Do human beings have free will? Can we choose among different possible actions and beliefs? Or are we controlled by our genetics, or by blind physical processes in our brains?
And if we couldn’t make genuine choices, would that diminish us? Would we be any different from animals, except a little smarter … perhaps? And what would that say about human rights and ethics?
Are humans different to animals?
It seems that most people think that we are different, and of more value, than animals.
- Penalties in the laws of most countries (if not all) are greater for harming people than for harming animals. It is acceptable in most countries to kill and eat animals (though many individuals are opposed to this), but it isn’t acceptable to kill and eat people.
- The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognises “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Article 1 says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience”.
The UN document gives us an understanding of why human life is valued above animals: it is because of human dignity (whatever that may mean), reason and conscience. The Declaration talks a lot about freedom, generally meaning political and social freedom, but it is based on a sense of moral responsibility that infers belief that humans are free to make choices.
People experience free will
It seems that it is universal human experience to feel that we have freedom to make choices, and our actions are not all determined by blind physical brain processes. But can we trust that experience? Could our actions be determined even though they feel free?
Neuroscience and naturalism
Neuroscience throws doubt on any human ability to choose.
Science is the study of the natural world, and it generally proceeds on the assumption of methodological naturalism. That is, because science addresses the natural world, all things studied by science are assumed to be based only on natural processes. Many scientists are naturalists by belief (i.e. they believe there is nothing more than the natural world, and therefore no supernatural), but even a scientist who believes in God is expected not to use a supernatural explanation for a phenomenon. (There are some scientists who are unwilling to accept this limitation, for example, proponents of Intelligent Design, but in the main, scientists look for natural explanations for natural phenomena.)
But when brain processes are examined scientifically, it can be seen they consist of electrical and chemical processes that are subject to known natural laws. There doesn’t seem to be any place for the human mind to exercise any control over these processes. In fact, the human mind appears to only exist within the processes. Some scientific experiments seem to demonstrate free will, but more seem to demonstrate determinism.
And anyway, it may be argued, what is choice? Actions either have causes or they don’t, and an action with causes is determined by those causes, while an action without a cause is simply random. So perhaps the whole idea of choice is meaningless?
So it is no surprise to find that many neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers believe the human mind and consciousness is totally produced by our physical brains and so humans don’t have the ability to change the course of our brain processes.
It seems we have three choices:
- Find a way to live with our lack of freedom.
- Find a way that naturalism can allow for human freedom.
- Conclude that naturalism is false.
Living with determinism
Although many scientists and philosophers believe we don’t have free will, many also believe that we need the illusion of freewill to function as individuals and socially. For example, studies show that when people disbelieve in free will, they are more likely to behave in anti-social and unethical ways.
Lack of free will seems to imply we cannot be held morally responsible, for how can we be responsible for something that we had no real choice over? Thus determinism has huge implications for ethics, law and criminology.
Some scientists think it is best that their conclusions about our lack of free will should be kept from the general public. Some philosophers (compatibilists) redefine free will as freedom from outside compulsion, and so can say that we are still free even if our brain processes are fully determined, but others say this is just a semantic trick. Others simply say it is true that we can’t have free will and we just have to live with that.
None of these responses seem attractive or viable to me, or to many scientists and philosophers, so it is worth checking out the other options.
Can naturalism allow for freedom?
Scientists and philosophers have tried to find ways they can hold onto naturalism and free will at the same time, but their efforts so far don’t seem to be successful
- Philosophers Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers argue that there must be more in the universe than the physical, though they don’t believe in the supernatural, but they don’t seem to be able to offer any compelling explanation of how this can be true.
- Others look to quantum indeterminacy to provide an escape from determinism, but this too seems inadequate. Randomness isn’t choice.
So the link between naturalism and determinism seems to be strong. Philosopher John Searle says that while he is still looking for an alternative to determinism, he’s not confident we can find one.
Maybe naturalism isn’t true?
Naturalism is, after all, an assumption of science. because it only measures the natural world, it is unable to either confirm or deny the existence of anything beyond nature. So even if we have a mind that is “beyond” nature, somehow “above” the brain (a view known as dualism), science would be unable to observe or measure it.
So are there any reasons to believe we have minds that allow us to freely choose?
The most obvious reason is that we seem to experience free will. We ask people for explanations of their actions in terms of their choices, not in terms of physical brain processes. But how do we know our experience of free will is real?
We could ask a parallel question – how do we know the external world is real? We all experience it through our senses, but how do we know our senses are giving us real information? We cannot prove it by science, because scientific evidence comes to us through our senses, and we are questioning whether those senses are giving us true information.
Most of us assume, without often thinking about it, that the external world is real because:
- Our experience of it is consistent across time.
- It is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way.
- Believing it is real helps us live productive and meaningful lives.
Of course all this could be part of the illusion. But few of us believe that – life is all too real!
So, it may be argued, we can believe in free will for similar reasons: (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 (and, as we have seen, not believing it tends to lead to more anti-social behaviour).
Is free will part of a package?
Science cannot, at present, explain many aspects of the human mind:
- how the brain produces our consciousness, and why (a computer can reproduce many aspects of human thinking, but it doesn’t need to be conscious to do it),
- philosopher Jurgen Habermas says the rationality of scientific research presupposes free will, but science cannot explain how free will could occur,
- there are things almost all of us believe are truly wrong, but naturalism cannot explain how they could be truly wrong, nor does it provide a basis for holding people responsible for their actions.
It seems to me that all these things (consciousness, free will, rationality and objective ethics) are part of a package – we pretty much have to deny them all or accept them all.
It depends on our perspective
If we treat human beings as objects to be studied from the outside, then we can apply the normal processes of science, and conclude that free will is impossible. We will likely think that humans are no more than clever (and sometimes stupid!) animals.
But if we take an insider’s perspective to examine what it is like to be human, we will conclude that humans are more than the external view can tell us, and we can accept our experience of free will, our consciousness of self, our rationality and our ethical sense as true. We can then think that humans are indeed much more than animals.
There are many unresolved questions with either view, but I feel much more comfortable with the second view. Our experience of free will seems real and we have good reason to believe it is indeed real. And if it is real, science will struggle to examine it because it is part of us that is “beyond” the mere natural. Science doesn’t find freewill because science is limited in ways that make it impossible to find it, just as a blind person cannot examine colour.
So I don’t think we can be human without free will, and I don’t think naturalism can explain what it means to be truly human.