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November 17, 2011 / JayMan

What if it’s not their fault? The myth of free will.

Fresh stuff!  New Blog Post #3!

So in my last blog posts we learned about the role of heredity in determining behavior and the non-affect of parenting and the family environment on behavioral traits.  But most of us feel we are in control of ourselves (I suppose except when it comes to the “scars” parents leave with us that shape our behavior). But it turns out like the effect of parenting, the notion of free will is an illusion.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine has written an article in The Atlantic detailing insights on the brain and behavior:

The Brain on Trial
Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.

As he shows, what has been thought of as “free will”, the uncaused cause, simply does not exist. All human behavior is the result of physical processes that occur in the brain. But even more poignant is that despite the brain’s awesome complexity, it behaves in some fairly predictable ways. The most basic evidence of this is the fact that people have personalities; we all have certain tendencies and semi-predictable responses to certain situations. Our behavior is far from completely random. Even more concretely, we have evidence from the sciences of behavioral genetics, which finds that all behaviors are heavily influenced by the genes; cognitive neuroscience, which finds that our thoughts and emotions can be traced electrical and chemical activity in the brain; and pharmacy, which finds that personality and behaviors can be altered by the introduction of drugs.  And of course, there is the (apparently somewhat exaggerated) story of Phineas Gage.

As such, none of us have any real control over our behavior, our emotions, even our thoughts—though our brains are designed to make us believe that we in fact do. Indeed, we may consciously deliberate over our actions, but even this is just the dueling between different parts of the brain, such as between the limbic system that may urge one to pick up a box of jelly donuts, and the prefontal cortex that weighs the consequences and compels one to put it down. Whatever portion of the brain which “wins” leads us to commit a given action, be it to indulge or to pass. Meanwhile, the social part of our brain concocts a story about our reasons for committing this action, leading us to believe “we” (the self) were in control all along. You don’t control your brain; your brain controls you. And much of what it does is often hidden and mysterious to you.

Even more significant is that different brains are built differently, and we all vary in the strength and the proclivities of these different systems. As such, what is a reasonable action to one might be totally alien to another.

Yet in many ways, our society—including our justice system and the libertarian concept of “personal responsibility”—is built on the idea that we indeed do have full control. Even beyond expecting people to not kill or steal, society expects overweight people to “eat right,” smokers, drinkers, and drug addicts to use “will power” and quit, people in relationships to resist temptation and stay faithful, and often expects people with depressed moods to soldier on and “take control” of their lives.

Clearly this is foolhardy, because despite a myriad of different diets, despite berating, humiliation, warnings about our health, and despite Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, people continue to become overweight and obese in increasing numbers. Despite a decades-long “War on Drugs”, people continue to get high. Despite ever increasing taxes and restrictions on smoking, people continue to light up. And despite destroyed careers and arduous public scandals, people (mostly men) continue to cheat.

Each of these can be traced to particulars of the brains in people that engage in them, all being highly heritable. Indeed, as we’ve seen, adult BMI has been found to be 80% heritable. And recent research has made some amazing discoveries into the brains of some people who chronically overeat; they are indeed “food addicts,” and respond to food much the same way as a smoker’s does to cigarettes or how an alcoholic’s does to booze.

Indeed, here’s a short list of some of the genes that have been discovered to influence behavior:

OXTR (Oxytocin-Receptor): The “Kindness gene”: people with the “GG” alleles are “generally judged as more empathetic, trusting and loving. Those with AG or AA genotypes tend to say they feel less positive overall, and feel less parental sensitivity.”

BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor): The shorter allele has been found to be linked to suicidal behavior, possibly because they take longer to recover from highly adverse experiences.

5-HHT: Serotonin transporter gene:  Individuals with the shorter alleles of this genes are at risk for depression when they experience periods of prolonged stress.  Part of the “Orchid hypothesis,” that some individuals have evolved to prosper only in specific environments, but fall apart if not properly cared for (this hypothesis will be the subject of a future post).

