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Free Will

Discussion and debate about free will has been an important topic since the early days of Greek philosophy. The interest continues to this day. The one new wrinkle is that recent brain research sheds light on how free will might actually work. Before we get to that, it would be useful to sketch the important concerns about free will.

Almost everyone feels that they have free will. We have the power to make decisions that are unconstrained by physical limitations. We are free to make choices. We may be guided by social, emotional or economic forces, but ultimately, we are free to make our own decisions. That freedom is a fundamental part of moral or purposeful behavior.

I first met the question of free will in a kind of theological guise. If a Supreme Being be all-powerful, then he/she/it should be able to predict with certainty the moral choices that I will make. Should those decisions not meet with the Supreme Being's favor, he/she/it should have so arranged matters so that I did make the right moral choices. In a deterministic world, all of my moral choices are predetermined. There can be no sense of making anything but inevitable moral decisions.

This argument is one of the reasons that free will is seen as so important by may theologians. With free will, I can be held responsible for my moral decisions. The theological response about an all-powerful Supreme Being is that he/she/it elects to give us free will, just so that moral behavior can be a measure of our worth.

There's an interesting but of recent research on morality and free will. Convincing test subjects that they may not have free will leads to a significant increase in subsequent cheating. Absent free will, subjects did not feel as morally constrained to not cheat. The pragmatic message seems to be that our behavior improves when we do feel morally responsible for our decision, … when we act as though we have free will.

That still begs the question of how might free will actually work. I take it as established that the mind is resident in the biological brain (and associated nerve networks). There is no mind in the absence of a working brain. But the brain is a physical entity. It, presumable, obeys physical laws. How is it that I can use my mind (resident in my brain) to make free choices?

Benjamin Libet has published a fascinating bit of brain/mind research. The summary of his recent paper reads:

“Freely voluntary acts are preceded by a specific electrical change in the brain (the ‘readiness potential’, RP) that begins 550 ms before the act. Human subjects became aware of intention to act 350–400 ms afterRP starts, but 200 ms. before the motor act. The volitional process is therefore initiated unconsciously. But the conscious function could still control the outcome; it can veto the act. Free will is therefore not excluded.”

Freedom comes from the options that we elect to consider. How we dispose of those options may be a deterministic process, but the options to be considered could well arise from minor random changes in options that we had previously considered. This reasoning leads to a two-stage view of free will.

A two-stage process is consistent with my subjective experience. As a consultant, I found it really important to find “the key” to understand what was asked and expected of me. I would explore documents that I hoped would be relevant. I would discuss the challenge with my consulting peers. I would ruminate. I would begin and abandon writing explanations. With enough thought and careful consideration, “the key” would reveal itself. All I had to do was to verity that this revealed key was indeed that which was needed in the consulting assignment.

A reasonable explanation is that I was feeding my mind with a storehouse of ideas, of patterns, of possible keys. My brain provided “minor” changes in these ideas, patterns, and keys. These changes could well be traced to something similar to the sub-atomic uncertainty that Heisenberg discovered. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is now an accepted part of Physics. We can't know both where a sub-atomic particle is and where it's going – the process of discovering either change the other. There is a kind of deep uncertainty at the sub-atomic level.

Heisenberg's son, Martin Heisenberg (professor emeritus in the department of biology at the University of Würzburg) recently published “Is free will an illusion?”. In this brief article, he argues for the possibility of just such a random (undecidable) generation of options. Robert Doyle is a Harvard Ph.D. (1968) who went on to a business career. He has taken up the two-stage view of free will. His book on the subject was recently reviewed by the Harvard Magazine.

The two-stage model for free will works for me. I find it to be a reasonable explanation for how free might operate. There is a massive literature on the subject. Each of us is free to explore the options. But I'm content with sub-atomic uncertainty driving a two-stage process.

There are a number of places to go to find out more:

  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a 2012 article by Timothy O’Connor on Free Will
  • Free Will, a very short introduction by Thomas Pink, 2004, Oxford University Press is a readable, short introduction – Chapter 1.
  • Free Will, a philosophical study by Laura Ekstrom, 2000 Westview Press is another readable introduction – Chapter 1.

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