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It is not always clear that free will is not a mere physical phenomenon that obeys natural laws, which leads to confusion about the status of free will. But free will is above all an idea that helps us to organize our moral life. It points us towards the choices that we can make or could have made. Choices that we have made consciously enough to be held responsible for.
Discussions about free will are depressing. Often because it is seen as some kind of natural phenomenon, like gravity or thermodynamic laws. Obviously, this creates trouble as laws of nature describe unchanging, deterministic connections, while free will is about acts that are not determined. This confusion leads to the statement that free will cannot exist. After all, there is nothing in this universe that does not obey natural laws. Hence, the free will is an illusion and all the choices we make have already been decided.
It is no coincidence that these claims are often made by neuroscientists. After all, they are involved in the study of the physical functioning of the brain. This involves questions about neurological processes, the properties of our gray cells, the mechanisms within our brain that that result in something that we wrongly experience as a conscious decision. Then we ‘are’ indeed little more than our brain, nothing more than the body that unintentionally executes the algorithms of our neural network.
If you still want to explain free will in scientific terms, you may take on theories as quantum mechanics, because these are said to be non-deterministic. However, this not just involves a poor understanding of quantum mechanics, but above all it involves a misinterpretation of what free will actually is.
Free will does not have to be explained as a physical phenomenon at all, for the very simple reason that it is not. It is not an empirical phenomenon, but it is an idea with which we describe on an aggregated level all the things we do. It is sort of box in which we put actions and on which write ‘free will’ in capitols. It is a linguistic thing that allows us to evaluate actions we have taken and that allows us to prepare ourselves for future actions.
The physical cause of those actions does not really matter. We simply label these actions conscious and intentional, even though many of the actions and decisions that we make come about unthinkingly.
This idea of the free is based on our ability to act as a coherent being and that can learn to make better decisions. But above all, free will functions as the foundation of the moral system in which we come to agreements with each other about which behavior is desirable.
According to some authors, it is an evolutionary trick that our consciousness sees many decisions as the outcome of a coherent organism. It is apparently efficient to respond to changes from outside as a single-acting being – at least if you compare it to organisms who are unable to see themselves as coherent beings. This apparent coherent action means that the different ways in which decisions are made are experienced as identical.
In reality however, our brain and our body respond to changes from the outside world in all sorts of ways. The brain consists of different regions with their own functions and their own ways of working. These regions interact with each other and with the senses or they do things on their own. The body sends hormones and nerve impulses back and forth that make us do all kinds of things. But all these decision-making streams are organized by the brain as a single decision-making process; within the ‘Cartesian theater’ of our consciousness, our decisions are made deliberately and voluntarily. All those neurons and hormones in all those brain regions and all those glands produce a diversity of impulses that incite action are orchestrated somehow as a singular motivation. Only when we go to sleep we switch off our coherent consciousness and end up in a dream state which is reigned by apparent chaos and randomness.
By acting as a coherent being we give ourselves the feeling of being in control: we are in charge of what we do. We love that feeling so much that the experience of not being in control is one of our most frustrating ones. A toddler who is not allowed to choose what she wants on her sandwich will get angry; if you let her choose between jam or peanut butter, you give her the illusion that she determines her choice herself.
I wouldn’t know the evolutionary function of this illusion. A pleasant feeling when you have control over your decisions seems to be reserved for people only. Most mammals will not really know them, they only do what they do. Not that animals have no will – just think of a cat who is mewing at the door to be let in – but they have no free will: to actually make choices you need a language so that you can make scenarios in your mind and come to a choice between those scenarios based on your own considerations. You must be able to argue with yourself, be able to take distance from yourself and from the moment.
Free will thus is a phenomenon that is not only determined by neurons and hormones (with which it could be analyzed as physiologically), but also by language, a ‘thing’ that exists outside of us while it cannot exist without being shared by the people who speak it. An intersubjective reality of which a description in terms of neural processes, air vibrations or ink molecules would be fundamentally inadequate.
People are incredibly fast in being able to share such a language: for the choosing toddler, ‘jam’ and ‘peanut butter’ already makes up sufficient vocabulary to behave as a human being that wants to make her own decisions.
The illusion that we are always in control of our decisions certainly does not mean that we are never in control. On the contrary, many of our decisions are really made consciously. There is no evolutionary innate ability to make arithmetic calculations, yet we can. Perhaps we don’t like it so much and we prefer to make a guess, or as Kahneman and Tversky put it: we tend to use our lazy System I that functions on the basis of heuristics and guesswork rather than deploy System II in which we torture our brains to come up with a carefully balanced answer. Nevertheless, there is something like System II that works in a conscious, almost rational, way. It is not without reason that our prefrontal cortex, where our calculative powers reside, is so huge. That is really not a kind of appendix or coccyx. We can choose consciously if we want to.