Vassopressin receptor gene:  Men who have one the shorter versions of the gene are less satisfied with one female partner and are inclined to seek out more (as most of the rest of the class Mammalia does). Men with one of the longer versions stay true to one woman.

MAOA (monoamine oxidase-A): The “warrior gene,” men with one the shorter alleles have been shown to be more prone to violence, particularly when abused as children (although I suspect that that due to a gene-gene interaction rather than a gene-environment one).

And of course, the effects of these genes by themselves are only probabilistic in nature; they need to be taken in the context of the entire genome; i.e., they are impacted by other genes.  The DRD4 (Dopamine receptor D4), gene, a gene that has been linked to all sorts of novelty seeking behaviors (also known as the “Wanderlust/Thrillseeking” gene), links to behaviors including…

  • Gambling
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug use
  • ADD
  • Impulsivity
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior.

…only seems to exhibit such effects in certain samples and not others, suggesting that other mediating genes also play a role.

As well, some of these genes, such as 5-HHT, show distinct environmental interactions.  But even an “environmental” source of behavior doesn’t imply the existence of free will.  Either it be by genetic specification or by the impact of experience, the brain is still compelled to act according to its present composition, regardless of how such composition came about.

Note that most of these genes code for interactions with important neurotransmitters and hormones.  Neurotransmitters are—in a manner of speaking—the juice of emotion; they are chemicals that act in the brain and nervous system to promote certain emotional states.  Dopamine for example is the brain’s natural high, and any gene that affects it (and other neurotransmitters) affects the reward system in the brain, and promotes or inhibits certain behaviors.  Oxytocin is the “love hormone,” and is responsible for long-term emotional bonding, such as between parent and child and between partners in long-term relationships, among other things.

In the case of cheating men, a gene for the receptors for the hormone vasopressin seems to be at play. So, indeed, it turns out that the reason that men like Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Jesse James, and Tiger Woods stray is highly similar to the reason that Jim McGreevy, Ted Haggard, and Larry Craig committed their acts; they are “oriented” that way.

Indeed, the word “orientation” betrays the way we think about sexual behavior.  Its use indicates that today—when it comes to homo- and bisexuality—most of us accept such individuals were “born that way” and can do nothing to alter this aspect about themselves.  Yet we do not extend this notion to men with polygynous preferences.  Nor do we extend that thinking to the chronically overweight, and we barely extend this notion to substance addicts, despite that all are equally heritable, and were all equally “born” the way they are. Asking a man with one of the short copies of the vasopressin receptor gene to stay faithful to one woman is like asking a gay man to do the same. Asking the chronically overweight to “eat right and exercise” is like asking a cocaine addict not to snort up if coke was readily accessible. It simply doesn’t work, and sooner or later, it breaks down if the object of desire is available.

This inability to recognize the differences among ourselves coupled with erroneous the belief in the existence of free will is the central failure of our thought on this matter. What works for one person does not necessarily work for the next person. Yet much of our society—especially our legal system—is built on this one-size-fits-all model, which is simply outdated.

This suggests a new approach to understanding behavior. Much as psychiatrists have given up trying to toughen up the depressed out of their woes or have given up trying to “cure” homosexuality, we should rethink our response to these different behaviors. Society should stop trying to shame the overweight into eating right or exercising or berating their lack of “will power.” We should

come to accept that not all men (and many women) were cut out for monogamy and stop holding them to that expectation (which is why I’m skeptical of those ridiculous “sex rehabs” for cheaters—they are about as sensible as spiritual healing camps for gays).

We should stop waging this wasteful “War on Drugs”—stop locking up the addicted—and instead offer better chemical treatments for the worst addicts.

