I often dwell on free will as the new year begins, and my resolutions (quit caffeine, again, start meditating, again) are already wavering. Plus, late last semester I found myself trying, again, to convince my students to believe in free will. For these reasons, and just because I feel like it, I decided to jot down a few arguments for free will.
By free will, I mean a capacity for deliberate, conscious decisions. Choices. Free will is variable. The more choices you have, the more free will you have. Our choices are constrained by all sorts of factors, physical, biological, social, economic, political, even romantic. My choices, for example, are often overruled by those of my willful girlfriend “Emily,” but that’s okay, because I’m with her by choice. Choices are never entirely free, but that doesn’t mean we lack them.
I’m not going to invoke quantum mechanics, information theory or arcane philosophical reasoning. I find slick, technical defenses of free will almost as unpersuasive as slick, technical denials. My arguments will leave many questions unanswered. Did we discover free will or invent it? I don’t know, both, perhaps. Do non-human animals possess it? Maybe, maybe not, but I know we have it. All right, enough throat-clearing, here are my arguments:
Just Because Physics Can’t Account for Free Will Doesn’t Mean It Doesn’t Exist. Free-will deniers tend to be hard-core materialists, who think reality, ultimately, consists of particles pushed and pulled by fundamental forces. This hyper-reductive worldview can’t account for choice. Or consciousness, for that matter, or beauty, morality, meaning and other trappings of the human condition. That doesn’t mean these things are somehow illusory. It just means materialistic science, which does a splendid job explaining protons and planets, remains baffled by us.
Don’t let mean reductionists bully you into agreeing with them. They’re not as smart as they think they are. In fact, anyone who argues strenuously against free will is a walking, talking contradiction. Their disbelief, like my belief, is a choice stemming from (in their case, faulty) reason, another mind-based capacity irreducible to physics and chemistry.
This Sentence Is Proof of Free Will. And this one. And this one. This whole column constitutes proof that free will exists. Free will is an idea, a packet of meaning, that cannot be reduced to mere physics. The idea of free will, not its instantiation in my brain, provoked me, my physical self, to type this column. I’m not compelled to write it. I have lots of other things to do, like watch Couples Therapy on Showtime with Emily, or find a birthday present for her. (No matter what I choose, she probably won’t like it. She’s very choosy.)
No, I choose to write this column, because I want others to share my belief in free will. It matters to me. Once I decide to write the column, then I must decide how to write it. That process entails countless choices. They are constrained, limited, by factors such as time, my verbal skills and knowledge, my sense of what readers will like and so on. Like I said, just because free will is never entirely free doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
You Reading This Sentence Is Proof Too. You don’t have to read this column, do you? Of course not. You choose to read it, freely. More proof of free will! If you’re irritated by the substance or style of this column, and you jump to Twitter to find something more amusing, that’s another choice! More proof!
Libet’s Experiments Are Bogus. Decades ago, psychologist Benjamin Libet monitored subjects’ neural activity while they chose to hit a button, and he discovered a burst of activity preceding the conscious decision to push the button by a split second. Free-will deniers seized upon Libet’s experiments as evidence that our brains make decisions, and our conscious choices are mere afterthoughts. Hence, no free will.
First of all, deciding when to push a button is not remotely analogous to genuine choices, like whether to get married, have kids, get divorced. The Libet experiments are profoundly flawed, as psychologist Steve Taylor points out in a recent Scientific American column. The question is, why did anyone ever take seriously the claim that Libet had disproved free will? Why do smart people accept such flimsy evidence? I honestly don’t get it, unless it’s that some intellectuals enjoy attacking beliefs that give others comfort. Many adamant free-will deniers are also adamant atheists.
Free Will Must Exist If Some People Have More of It Than Others. You have more free will—more ability to see, weigh and make choices--now than when you were a baby. Right? You have more than if you were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or addicted to heroin, or imprisoned for manslaughter. If you are black or female, gay or transgender, and living in a democracy, you have more choices and hence free will than you would have 50, 100 or 200 years ago. If some people and societies have more choices than others—and they obviously do--free will must exist.
This is my best, slam-dunk argument for free will. That doesn’t mean it always or even usually works. My students can be so stubborn! But I feel good making this argument, it convinces me. Usually. To be honest, I have doubts about free willnow and then. Sometimes I feel like I’m sleepwalking through life. I’m a confabulating somnambulist, a bundle of reflexes, twitches and compulsions with no self-knowledge, let alone self-control. I’m not even sure I really choose to be with Emily!
In these dark times, I give myself pro-free-will pep talks, like this column. Free will is like Tinkerbell. If you don’t believe in her, she dies. Maybe that’s what I’m really doing with this column, trying to keep free will alive. Please help me. The more we believe in free will, the more we have, and the more likely we are to change the world for the better.
Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem (includes previous columns on free will)