t comforting to the hard-core indeterminists in the world.

One problem is that punishment becomes meaningless if people are not free, or so it is claimed. Baruch Spinoza answered this by saying that you would control the actions of a rabid dog in the same manner regardless of whether the dog chose to be rabid. The same, he claimed, should apply to humans. Punishment is no longer retribution, though, it is now simply a necessary condition of life.

William James
William James (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the other hand, William James claimed that we are forced to believe in free will because we are forced to make choices every day. If we do not believe in free will, we cannot make any choices, so we are paralyzed. From a practical standpoint, we feel we are free and must act as if we are free.

This may be as good as it gets.

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