Free will is not an illusion

The Enlightenment idea of conscious, freely acting individuals is worth defending against those who would reduce freedom to neuroscience.

Raymond Tallis

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Topics Politics

This article is an edited version of a talk given by Raymond Tallis at a dinner held by the Manifesto Club in London on 13 September 2007.

The issue of human freedom lies at the heart of the debate between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment. Behind Enlightenment thought is active hope (often fuelled by anger on behalf of those who are currently without hope) based on the belief that we can be masters of our collective fate; that our future lies to some extent in our own hands. Underpinning this in turn is the fundamental Enlightenment faith that, to use Lucien Goldmann’s phrase, a human being is ‘an independent point of departure’. Each person is a new beginning, able to contribute to shaping the future for good or ill. We are not fated to act out a pre-ordained script.

This Enlightenment confidence in our individual and collective power to change things is directly opposed to the belief that we are individually and collectively fated. The immemorial sources of such pessimism are religions which variously preach doctrines of shame and worthlessness, and assert that our earthly lives are not worthwhile except as a preparation for death and the next world. In different ways they tell a story in which the pursuit of human self-betterment, of salvation from misery without God, is an hubristic aim that ends in Nemesis. We hear echoes of this story in the ‘I told you so’ from those who reflect on History’s Age of Hatred (as Niall Ferguson described the twentieth century) and from commentators on our present planetary problems.

Even more depressing is the attack on human freedom from within secular discourse: the humanities and the sciences. Particularly in the century that has passed, there has been a counter-Enlightenment denial of the centrality of individual consciousness in human affairs. We do not walk, we sleepwalk; we do not act, we react, scarcely aware of that to which we are reacting.

Humanist intellectuals have argued that, far from being ‘independent points of departure’, we are in the grip of forces that are largely hidden from us. The historical unconscious of Marxists and their descendents; the psychological unconscious of Freudian and a dozen other psycho-analytical and deep psychological theorists; the social unconscious of various schools of sociology and anthropology; the linguistic unconscious of post-Saussurean schools of thought (structuralist, post-structuralist, and deconstructionist) – these are just some of the tributaries to the great river of anti-humanist pessimism that has flown through the collective conscious of academe in recent history. As for selves, they are either opaque at their heart, or misread themselves, or are fictions, overlooking that in reality, they are dissolved in a sea of symbols, of unchosen customs and practices, of unconscious habits.

From a huge variety of backgrounds, academics and popular writers tell the same monotonous story: we do not know what we are doing, we do not know why we are doing it, and disaster is waiting to happen. Civilisations, which are based upon the notion of humans as rational agents, are in fact pathological: rationality is an illusion, or unnatural and unbearable, and rational planning will lead to unforeseen consequences. All civilisation – usually referred to as ‘a veneer’ and a thin one at that – is headed for destruction.

While most of the counter-Enlightenment thought I have alluded to arises from the humanities, which seem to take pride in being anti-humanity, there is an increasingly prominent input from the very hope of the Enlightenment – the sciences. This is not perhaps as surprising as it sounds. Science has always been committed to identifying the general patterns of causation in the universe. Its standpoint is fundamentally materialist. The laws of nature are a secular version of moira, fate. Laplace, who completed the formalisation of Newton’s mechanistic universe, though he did so without Newton’s God, argued that a combination of the knowledge of the initial conditions and of the laws that governed the behaviour of the mechanical particles would enable every event in the universe, including human actions, to be predictable. As Einstein said in his address to the Spinoza Society in 1932: ‘Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion.’ However, a recent spin on scientific determinism has brought it nearer home. Neuroscience has been invoked in support of kulturpessimismus.

There is now a significant population of neuroscientists, along with philosophers and others, who accept not only their findings but also the interpretations they place on them, who argue that because of advances in brain science ‘we now know’ that free will is an illusion. The attacks on free will from this direction are particularly powerful because they encompass both material and cultural determinism; for the brain is not only a piece of matter causally wired into the material world, it is also brain-washed in a laundry made of a collective of other brains. This is a powerful double whammy for our notions of freedom and of the self as an independent point of departure.

There are several strands of thought woven into neuro-determinism. The first is that we are essentially our brains: our consciousness, our belief in ourselves as free agents, and so on, is neural activity in certain parts of the brain. Secondly, these brains have evolved in such a way as to maximise the likelihood of our genetic material being able to replicate. Brains are about somatic survival to the point where genetic replication is possible. This is not something on our conscious agenda but it is the true and only business of the brain. Thirdly, for a brain to work effectively, it is not necessary for us to be aware of what it is doing. Cognitive psychologists have, over the last few decades, particularly since the advent of neuro-imaging which reveals activity in the living brain, shown how we are unconscious of many things that influence what is going on in our brain and, it is inferred, the perceptions we form and the decisions we make. Our consciousness has, it seems, a huge black hole at its centre. What price freedom, then, which at the very least depends on consciousness?

