Consciousness and free will – Part 1

Like most people, it seemed obvious to me that we have free will and up until about three years ago, I had not thought about it much or questioned it. Then I read Sam Harris’ small book Free Will (2012, Free Press) which made the case that we do not have free will. In my previous posts on consciousness, I noted that Annaka Harris, David Chalmers and Anil Seth all had some discussion of free will in their books. So I re-read Sam Harris’s book, now with a much deeper understanding of its relationship to consciousness, and came away largely convinced that he is right in seeing free will as an illusion.

Free Will is a very short book, 66 pages of main text amounting to around 15,000 words. It is very well written and jargon-free and makes a very strong case that free will is an illusion. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. Well worth reading, whatever your views on free will.

For most people, consciousness not only involves a sense of self but also the feeling of being in control of your actions, of being the author of your thoughts. In other words, you have free will, the ability to consciously choose among potential decisions or actions. I refer to this as free will in the ordinary sense. This idea of free will emerges from a felt experience, and most people do not question it. That included me until relatively recently.

Three main positions on free will

Harris notes that in the philosophical literature we find three main approaches to the problem: determinism, compatibilism and libertarianism. Determinists believe that our thoughts and actions are fully determined by internal and external background causes and free will is an illusion. Compatibilists accept determinism and redefine “free will” as being free from any outer or inner coercions that would prevent the person from acting on his actual desires and intentions.

Libertarians (no relation to the political philosophy) believe that free will occurs outside of physical causation, whether as the causal action of consciousness on the physical brain or perhaps via metaphysical entities such as a soul. While both determinists and libertarians believe determinism and free will are incompatible, I will refer to libertarians in this review as incompatibilists to avoid confusion with the extreme right-wing political libertarians. Harris notes that our modern understanding of brain and behaviour strongly supports a determinist view and that “today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist”.

David Bourget and David Chalmers surveyed 931 philosophy faculty members at 99 institutions in many countries and found that 12% of philosophers were determinists, 59% compatibilists, 14% incompatibilists, and 15% had other views. Leaving other views aside, this means that 71% of philosophers do not believe in free will in the ordinary sense and only 14% do. This means that almost three quarters of philosophers agree with Sam Harris’ case that (ordinary) free will is an illusion, except that some are quite angry with him for not accepting their redefinition of free will as the freedom from coercion (more of this later).

Objective evidence

Harris’s case rests on objective, scientific observations on the one hand, and subjective evidence from introspection and meditation on the other hand. The scientific evidence includes:

  • Observations that brain activity occurs a significant time interval before conscious awareness of the intention to do something.
  • Given the right experimental manipulations, people can be led to believe that they consciously intended an action, when they neither chose it nor had control over their movements.
  • Hypnotized people who are asked why they have done things that were suggested by the hypnotist will confabulate reasons for their actions that have nothing to do with the actual reason.

To this I would add the experiments done with split brain patients, where an action is requested to one side only of the split brain. When the patient is asked via the other side of the split brain why they did that action, the other side will invent a plausible reason that it believes.

Subjective evidence

Sam Harris devotes more of his book to discussion of our subjective experience, arguing that free will is not only an illusion, but it doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us. Introspection soon shows us that thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. As an experienced meditator, I am well aware that my thoughts appear spontaneously in my mind, and I can no more decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises in my mind. To directly observe this is to understand that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose. You might respond that you can think connected chains of thought, but meditators know that these arise and cease for reasons outside our conscious control.

Part of the felt experience of free will is to feel that you could have chosen to do something other than what you did, to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever you did do. But it is not possible to go back and make a different decision. This is an untestable belief. The perception that you could have, is actually an understanding that you could make a different decision if similar circumstance arose in the future. And that is likely true, particularly if what you did do last time had undesirable consequences. Read Harris for a fuller discussion of this.

What do the authors of the other books on consciousness that I have been reading think about free will? Anneka Harris agrees with Sam Harris and summarizes the same case, probably just as well since she is married to him. I briefly discuss the views of the other authors below.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennet is a compatibilist who agrees with Sam that we do not have free will and our choices are determined, not free. But he redefines free will as the freedom to do what is determined and is very aggressive about attacking Harris for claiming there is no free will (even though Harris is talking about the type of free will he agrees is an illusion). Einstein expressed this compatibilist view very clearly as follows:  In a 1929 interview in The Saturday Evening Post, he said: ‘I do not believe in free will. I believe with Schopenhauer: we can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must.’

