4. Freedom of choice

August 19th, 2019

The story so far …..

We have seen that it is hard to explain the fact that the universe exists without some sort of cause and hard to explain its apparent design apart from a designer. Then we saw that it is also difficult to explain human consciousness on purely naturalistic terms.

This post, we look at another aspect of being human that seems to point to something beyond the merely physical.

Freedom of choice is what we want

In Devo’s very old song now, Freedom of Choice, they suggest: “Freedom of choice is what you got. Freedom from choice is what you want.” But what makes our choices “free”, or not? And do we actually have “free choice”?

There seem to be several requirements for a choice to be free:

  1. We are the agents who actually make a conscious choice (it wasn’t just an accident or an unconscious reaction).
  2. The choice is voluntary (we are not coerced or forced, e.g. by a threat or by hypnotism).
  3. We have a reason or goal that leads to the choice (i.e. the action isn’t just random).
  4. We are originating agents who could have chosen otherwise, because the choice isn’t totally determined by physics and chemistry.

People generally feel we have the ability to make choices like that. Our laws and social customs assume it, and studies show that is what most people think.

But is this true?

Mind and brain

Our brains are physical parts of our bodies that can be measured by science and affected by physical injury. But our minds seem to be something different, for they are not physical, yet in a sense they are the essence of what it means for each of us to be “us”.

It is apparent that our minds depend on our brains – when our brains die or are injured, our minds are also affected. But what is the mind? Is it just the way our brains work, or is it something more? And how does our mind make choices?

Science and philosophy

Because our brains are physical, the electrical and chemical processes in our brains follow physical and chemical laws. And if nothing interferes with those processes, they will continue to follow those predictable laws.

So if our minds and brains are the same thing, there doesn’t seem to be anything of ourselves outside our brains to change those processes, and our thinking will be determined by factors we have no control over, such as our genetics, the sensory inputs our brains receive, and the laws themselves – hence this view is known as “determinism”.

If all this is true, then our choices will satisfy the free will criteria 1-3, but not criterion 4 (for we are not originating agents), which means they are not free as most of us understand the word.

Most neuroscientists seem to agree. For example, Prof Jerry Coyne: “You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece …. was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your “will” had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will.”

Neuroscience experiments are not quite so conclusive. For example, experiments by Wilder Penfield and Benjamin Libet can be interpreted either for or against free will, although most commonly they are thought to demonstrate our actions are determined rather than free.

The philosophers tend to agree. If we humans, like the rest of the universe, are totally physical beings, then free choice is logically impossible. There is no mind, no “us” outside the physical brain processes to make any independent and free choice. For example, philosopher Galen Strawson: “The impossibility of free will …. can be proved with complete certainty.”

A different kind of choice?

Some try to resolve this dilemma by arguing for a form of free will that only requires criteria 1-3. That is, we can indeed make choices that are intentional and not coerced, and that is freedom enough, even though we could’t actually have decided differently for our choice was determined by factors outside our control.

This view, called compatibilism because it considers free will to be compatible with determinism, is really just a matter of definition. If “free will” is defined that way, then our choices are “free”, but nevertheless, they are determined and, given the circumstances, we couldn’t have chosen differently, so criterion 4 isn’t fulfilled.

But what if our minds are more than just our brains?

All this so far is on the assumption that naturalism is true (i.e. the physical is all there is), and thus the mind is nothing more than the physical brain.

But what if we are more than physical, our minds are more than our physical brains? What if there was some part of us that isn’t just physical, and that is where the choice is made (a view called “dualism”)? Then we could be originating agents and our choices could be genuinely free.

Reasons to believe we have free choice

1. Free will is our common human experience

As I’ve said, most people believe, without really thinking about it, that we have the ability to make free choices.

2. Law and custom

Our laws and customs assume it too. For example, if a criminal choice was not free, because of mental illness, the effects of drugs or alcohol, or external compulsion, the law can assign diminished responsibility. And we sometimes justify actions that we are ashamed of by saying “I couldn’t help it!”.

So law and social customs are based on the understanding that in normal circumstances people are responsible for their choices. Chief Judge in Equity, Supreme Court of New South Wales, David Hodgson, writes: “Our system of criminal justice is based in various ways on common-sense ideas of free will and responsibility for conduct”.

3. Psychology and counselling are based on free will

One aspect of psychological counselling is helping people make better choices, and this implies the ability to choose between alternatives. For example this article in Psychology Today (Making Good Choices) says: “Essentially, any choice involves at least two options” and assumes people can change their choices.

Cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky says of free will: “Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief”.

4. It is impossible to live without believing in free will

Many scientists, psychologists and philosophers conclude that free will is a necessary illusion for us to live satisfactorily. Philosopher John Searle: “We can’t give up our conviction of our own freedom, even though there’s no ground for it.”

In his opinion piece quoted above, neuroscientist Jerry Coyne argues that free will is an illusion, but then gives a whole range of ways we “should” respond to this fact, which seems to imply we have a choice about it. And he agrees “It’s impossible, anyway, to act as though we don’t have [free will].”

If free will is an illusion, it is a hard illusion to shake.

5. Not believing in free will makes us worse people

Belief in free will is necessary for us to be ethical and human. Studies show that when people stop believing in free will they are more likely to behave unethically. Scientific American: “when people believe – or are led to believe – that free will is just an illusion. they tend to become more antisocial.”

Thus Philosopher Saul Smilanski believes that free will is “a morally necessary illusion …. vitally important …. to maintain or promote crucial moral or personal beliefs and practices.”

6. Naturalism is only an assumption of neuroscience

Because science measures and observes the physical world, it is unable to address the question of dualism and a non-physical mind. As Alwin Scott said many years ago: “Although dualism cannot be disproved, the role of science is to proceed on the assumption that it is wrong and see how much progress can be made.”

Thus the apparent scientific support for determinism is based on assumption rather than demonstrable fact, and we need not be over-impressed by it.

These are good reasons

Why should we trust our experience? A parallel with our experience of the external world can assist us.

We cannot prove the external world is real, but most people never question it, because (1) our experience of it is consistent across time, (2) it is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way, and (3) believing it is real helps us live productive and meaningful lives.

A similar argument can be used for free will. Based on all the above six points, we can reasonably believe that free will is real because (1) our experience of it too is consistent across time, (2) it too is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way, and (3) believing it is real also helps us live productive and meaningful lives.

The choice we all face

So as with our consideration of consciousness, we have to choose between two options. Either the natural world is all there is, science explains it all, we don’t have free will (it is just an illusion) and we humans are less that we thought.

Or else naturalism isn’t true, science is unable to address the whole of reality, our experience of free will is real and our minds really can rise above the physical and make genuine choices.

It’s a choice between believing what we experience and what works best, or accepting the dehumanising assumptions of naturalistic science.

One step at a time

Like consciousness (in my previous post), free will doesn’t prove God exists. But it does point to another weakness in naturalism, that it cannot adequately explain what we experience. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

It seems to me that this makes it a little more likely that naturalism/atheism is untrue, there is a God, and the first cause and designer of the universe created humans to be something more than just physical beings.

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