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You Are Not Free, But Who Cares?
On the paradox of free will
Most of us have the deeply felt sense that if given the chance, we could have done differently. “If I had a time machine,” we say, “I would go back and start everything over.” This belief influences how we perceive both others and ourselves. We kick ourselves whenever we say something stupid, we reprimand others for making harmful choices, and we encourage our children by telling them that they can be anything they want to be. All of these intuitions are unfounded both objectively and even subjectively. That’s right; you can experience your lack of free-will first-hand (pun intended - keep reading) just by paying more attention. Here’s an exercise:
Make a gesture with your hand. Any gesture will do. Done? Do it again, but pay attention to how you are moving your hand. You really don’t know how you are moving your hand. At one moment it is a thought, then your hand moves. The same goes if you decide not to move your hand. Both the thought and action seemed to occur spontaneously, neither of which you know the origins of. You have no clue why your hand did this thing and not that other thing. All of our thoughts and actions are mysterious in this way. If all of our actions are unconsciously initiated, how can we claim that they are free?
If you don’t find this exercise convincing, fine. Time to call in the EEGs. In a famous experiment, Benjamin Libet put participants in an EEG brain scanner and asked them to tap their finger whenever they felt to urge to. Libet found that the decision to initiate the action could be seen in the brain about 500 ms before the participant had any awareness that the decision had taken place. This means that the experimenters knew when the participants were going to tap their fingers before they did themselves.
To be fair, this experiment has been subject to a fair amount of scrutiny. In short, Libet picked a relatively arbitrary point in the EEG reading to mark the participant’s decision to initiate the finger tap. They called this point the Bereitschaftspotential. You don’t have to learn how to say it or what it means exactly; the main point is that the Bereitschaftspotential can represent a number of things apart from making a decision.
With that said, the criticisms against Libet’s experiment don’t challenge the idea that, given the right knowledge, certain behaviors should be predictable several minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and decades before they occur. This claim is supported by a mountain of evidence coming from the field of genetics, and how genes interact with our environments.
Nature vs. Nurture
Most people have accepted that we don’t get a say in how tall we are, the color of our eyes, or whether we have a unibrow. But even the traits we like to think we have control over are mostly inherited. We don’t get to decide what we get on the IQ test, nor do we get to decide how interesting we find a particular subject. Even grit, which is touted as the one thing that allows us to overcome our genetic predispositions, is significantly inherited.
But that doesn’t mean that everything is genetic. The environment has a huge influence on our lives. Experiencing trauma or neglect at a young age, for example, can have lifelong effects. But the effect isn’t as strong as you might think. Even when we experience a significant life event, we usually bounce back to our genetic trajectories.
It is estimated that genes account for about 50% of who you are, which seems to leave a lot of room for environmental influences. But your heredity also influences how you will interact with your environment. Your likes and dislikes, your beliefs and values, your personality and all of its quirks, are all determined by your genetic blueprint and how it collides with the environment. Even here, environmental influence can easily be overstated. For example, one widely cited study found that the personalities of identical twins are no more different when they are reared apart than when they grow up in the same family. Neither our parents nor the rest of our environment contributes much to who we are.
Perhaps the most fundamental argument against free-will comes from what we know about reality itself. Most of us agree that everything in the universe has a prior cause. Less of us follow this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that we are all headed toward a future that was always going to be.
Determinism implies no free-will, but so does indeterminism. Think about it - if the universe weren’t deterministic, that would mean that some events occur without a cause, i.e., they occur mysteriously and inexplicably. Unpredictable randomness - as seen in the quantum realm - doesn’t buy us any free-will. It just means the cosmos is more chaotic than it seems.
The strongest argument that attempts to square free-will with a determined universe is provided by compatibilists. First, they redefine free-will from “the ability to act in a way that isn’t constrained by necessity or fate” to “the ability to act in accordance with your values and desires.” Not a bad definition at first glance, but upon further consideration, it is not how most people think about free-will. To have true freedom is to have the ability to act even against our deepest values and desires. You should be able to do anything. By limiting our possible actions to those that agree with our values and desires, the compatibilist defines free-will in a way that only reiterates why we don’t have it in the first place.
You might object that we can act against our values and desires. We do it all the time. Sure, but we either do so unwittingly, or we do so to reassure ourselves that we have free-will. All because you pinched yourself to prove that you could act against your values and desires doesn’t mean you have refuted anything I have said thus far. It just means that your desire to prove that you are not a puppet with strings was temporarily stronger than your desire to avoid pain.
If you found any of my above arguments persuasive, do you wish you hadn’t? This is actually another instance that demonstrates our lack of freedom. We cannot help but be persuaded by arguments that we find logically valid. Of course, our biases work against this, but you don’t get to choose your biases either, otherwise, most of us wouldn’t have any. But I digress.
There are many reasons we should feel grateful for our strings. Recall the thought-experiment at the beginning of this essay, where I asked you to be mindful of how you move your hand. Though the underlying mechanics were mysterious, you still anticipated the voluntary action.
If you had free-will, shouldn't you be able to act in ways that surprise you the moment you exhibit a behavior? Shouldn’t you have the choice to not act voluntarily? It is the chain reaction within your brain that allows you to anticipate your actions, and which makes it impossible for your actions to be free.
Not only is our lack of free-will the foundation by which we can predict our own actions, but also the actions of others. To have unlimited access to choice means that anyone can do anything at any time. They would no longer be motivated purely by what they think is in their best interest. Interacting with other humans would be a chaotic exercise to be avoided at all costs, rendering cooperation, communication, relationships, and society itself impossible. We wouldn’t have made it this far as a species if we had complete autonomy.
Acknowledging our absence of choice also makes us more empathetic. Even psychopaths deserve empathy. We have a deep-seated intuition that Hitler was a terrible person (he was) because he could have acted differently (he couldn’t have). You might even think that if you were Hitler, you would have pursued a career as a painter (which was Hitler’s favorite pastime - he was actually quite good) rather than a genocidal dictator. But you wouldn’t have. If you were Hitler, you would have been Hitler. I’m not sure how useful it is to practice empathizing with Hitler, but realizing that nobody makes themselves can be a useful exercise when trying to overcome hatred.
What about the doom and gloom of discovering you have undesirable genes? Knowing that you aren’t free to rebel against your genetic trajectory saves you the time and pain of pursuing that goal anyway. I was never going to beat Michael Phelps in a swimming race. Ever. So I will spend my time in other ways, doing the things that I am good at. As WC Fields said, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again, then quit. There is no use being a damn fool about it.” It’s not (entirely) my fault that I am not the best swimmer, and Michael Phelps would be lying to console me that I can do anything if only I work hard enough.
Paradoxically, it is the acknowledgment that we don’t have free-will that makes us the most free. Unlike 99% of the rest of humanity, I have two copies of the APOE allele 4 gene. This means that I have a 50% chance of getting Alzheimer’s by the time I’m 85. This percentage increases exponentially the longer I age. Silver lining? I am now further incentivized to do the things I should be doing anyway: getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, aspiring to be a lifelong learner, and reminding myself to stay grounded in the present moment. In this case, it is my lack of self-governance that defines who I am, and thus empowers me to be the person I want to be.
If all else fails, you can also just keep pretending to have free will. That is what I’ll do as soon as I hit “Publish”. We might have no choice but to believe we have free will. That’s why it serves as the basis for our judicial system, our relationships, how we parent our kids, and how we see ourselves. It might be too ingrained in our biology for us to just dump it for a new philosophy. Besides, believing that you can be whatever you want to be can be a good excuse for getting up and trying.