No, You Don’t Have Free Will, and This is Why
Slate recently featured an article written by Roy F. Baumeister, Do You Really Have Free Will? In it, he claims that human do indeed have free will, something that regular readers will know that I have emphatically argued against.
Baumeister doesn’t make any supernatural appeals in this article; he does not appeal to some sort of mystical “uncaused cause”. So how does he make the case? He does it by confusing “free will” with agency, that is, the ability to make decisions, especially those that involve human-level “self-control” and response to socially constructed rules:
Arguments about free will are mostly semantic arguments about definitions. Most experts who deny free will are arguing against peculiar, unscientific versions of the idea, such as that “free will” means that causality is not involved. As my longtime friend and colleague John Bargh put it once in a debate, “Free will means freedom from causation.” Other scientists who argue against free will say that it means that a soul or other supernatural entity causes behavior, and not surprisingly they consider such explanations unscientific.
These arguments leave untouched the meaning of free will that most people understand, which is consciously making choices about what to do in the absence of external coercion, and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Hardly anyone denies that people engage in logical reasoning and self-control to make choices. There is a genuine psychological reality behind the idea of free will. The debate is merely about whether this reality deserves to be called free will. Setting aside the semantic debate, let’s try to understand what that underlying reality is.
There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall.
Baumeister does latch on to a meaning of free will that lay people who defend its existence often embrace. However, before I go into what’s wacky about this article (some of which should already be obvious), let me start with some of the things I like about it:
Living things everywhere face two problems: survival and reproduction. All species have to solve those basic problems or else go extinct. Humankind has an unusual strategy for solving them: culture. We communicate, develop complex social systems, engage in trade, accumulate knowledge collectively, create giant social institutions (governments, hospitals, universities, corporations). These help us survive and reproduce, increasingly in comfortable and safe ways. These large systems have worked very well for us, if you measure success in the biological terms of survival and reproduction.
If culture is so successful, why don’t other species use it? They can’t—because they lack the psychological innate capabilities it requires. Our ancestors evolved the ability to act in the ways necessary for culture to succeed. Free will likely will be found right there—it’s what enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.
What psychological capabilities are needed to make cultural systems work? To be a member of a group with culture, people must be able to understand the culture’s rules for actions, including moral principles and formal laws. They need to be able to talk about their choices with others, participate in group decisions, and carry out their assigned role. Culture can bring immense benefits, from cooked rice to the iPhone, but it only works if people cooperate and obey the rules.
But very few psychological phenomena are absolute dichotomies. Instead, most psychological phenomena are on a continuum. Some acts are clearly freer than others. The freer actions would include conscious thought and deciding, self-control, logical reasoning, and the pursuit of enlightened self-interest
This is pretty accurate. Baumeister avoids “blank slatist” thought and recognizes that human abilities arise from the unique cognitive systems that humans possess. He makes it quite clear that these abilities don’t emerge from a vacuum but are the product of untold generations of evolution.
As well, as HBD Chick has noted, some actions and thoughts (or, more specifically some people) are more “free” than others – at least by this definition. Some people have greater ability to respond to externally imposed rules.
But, on that point, Baumeister doesn’t get into individual or group variation in these evolved processes that make decisions and regulate behavior (which vary greatly between individuals and groups). However, I will return to this point.
First I must address where Baumeister is clearly quite wrong. Particularly (and I suppose, unsurprisingly), like everyone who tries to defend free will in one fashion or another, Baumeister gets some facts about the world glaringly wrong (emphasis mine):
Different sciences discover different kinds of causes. Phillip Anderson, who won the Nobel Prize in physics, explained this beautifully several decades ago in a brief article titled “More is different.” Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture.
As Anderson explained, the things each science studies cannot be fully reduced to the lower levels, but they also cannot violate the lower levels. Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges. No number of facts about a carbon atom can explain life, let alone the meaning of your life.
These causes operate at different levels of organization. Even if you could write a history of the Civil War purely in terms of muscle movements or nerve cell firings, that (very long and dull) book would completely miss the point of the war. Free will cannot violate the laws of physics or even neuroscience, but it invokes causes that go beyond them.
Seriously? No, Dr. Baumeister (obviously not a physicist). Emergent properties – qualities that arise only in complex systems when many sub-units interact – are fully dependent on the properties of those sub-units. Life is completely explained by the “facts about carbon atoms”, “gravity and electromagnetic charges” (and the other fundamental forces). Let’s not forget, how these particles interact with each other are themselves facts about these particles. You’d just have a hard time describing and predicting the behavior of systems comprising these particles from their simple attributes as how they’re commonly thought of and taught.
