A Fresh Look at Free Will, Part Two

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By Clay Farris Naff

Before he gained fame as a writer, Sam Harris, author of a widely read book that denies the existence of free will, earned a doctorate in the hard science of brains. As a neuroscientist, he naturally doesn’t believe in souls.

Nor, for that matter, do I. However, to dismiss souls from the realm of causation is not to douse the debate. There are versions of free will that do not depend on souls or magic of any kind. The one I defend, as sketched in Part One, springs from emergent, top-down causation.

But enough with theorizing! Time to put aside our Meerschaum pipes, rise from our overstuffed chairs and do a little investigating. Harris draws on several studies to argue that choices are illusions; that the decision has already been made by our unconscious brains. They begin, as so many of these discussions do, with the work of Dr. Benjamin Libet.

Libet, who died in 2007, is famed for a series of experiments that purport to indicate a lag time between electrochemical brain activity called “readiness potential” (RP) and conscious awareness of a decision. Libet asked subjects (now there’s an interesting word!) to flick a finger at any time of their choosing. He used EEG probes to monitor the RP and the self-reported position of a dot moving on a screen to time each component of the subject’s decision to flick. He found an average lag time of 350 milliseconds between the RP and the report of conscious decision.

As others have replicated those experiments with more sophisticated equipment, the lag time has stretched to seven seconds or more. Harris cites the long lag as proof that free will is illusory. He ought to be more skeptical. Milliseconds, maybe, but seven seconds of lag time? As it happens, I have inadvertently conducted an experiment that refutes such a claim. I call it the Great Poolside Leap Test.

Though blushes mantle my cheeks, in the interests of science I must reveal that we were a pretty nerdy family. When my daughters were young, we often went to the pool, and after we’d run through the usual “find a quarter at the bottom” and “Marco Polo,” we got bored. So, I hit on a new game that held interest indefinitely.

One of us would clamber out of the pool and stand on the side, waiting for the signal to leap. At the word “go” a third person would call out a category. The idea was to name something in that category before plunging into the water. So, as soon as my daughter Maya yelled, “Go!” my other daughter Ami might yell out, “fruit!” as I jumped. On a good day I might gurgle “apple” before going under.

I can assure you that I was conscious of what I was doing. Elapsed time? Well, in his NBA prime the great Michael Jordan had a hang time of less than one second. Me, I have a vertical leap of about 6 inches, but a pool’s surface is lower, giving me a foot to fall, so using Newton’s formula, I reckon … about half a second (I’m padding it a bit to account for take-off time).

One thing is for sure. Nothing like a lag time of seven seconds or more occurs between the “readiness potential” for an example of fruit and consciousness of the answer “apple.” You and a couple of friends can replicate this experiment—if you can find anyone nerdy enough to do it.

How can it be that respected researchers produce results so at odds with experience? First, it should not surprise us that experimental results contradict intuition and experience. That’s routine stuff for science. Nothing seems more solid than gold, but fire a proton beam at it and you, like Rutherford, will discover mostly empty space. There, we have good reason to trust science over perception.

In the lag-time experiments, however, we don’t. Here’s why: we don’t know just what consciousness is, or how it operates. In assuming that a person can align awareness of the moment of decision-making with a clock of some type, the experimenters have pegged their results to an inherently unreliable measure.

Note that the subject in a Libet-type experiment faces a triple task: first, to consciously decide, second to take note of the decision and third to consciously link that awareness to a perception of a dot’s position. To assume that these happen simultaneously seems unjustified. How much lag should be inferred between them? We don’t know, but perhaps it is identical to the milliseconds delay that Libet reported. At least we can agree that the seven-second figure of later experiments doesn’t hold water.

That’s not the only reason to wield the saltshaker of skepticism over claims that the self is no more than a self-deceiver. In Part One, I offered a functional definition of free will: that one’s conscious choices can be unpredictable in principle. Here’s a demonstration. Go to an online tic-tac-toe program. (There’s one at http://boulter.com/ttt/.) If you let the program go first, it will always place an X in the middle, and no matter what moves you make, it will either win or tie. Indeed, after just a few plays, the program’s moves are highly predictable. But what about you?

If you’re bent on winning, tough luck. But if you’re intent on demonstrating that you have free will, you can make your moves unpredictable. Unless, of course, you’re being monitored in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Then, Harris tells us, your moves may be anticipated with up to 80 percent accuracy by those reading the patterns of blood flow in your brain.

So, is that the end of the line? Is brain function precisely coincident with mind? Well, yes and no. As scientifically informed rationalists, we exclude any reliance on magic. And yet, as I’ve said, the mind is a virtual entity. As such it can transcend the brain and co-opt randomness from the environment.

How? Easy peasy. Just take a Magic Eight Ball into the fMRI machine with you. Give it a shake and then use the answer to guide your next move.1 (E.g, “Magic Eight Ball, should I put an ‘O’ in the upper right corner?” “My sources say no.”) No way anyone monitoring your brain can anticipate what your next move will be; the best they can do is report on the speed of your perception and interpretation of the result. And yet, you are the author of the decision to follow—or reject—the guidance of the Magic Eight Ball.

