Science Has Been Fighting Free Will for Centuries, But One of Philosophy's Biggest Problems Refuses to Die

Is free will anything more than a fairy tale?

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Imagine for a moment that this afternoon, while having a drink with your best friend, you discover that everything they do, say, and think is controlled by a group of scientists through a small electronic device implanted at the base of their skull. Throughout all these years, every time you’ve talked to them, you were actually talking to a committee of researchers who decided how they had to act.

The thing is that, in this fictional scenario, they’re not aware of what is actually happening. The manipulation is so subtle that, by using small electric shocks, your friend is believes the decisions to be their own. In other words, whatever they do not their fault; they’ve done nothing wrong. And yet, that’s the problem: They haven’t done anything. Could we still see them the same way? Could they still be our best friend? Really? This is the crux of the free will problem.

The Myth of Freedom in Today’s World

Philosopher John Fischer used this thought experiment to explain, in a peculiar but intuitive way, the essential role that the concept of “free will” plays in our lives. In light of the work of one of the most important writers of the moment, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, the idea is currently the subject of public debate.

“Hacked” Brains

In an op-ed in the Spanish newspaper El País, Harari defended at least two very controversial ideas on this issue: First, that free will is a myth, and second, that it’s, in fact, a dangerous myth because it makes the ways in which the powers that be manipulate us invisible. Harari concluded the article by calling for “a new political project more in line with the scientific realities and technological capabilities of the 21st century” to “defend liberal democracy.” That is, liberalism without freedom.

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It’s nothing new. In his bestseller Homo Deus, Harari writes: “We allow ourselves to believe one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse or in parliament. […] Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other[s] […], after dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the eighteenth century.” That is, liberalism, humanism, and the “spirit of the Enlightenment.”

Harari’s text clearly presents some problems, gaps, and theoretical weaknesses. Despite this, his main thesis, which suggests that free will is not a scientific reality but rather a myth inherited from Christian theology, seems to be gaining popularity among science and technology enthusiasts. A little too much, I should say, considering it’s not a popular belief among experts on the matter.

This raises the question of whether the idea of free will is indeed a myth inherited from the past, or if it holds genuine significance.

What Do We Mean by Free Will?

Despite what Harari suggests, contemporary debates on free will and moral responsibility seem to have little in common with those Christian theologians had on the subject. In its current scientific and philosophical sense, free will is simply the “capacity” to make decisions and carry them out with a certain degree of control.

It’s a superior psychological capacity, not solely due to our valuation of it, but because of the wide range of competencies it requires, such as language, rationality, self-awareness, external awareness, and much more. This means that, like other capacities such as speaking, playing, or working, free will isn't something that's inherently present from birth. Instead, it’s something that requires a social process of learning and socialization.

There’s nothing supernatural or mysterious about this, but it’s complex. This complexity leads many psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to view free will as a specifically human capacity, although this is becoming less clear. The modern debate revolves around the “degree of control” we truly have over our decisions.

What’s the Problem Then?

The “free will problem” isn't a new concept, as Harari himself acknowledges. Quite the opposite. It arises when we consider the “sense of control” we feel when making choices. These choices can be small, such as what to watch, eat, or wear, or they can be significant, such as changing jobs, having children, or choosing a field of study. Regardless of the scale, they share a common trait.

We perceive these decisions to be open and undetermined, depending solely on us, beyond social obligations and environmental influences. In essence, we perceive them as something we can “control.”

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It’s interesting to consider that despite feeling we’re in control, free, and autonomous, we may not truly have the freedom we think we do. While we may believe we’re making choices based on what we find interesting, beneficial, or attractive, in reality, those preferences are shaped by existing motives, desires, and beliefs. Are humans really free?

Ultimately, even if human autonomy is a widespread belief, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a reality. This is where the problem lies. It’s part of how we perceive human beings and society. However, we also have legitimate doubts about what this all means, especially given recent scientific advancements that have fueled these doubts with concepts like deterministic physics, selfish genes, and conditioning.

The issue, in the end, is that if we give up free will, freedom, and autonomy, we may also be giving up human dignity and the fundamental foundations of our world. However, contrary to what Harari suggests, and even against common sense, the truth is that when we examine the conflict between science and freedom, it’s not entirely clear whether we should start abandoning the great values of the Enlightenment.

Scientific Attempts to End Free Will

Harari is absolutely right about one thing: We can’t accept things just because they seem useful to us. The logical and reasonable thing to do is to make our theories of justice, freedom, and dignity consistent with our knowledge of the world. So, the relevant question is whether free will is incompatible with our current worldview and its scientific naturalism.

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Faced with this question, the philosophical community has three main positions (the fourth is very much in the minority). On the one hand, we have hard determinism, which argues that freedom doesn’t exist, that there is only one possible course of action, and that everything else is narrative filler. On the other hand, some believe in libertarianism, which maintains that free will exists, that the future is not written, and that there are several possible options for each decision. These two positions agree on only one thing: Freedom and determinism are not compatible.