Our description of events at higher levels of organization are merely shorthand for all the sub-forces that comprise them, such that if you wrote “a history of the Civil War purely in terms of muscle movements or nerve cell firings” it’d be a “very long and dull book”. It wouldn’t “completely miss the point of the war.” The point of the war would just be lost in the minutia.
Nothing in the universe “goes beyond” the laws of physics, and nothing about human brains or behavior “goes beyond” the “laws” of even neuroscience. It’s merely difficult to express descriptions of certain activities in terms of our commonly used wording of these basal laws.
You might argue that this is me being overly pedantic, but I think it’s important not to muddy the waters on these points.
Now what about Baumeister’s ideas about free will? I will show why even his new attempt to rescue free will by equivocation and redefinition still does not work.
The evolution of free will began when living things began to make choices. The difference between plants and animals illustrates an important early step. Plants don’t change their location and don’t need brains to help them decide where to go. Animals do. Free will is an advanced form of the simple process of controlling oneself, called agency.
In general, throughout this piece, Baumeister appears to be confusing “free will” with decision making, especially the sophisticated kind. Sure, scientists who criticize the concept of free will don’t deny that humans can make decisions. But here he makes a great effort to reinsert the “free” part in that process, a point made explicit here:
Does it deserve to be called free? I do think so. Philosophers debate whether people have free will as if the answer will be a simple yes or no. But very few psychological phenomena are absolute dichotomies. Instead, most psychological phenomena are on a continuum. Some acts are clearly freer than others. The freer actions would include conscious thought and deciding, self-control, logical reasoning, and the pursuit of enlightened self-interest.
This is where he gets into trouble, and runs into conflict with thinkers like me on this topic. Even for the most sophisticated and profound choices, how “free” are they when the outcome of these choices can be predicted (at least statistically) by behavioral genetics?
As we might recall, all human behavioral traits are heritable:
Human beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, decisions, and behaviors are all influenced by genes. Those things range from big things to small things – from trivial things to profound things. From the nebulous to the concrete, no matter what you think of, genes are in there somewhere. These include major life outcomes, as was seen in my previous posts on heredity and parenting. These outcomes that Baumeister would like to attribute to “conscious thought and deciding, self-control, logical reasoning, and the pursuit of enlightened self-interest” all turn out to be a smoke screen for path heavily set on its course by one’s DNA.
HBD Chick has said this perfectly:
from all the behavioral studies that are coming out of neurology these days, i just don’t see where humans are rational. that truly must be one of the greatest myths of our time. sure, some people are occasionally able to engage in some semblance of logic when they think about certain things, but the vast, vast, vast majority of humans are really running on autopilot — and even those of us who might just possibly have one or two neurons that can string together a logical thought — even most of us run on autopilot most of the time, too.
This process can even be demonstrated in real time as well. A clip from the ABC News program “Twintuition” featured behavioral geneticist Nancy Segal giving tests of shared thinking to twins:
The freaky concordance between identical twins in a variety of traits must give anyone pause before thinking their own actions are in any sense “free”. As Steven Pinker put it in The Blank Slate (emphasis added):
Identical twins think and feel in such similar ways that they sometimes suspect they are linked by telepathy. When separated at birth and reunited as adults they say they feel they have known each other all their lives. Testing confirms that identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike (though far from identical) in just about any trait one can measure. They are similar in verbal, mathematical, and general intelligence, in their degree of life satisfaction, and in personality traits such as introversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. They have similar attitudes toward controversial issues such as the death penalty, religion, and modern music. They resemble each other not just in paper-and-pencil tests but in consequential behavior such as gambling, divorcing, committing crimes, getting into accidents, and watching television. And they boast dozens of shared idiosyncrasies such as giggling incessantly, giving interminable answers to simple questions, dipping buttered toast in coffee, and — in the case of Abigail van Buren and Ann Landers — writing indistinguishable syndicated advice columns. The crags and valleys of their electroencephalograms (brainwaves) are as alike as those of a single person recorded on two occasions, and the wrinkles of their brains and distribution of gray matter across cortical areas are also similar. (p. 47)
the genes, even if they by no means seal our fate, don’t sit easily with the intuition that we are ghosts in machines either. Imagine that you are agonizing over a choice — which career to pursue, whether to get married, how to vote, what to wear that day. You have finally staggered to a decision when the phone rings. It is the identical twin you never knew you had. During the joyous conversation it comes out that she has just chosen a similar career, has decided to get married at around the same time, plans to cast her vote for the same presidential candidate, and is wearing a shirt of the same color — just as the behavioral geneticists who tracked you down would have bet. How much discretion did the “you” making the choices actually have if the outcome could have been predicted in advance, at least probabilistically, based on events that took place in your mother’s Fallopian tubes decades ago? (p. 51)
People do indeed take in information from their environment and the act of decision making is a very complex, intricate process that neuroscience has yet to unravel. Despite all this, this process occurs in predictable ways. This is because the space of possible outputs (i.e., decisions) is bound by the constitution of one’s brain, which itself is partially specified by one’s genes.