The illusion of control therefore mainly comes down to the fact that we see all our decisions as conscious. Or rather, want to see as conscious, because that gives us a good feeling. But control is not the same as free will. The importance of free will is not that evolution has somehow taught us to make us feel good, just as the combination of fat and salt makes us enjoy eating pizza.
As I stated above, a conscious choice means that you map out a number of future options and then consider which of those options is the most desirable. The illusion of a conscious choice boils down to the fact that you do not do that, but that, with that incredibly large head of yours, you can reconstruct afterwards how you came to that decision if you would have made it consciously.
That may seem like a rather useless case of rationalization with which we can maintain the illusion of control. A cynical vision would be that by fooling ourselves, we don’t have to give up the feeling of being our own boss.
But such a vision is wrong. The ability to reason afterwards what could have been a conscious choice allows you to learn how to make better decisions in the future – as I have said earlier. The idea of free will then mainly indicates the direction of how the brain should have worked in an ideal world. By using such an ideal image, we encourage ourselves to think about our choices so that we can make better choices.
The essence is that our free will reacts to what we do unconsciously or less consciously. For example, your gut feeling is to scratch your nose like crazy if you feel itchy. We can then choose what to do. Respond to the itch and continue scratching or follow the social etiquette and ignore your itch as much as possible. Hence it is insufficient to explain free will only as a physical phenomenon, but it is also a phenomenon that can’t be straightforwardly described as causal: action does not always follow from the will, but sometimes it is the other way around.
Free will is therefore more than just hedonism, it is more than something that gives a good feeling, but it is also more than the mechanism by which we can align our actions with social norms. The ability to make choices autonomously and intentionally has become the foundation of our moral system, it is the way we relate to our society as individuals. Whereas in traditional societies there was little room for the ‘I’ with regard to the ‘we’, there is now much more room. The ‘I’ is no longer just part of the ‘we’ but it is a genuine individual. And that is only possible by taking free will as a starting point.
After all, this starting point makes it possible for individuals as individuals to be responsible for what they do. If they make a wrong choice, they will be approached individually for this and, if necessary, they will be punished individually. It isn’t that long ago that animals were tried for murder and witches were tried for natural disasters. It is progress that we no longer do that. An animal can do little else than do what it does, a group of women can do little about a poor harvest or societal misery. Nowadays only those are to be punished who have made a choice themselves. Such a connection between individual and choice can only be maintained if we can assume that that individual acted on her own free will: she had the opportunity to make another – better – choice. The choice has been conscious enough to address the person acting.
The belief in free will makes it possible to reach a collective agreement that allows us to hold responsible for what we do. This is the result of a long historical process in which an attempt has been made to replace traditional moral thinking with Enlightened thinking based on individual autonomy and responsibility. Nowadays, you think, speak, and choose for yourself.
It is a collective moral project in which the emphasis is placed on the individual. In other words, we all want the free will of the individual to serve as the basis for the organization of society. We see this organization mainly in the legal system where individuals are called to account for their actions and, if necessary, where individuals are tried, and in parliamentary democracy where we as individuals vote for another individual that will represent us.
That does not mean that the Enlightenment process has been completed. We often base our judgments on other people based on the group they belong to. Sometimes this is unavoidable because we operate in groups, but all too often it is reprehensible and we condemn someone’s actions based on origin or gender.
Another difficulty is that it is not always clear when someone ‘could have done something about it’ with a wrong decision. Some of the neuroscientists that dispute free will state that we really can’t do anything about it, because all our choices are determined by what the brain does. If you want to improve someone’s behavior, you do not ask her to account for herself but, but you try to restore the hormone balance in the brain, for example, with a chemical intervention.
The determination of whether someone has done something consciously ‘enough’, as I formulated it above, is not primarily up to science, but to an institution that is intrinsically linguistic like the court. In court, someone can show whether another choice could have been possible, and what motivations can be given for the choices made. Even if those are mere rationalizations afterwards (in this science can obviously help out by determining whether or not it was impossible to have made another choice).
A person should be addressed above all else as a moral individual, and not as a bag of physical qualities, because that would mean that the ability is denied that individuals can think for themselves about how they could have acted and how they could have done better. By removing this ability, individuals are deprived of the opportunity to learn morally. And that is not the agreement we have made and with that it is a danger to the way in which we want to live together.