an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘free will

the self and its brain: free will encore

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yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am

on luck, and improving environments

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Trump wasn’t born here, and neither was I

I’m in the process of reading Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, who has tried in his book to summarise, via the research literature, the seconds, then minutes, then hours, then days, then lifetimes and more, that precede any particular piece of behaviour. It’s a dense but fascinating book, which aligns with, and provides mountains of evidence for, my view that we’re far less in control of ourselves than we think.

It seems we think this because of what might be called conscious awareness of our behaviours and our decisions. This consciousness is something we sometimes mistake for control. It’s interesting that we consider it obvious that we have no control over the size of our nose or the colour of our eyes, but we have more or less complete control of our temper, appetites, desires and ambitions. 

 Humanistically speaking, this understanding about very limited control needs to have massive implications for our understanding of others. We don’t get to choose our parents, our native country or the immediate environment that most profoundly affects our early life and much of our subsequent behaviour. The flow of hormones and neurotransmitters and their regulation via genetic and epigenetic factors proceed daily, hourly, moment by moment, and all we’re aware of, essentially, is outcomes. 

A lot of people, I note, are very uncomfortable about this kind of talk. For example, many of us want to treat each other as ‘equal before the law’. But is one person ever ‘equal’ with another? We know – it’s obvious – that we’re all different. That’s how we distinguish people, by their smiles, their voices, their fingerprints, their DNA. So how can we be different and equal at the same time? Or, to turn things around, how can a legal system operate if everyone is treated as different, unique, a special case?

Well, in a sense, we already do this, with respect to the law. No two bank robberies, or rapes, or murders are the same, and the judiciary must be highly attuned to the differences when applying punishments. Nowadays, and increasingly, the mental state of the offender – particularly at the time of the offence, if that can be ascertained – is considered when sentencing.  And this is surely a good thing. 

The question here is, considering the exponential growth of our neurophysiological knowledge in the 21st century, and its bearing on our understanding of every kind of negative or positive behaviour we engage in, how can we harness that knowledge to improve outcomes and move from a punitive approach to bad behaviours to something more constructive?

Of course, it’s one thing to identify the release or suppression of glucocorticoids, for example, and its effect on person x’s cognitive faculties, it’s entirely another thing to effect a remedy. And to what effect? To make everyone docile, ‘happy’ and law-abiding? To have another go at eugenics, this time involving far more than just genes? 

One of the points constantly hammered home in Sapolsky’s book is the effect of environment on everything that goes on inside us, so that, for example, genes aren’t quite as determinative as we once thought. Here are some key points from his chapter on genes (with apologies about unexplained terms such as epigenetic, transcription and transposons):

a. Genes are not autonomous agents commanding biological events.

b. Instead genes are regulated by the environment, with environment consisting of everything from events inside the cell to the universe.

c. Much of your DNA turns environmental influences into gene transcription, rather than coding for genes themselves; moreover, evolution is heavily about changing regulation of gene transcription, rather than genes themselves.

d. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong, or even multigenerational.

e. And thanks to transposons, neurons contain a mosaic of different genomes. 

And genes are only one component of the array of forces that influence or control our behaviour. We know, or course, about how Phineas Gage-type accidents and brain tumours can alter behaviour, but many other effects on the brain can alter our behaviour without us and others knowing too much about it. These include stress, malnutrition, and long-term cultural and religious influences which permanently affect our attitudes to, for example, women, other species and the food we eat. Domestic violence, drug use, political affiliations, educational outcomes and sexual affinities are all more inter-generational than we’re generally prepared to admit. 

The first thing we need to do is be aware of all this in our judgment of others, and even of ourselves. There’s just so much luck involved in being who we are. We could’ve been more or less ‘good-looking’ than we are -according to the standards of the culture around us – and this would’ve affected the way we’ve been treated throughout our whole lives. We could’ve been born richer or poorer, with more or less dysfunctional parents, taller or shorter, more or less mentally agile, more or less immune to the pathogens that surround us. On and on and on we could go, even to an extreme degree. We could’ve been born in Algeria, Argentina or Azerbaijan. We could’ve been born in 1912, 1412 or 512, or 150,000 years ago. We could’ve been born a mongoose, a mouse or a mosquito. It’s all luck, whether good or bad is up to us to decide, but probably not worth speculating about as we have no choice but to make the best of what we are.

