The Key Question of Free Will
The issue of free will is closely linked to the meaning of consciousness because the whole question of free will asks whether consciousness can determine matter without being completely determined by matter. Put more specifically, can the conscious subject decide on particular brain events without the decision having been predetermined by other brain events?
For example, consider a person who resolves to improve his or her fitness by taking up running. It seems, from the person‘s point of view, that the resolution causes the mind to focus on health and fitness so that physical changes takes place. The person now devotes time and energy to running on a road or track, time that would otherwise have been spent on some sedentary activity such as playing with a computer. But was the origin and continuation of the resolution caused by some other physical brain event of which the person had neither awareness nor control?
I will compare my thoughts with those of Christof Koch in his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. (Koch is a highly respected neuro-scientist, protégé, collaborator, and friend of Francis Crick).
Koch offers as a definition of free will: “You are free if, under identical circumstances, you could have acted otherwise. Identical circumstances refer to not only the same external conditions but also the same brain states” (Koch, 92). He considers debates on the reality of free will to be futile since we cannot go back and do things differently.
I think that his observation about the futility of debates on free will stems from his definition rather than on the real possibility of free will. His definition looks backward, “Could you have acted differently?” This definition sets up a sure failure for free will since, to the best of my knowledge, no free will theory would say that we are free to change the past. What’s done is done.
But free will takes on a different meaning when we apply it to the future. The question of free will can be restated as: “Can I, through ‘attention with effort,’ make my future different from what it would be without such effort.”
The phrase, “attention with effort,” flows from William James and his notion that ideas control action and that through effort we can determine which ideas control our action. This understanding need not slip into futility since it has a real impact. Suppose a young person heard this idea from someone whom she respects and tries to apply it to her life. Would this notion not make a difference in the way she lived? The practical significance of this question can best be understood by reviewing William James’s description of free will.
According to James, every idea has some bodily expression and ideas either instigate or inhibit muscular movements. Since we generally have several ideas at any one time, some contradicting others, we act on the most dominant one. We are free if and only if we can, by effort, make a chosen idea dominant by deliberately attending to it.
For example, a person who has a plate of fried chicken in front of him may eat it without effort since the dominant idea is how good it tastes. But if the same person turns his attention to the desirability of clean arteries and a healthy body weight, he may, through effort, make this healthy image dominant and so change his eating habits. The whole question of free will comes down to whether “we,” our conscious selves, can determine the ideas that we attend to and the amount of effort that we can exert to maintain the attention.
If the materialists are right, then the whole process of “attention with effort” originates in molecules of which we may not be consciously aware, and “we” are mere spectators of a process over which we have no control. We cannot prove that the materialists are right or wrong. However, it is reasonable to believe that we can, perhaps to a very small degree, choose what we think is good, pay attention to it with effort, and thereby make our lives different from what they otherwise would be. If this assumption is true, then we have a free will and consciousness has a degree of control over matter.
Koch offers two reasons to doubt that consciousness can exert control over matter. The first reason is based on the conservation of energy. Anything that happens in the physical world depends on the existing energy. Nothing happens without using some amount of energy that constitutes the physical universe. So the neural correlates of thought, the physical conditions necessary for any thought, depend on some physical event. They cannot originate from any non-physical entity, even if there are non-physical entities.
Koch leaves an infinitesimal crack in the closed neuro-physical system that may provide an opportunity for free will, but he considers the degree of freedom to be insignificant, and on a practical level, indistinguishable from mere chance. In describing the one opportunity for free will, Koch refers to the view of Karl Popper and John Eccles, advocates of free will, that “the conscious mind imposes its will onto the brain by manipulating the way neurons communicate with each other in the regions of the cortex concerned with the planning of movement.” According to the Popper-Eccles view, the mind need not supply the physical energy for the movement of the chemical signals, but it can “direct traffic” by promoting activity in theses neurons and preventing it in those.
But Koch argues that such influence is possible only in quantum-mechanical states in which there is a certain probability that a synapse will or will not switch. According to his argument, the mind cannot change the probability, but it might determine what will happen on any given event. Control over a single event does not change the probability that the person will act this way rather than that way. But, we may ask, if the mind can control this one event, might it also influence the next one and the one after? Could this type of influence, over time, not change the probability?
Koch follows up with further arguments against the feasibility of free will (Koch 105-105). He cites and describes experimental evidence that brain activity that instigates an apparent act of will, actually begins before the actor is aware of making a decision. In Koch’s example, a person indicates the instant that he or she decides to move an arm. The actual movement of the arm coincides with the moment of their awareness, but EEG information shows that the process has started prior to the decision. This experiment implies that what we feel is a free choice is, in fact, the result of brain activity of which we are unaware.
However, free will is not about a single action but about a life-time of habit formation. In the case of the arm movement experiment, it might be just as well if unconscious neuro-physical events choose the moment to move an arm. But there are many human activities in which it is crucial to choose a particular act at just the right moment. Such examples abound especially in sports.
For example, if a baseball player is deciding to steal second base, he must pick the right moment. If he leaves a second too early he might get picked off; a second too late and he will be thrown out. So an unconscious physical brain event, which occurs before the actual steal attempt, might serve him better than slower conscious deliberation. But a baseball player has spent a lot of time deliberately developing the habit of running bases. He has chosen to develop these habits, therefore he has chosen the neural pathways that enable him to seize the moment without deliberation.
The deliberate development of habits applies to all sports, music, dancing, cooking, hunting, and many other activities. We may freely choose to spend time developing these skills. When time sensitivity is not an issue, we are free to the extent that, over time we can choose how we develop our habitual behavior. The habits serve us well when we must act “in the blink of an eye.” While the above description does not “prove” free will, it does provide a feasible belief in free will that survives Koch’s argument against it.
A further look at Koch reveals that he himself believes in free will. He affirms a "compatibilist” notion of free will, which means that you are free if and only if you can follow your own desires and preferences. For example, smokers who wish to stop smoking are free or not free depending on whether they are able to follow their desire to stop. Some can and some can’t. But even in the case of those who successfully follow their desire, the desires themselves stem from biological and psychological events over which the person has no authorship. (93).
The person who wishes to smoke would be free if he were allowed to smoke without limitations and prohibitions. The same holds true of those who wish to express their preference for unlimited acquisitions, sexual encounters, or physical expression of anger. In Koch’s case, he not only wants to be able to express his desires and preferences without coercion or prohibition, but also specifies what he wants his desires to be. (I assume that this is also true of Dennett, Carroll, and most other materialists in spite of their theory).
It is worth quoting Koch at length to show his position regarding free will.
After rejecting both classical determinism that sees the future as already fixed, and also rejecting the notion that an immaterial “soul” can influence matter, he concludes:
“I’ve taken two lessons from these insights. First, I’ve adopted a more pragmatic compatibilist conception of free will. I strive to live as free of external and internal constraints as possible. The only exception should be constraints that I deliberately and consciously impose upon my self, chief among them constraints motivated by ethical concerns; whatever you do, do not hurt others and try to leave the planet a better place than you found it. Other considerations include family, health, financial stability, and mindfulness. Second, I try to understand my unconscious motivations, fears, and desires better. I reflect deeper about my own actions and emotions than my younger self did” (emphases added).
Who or what is the “I” that “strives,” “deliberately and consciously imposes,” and “tries?” It seems that if consciousness has no autonomy, we can only hope that our molecules will do these things or, depending on the molecules, hope that they don’t. A dogmatic materialist may argue that Koch has gone soft in the paragraph quoted above. But, on the contrary, the hopeful resolute paragraph may simply show the limitation of materialism.