Another strand of the neuro-determinism story underlines how, given that nerve impulses are material events, our consciousness, even at its most self-conscious and deliberative, is wired into the material world: it is simply part of a boundless causal nexus that stretches from the Big Bang at the beginning of time to the Big Crunch at the end. Another strand notes that there is no privileged place within the nervous system corresponding to the freedom of the will, or even a point of initiation or a new departure. There are inputs of activity, throughputs of activity, and outputs activity but no points corresponding to where, say, action could be considered as starting. The brain, the body, our life – these are just conduits, like any other loci in the universe, for causes as inputs and effects as outputs.

Colin Blakemore, an eminent neuroscientist, captures all of these views in the claim: ‘The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs… All our actions are products of the activity of our brains. It makes no sense (in scientific terms) to try to distinguish sharply between acts that result from conscious attention and those that result from our reflexes or are caused by disease or damage to the brain.’

These very general arguments have been supplemented by millions of specific observations, the greater bulk of which may be summarised in two lines as follows: that experiments, and natural disasters such as head injuries, have shown that holes in the brain are closely correlated with holes in the mind and in our capabilities. In summary, you are the activity in your brain; your brain has evolved to optimise the chances of survival; and the brain is wired biologically, materially, causally into the biosphere, the material world, and the causal nexus. We now have a neuro-Laplacean universe in which the laws of nature operate undeflected by agency through your life. Or, as former CIA boss George Tenet said about finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: ‘It’s a slam dunk.’

I choose my words carefully. Tenet’s slam dunk was self-evident and wrong. Neuro-determinism, though seemingly self-evident, is also wrong.

The first line of attack is to remove the hype from the neuroscience of consciousness and remind ourselves how little we know. We understand even less. There is at present no adequate theory of qualia (the actual experience of things – such as the sensation of yellow, the feeling of warmth, the taste of wine); of the way different qualia are seemingly associated with activity in different nerve pathways – why optic nerves give the feeling of brightness and the auditory nerves the sound of sounds; of how experiences cohere into the meaningful unity of the present moment and are more or less coherent and self-sustained over great stretches of time and in a multitude of situations; and of how things that are supposed to be integrated into unities are also kept apart, so that I can, for example experience at the same time the sensation of yellow and the shape of a yellow object and a feeling of warmth on my arm and worry about a lecture that I have to give or an operation that I am listed for, without these simultaneous memories and experiences being lost in a general mush of awareness.

Most importantly, there is not even the beginning of an explanation of our fundamental sense that we are subjects transcended by objects that are ‘out there’, that exist independently of us and have their own intrinsic properties. From its simplest to its most elaborated forms, intentionality – the property of consciousness of being ‘about’ something – remains mysterious. We understand how the light enters the brain by the usual causal mechanisms, but not how the gaze looks upstream back to the objects that are its intermediate cause. All material objects are ‘wired’ causally into what surrounds them, but none is aware, as I am, of the things that impact on them and grants them independent existence.

Secondly, we should question the focus on the stand-alone brain. The world we live in is not one of sparks of isolated sentience cast amid a rubble of material objects. We live in a world that is collectively constructed. Our consciousness is collectivised: we suffer hunger pangs in isolation but face scarcity collectively. What we feel and experience has a public face and this goes deeper than the fact that it is articulated out loud in words. Indeed, this public space is the necessary pre-condition for there being language in the sense that humans uniquely possess language. It is no use, therefore, looking for human being, and its free actions, in isolated brains or bits of brain, notwithstanding that having a more or less intact brain is a necessary condition of this. We also need a body (which, too, lights up in different ways when we are presented with stimuli); and that body has to be environed; and the environment consists not of bare, material objects but of nexuses of signification that have two kinds of temporal depth – that which comes from personal memory and the explicit sense of our private past; and that which comes from our collective history, insofar as we have internalised it. As Ortega y Gasset said, unlike other animals ‘Man is an inheritor, not a mere descendent’.

