Free Will Can't Possibly Exist, So Feel Free to Do Whatever You Want

Many voices in neuroscience and biology agree that free will, in the traditional definition, is illusory.

Apr 11 2012, 2:05pm

The philosophical debate about the existence or non-existence of "free will" has been raging for centuries, but seems to be cooking extra hard right thanks to the release of a few new books, including popular neuroscientist Sam Harris' Free Will and psychologist Michael Gazzaniga's Who's In Charge?. Though their general topics differ, both books — and many voices in neuroscience and biology — agree on the basics: free will, in the traditional definition, is illusory – it's an evolved feeling rather than an actual capacity to control your destiny.

What is the "traditional definition" of free will? Well, as with most philosophical ideas, there isn’t one singular definition, but biologist Jerry Coyne defined it nicely in a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.

Coyne goes on to argue against the existence this version of free will:

To assert that we can freely choose among alternatives is to claim, then, that we can somehow step outside the physical structure of our brain and change its workings. That is impossible. Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made. As such, the burden of proof rests on those who argue that we can make alternative choices, for that’s a claim that our brains, unique among all forms of matter, are exempt from the laws of physics by a spooky, nonphysical ‘will’ that can redirect our own molecules.

Neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman has used the skeptical view of free will held by the majority of biologists and neuroscientists (as outlined by Coyne above) to argue for a referendum on our legal system. In short, Eagleman argues that the data contradicting free will are strong, but our legal system is based on the free will concept, so it should be adjusted accordingly. Here's a clip from his piece in The Atlantic last year:

The legal system rests on the assumption that we are 'practical reasoners,' a term of art that presumes, at bottom, the existence of free will. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions. This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic…While our current style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life. Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker.

People tend to get goosebumps in reaction to the arguments above. First, free will just feels real. It is, in essence, how we think and talk about ourselves: "I wanted to do this, but instead I decided to do that." Others try to disprove it with a simple task, by, say, lifting their left index finger right now. But the arguments against free will don't seem to be challenged by those experiments; those views don't get to the heart of the issue – what that thing which "caused" those actions actually is, and how it works.

The reason, as Coyne argues above, is that neuroscience has not found, and may not ever find, any physically possible mechanistic structure that can direct the winds of deterministic biology. Conscious deliberation and the mulling over of options are, the argument goes, real psychological events but not significant predictors of outcomes. And, as Eagleman and Harris believe, it is the lack of this predictive mechanism that makes moral responsibility, and, to some degree, legal responsibility, problematic ideas; a criminal may be incarcerated for his biology, but can he be blamed?

For more on free will and law, check out WNYC's recent podcast on the topic.

Image via Scene Missing.