Whenever the subject of free will comes up people tend to get a little twitchy for some reason. Some will accept no argument against the concept while others seem to get a more and more graven look about them as the discussion progresses. It would appear as if “free will” is terribly important to us on some level, but that most of us haven’t given it much thought, or worse, secretly fear that neurological science will soon prove that it’s never been there at all. Somewhat misunderstood and sometimes scorned and criticized, the label “determinism” seems to raise as many questions as it answers, and for some it has become equal to an acceptance that we are nothing but robots answering to a programming of some sort. I will in this article try to present arguments that determinism might be on the right track, and also that free will might not be what some people think it is. I will also attempt to make the case that even if determinism is right and free will is not all it’s cracked up to be; things aren’t nearly as bleak as one might get the impression of.
First let’s have a look at what we mean when we say “free will”. The term is usually defined as “The ability or discretion to choose” and “The power of making free choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances or by an agency such as fate or divine will”. I agree with the first statement, mainly because it doesn’t say very much. Given certain criteria we can easily program a computer to make choices between options, but I think most people don’t consider computers to have free will, at least not yet. I’m a bit more ambiguous about the second statement though, so let’s dissect it down to its singular arguments. The first part claims that free will gives the power to make choices unconstrained by external circumstances, which at its very basis cannot be true since that would negate there ever being any criteria from which to make a choice in the first place. Whenever we make a choice between two (or more) options we always weigh those options against each other, even when we’re not conscious of that process. The second part of the statement is more agreeable though, and would, at least in my view, count as a suitable definition of free will. Fate and divine will does not enter into it and if it did, then we really would be little more than automatons just going trough predetermined motions. So, to conclude, yes, we are affected by the world around us, and yes it does influence our choices. How could it not? But there is no puppet master pulling our treads and in any detailed way make our decisions for us. To me free will can only mean that we are, as it were, free agents in the sense that any decision we make is our own, based on several internal factors, not dictated by an external entity, but still dependant upon the external information of our current situation. Puh… Nobody said defining free will was easy, but I think that’s as close as I’m likely to get. In short it means that I will try to show that not only aren’t your choices independent of any external or internal influences, they are, in fact, completely dependent upon them.
The key point in the above definition is the part about internal factors so let’s try to figure out what makes you the person you are, and how that affects your decision-making. The baseline of all life on this planet can be found in our genes, in our DNA. It determines the production of proteins, which in turn function as the building blocks of our bodies as well as powering bodily functions. How our bodies are built will in a large degree affect our motivations, our urges, our instincts, and ultimately the decisions we make. The effect of genetics on behavior is not considered controversial when we talk about animals, but it appears as if we get a bit skittish when the same argument is presented towards ourselves. This seems a tad inconsistent and I cannot view it as much more than wish-thinking and therefore a fallacy. If genetic makeup influences animals, then it most certainly influences us, given that we are animals ourselves. Our genes are a major part of who we are and therefore there can be no doubt that they play a role in how we conduct our lives. There is plenty of evidence that genetics affect our wellbeing in the form of diseases (Huntington’s, Autism), and there is no reason to think that they would leave our precious “free will” alone in the process. You will find that many of your traits stem from your genes, such as eye/hair/skin color, body type, dispositions for various substances and so on and so forth. They will, of course, also influence your mental signature to a certain degree. This, by the way, is the “nature” part in the nature-and-nurture argument.
That is not to say that we are nothing but slaves of our DNA. We are also slaves, if that is the right term, of our experiences. How a person is brought up, what kind of education they part-take in, what kind of friends they have, and many other factors play a role in shaping who we are. Just think of any normal day in your life. How many impressions, experiences and various types of input do you receive during such a day? Thousands? Millions? Billions? There is no way of counting them because we are not even consciously aware of the majority of the impulses we absorb. Your senses are receiving information even when you are completely focused on something else, like watching TV or talking to a friend. The total sum of the experiences that make a person who they are cannot easily be calculated, but whether you like it or not they have played a huge role in shaping you. All this information is continuously processed, compared and stored for later use, and they even produce actual physical changes in your brain. Neurons are the nerve cells in your brain that through electrochemical signaling transmits information. We have about 100 billion of them and even the fastest supercomputers can only simulate a small fraction of that, making our brains the most powerful processors on the planet (Notice: This is not wholly dependent on the number of neurons alone. Determining the processing power of a biological brain is somewhat more complicated than that and this is a simplification). When new information is learned neurons form connections with other neurons to make pathways for that information to flow. If that information is subject to repetition (for instance when learning by rote) more connections are established strengthening the bond and increasing the chance that the information is stored for longer periods of time. The sum of stored information can be called experience and based on that experience come personal preferences, taste and opinions.
So, let’s return to the beginning and see what determinism really means. There are, as within most areas of philosophy, several branches of determinism, but I will here mainly focus on the one most people think of when using the term, namely Causal Determinism. It is a popular subject having been dealt with by prominent thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and presently, Dan Dennett. Causality, in itself, proposes a necessary relationship between one event (called cause) and another event (called effect) which is the direct consequence of the first. This is not to say that there is one singular cause for every effect, but rather that the sum of causes produces the sum of consequences, which is the main subject dealt with in this article. The argument posed by determinism is that the decisions you make are based in nothing but the sum of genetic influences added to the sum of your experiences. This may not sound like a lot, but in total the amount of information could easily fill the Library of Congress several times over. Not all of it will be interesting, but in a small way each tidbit of information influences you to some degree, making you who you are. In theory this makes it possible to predict each and every action or choice made by each and every person at any given time and in any given situation. In practice this is impossible. At no time in the foreseeable future will we have access to that kind of processing power, let alone a method for collecting all that information. The various influences that make up “you” are so many and so complex that it is a statistical impossibility to find someone exactly like you. So for those who feel this makes them no better than a robot, at the very least they can consider themselves a unique robot, unlike any other that has ever lived.
It is, however, an interesting proposition for several different reasons.
First off it gets rid of the “usual” free will argument, which in any case never had much going for it. Although impossible to prove or disprove, there is no indication that there is a “ghost in the machine”, normally referred to as a soul. To use Occam’s Razor, it is an argument that proposes an unnecessary entity which in any case has no explanatory power, and it is therefore pointless.
But if all our decisions are predetermined, how can we defend punishing criminals? Well, since the punishment contributes to the sum of experiences, this would seem to be the proper way to deal with the problem. But it also suggests that perhaps it might be possible to prevent criminals from appearing in the first place. So if anything, this is an argument in favor of a deterministic approach.
What about animals then? Are they nothing but robots? Yes and no. That depends on what you mean by the word robot. There can be little doubt that many animals show clear signs of cognitive ability and perhaps even consciousness. Corvids, apes and many other animals have all passed the Gallup mirror test as well as shown indication of having a “theory of mind”, but whether this makes them conscious of themselves in relation to the world is hard to say. All life on Earth shares the legacy of DNA, and there is no doubt that experience can influence the behavior of animals in much the same way it shapes us. So if we consider them to be robots, then we cannot logically consider ourselves any different if consistency is to be upheld.
Determinism seems to have gathered quite a following ranging from philosophers and psychologists to biologists and neurologists. The science seems to support this idea as well, and it is consistent with testable data, at least as far as our current capabilities will take us. It may serve as a consciousness raiser for things like education, parenting, and many other areas, and I personally find that it’s a useful tool when trying to understand human behavior.
Whether determinism will gain the same support in the general public remains to be seen, but in any case, here you have it, my argument against the common idea of free will.