Field of Science

Free will

In “Self is Magic,” a chapter from Psychology and the Free Will, which is unfortunately not yet out, Daniel Wegner presents some fascinating data showing how easy it is to trick ourselves into believing we are in control of events when in fact we are not. Most of us are in some sense familiar with this illusion. Perhaps we believe our favorite team won partly because we were watching the game (or, if we’re pessimists, because we weren’t).

In one of the many experiments he describes, “the participant was attired in a robe and positioned in front of a mirror such that the arms of a second person standing behind the participant could be extended through the robe to look as though they were the arms of the participant.” The helper’s arms moved through a series of positions. If the participant heard through the headphones a description of each movement before it happened, they were reported “enhanced feeling of control over the arm movements” than if they had not heard those commands in advance. (read the paper here.)

Ultimately, he tries to use these data to explain the “illusion” of free will. In the following paragraphs, I am going to try to unpack the claim and see where it is strong and where it may be weak.

First, what exactly is he claiming? He does not argue that free will does not exist – he assumes it does not exist. That’s not a criticism– you can’t fit everything into one article – but it means I won’t be able to evaluate his argument against free will, though I will discuss free will in terms of his data and hypotheses below. Instead, he is interested in why we think we have free will. In all, he claims that (1) we can be mistaken about whether our thoughts cause events in the world, (2) this is because when we think about something happening and then it happens, we’re biased to believe we’ve caused it, and (3) this illusion that our conscious thoughts lead to actions is useful and adaptive – that is, evolution gave it to us for a reason.

That’s what he says. First, he isn’t really arguing that we don’t have a conscious will. Clearly, we will things to happen all the time. Some of the time he seems to be arguing that our will is simply impotent. The rest of the time he appears to think that the contents of our will are actually caused by something else. That is, our arm decides to move and tells our conscious thoughts to decide to want a cookie (more on this later).

Otherwise, I think claim #1 is pretty straightforward. Sometimes we have an illusion of conscious control when in fact we have none. Wegner compares this to visual illusions, of which there are plenty. Just like with visual illusions, just because you know it’s an illusion (watching the ballgame isn’t going to affect the score) you can’t help not feel it anyway. In fact, given that illusions exist in sight, sound and probably many other senses, so it’s not surprising that the sense of conscious will also is subject to illusions.

It’s important to point out that this itself is not an argument against the potency of conscious will. The fact that we are sometimes mistaken does not mean we are always mistaken. Otherwise, we’d have to claim that because vision is sometimes mistaken, we are all blind. Of course, Wegner isn’t actually making this argument. He already assumes that free will is an illusion. He is just interested in this article in showing how that illusion might operate, which is point #2.

Although he describes the illusion of conscious choice as a magic show we put on for ourselves, this does not mean that he thinks conscious thought has no effect on behavior – that’s point #3 above. He simply doesn’t that deciding to pick up a cookie leads to your hand reaching out to pick up a cookie. In fact, it would be a pretty extraordinary claim that conscious thought (and the underlying brain processes) have no purpose, effect or use whatsoever. In that case, why did we evolve them? This question is answerable, but it would be hard to answer. The claim, then, is simply that the conscious decision to perform a behavior does not cause that behavior.

Suppose we agree that picking up a cookie is not caused by the conscious decision to pick up a cookie – which, just to be clear, I don’t – what does cause that conscious decision? Wegner does not get into this question, at least not in this chapter, which is a shame. In these last paragraphs I’ll try to describe what he might mean and what the consequences would be.

What would it mean if the conscious mind did cause cookie-picking-up? That depends on what the conscious mind is. Perhaps it’s an ethereal, non-corporeal presence that makes a decision, then reaches down and pulls a lever and the hand reaches out to grab a cookie. That would be similar to what Descartes argued for many centuries ago, but it’s not something many cognitive scientists take seriously now. The basic assumption – for which there is no proof but plenty of good evidence – is that the mind is the brain. Activity in your brain doesn’t cause your conscious mind to want a cookie, nor does your conscious mind cause brain activity. Your conscious mind is brain activity. If we assume that this is how Wegner thinks about the mind, then his hypothesis can be restated:

The part of the brain that is consciously deciding to pick up a cookie does not give orders to the part of the brain that actually gives the motor commands to your hand to pick up the cookie. The motor cortex gets its marching orders from somewhere else.

This is an interesting hypothesis, and I’m not going to discuss it in too much detail right now. What I am interested in is what does this hypothesis have to say about free will? I would argue: maybe nothing. If your decisions are made in your brain by a non-conscious part of your mind (of which there are many) and the conscious part of your mind turned out to simply be an echo chamber where you tell yourself what you’ve decided to do, would you say that you have no free will?

The real question becomes: what decides to pick up the cookie? Where is the ultimate cause? Lack of free will means that the ultimate cause is external to the person. They picked up the cookie because of events that occurred out there in the world. Free will means that the ultimate cause was internal to the person. Nothing in Wegner’s article is really relevant to distinguishing between these possibilities (again, this is not a criticism. That wasn’t what his article was about. It’s what my article is about).

The loss of a belief in a non-corporeal mind has left us with a dilemma. Nothing we know about physics or chemistry allows for causes to be internal to a person in the sense that we mean when we say “free will”. This makes many people feel that free will can only exist if there is a non-corporeal mind operating outside the constraints of physics. On the other hand, nothing we know about physics or chemistry allows for consciousness to exist, yet essentially all cognitive scientists – including, probably, Wegner – are reasonably comfortable believing in consciousness without believing in a non-corporeal mind.

In the 19th century, physicists said that the sun could not be millions of years old, much less billions of years old, because there was no known mechanism in physics or chemistry that would allow the sun to burn that bright that long. Although entire fields of thought – such as evolution or geology – required an old, old sun in order to make any sense of their own data, the physicists said “Impossible! There must be another explanation for your data.” Later, they discovered the mechanism: fusion.

In the early 20th century, there were chemists who said that the notion of a “gene” was hogwash, because there was no known chemical mechanism for inheritance in the form of a gene. The fact that mountains of experimental data could not be explained without reference to “genes” didn’t bother them. Then Watson and Crick found the mechanism in the structure of DNA.

We may be in the same situation now. We have an incredible amount of data that only makes sense with reference to internal causation – free will. Evolution, Wegner says, built the belief in free will into us. Liz Spelke and others have run fantastic experiments showing that even infants only a few months old believe in something akin to free will. The world makes very little sense if we don’t believe that our friends, colleagues and random people on the street are causing their own behavior. Or maybe we’re not in the same situation, and free will is truly a figment of our imagination.

Physicists were right about one thing: the sun hasn’t been burning for billions of years. It doesn’t burn. It does something else entirely. The real answer to the question of free will may look like rote, dumb physical causation – a snowball rolling down a hill. It may look very similar to Descartes’ non-corporeal soul. Or it may look very different from both.

Note: Wegner is a very engaging writer. If you are interested, most of his articles are available on his website.

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