Hence, no matter, how you redefine it, calling this will “free” is simply unworkable.
OK, so how about the practical significance of this? Sure, we know that people aren’t completely “free” agents, but the thing most people care about when invoking “free will” is about responsibility. How “responsible” are people for their actions? Well, strictly speaking, people aren’t “responsible” for their actions at all. Even if the heritability of behavior was zero, since all actions have causes (such as, for example, the precise motion of the particle constituting one’s brain) which themselves at outside our ability to control, we can’t actually “control” what occurs.
But that’s from the perspective of contradicting the notion of the uncaused cause, which Baumeister agrees does not exist. What about on a more local level, with the idea that the concept of “responsibility” is meant to impinge on the decision making system of the brain and get it to modify its future behavior accordingly. As Baumeister describes:
Self-control counts as a kind of freedom because it begins with not acting on every impulse. The simple brain acts whenever something triggers a response: A hungry creature sees food and eats it. The most recently evolved parts of the human brain have an extensive mechanism for overriding those impulses, which enables us to reject food when we’re hungry, whether it’s because we’re dieting, vegetarian, keeping kosher, or mistrustful of the food. Self-control furnishes the possibility of acting from rational principles rather than acting on impulse.
Here is the crux of Baumeister’s whole argument. He is trying to weasel “free will” into being somehow synonymous with “complex” and “socially/morally considerate”. This is very much the idea most people have in mind when they invoke free will – that is, those who don’t invoke it for religious reasons. Unfortunately, as I’ve shown in this post, it doesn’t work that way.
As the previous data should make clear, “complex” doesn’t mean “mutable”. “Socially and morally considerate” doesn’t mean “not instantaneous”. Indeed, human decisions on even the most deep moral arguments can have a very “knee-jerk” quality to it, as the reaction times above make clear. To believe that “impulses” are somehow “unfree” but our more calculated, thoughtful decisions are somehow “more” free is to ignore the mountain of evidence we have the contrary. We are indeed running on “autopilot” most of the time, as HBD Chick would say.
But what about our ideas of “personality responsibility” and that oh so popular idea of “will power”? Well, the nonexistence of free will, even in this “Beaumeistian” sense, has significant implications there. We have rules and we have consequences for breaking those rules in our society because they do, impact the behavior of the people in our society (to varying extents)). Knowledge of the rules and more importantly, knowledge of the consequences for breaking those rules, enters into the decision making systems of the individuals in our society and gets the vast majority of them to follow the rules, most of the time. But we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought that we could simply “legislate” ourselves to any behavior we wanted. The existence of criminals demonstrates that individuals vary greatly their ability to respond to the incentives we have put in place to affect their behavior. Sure, we could get different results with different incentive, but the key point is that there are stiff limits to what we could accomplish with such.
The belief in the unlimited or at least much less limited plasticity of human behavior and decision making underlies many wrongheaded ideas in our society. Certainly ideas of diet fall under that category (for example, “fat shaming”). No matter how “free” you think people are, including yourself, you’re simply not. You’re a slave to your genes, your environment, and the circumstances you happen to be in.
(And I do mean environment. This post should not be taken to mean genes determine everything, which they clearly don’t. But as noted, you don’t need heredity per se to obviate the possibility of free will. If the “nuturists” were correct, and environment was the primary or sole determinant in behavior, your behavior would be largely “environmentally determined”; you’d be a slave to whatever circumstance in which you were reared. In short, you’re a slave to the wiring of your brain; how it got that way is secondary to this fact.)
Of course, while I say you can predict people’s behavior with behavioral genetics, you don’t really need science to see this in action. All you have to do is “know” people. All of us, when referring to someone we’re highly familiar with, has said that “I know [x person]” – meaning, we have a good idea how that individual will react – often in a detailed way – to a given circumstance. This, among many other things, should be a clue that free will, in any meaningful sense, simply doesn’t exist.