The third position, compatibilism, disagrees with the other two and believes that both notions are compatible, as its name suggests. To compatibilists, free will is precisely to act according to our motives, desires, and beliefs. While hard determinists see us as spectators and libertarians as referees (or demiurges) of the game of our lives, compatibilists believe that we are players who, in the end, do what we can with what’s on the playing field.

To resolve the question, specialists in various fields have been engaged in an intense debate for years. This has led philosophers to incorporate experimental data into their work and psychologists and neuroscientists to refine their research designs conceptually. As a result, there have been many attempts to overturn free will, yet none of the proposals intended to replace it have proven conclusive.

The Constraints of Human Decision-Making

In the 1970s, social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson conducted a classic experiment. They asked a group of department store customers about the quality of four identical types of nylon stockings. The results were interesting: Although it was never quite clear why, the vast majority of respondents (or 4 in 5 participants) selected the stockings that were farthest to the right. However, when asked about reasons for their selection, no one seemed to notice that fact.

Moreover, if it was suggested to them as a reason, most categorically denied it, “usually with a worried glance at the interviewer suggesting that they felt either that they had misunderstood the question or were dealing with a madman.” Nisbett and Wilson’s work was one of the earliest works in the modern study of human judgment and decision-making.

This area of research has been very productive in diverse fields such as economics, clinical and social psychology, health sciences, ergonomics, sports science, and politics. In short, researchers have built models to understand decision-making and how it’s shaped by the factors (cognitive, situational, contextual, emotional, genetic, cultural, etc.) that condition it.

This type of research on how and why the motives, desires, and beliefs that condition our decisions are formed may seem to compromise free will, but it only affects the most libertarian positions. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in fact, considers that having this “reflective awareness” about our inner life is a condition for being able to choose and not an impediment. After all, we don’t usually ascribe free will to animals, and it’s reasonable to think that they also have motives, desires, and beliefs (on whatever scale).

The Context Maze

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Furthermore, experiments like Nisbett and Wilson’s can be explained by the fact that people are often conditioned to provide socially acceptable reasons, even if they’re not entirely true, that is, reasons that sound good. However, behavior analysts often emphasize that these reasons aren’t the actual cause of human behavior. They’re more like parallel behaviors that may not be directly causal in any way.

Psychologist Burrhus Skinner is one of the few leading scientists who has taken the consequences of strong determinism seriously in today’s social and political life. Books such as Beyond Freedom and Dignity reflect on these choices. In recent years, behavioral research on cultural practices has been generating analytical tools that allow researchers to go beyond individual behavior.

I’ve personally always been close to this position, but I must admit that there are countless loose ends. Skinner’s social theory and his philosophy on the subject seem more like those of an amateur exploring the limits of his thinking than of a rigorous theorist addressing all the empirical and normative problems of the issue. Additionally, there are forms of compatibilism that align perfectly with Skinner’s view of free will, although he himself wasn’t fully aware of it.

Free Will, an Epiphenomenon

However, there’s yet another argument that further supports the determinism approach. Research since the 1960s has noted the presence of preparatory motor action potentials. For instance, if you were to ask someone to move their hand, we’d see that the activity of their motor neurons would begin before the movement itself. Specifically, about 550 milliseconds earlier. 20 years later, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet had an idea.

Libet thought that if free will existed, the voluntary decision to move the hand should align with the onset of neural activity. However, after a detailed study, he found that this wasn’t the case. The conscious decision to move occurred only 200 milliseconds before the movement, meaning that by the time the decision was made, the movement had already been underway for 350 milliseconds.

Social psychologist Daniel Wegner disputed the implications of such experiments on our understanding of free will. According to Wegner, these results turned will into a mere epiphenomenon, occurring simultaneously with other actions but without any causal relationship. This represents a direct challenge to all theories that don’t reject the concept of free will.

Unfortunately, Libet’s and Wegner’s ideas aren’t perfect. Although their experiments are interesting, it’s not reasonable to think that the movement of a hand would be provoked, out of nothing, by a conscious desire. In reality, this movement is part of much broader conscious processes, such as the attempt to follow the researcher's instructions, which would have prepared the response beforehand. This argument is very similar to philosophy professor Juan Bautista Fuentes’ argument against the existence of classical conditioning in psychology.

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Although I’ve admitted to having a strong inclination towards determinism, the truth is that, like most philosophers (59.1% according to a PhilPapers survey), it seems that scientific determinism doesn’t undermine the socially relevant aspects of the belief in free will.

Indeed, scientific evidence presents significant challenges to more libertarian positions, leaving them in an increasingly precarious situation. However, upon close examination of the collaboration between philosophers, neuroscientists, and engineers, it becomes clear that what is believed in the laboratory and what is believed in the parliament are quite compatible.

In my opinion, Harari is correct in warning against misleading influences, but this has little to do with a belief in free will. Instead, it’s related to politics, unscrupulous behavior, and the complex nature of social life. He’s also right in asserting that science and philosophy should work closely together. The only thing he’s mistaken about is his belief that they’re not currently doing so.

Image | Ryoji Iwata via Unsplash

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