What we do have is consciousness or awareness of what we are. And with that consciousness we can speculate, as we as a species always have, on how to make the best of ourselves, given that we’re the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and for that reason the most successful, measured by population, spread across the globe, and what we’ve done for ourselves in terms of social evolution – our science, our technology, our laws and our politics.  

That’s where humanism comes in, for me. Since we know that ‘there but for the randomness of luck go I’, it surely follows that we should sympathise with those whose luck hasn’t been as lucky as our own, and strive to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Safe havens, educational opportunities, decent wages, human rights, clean environments, social networks – we know what’s required for people to thrive. Yet we focus, I think, too much on punishment. We punish people for trying to improve their family’s situation – or to avoid obliteration – by seeking refuge in safer, richer, healthier places. We punish them for seeking solace in drugs because their circumstances are too overwhelming to deal with. We punish them for momentary and one-off lapses of concentration that have had dire consequences. Of course it has always been thus, and I think we’re improving, though very unevenly across the globe. And the best way to improve is by more knowing. And more understanding of the consequences of that knowledge. 

Currently, it seems to me, we’re punishing people too much for doing what impoverished, damaged, desperate people do to survive. It’s understandable, perhaps, in our increasingly individualist world. How dare someone bother me for handouts. It’s not my fault that x has fucked up his life. Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles. People smugglers are the lowest form of human life. Etc etc – mostly from people who don’t have a clue what it’s like to be those people. Because their life is so different, through no fault, or cause, of their own. 

So to me the message is clear. Out lives would be better if others’ lives were better – if we could give others the opportunities, the health, the security and the smarts that we have, and if we could have all of those advantages that they have. I suppose that’s kind of impossible, but it’s better than blaming and punishing, and feeling superior. We’re not, we’re just lucky. Ot not. 


Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2018 at 2:22 pm

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’.

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

Is free will a thing? Apparently not.

with 31 comments

Science appears to be cutting the gordian knot of philosophical isms

Canto: The subject of free will often comes up, and I’ve recently read Sam Harris’ booklet on it, so I want to state right now my view that if we do have free will, it’s a far more circumscribed thing than many prefer to believe, and I’m open to the view that it doesn’t exist at all.

Jacinta: Yes I’ve read a fair bit on the subject over the years, including Dennett’s Elbow Room in the eighties, and a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky, dating back to the sixties, but like everyone I’ve forgotten almost all of any book I’ve read within weeks of having read it, so it’ll be good to get back to the subject enfin. 

Canto: But have you been exercised by the actual subject, intellectually speaking?

Jacinta: Very much so. Let’s return to our old friend the Dunedin longitudinal study, which indicates that the various personality types – roughly characterised as well-adjusted, confident, reserved, under-controlled and inhibited – are established very early on and rarely change outside of neurological damage. These constrain free will, as does your broad environment, for example whether you’re a scion of the British aristocracy or the offspring of Mongolian goat-herders. You’re not free to choose these things or your genetic inheritance or, presumably, your neuronal wiring, at least not as a youngster.

Canto: I think the free will people would concede all that, but their best argument would be that in spite of all the determining factors that make you who you are, your moment-to-moment decisions – whether to get out of bed or sleep in for a while, whether to break your diet or stick to it, whether to watch a TV program or go to the pub, whether to study physics or psychology at uni (assuming you’re qualified to do either), and so on – these decisions are made of your own volition, so you are responsible for them and nobody else. If there’s no free will, there’s no responsibility, therefore nothing or nobody to praise or blame. And then where would we be with our ethics?

Jacinta: That’s interesting because we often get confused about that, or some people do. I would say most people believe we have free will, so we’re happy to punish people for criminal acts. They chose to commit them after all. But take those serial paedophiles that the tabloid press like to call ‘monsters’. They describe them as incorrigible – that’s to say, uncorrectable. So they should never be released again into the public, once they’ve been proven to commit some heinous paedophile act. What’s being claimed here is that the paedophile can’t help but commit these acts again and again – he has no choice, and presumably had no choice to begin with. But prison is a terrible punishment for someone who has no choice but to be what he is. They’re denying that he has free will, but punishing him for acts that should only be punished if they’re undertaken freely. You can’t have it both ways.

Canto: Well put, and my own tendency towards what used to be called hard determinism comes from reading the writings of ‘compatibilists’ or ‘reconciliationists’ who wanted, I thought, to give themselves as much credit for their success as they possibly could, seeing that they were successful academic philosophers earning, I assumed, the kind of salaries I could only dream of. On the other hand, as a hard determinist, I naturally wanted to blame everyone else, my parents, my working class environment, my lack of wealthy and educated connections, for my abject failures in life.