Of course, none of this means that we should completely do away with the concept of responsibility or stop locking up criminals. To come to this conclusion based on what I am saying would be misunderstanding the true purpose of legal punishment. While we are slaves to our brains, our brains are organic computers that generate outputs based on inputs. The threat of punishment if one breaks to law is one of these inputs that the brain weighs in making decisions. Criminal justice serves as a deterrent, causing people to behave responsibly by letting us know that if we offend, we serve time, maintaining order.

But even with this knowledge, people still commit crimes. This is because brains vary in their ability to process these incentives that lead to responsible behavior. This understanding should alter our justice system based on the idea of willful intent. Instead we should try to focus on the risk of re-offense, as that is truly what is more important when dealing with criminals. This, ultimately, is why it is indeed justified to punish a Winona Rider or a Paris Hilton less severely than one would a more hardened criminal for same crime; a short prison sentence is likely to be a very effective deterrent on these individuals than it would be on a more aggressive thug.

Indeed, the secondary purpose of prison is to keep dangerous people away from law-abiding folks. Killers and thieves are a danger to society and need to be kept somewhere where they cannot harm decent people.

One problem group that falls under this category are pedophiles. Pedophilia is really an “orientation” as is homosexuality—pedophiles are sexually attracted to young children. And as such, it is equally incurable. Yet they can’t be allowed to prey upon children, but prisons are often less-than-effective because it doesn’t address the underlying issue—the pedophilia itself. As Eagleman suggests, newer scientific understanding of the risk of re-offense should be used to decide what we do with them.

The idea of “free will” is an outdated philosophical concept that modern science has rendered meaningless. Yet we continue to base our legal system, our politics, and our approach to vice as if it was the basis of human behavior. Only with coming to terms with its nonexistence can we hope to achieve a more fair and just society with more effective approaches for the problems that ail many of us and the things that cause personal heartache.

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16 Comments

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  1. just Heather / Nov 17 2011 1:26 AM

    I still struggle with the idea that I cannot control my brain, that I can’t control the way I react to things and the way I do things. With that being said, it does completely explain my constant internal war with myself. Blah

    • johan.stavers / Apr 21 2015 5:27 PM

      ‘You don’t control your brain; your brain controls you’

      Incorrect, you ARE your brain, there are not 2 different you’s

      “People continue to become overweight”, “people continue to get high”, “people (mostly men) continue to cheat”
      ….yet all of a sudden “our brains are organic computers that generate outputs based on inputs. The threat of punishment if one breaks to law is one of these inputs that the brain weighs in making decisions”…so do incentives matter, or not? (and of course there are examples of people losing weight, people stopping smoking shit and men learning that being faithful to the right woman is its lifetime reward.

      And of course people are determined by their genes and experience so procreation of killers (not self defense) and pedophiles needs to be prevented.

  2. Michael / Feb 19 2012 5:07 PM

    This was very well written. Most articles that deal with a challenge to free will reflect on effects on society to have a view which disregards true free will. Let’s just determine the truth and then decide best the way to incorporate that into society.

  3. Anonymous / Dec 12 2012 8:57 PM

    Great subject. An incomplete thought on my part. We don’t have free will, on that I agree. However, isn’t it quite possible that we can influence the attributes that we have been granted by nurture and nature? Examples… Hmmm. We can read the assigned text in class or we can daydream. We may have the desire to do both, but really can only do one or the other. Whichever one occurs changes who we are and how we are programmed to face the next situation. This continues thereby building our character. Much the same way a brick wall is built one brick at a time. The result is the sum of the total, not the cause of any one brick being laid (or not laid).

    • JayMan / Dec 14 2012 10:12 PM

      The absence of free will doesn’t mean the absence of outside influence. All of our actions have causes, and those causes will include things we have encountered in our lives. Any attempt at conscious change doesn’t solve this dilemma, as we then have to ask where did that notion come from?

  4. 4cpiomega / Dec 20 2012 7:26 AM

    “As he shows, what has been thought of as “free will”, the uncaused cause, simply does not exist. All human behavior is the result of physical processes that occur in the brain.”

