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Saturday, 19 May 2012

28. Free Will is an Illusion


You are not in control of your mind  -  because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do  -  but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. [Sam Harris, Free Will (2012)]

What is 'self awareness'? In the human context this term means that a person is aware of herself/himself and has a self-image. You 'know' where your body ends and something else begins. You also have the self-image of a live and thinking person.

Cut to evolutionary robotics. This field involves a good deal of simulation and generalization work, rather like the creation of ‘invariant representations’ in the human brain. Following Hans Moravec, let us consider an autonomous robot that is able to continuously update its CPU about its own configuration and that of the environment, using simulation algorithms and the continual incoming stream of information. Suppose further that the robot can carry out these computations a little bit faster than the real rate of change in the physical world. Such a 'smart' robot can then compute the consequences of its intended action before taking the action. If the simulated consequences are not desirable, the robot would change its ‘mind’ about what would be a more appropriate course of action under the circumstances. Such a robot can be viewed as having an inner life or 'consciousness', right?


The free-will idea says that every person is the conscious source of his/her thoughts and actions. For all practical purposes we subscribe to this effective theory. Otherwise, how to fix responsibility if, for example, a murder is committed? Our legal system has little use for the assertion that we are just automatons or machines, governed by the laws of physics.

But the free-will notion clashes with determinism, although attempts have been made to reconcile the two. How can there be many alternative ('freely chosen') effects of the same set of causes? Free will must be an illusion only.


If determinism holds, our actions are uniquely determined by previous events, and we are not free. Even if indeterminism holds, our actions are random, and once again we are not free to 'decide' to act one way or another. Either way, the free-will notion ends up as a logical impossibility.

In philosophy, two opposite positions have been in vogue: compatibilism vs. incompatibilism. The former accepts the possibility of both determinism and free will. The philosopher Daniel Dennett subscribes to it.

And incompatibilism says that determinism and free will are incompatible. This leads to three possibilities: (i) Choose determinism ('hard determinism'). (ii) Choose free will ('metaphysical libertarianism'). (iii) Reject both determinism and free will ('hard indeterminism').

According to a recent paper in Nature, 'Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters. He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands. The results were quite a surprise. .. The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the sub­jects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.'

The authors argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person’s actions, so free will is an illusion.

The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran is rather ambivalent on the question of free will being an illusion. In his 2010 book The Tell-Tale Brain he talks about a patient suffering from 'ideomotor apraxia', i.e. an inability to perform suggested skilled actions. This is what he writes on page 131: 'What he lacks is the ability to conjure up a mental picture of the required action  -  in this case combing  -  which must precede and orchestrate the actual execution of the action. These are functions one would normally associate with mirror neurons'. Perhaps it is the conjuring-up part (a semi-conscious action?) which is showing up in the recorded neural activity before the actual action in the above-mentioned experiment.

Sam Harris has recently argued at length about why free will is just an illusion. Here are some points made in his book which are of practical importance:
  • The realization that free will is an illusion makes us more humane when it comes to reacting to crime, hatred, etc. How can you hate a person when you know that he/she is not fully in control of the bad or undesirable behaviour?
  • Nevertheless, when somebody commits a crime, society must react effectively, not in the spirit of punishment or retribution or hatred, but for providing deterrence against future crime.
  • Being aware of the contribution of the unconscious to our apparently 'freely chosen' actions can make us more responsible and sensible about how we react to situations and take decisions.
Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin  -  which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life,  but eternal punishment in the next. And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us. [Sam Harris, ibid.]
For more on free will and consciousness, please see my article Evolution of Intelligence and Consciousness.

And watch this video by Sam Harris for the latest update: