This piece is adapted from one I originally wrote for Scientific American. – John Horgan
I often dwell on free will as the new year approaches, and I begin formulating resolutions: quit caffeine, again, start meditating, again. Plus, last semester I found myself struggling, again, to convince my students to believe in free will. For these reasons, and not because a stray cosmic ray just struck my brain, I'm jotting down a few arguments for free will.
By free will, I mean a capacity for deliberate, conscious choices. Our choices are never entirely free. They are constrained by all sorts of factors: physical, biological, social, economic, political, even romantic. Choices and constraints interact in complex ways, with positive and negative feedback loops.
Example: My willful girlfriend "Emily" often overrules my choices. If she wants pizza tonight instead of Chinese food, we'll have pizza. I don't mind submitting to her choices, because I choose to be with her, as she with me. And if I graciously submit to her will today, she might submit to mine tomorrow. Although free will is never entirely free, that doesn't mean we lack it.
I'm not going to defend free will by invoking quantum mechanics, information theory or arcane philosophical reasoning. I find slick, technical defenses of free will (like the "strong free will theorem," which says we have free will because subatomic particles do) as unpersuasive as slick, technical denials.
My arguments will leave many questions unanswered. Like, did we discover free will or invent it? I don't know, both, perhaps. Do non-human organisms like chimpanzees or bumblebees possess it? Maybe, maybe not, but humans 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 consists of particles pushed and pulled by forces. This hyper-reductive worldview can't account for choice. Or consciousness, for that matter, or beauty, morality, meaning and other elements of the human condition. That doesn't mean these things are 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 their reasoning, which in their case is faulty. Reasoning, by the way, is 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 to type this column. I'm not compelled to write it. I have lots of other things to do, like finding an anniversary gift for Emily. (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. Once I decide to write the column, I must decide how to write it. Writing entails countless choices, which are constrained by factors such as time, my verbal skills and knowledge, my sense of what readers will like and so on. Again, just because free will is not 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 column's substance or style, and you jump to TikTok 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 divorced or write a book. The Libet experiments are profoundly flawed, as psychologist Steve Taylor points out in Scientific American. Why do smart people persist in claiming that Libet disproved free will? Some smart people, I suspect, feel smarter when they attack beliefs that give others comfort, such as free will and God. Adamant free-will deniers tend to be 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 drunk-driving. If you are black, female or gay and living in the U.S. you have more choices and hence free will than you would have 50, 100 or 200 years ago (although your choices are still limited compared to those of white, straight men). If some people 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 this argument always or even usually works. My students can be so stubborn! But this argument convinces me. Usually. To be honest, I have doubts about free will now 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-awareness, 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. Because free will isn't just a philosophical riddle, it matters. Free will is another name for freedom. The more we believe in freedom, the more we have, and the more likely we are to use our freedom to make the world more free. Please believe.
I rant about free will in my books Pay Attention and Mind-Body Problems. You can read the latter for free online. See especially the chapters on Douglas Hofstadter, Owen Flanagan and Deirdre McCloskey.