Free Will (or: Are You A Meat Robot?)

Free will has been confidently declared an illusion by some; a relic from a dusty age of lord and serf, monk and priest. But is this really so? Do we have free will and does it matter?

It would seem we don’t have free will, given the predictable nature of the world around us. Pick up a ball and set it on top of a slope. The ball rolls down. Put it back on top. Down it goes again. Drop a cat off the Eiffel Tower. It lands on its feet. Etc.

If the physical world is so set in its ways, why not us? Aren’t our choices an illusion? Case closed?

Let’s look at what no free will would mean.

Morality: If no free will, no morality, as we are not truly responsible for choices we aren’t making. Seems obvious. Let’s move on.

Daily Life: That annoying punk that bumped into you while crossing the street had no choice. The kind man who held open the door for you is a meat robot. You are at an ice-cream stand with no control over what flavour you will buy. You feel like you have a choice – but you don’t. It’s like God has your mind in a vice, as you point at the vanilla or the caramel.

If what you are doing right now is inevitable, how long ago did it become inevitable? An hour ago? At the Big Bang?

While there are any number of self-declared free will sceptics, all of them act as though their own choices matter. Like meat robots agonising over their algorithms. There are no true free will sceptics.

Rationality: If we never truly make choices, we never choose to believe anything, for good reasons or bad. We never choose to follow the evidence. We never choose to reach a conclusion; we are just following a script. Our lives are like a movie being played back; we no more make intelligent decisions than the frames of a movie make “decisions” for the actors. If no free will, no rationality and no intelligence – the scientist is no more rational than the sea slug or the tree stump. Thus, to claim that science says we have no free will is to cut the legs from under science itself, and all human knowledge with it.

I don’t think free will can be denied; indeed, it would be a catastrophe if we had to deny it. No free will? No human agency; all human experience would be nonsense. No free will has such far-reaching consequences, it is like arguing that everything is illusory and The Matrix is real. Worse, there is no red pill. 

Surely we must have free will in some sense, even if we can’t understand it. 

But what about the science experiments that show we don’t have free will? Most famously, the Libet experiments found activity in the brain before the choice was registered in the consciousness. But the decisions made in those experiments were extremely simple reflex actions and what (if anything) they say about free will is heavily disputed. Crucially, it was found that there was still an opportunity to veto the decision after the conscious awareness of it. Libet himself didn’t think his experiments undermined free will.

Some appeal to quantum physics as a way out. Quantum physics is famously not deterministic, but it is hard to see how random choices would be any more free than deterministic ones.

Some would say that questions of our notions of will and human agency are just different types of questions to the mathematical models found in science. Our notions of voluntary and involuntary and willpower are not scientific concepts, so it makes no sense to treat them as though they were; they are simply ways to talk about how we act. While there is much truth to this, many would consider it an evasion rather than an answer.

Or this: free will should be understood as a capacity with limitations that has nothing to do with determinism, just like our other capacities. You wouldn’t ask if our arms can “really” throw if determinism is true. 

We must consider what the will actually is. When you decide something, what is it that decides? Is the will a body part? When you kick, is it your foot kicking or do you kick using your foot? In the same way, when you choose to do something it is you choosing to do it rather than your brain choosing. This might seem pedantic, but the point is that you as a person are not reducible to your body parts. While you hopefully do use your brain to make decisions, you are more than just the sum of your parts. 

How to make sense of you (as a whole) deciding and not one body part or another? One possibility: by rethinking causation along Aristotelian lines. 

What would this entail? Recall that for Aristotle, as well as efficient causation (what most think of as “causation”), there were three other types of causation. One of these is formal causation, which describes the way something behaves because of what it is. You could think of this as a type of top-down causation.

Now, in doing this we place “you” as a whole at the top of the causal chain of your actions. So the will reigns supreme. But is the will here free, in any sense? Will top-down causation in a wholly physical entity will be just as predetermined as any other model of causation? If so, to make sense of free will, perhaps we should adjust not only our model of causation, but also our metaphysics.

Again, Aristotle comes to the rescue here. Aristotle had a radically different philosophy of nature from us moderns – everything you see around you is not just matter, but matter organised according to a form, which can be considered as a blueprint of sorts and is explanatorily prior to matter. According to Aristotle, the will and intellect of a human being reside in its form, rather than in matter, and thus the problem of determinism is avoided – giving us a free will worth having.

In conclusion, we can be confident that we truly do have free will, but to understand how we must revisit our modern Western assumptions about the mind and perhaps about reality itself.