    There is simply no battery of experiments you could preform, no set of empirical evidence that could be gathered, that could disprove free will; It is a metaphysical, not a physical, concept. Nowhere in this post do you even attempt to make a metaphysical argument, let alone refute dualism, you just assume that the mind can be reduced to physical processes. It’s exactly the same thing Sam Harris did in his talk on the same subject.

    This is the same mistake many people make with quantum mechanics. Since QM is probabilistic, and it’s the best theory we’ve got, they then go on to say that therefore reality itself must be probabilistic. One is free to believe this, but the claim that reality is probabilistic is not even hypothetically testable!

    Whether it’s Niels Bohr vs. determinism, or determinism vs. free will, those who share their opinion with the notions currently fashionable will arrogantly declare that “science says”. It doesn’t. Science, if it is to be the study of the natural world, cannot lend its support for metaphysical speculations.

    “There are two distinct meanings to the word ‘science’. The first meaning is what physicists and mathematicians do. The second meaning is a magical art … What is of harm is the blind faith in an imposed system that is implied. ‘Science says’ has replaced ‘scripture tells us’ but with no more critical reflection on the one than on the other. … reason is no more understandable this year than prayer a thousand years ago. Little Billy may become a scientist as earlier he might have turned priest, and know the sacred texts … The chromed apparatus is blessed by distant authority, the water thrice-filtered for purity, and he wears the white antiseptic gown … But the masses still move by faith. … I have fear of what science says, not the science that is hard-won knowledge but that other science, the faith imposed on people by a self-elected administering priesthood. … In the hands of an unscrupulous and power-grasping priesthood, this efficient tool, just as earlier … has become an instrument of bondage. … A metaphysics that ushered in the Dark Ages is again flourishing. … Natural sciences turned from description to a ruminative scholarship concerned with authority. … On the superstition that reduction to number is the same as abstraction, it permits any arbitrary assemblage of data to be mined for relations that can then be named and reified in the same way as Fritz Mauthner once imagined that myths arise. … Our sales representatives, trained in your tribal taboos, will call on you shortly. You have no choice but to buy. For this is the new rationalism, the new messiah, the new Church, and the new Dark Ages come upon us.”

    -Jerome Lettvin: poet, electrical engineer, neurophysiologist

    • JayMan / Dec 20 2012 1:39 PM

      There is simply no battery of experiments you could preform, no set of empirical evidence that could be gathered, that could disprove free will; It is a metaphysical, not a physical, concept.

      Science isn’t in the business of disproving things. It’s up to proponents of a claim to prove that it is true, not the other way around. As for metaphysics

      This is the same mistake many people make with quantum mechanics. Since QM is probabilistic, and it’s the best theory we’ve got, they then go on to say that therefore reality itself must be probabilistic.

      Yet your own words explain why we go with it.

      One is free to believe this, but the claim that reality is probabilistic is not even hypothetically testable!

      That is actually not true. That reality is probabilistic is quite provable. (Can you tell me exactly which atoms in a radioactive material will decay and when?)

      I hope you’re not seriously going to try to propose that metaphysics go toe-to-toe with science on the results each has generated for mankind…

    • 4cpiomega / Dec 20 2012 6:17 PM

      >It’s up to proponents of a claim to prove that it is true, not the other way around.

      Whether you claim that free will exists or that it doesn’t, the claim is not falsifiable.

      >As for metaphysics…

      Isn’t even about answering the same questions that science does. It’s right there in the name “meta-physics”. If it were about physical reality it would just be called “physics”.

      >That reality is probabilistic is quite provable. (Can you tell me exactly which atoms in a radioactive material will decay and when?)

      Notice you didn’t ask me a question about the physical world e. g. “will radioactive decay occur when the nucleus is bombarded with neutrinos?”. You asked me a question about what I personally knew. That’s totally irrelevant. If I told you that caloric was real would that make it true? I could use bra-ket notation to write out the the “wavefunction” of a coin, and tell you that I didn’t know for certain if it would land on heads or tails. Would that change the fact that a coin flip is based on deterministic mechanical processes?

