February 2024

Free Will

Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

According to James Gleick, a tranche of physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers argue that “free will” is an illusion, a feeling that people have about the actions they take, but not more than that feeling.

He says this in a review of Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will by Kevin J. Mitchell, a neuroscientist and geneticist at Trinity College Dublin, who has written a book-length refutation of the idea.[1] As Gleick writes, Mitchell argues that “it is neither an illusion nor merely a figure of speech. It is our essential, defining quality and as such demands explanation.” In Mitchell’s words, excerpted in the review:

    We make decisions, we choose, we act. These are the fundamental truths of our existence and absolutely the most basic phenomenology of our lives. If science seems to be suggesting otherwise, the correct response is not to throw our hands up and say, “Well, I guess everything we thought about our own existence is a laughable delusion.” It is to accept instead that there is a deep mystery to be solved and to realize that we may need to question the philosophical bedrock of our scientific approach if we are to reconcile with the apparent determinism of the physical universe.

The declaration that free will is an illusion arises from, to me, a misunderstanding of “determinism.” Mathematicians and physicists declare that the laws of the universe are set out in equations that trigger steps that follow ineluctably one from the other; as Gleick says it, “A determinist believes that whatever happens had to happen” and cites Pierre-Simon Laplace’s declaration that if a person could know the forces acting in nature on the positions of all things at a given instant, “the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes.”

But Mitchell’s angle on the matter puts the doubt to this because he looks at the agency that creatures have, from the paramecium to the person, as coming out of evolutionary necessity. “The universe may not have a purpose,” he is quoted as saying, “but life does,” and the purpose is the survival of the individual self in whatever chemical and electrical form that that self has. To survive, organisms gather information about the world around them, and the storehouse of information become the source for decisions—causes of effects—and while it might be possible to say that the information determines the decisions, there is nothing inevitable about what happens, no “must” that must be fulfilled.

What defeats the inexorability of the determinists in the end, according to Mitchell, is the very world they say is inexorably driven by their equations and laws. When physicists tried to test Laplace’s hypothesis, they ran up against the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which exists whether humans are around or not, which means that there was no way they could precisely know all the forces acting on all the objects and their positions. Schr√∂dinger’s equations—think of his poor hapless cat waiting for the collapse of the wave function—show an ineradicable indeterminacy at the root of reality. “The upshot of these views,” says Mitchell, quoted by Gleick, “is that the future is open: indeed, that is what makes it the future.” He goes on to say,

    If we could really glimpse the future, we would see a world out of focus. Not separate paths already neatly laid out, waiting to be chosen—just a fuzzy, jittery picture that gets fuzzier and jitterier the farther into the future you look.

As Gleick concludes, “He wants to say, yes, we live in a materialistic universe; yes, the laws of physics apply; yet the future is not written, and living things have the power to change it.”

But free will implies some kind of mechanism in the organism that the organism exercises to change its conditions. On the level of a nematode, for instance, the organism makes changes in itself in response to the conditions in which it finds itself, but no one would argue that it is exercising a will in this instance.

However, in more highly developed organisms—us—with our intense and volatile processing of information in both brain and body on a moment by moment basis—Mitchell describes it as an assemblage of “wet, jiggly, incomprehensibly tiny components that jitter about constantly”—many of the decisions we make—maybe even most—are made without any conscious exercise of governance: we breathe, digest, and so on without the executive function of the brain sending a communique to the appropriate parts of the body.

This high degree of involuntary action in our day-to-day quest to survive seems to prove to what Gleick calls “the free-will deniers” that action and conscious will do not coincide, and that conscious will, rather than being a process employed by us to do something, is just a way to describe an experience of acting as a person who acts, not an actual historical deed: in other words, a delusion.

But as both Gleick and Mitchell point out, the human encounter with acting is deeper and richer than the description of a creature propelled by hapless forward motion offered by the free-will deniers. Mitchell calls it a “more naturalized concept of the self,” a self that is an entire organism with a set of embodied histories that must be understood as a whole. To quote Gleick:

    We do things for reasons based on our histories, and “those reasons inhere at the level of the whole organism.” Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, our conscious self is not in control. Still, when the occasion requires, we can gather our wits, as the expression goes. We have so many expressions like that—get a grip; pull yourself together; focus your thoughts—metaphors for the indistinct things we see when we look inward. We don’t ask who is gathering whose wits.

As Gleick describes the working of Mitchell’s “more naturalized concept of the self,” our cerebral cortex comes up with options, always subject to fluctuations and noise; the brain then evaluates these options (up-voting and down-voting among its various regions) based on goals and beliefs built from experience, stored in memory, and more or less malleable; and all this is mediated by the representations of self that we have built up over time through the countless instances of engaging with the world in order to survive. To quote Mitchell:

    The various subsystems involved are in constant dialogue with each other, each attempting to satisfy its own constraints in the context of the dynamically changing information it receives from all the other interconnected areas.