Dennett has written a book Freedom Evolves (2003) in which he defends his compatibilist view that that the concept of free will should be redefined so that it no longer involves a free choice among alternatives but rather refers to our freedom to do that one thing that we must wish to do, in other words our freedom from coercion. I think even this definition is incoherent, since if there is external coercion, it is just one of the external determining factors in the determination of our choice (either to change it because we are coerced, or to not change it and suffer the consequence of the coercion). As Eyal Moses’ 2010 review of his book stated:

“For Dennett, the significance of free will is that it is the basis of morality and moral responsibility, of engaging in moral judgment and holding people responsible for their actions. His thesis is that while free will in the ordinary sense is an illusion, these consequences of free will are real and compatible with his deterministic model of the universe, so free will should be redefined to refer to these consequences. Dennett suggests that calling an action “freely chosen” should not mean that the person had some other possible alternative action (which Dennett claims is never true), but rather should mean that we are justified in holding the person morally responsible for that action.”

Dennett has written a long, condescending and incoherent review of Sam Harris’ book. Harris has responded to this here, and Daniel Miessner has written a devastating critique of Dennett’s arguments and examples in his review of Harris’s book. Miessner summarizes Dennett’s position as (1) We have free will because we feel like we do and (2) It’s useful to hold people responsible for their actions, so we must tell people that free will is real.

If you want to dig a little deeper into the issues around understanding the true nature of free will, I can recommend reading Dennett’s review, Sam Harris’ response and Miessner’s detailed critique.

David Chalmers

Chalmers made a fairly strong case in his book that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of mental functioning and itself has no causal role. But he resisted drawing this conclusion, saying he is agnostic and hopes to find some subtle role for consciousness in causing behaviour.  Annaka Harris identifies such a potential causal role for the behaviour of someone who is reporting on their experience of meditating on their empty consciousness (formless awareness). Its hard to imagine how a zombie could exhibit such behaviour.

Chalmers examines a number of potential strategies for avoiding epiphenomenalism but concludes that none of them justify rejecting the conclusion that consciousness is mostly epiphenomenal, perhaps with some subtle exceptions.  This clearly is fundamental to the issue of whether or not we have free will, and I find it odd that Chalmers does not discuss free will directly. He is on record as saying he does not have strong feelings about free will. For some reason, he appears to act coy around expressing a view on free will, though he is clearly sceptical and tending towards compatibilism, saying in the Scientific American interview that “If it just means you can do what you want to do, then, well, that seems pretty straightforward. If it’s the ability to do something completely non-deterministic, well, I don’t know if we have that.”

Anil Seth

Anil Seth also comes down very clearly on the side of no “spooky free will” (free will where consciousness causally intervenes in the flow of physical events). He discusses in some detail how intentions are formed in the brain before we become aware of making a decision and the very strong feeling that our “self” has made the decision and is causing the action. He is also a compatibilist, also quoting Schopenhauer in slightly different words “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

But Seth, somewhat like Dennett, is clearly unwilling to state that free will is an illusion.  Indeed, he says that the conscious experience of volition is as real as any other conscious perception, such as a visual experience of colour. I find it somewhat difficult to take him seriously after he has just reviewed at length all the neurological experiments showing brain activity a significant time before a conscious volition is experienced and that people will experience volition if they are fooled into thinking they are controlling a series of events or the real cause is hidden from them.

What Seth actually means by saying the experience of volition is “real” is that it is indeed an experience we have, even though it does not reflect a reality in which our “self” makes choices from a range of options, any of which the self could have chosen. Seth argues that the reason we have this experience of volition is that it is indispensable to our survival and assists us to realize that we can learn from our previous “voluntary” actions, to possibly make a different choice next time. He may well be right.

In conclusion

The objective evidence, well discussed in some detail by Anil Seth, and the subjective evidence, well laid out by Sam Harris, and which I have also examined in some depth, together make a strong case that free will in the ordinary sense, is an illusion, or as Sam Harris puts it more strongly, even the illusion of free will is an illusion. It seems to me very likely that not only are free will and the sense of a conscious self illusions, but that consciousness is largely along for the ride, and plays at most only a limited causal role in behaviour and thought.

I have not touched on the implications of this for moral responsibility. Sam Harris spends quite a bit of time discussing this in his book, and Daniel Dennett sees moral responsibility as necessary and that it justifies redefining free will so people can be told they have it. There is quite a body of empirical evidence around this issue and I will examine it, as well as evidence on the free will beliefs of the general population and specific groups, in Part 2 of this post on free will.