      But, hypothetically, let’s suppose I DID predict radioactive decay. Suppose we had an atom of U-238, and at every step of the decay chain I told you the exact yoctosecond you would register a count on your photomultiplier. Is that any guarantee that my next guess would be correct? Suppose that I had a deterministic theory and displayed a set of experiments I had done whose outcomes were successfully predicted by the theory. It might have well been that those outcomes were not predetermined, but that reality is in fact probabilistic(0.0001% vs. 99.9999% instead of 0% vs. 100%) and that I had merely gotten “lucky”.

      >I hope you’re not seriously going to try to propose that metaphysics go toe-to-toe with science

      It is metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science that define what exactly “science” is in the first place. To talk about them in a confrontational manner is nonsense.

      If you want to know what philosophy has done for mankind, just look at the fact that prior to the 19th century the term “scientist” didn’t even exist. If you want to know what philosophy can do for mankind, it can keep people from using the word “science” to justify unfalsifiable, untestable, Not Even Wrong metaphysical conjectures.

    • JayMan / Dec 20 2012 8:18 PM

      Whether you claim that free will exists or that it doesn’t, the claim is not falsifiable.

      And you know what happens to claims that aren’t falsifiable? They are typically shipped to the rubbish bin, especially when, as in this case, they don’t seem to add anything particularly useful.

      I could use bra-ket notation to write out the the “wavefunction” of a coin, and tell you that I didn’t know for certain if it would land on heads or tails. Would that change the fact that a coin flip is based on deterministic mechanical processes?

      It’s clearly not a “fact” however. Nice try though.

      But, hypothetically, let’s suppose I DID predict radioactive decay. Suppose we had an atom of U-238, and at every step of the decay chain I told you the exact yoctosecond you would register a count on your photomultiplier. Is that any guarantee that my next guess would be correct?

      Suppose I told you when the sun would rise tomorrow, and that it in fact my prediction has been correct every day for the past several centuries? Would that be any guarantee that it would be correct tomorrow? In science, we know that, strictly, the answer is no. That is a neat little thing that’s known as Hume’s Dictum, that presumes that things will continue to work because they always have. Sure, it’s an assumption, and any good scientist will freely admit that. It’s one however that have proven incredibly useful, so I will continue to stick with it.

      I hope you’re not seriously going to try to propose that metaphysics go toe-to-toe with science

      It is metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science that define what exactly “science” is in the first place. To talk about them in a confrontational manner is nonsense.

      Of course, all of which are useless without science. To the extent that they have been useful in that regard, that’s great. Beyond that, we have to take them for what they’re worth, and the answer to that is not a whole lot.

  5. 4cpiomega / Dec 20 2012 9:12 PM

    >They are typically shipped to the rubbish bin, especially when, as in this case, they don’t seem to add anything particularly useful.

    So then why don’t you apply this to your own claim that free will doesn’t exist?

    >It’s clearly not a “fact” however. Nice try though.

    The correspondence principle means that at the macroscopic scale of a coin quantum mechanical effects are insignificant. Do you know of any other source where indeterminacy would occur during a coin flip?

    >Sure, it’s an assumption, and any good scientist will freely admit that.

    Yes, in order to do science we have to make certain assumptions. These are, however, the exact same assumptions that are not taken for granted in metaphysics. So, you can use assumptions like that one to support Kepler’s laws, but you can’t use them to deny free will.

    • JayMan / Dec 20 2012 10:13 PM

      The correspondence principle means that at the macroscopic scale of a coin quantum mechanical effects are insignificant. Do you know of any other source where indeterminacy would occur during a coin flip?