Not at all a passive shuttlecock badmintoned around by the laws of physics.

So, why would there such an effort at this historical time and place to deny that humans are as they are? Good question, escritor.

If we can plot “free will” on a continuum from left to right, with one end being no free will (that is, no capacity for independent decision-making) and the other being, well, God (the ability to make any decision at any time about anything and make it stick), the leftmost station would be occupied by Robert Sapolsky, who in Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will, published last year, states that humans have no free will, none whatsoever. Everything I do has been determined since the Big Bang: “We are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment.”

The problem with this, of course, politically speaking, is that those who believe that history equals biology will then use that equation to argue that the way things are is the way they should be. Following from that, then, is that any effort to “correct” things are patently wrong and thus can be legitimately repressed. On the right, this is the land of Social Darwinism and eugenics and racialist ethnographies (i.e., white is right). On the left, it is the land of identarian politics and orthodoxies about systemic oppression.

In other words, going down the Sapolsky road can end in a society where everyone is slotted, and their fates are foreordained. A world frozen into its categories in which Hobbes’ state of every man against every man for control of resources becomes the daily grind.

But just because Sapolsky argues that his science says what it says doesn’t mean that humans have to accept it at all and can argue and mobilize against it. Now, Sapolsky might counter that that resistance is also fated, but he cannot deny that the resistance changes things because whenever humans act upon the world in which they live, they change things—in other words, they make the world indeterminate.

Again, Sapolsky might argue that that “indeterminacy” is itself determined by all the prior activity, but at this point, it’s clear that the concept of determinacy, by trying to explain everything, explains nothing and therefore obligates no one to believe in it and act upon its principles.

Mitchell points out that the physicists point out that indeterminacy rules in reality. Now, introducing an element of indeterminacy or randomness or unpredictability into the system doesn’t guarantee that the organisms in that reality have free will, but it opens up space for such a thing to exist and be exercised.

So, what is this free will we’re talking about? First, I would drop the adjective “free”—there is only “will,” that is, the power to make a choice to make something happen in the world.

I think will means two things. One is what is described above: a process of gathering wits where, at the end of the process, the human makes a choice to take a path (right or wrong is not important here; the fact of the
choosing is).


I think the second element of will is resistance. Determinacy and indeterminacy are both equally threatening to the human organism, and will as resistance is the attempt by the human to bring clarity out of the chaos and ensure safety for itself,  a process that is both necessary and neverending.

In the exercise of its will, the human changes the world. This is not just a philosophical statement but a statement rooted in biology—just not Sapolsky’s biology. Our brain/bodies (our conjoined subsystems, as Mitchell describes them) are built, as far as we can tell, like no other organism on the earth: we create realities that do not “exist” to our fingertips but yet do exist and exert influence upon us—paracosms, fictions, languages, cultures, and so on—that have resculpted the planet and outpaced natural selection.

We exert will all the time, if by will we mean the power to reshape and redeploy reality, but that will also has a continuum, from the autonomic to the life-or-death.

Sometimes that will, as Mitchell notes, is not directly guided by or available to us, such as automatic breathing or digestion. But the truth is, I don’t need to be aware of those decisions being made, just as I don’t need to know all the subroutines being run in my word processing program as I type out this essay. I just need them to work so that I can attend to the life-or-death things at the other end of the continuum.

Of course, we can believe what Sapolsky peddles, but there’s no gain for human happiness or security in doing so. Humans are a dynamic element in the life of the planet, and what we humans do or don’t do has consequences. We can box ourselves in by determinacy and relieve ourselves of moral responsibility or we can will ourselves to act in a way that honors freedom, creativity, empathy, purpose, and all the other values that give human life its strange and seductive beauty.

Yes, we can be cruel, selfish, deadly, barbaric as well as honorable, loving, generous, sweet, but we are not fated to be any of these—they are all the result of choices we make within systems we create on a planet that responds to what we do. This does not mean that the “we” in that sentence is something like a pilot in a cockpit, a master of destiny. But neither is it an autopilot following an algorithm. As Gleick says in his review:

    Even on our best days we’re subject to delusions and confusion. We act without thinking, from habit or reflex or instinct. We behave impulsively, for no reasons we can discern. Yet unconscious decision-making is still decision-making. And sometimes we do think. We reflect, ponder, dither, weigh alternatives for some time before choosing to act.

Humans make their own destinies, though, as Karl Marx pointed out, it’s a tricky dance to balance “the tradition of all dead generations” with “creating something that did not exist before”—but we do do this, all the time, and it will be a tragedy to let Sapolsky and others trick us out of exercising our freedom to express our will.

[1] New York Review of Books, Jan. 18, 2024.


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his “prime mate"
and wife, María-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2024 Michael Bettencourt
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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