Of course, some decisions happen in the unconscious. After getting up in the morning and thinking about what to write, I am sometimes surprised to find that while pondering, say, free will, I’ve dressed myself. Generally, I learn of these unconscious decisions when my wife tells me I can’t go out of the house looking like that.

On the other hand, some decisions, such as choosing a TV channel with the remote, seem to be conscious. The most interesting cases fall in between. Some of our bodily controls, such as breathing, are jointly operated by the unconscious brain and the conscious mind. You can prove this to yourself by deciding to hold your breath for five seconds starting … now!

This is the most important experiment of all. If free will deniers are right, then you are not the source of the decision to hold your breath. But what else could be? For Harris, it’s the unconscious brain. For others, like psychologist Susan Blackmore, it’s memes. “The more I have observed my own actions,” she says in an interview, “the less they seem to be under ‘my’ control. Indeed ‘I’ do not really exist—at least not as the kind of persisting, powerful entity that we commonly imagine.”

Both of these are instances of what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “greedy reductionism.” But nature has an answer of its own.

Stop eating, and you’ll be dead in months. Stop drinking, and you’ll be dead in weeks. But stop breathing, and at most you have minutes to live. It is therefore extraordinary that evolution would allow dual control of breathing, and extravagant to claim that outside interests could gain access to that control.

As the great quantum physicist Richard Feynman once said, “Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.” The science of evolution is the ultimate reason why we should accept the existence of free will.

Evolutionary reasoning presses us to infer that volitional control of breathing serves a survival purpose—as indeed it does. If you have ever hidden from a predator, or more likely played hide-and-seek with a seeker possessed of a keen sense of hearing and a poor sense of smell, you know that holding your breath while the pursuer passes by can make all the difference.

The case against free will collapses when we pose the question “If consciousness has no causal power, why would evolution not select against it when the cost of the extra portion of our big brains is so high?” Among humans that cost is paid twice: first, in a horrifically high fatality rate in childbirth (absent modern medical care) and then in a very high energy-consumption rate.

No other mammal has such a tiny margin between fetal head size and the birth canal, and none expends anything like 20 percent of its calories on brain function. Some have argued that sexual selection accounts for our big brains, but again if they were mere ornaments the exorbitant cost (one in 20 fatal childbirths) would have surely weeded out that extravagant taste.

Harris does not address this. Rather, he sets an impossible standard for free will, and then celebrates when it fails. He demands precognition—a foreknowledge of what we will think before we think it—to legitimate free will. “[E]ven if the human mind were made of soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. ... If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control.” (p. 12)

We do not have precognition, and we are not operated by a ghostly soul. Cartoon versions of free will are indeed false. But does this mean that the whole notion of free will is bunk? Certainly not.

It may be true that I don’t know what I will think 10 seconds from now—but I can influence the outcome by telling myself “Think of a color!” and then “Think of an animal.” (Try it, and if you think of a colorless polyhedron, have your doctor adjust your meds.)

We have free will in that the mind can imagine various futures, ask “what if” questions and make decisions that help to shape it. Or so it seems. If the future is determined by the past, can it really make a difference what we think? Indeed, if the future, present and past all exist “already,” as physicists assure us is the case, then surely our destinies are fixed.

Yes and no. Let me close this essay with one more DIY experiment to redirect your thinking. Imagine watching a movie on your DVD player. Let’s say it’s about a man who sits at home nervously handling a gun. We learn that his soldier son is making a surprise visit home on a weekend leave. As the front door knob turns, we see the man raise the gun. Then, we hit the “pause” button.

The present is frozen, but the future is fixed. Nothing you do can change what will happen once you press the “play” button. Either the man will shoot, or he won’t. The choice is already determined.

That is the determinist’s point of view. It is the wrong point of view, because none of us is sitting “out there” watching the movie of life. Rather, we are characters in it. As such, would it make a difference if the man thinks, “Maybe I better hold my fire until I see who it is?” You bet it would.

Even in a work of fiction (if it’s any good), people’s thoughts influence their actions. In real life, even more so. We build civilization on the “intentional stance”—the presumption that each of us can choose to sacrifice immediate, selfish desires for a common good in which we all share. Stop at red lights. Pay your taxes. Curb your sexual urges. Don’t set off bombs at public events.

Of course, agreeing on mutually beneficial constraints is not enough. Free riders, exploiters and cheaters will always spring up. Unless deterred, they will overwhelm any society. But deterrence depends on actors who believe that they have choices. To lose faith in free will has demonstrated antisocial consequences.2 Happily, I believe I have shown that determinism is irrelevant, that thoughts can have consequences and that choices are real. In fine, then, the truth shall set you free.

 

Endnotes

1. Strictly speaking, a Magic Eight Ball gives answers that are pseudo random, based on the chaotic behavior of a die suspended in goo, but good enough. True random numbers, based on quantum indeterminacy, are available on the web. See www.random.org.

2. In a 2010 lecture acidly titled, “ ‘My Brain Made Me Do It’ ” (When Neuroscientists Think They Can Do Philosophy),” Daniel Dennett, our greatest living philosopher, cites experimental research by Vohs and Schooler showing that when students are given free will-denying passages to read, they are more likely to cheat on subsequent tasks than a control group given neutral passages to read. See http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/16895/MWP_LS_2011_01.pdf and http://www.csom.umn.edu/assets/91974.pdf.

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