      The correspondence principle states that at macroscopic scales, quantum mechanical effects operate such that they are approximated by classical mechanics, within the degree of precision that we’re typically concerned. This is the case with all theories that emerge from more fundamental ones at space-time/mass-energy scales beyond typical human experience. Quantum effects are insignificant insofar as the level of precision concerned with a typical coin flip. Since, of course, no one has actually gone into the detail to observe all the relevant physical parameters involved in a coin flip in order to predict the outcome, we can pretend that it’s purely classical phenomenon when it’s clearly not. (If you want to get picky, and posit that there isn’t much room for uncertainty in the motion involved in the coin flip—wrong as that would technically be—would you be so confident if we include the state of mind of the flipper and the precise muscle movements he executed to set up the coin the way he did?)

      This is a common misconception that is often repeated. It is easily shown to be false by a simple thought experiment: computer memory chips used to be vulnerable to generating errors because of radiation, often alpha particles, interacting with the chip. This would often give random program errors often freezing the computer. I shouldn’t have to explain the myriad of events that a frozen computer can cause. In these instances, one can imagine that the course of history could be considerably different if the computer error didn’t occur. Now, the process that spawned the particle was clearly a quantum process, demonstrating how random events on the microscopic scale can have macroscopic effects.

      So then why don’t you apply this to your own claim that free will doesn’t exist?

      Again, based on the clearly successful assumption in science that the universe works in an orderly way, claims are given merit only when there is evidence to support them. There is no evidence for the existence of free will. Indeed, there is evidence against its existence (if wills were free, why is any one will different from any other?). Indeed, it is superfluous at best. Thus, I’m perfectly justified in declaring its nonexistence, until you can provide evidence to the contrary.

  6. Sisyphean / Aug 14 2013 2:28 PM

    I love how this excellent post begging people to consider the big picture, the next steps for society given this reality instantly degenerates into a fight over the existence of free will. You must get tired of it. I despise arguing so I wouldn’t have been as dogged in my responses as you have here in the comments.

    For my own part, this post and the realizations it discusses are exactly the same as I’ve been grappling with as I move into middle age. I’ve had too many experiences with actual people to keep deceiving myself with a belief in tabula rasa or dualistic wishful thinking but this understanding also extends to the fact that others won’t (and sometimes can’t) change their minds. There may simply be no way to convince the public at large or even a significant fraction that this is true and if that’s the case, then the future of humanity may likely be more of the same, with better phones and faster internet (for some).

    ~S

  7. Alex Kierkegaard / Oct 13 2013 3:26 PM

    “There is no free will because your brain controls you.” But my brain IS me. Like saying “there is no free will because you control you”, i.e. there IS free will. Retards confused by wordplay.

    • JayMan / Oct 13 2013 3:46 PM

      “There is no free will because your brain controls you.” But my brain IS me. Like saying “there is no free will because you control you”, i.e. there IS free will.

      That is an expression meant to illustrate a property of the matter; namely, that your brain will just “do things” that you can’t “force” into your command. Sam Harris explains it well.

      Free will does not exist and never did.

  8. JayMan / Oct 13 2013 3:52 PM

    @Alex Kierkegaard:

    For the insult in your last comment, you are on moderation. Make another personal attack and you will be banned.

    And even when someone fails to obey himself doesn’t mean anything. I can say “I want to stop smoking” and fail to do it, just as I can say “I want to become president of the United States of America” and fail to do it.

    And in both cases, when you failed, WHY did you do so? That’s the key to understanding the issue.

    In other words, free will would exist for you IF EVERY LIFEFORM IN THE UNIVERSE WERE CAPABLE OF ACHIEVING EVERY SINGLE THING IT DREAMT OF.

    Not so much your President example because that depends on talent and characteristics. But the conditions are still related. WHY would you fail to modify your behavior? WHY do you “dream of” certain things? That’s key.

  9. overexcitable / Nov 9 2013 7:41 PM

    Reblogged this on Overexcitable and commented:
    Excellent!

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