Jacinta: You jest a little, but I know you’re being essentially serious, in that the Gina Rineharts of the world, inheritors of millions, are the biggest spruikers of the notion that everyone is free to be as rich as everyone else but most people are just too slack, or, for reasons unfathomable to her, aren’t sufficiently interested in material self-enrichment, so they get precisely what they deserve.

Canto: Or what they’re destined to get. Just reading through some of that old philosophical material though, I find myself reliving my impatience with the academicism of philosophy. For example, the endless analysis of ‘able to’, as in ‘she’s able to play the piano’ but she can’t because she hasn’t got one right now. So she has the skill but not, right now, the equipment. Perhaps because she’s fallen on hard times and has had to sell it. Which leads to having ‘potential ability’. She might have been one of the world’s greatest soccer players, having the requisite skill, speed, drive, etc, but she was never introduced to the game or was discouraged from playing it.

Jacinta: She was told to study piano instead. Or more importantly, potential scientific geniuses who just didn’t get the opportunity due to a host of external circumstances, to attain that potential. They say geniuses are made not born, but they require external material to make themselves into geniuses, if that’s what they do. The point is that you can get caught up with words like ‘able to’ or ‘could have done otherwise’, which you can then interpret in varieties of ways, and it becomes almost a philosophy of language thing. But the main point is that although it seems obvious that you can choose between having a piece of cake before bedtime or not, these aren’t the most important choices..

Canto: And maybe even these choices aren’t as freely made as we might think, according to research Sam Harris cites in his essay. It seems science is catching up with what I knew all along. Not only do we have no control whatever over our genetic inheritance, but the way those genes are expressed, based largely on environmental factors, which lead to our brains being wired up in particular ways to release particular levels of hormones and neurotransmitters in patterned ways, leading to those character types identified in the Dunedin study, all of this is way beyond our conscious control. In fact it’s fair to say that the gradual retreat of the notion of free will is largely the result of the assault on the primacy of consciousness. Far more of what we do is less conscious than we think.

Jacinta: Yes the neurophysiological research around everyday ‘decisions’ is compelling, and disturbing to many. It suggests that our feeling of having freely decided on something is a delusion, though perhaps an evolutionarily useful one. Believing in free will usually entails belief in personal moral responsibility, and thus supports punishment for damaging acts and reward for heroic or beneficial ones. And  some research has actually shown that people primed to disbelieve in free will are more prepared to cheat and pilfer than those who aren’t.

Canto: So if this continues, this spread of disbelief or skepticism about free will, it may lead to a spike in criminal activity, large and small?

Jacinta: Well I don’t know if there’s been a rise in crime, but there has certainly been a rise in ‘my brain made me do it’ defenses. The effect of all this might be a ‘go with the flow’ attitude to pursue self-interest because your brain’s wiring supposedly impels you to.

Canto: So, that’s interesting, maybe a solution to this is more knowledge. The understanding that we’re the most social mammals on the planet, and that what we do, such as cheating and pilfering, adversely affects others, which will ultimately rebound on us. Even our brain’s own wiring has been caused by environmental factors, primary among those being human factors. So emphasising that our ‘self’ is more of a social self than our privileged access might lead us to believe will encourage us to consider what we owe to the wider society that helped shape us.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. And I think, as Harris and others point out, jettisoning the free will notion should help us reduce our tendency to blame and hate. I struggle myself with this – I ‘hate’ Trump, but I quickly realise he’s always been like this, and I can’t even blame his parents, who are what they are, etc. So I turn, as I think I should, to a US political system that enables such a person to reach the position he’s reached. In focusing on this system I can heap blame upon blame to my heart’s content, which I always love to do, without getting personal, which may have rebounding consequences for me. It’s a great solution.

Canto: Anyway, I think we’ve just scratched the surface with this one. Don’t we sometimes appear to agonise over decisions? People make lists of pros and cons about whether to spend x money or whether to travel to y, or whether or not to break up with z. How does this sort with a lack of free will? There must be a lot more to say.

Jacinta: It’s determined by our brain’s wiring that we agonise over some of our decisions and not over others. And how often do we make those lists you speak of, often prompted by others, and then just go with our original intuition?

Canto: Hmmm, I still think this is all worth further consideration…

Jacinta: I don’t think there’s any way you can seriously argue for free will. The argument is essentially about the consequences.


Sam Harris, Free will

Bernard Berofsky, ed, Free will and determinism


Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2018 at 10:16 am