One of today’s most pressing philosophical questions is: a) Do human beings possess free will and the capability to exercise it? My recent readings have allowed me to arrive at a sort of answer,* the short version of which is, No, but effectively yes.
It is easy to get depressed by reading neuroscience books like William Hirstein’s Brain Fiction or Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will, which seem to break us down into the automata described by Descartes, whose intentions are merely illusory. “…[P]eople experience conscious will quite independently of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and their actions,” writes Wegner (64). Well and good if you’re sitting in a classroom vying with your peers to seem the most scientifically-minded, but different altogether when, say, your boyfriend professes his love in terms of choice (you), and you didactically disclose that it wasn’t his choice at all, in the traditional sense, but merely a fortuitous combination of circumstance and cascades of chemical reactions beyond his conscious control. In fact, this sort of talk can really ruin the mood.
In part, popular media are to blame. Their oversimplification of scientific findings creates a backlash against science as a whole, particularly among the religious right, but more broadly w/ anyone (everyone) who has ever entertained any kind of higher/abstract thought process. In his recent article for The New Yorker about secularism, James Wood laments that, “These days, one is continually running up against a crass evolutionary neuroscientific pragmatism that is loved by popular evolutionary psychologists and newspaper columnists.” Studies are reduced to something less than the sum of their parts, and the result are easily digestible but wholly unsatisfying data bytes.
“They can make mice gay now,” my boyfriend said, in an effort to further rile me after the delivery of a diatribe similar to the previous paragraph.
“See! This is exactly what I’m talking about!” I cried, taking the bait. “ACTUALLY, they reduced serotonin levels in the mice’s brains to such an extent that they became less selective about partners, thus displaying a higher frequency of sexual behavior towards other males. That’s not the same thing as creating a homosexual preference.”
Still, alarmist headlines about the findings’ implications for human sexuality abounded in the blogosphere, and evangelical counselors no doubt started doling out SSRI’s in addition to prayer, in hopes of reforming their queer clients. While it is perhaps true that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one, it does not do to ignore elements for the sake of elegance. To paraphrase Einstein, a theory should be as simple as possible, but not simpler. Contrary to popular belief, science does not seek to diminish the complexity of the human animal, but to illustrate it. We should not treat a new finding as a stand-alone datum, an all-encompassing explanation, but rather as a small piece of a vast and vibrant puzzle that contributes to the overall picture w/o defining it. The gaping holes that remain are perhaps frustrating for those restless, doubtful individuals who believe that being provided with a sort of explanation for the world will ease the strife of their lives, and religion does offer a completed puzzle…but many of the constituent pieces are a murky black, so that while the picture is entire, it is no more clear.
A false dichotomy has been created in the collective consciousness: that one must either be a) an unthinking machine, or b) the mysterious, soulful creation of some omnipotent deity whose laws and ways we will never fathom.
Here’s where the delightful book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow comes in.
“While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible to predict. For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations. That would take a few billion years, which would be a bit late to duck when the person opposite aimed a blow” (32).
There are underlying physical laws that dictate human behavior, but they are so intricate and numerous that they are of negligible use when it comes to everyday life. Thus, it behooves us to rely on an “effective theory”–rules that do not necessarily hold true at the physical level, but whose application is useful in making extrapolations given limited time and finite resources. “In the case of people, since we cannot solve the equations that determine our behavior, we use the effective theory that people have free will” (33).
Just as we cannot predict the future, past behavior cannot be imputed to a simple instinct for survival either. Admirable traits like altruism and empathy perhaps arose because they were conducive to self-perpetuation, but that is not why they continue to occur. As eminent primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal states in an essay, once a tendency evolves, “it is not essential that each and every expression of it serve survival and reproduction….The behavior follows its own autonomous motivational dynamic.” Because of the practical impossibility of calculating the exact conditions per individual that led or could lead and individual to certain behavior, it is much easier to say that he or she chose to do it.
So no, you do not have free will, as such…but can–indeed must–behave as if you do. It’s sort of like having money in the bank. You don’t have the cash in hand–it really doesn’t exist but as a number on a screen–but can still enjoy spending it on nice things.
*As with most non-religious “answers,” it creates more questions than it resolves.