That public space is the depository of much consciousness, either spoken or implicit, as in artefacts. This collective, public consciousness is one in which many things that are otherwise unconscious are made conscious – including those very things that cognitive neuropsychologists have discovered are hidden from us by our brains. And it is worth noting at this point that the reason we are surprised at the unconscious influences on our perceptions and decisions, made conscious by neuropsychologists, is that we are usually conscious of what we are doing and why.

We seem to be doubly offset from nature – by intentionality and by the multiple layers of shared, explicit meaning, expressed in multiple symbolic systems, including natural language, in knowledge, in the great scopes of civilisation, and the rituals and institutions that belong to the human world. This brings me to my third line of attack: on the notion that the laws of nature bind us, tied into them through the bits of the material world that are our brains. It is perfectly obvious that our freedom could not require us to break the laws of nature. They are by definition unbreakable. But, while they are not humanly constructed – just trying bucking them and see how far you get – they are humanly abstracted from nature. That is why, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, at any given time many laws apply to a particular set of circumstances. Our freedom is to utilise them. We obey nature, as Bacon one of the grandfathers of the Enlightenment said, ‘in such a manner as to command it’.

This may provoke the response: ‘Do you mean step outside of nature, to choose between natural laws? How can you do that, except by natural laws?’ Well, there is an outside, and this is the collectively constructed human world of artefacts, knowledge, institutions and so on. It is from this collective standpoint that we get a purchase on the material world as if from the outside. If this seems fanciful, just reflect on what collectively we have achieved – how we have transformed the planet to suit our own needs; how we have forced so much of the material world to adapt to us. How we have deflected the flow of events in a direction that expresses our human needs – needs that go beyond the physiological and the appetites that flow from them. This is possible because, as Schelling said, uniquely in us, nature opens her eyes and sees that she exists; and, one might add, the laws that connect her events with one another.

Which brings me to a general point that goes beyond particular arguments against neuro-determinism. The difficulty many people have in understanding how freedom could be possible in a law-governed material world, or how freedom could subsist in individuals who appear to be their brains that are material parts of a material world and subject to its natural laws, results in part from the fact that they focus on individual actions or components of actions. The truth is freedom operates only within an entire field. And this is one of the most important differences between the reasons that govern our actions and causes. Take my coming here tonight to talk. This action required, among other things, my getting to this restaurant, which in turn depends upon the making and unmaking of cross-bridges in my leg muscles as I walk. Those unconscious physiological events are not things that I do: they are mere mechanisms.

As we ascend from the material details of an action to its larger purpose, several things happen. Firstly, intention and consciousness becomes more important. Secondly, the action draws on more and more of what I would regard as distinctly myself. The arguments I have mobilised in this talk, the outlook they express, my commitment to the Manifesto Club, my ability to find my way to a unique destination in London for an explicit purpose on the basis of a verbal agreement several months beforehand – all of this is located in frames of reference that do not belong to the material world, that cannot be captured in a Laplacean world picture, or by the laws of nature, although they have to be realised in the material world: Laplace is not mocked, and the laws of nature are not transgressed. I need them for heaven’s sake to stand upright, to be able to walk along the pavement, and to get my voice heard.

Which brings me to my penultimate point. When we think about freedom, we are thinking about, to use Dennett’s terms, a freedom worth having. A free act is one for which we can justly be held responsible; one of which we have true ownership; one which originates within us. My example just now of giving this talk shows this: the action has grown out of soil that is uniquely mine. There are many layers of me – my past endeavours, my present convictions – that are expressed in it. While there was an initial point at which I did not choose myself – when my parents got together on some dark night in 1946 – and there was much of my early life in which I seemed to be reacting rather than acting, I have increasingly been choosing myself and the events in my life have come from within me. With the help of my fellow men, I am an independent point of departure.

Which brings me to my final point. My invocation of the collective human world as the means by which we have a point d’appui on the natural world may ring alarm bells. Collectivism sounds close to cultural determinism, which is no great advance on biological or material determinism. This is where biology, or our bodies anyway, come to the rescue. Yes, we are distanced from nature by the culture we have in common. But we are distanced from culture by our bodies. Our bodies have a unique trajectory through the material world and the cultural spaces we have collectively created. By this double distancing, we are free – to be temporally deep, elaborated selves that so many in the humanities insincerely deny exist, and to be those independent points of departure, that Lucien Goldmann spoke of. We are equipped therefore to act to liberate ourselves from the yoke of nature and the tyranny of custom, practice, and despots; and, even, from the unintended consequences of our best intentions.

Raymond Tallis is professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester. He is speaking at the session My brain made me do it at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October. For more information about the Manifesto Club, a pro-human campaigning network, visit the Manifesto Club website.

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