In the 20th century - after millennia of nervous denial - the human species has been exposed. The evidence is in: Determinism is real, making us nothing but the mouthpiece for a very well engineered machine. How can we be so sure? Well, a bunch of neuroscienctists came together and scanned one of our brains, while facing its owner with a rather profane choice: To raise either the left hand or the right hand - an act which was thought to be accessing unrestrained volition aka free will.
The EEG used to conduct this act of blasphemy begged to differ: It showed that your choice is carved in synaptic stone before it arrives as a thought in your consciousness. Meaning, the decision you make is apparent to someone looking at your brain before it is to you yourself (who supposedly is your brain, right?). All it needs now is just a little further conjecture to make the case that all your other carefully crafted decisions - past, present and future - aren’t the expression of human autonomy you think they are.
Instead, your job comes down to the ungrateful task of providing post-hoc rationalizations for why you acted the way you did; ideally, in a non-schizophrenic manner. For example, if someone were to ask why you chose to raise the left hand, you’d pull the first best explanation from the sewed-on hat that is your neocortex: “I felt like doing it.” becomes the default reasoning for...well, everything.
If you somehow haven’t yet stumbled across this notion that our sense of free will can be scientifically debunked - a story that gained renewed popularity in the last decade - you may be weirded out. Don’t worry: Thanks to insanity-kill-switches that evolution wisely implemented into our brains, the novelty of this bizarre realization is soon to fade, and what you’re left with becomes just another truism to project your existential angst onto.
Besides, you should have began freaking out long before the so-called Libet experiment was first conducted. Because the question of “Is what we’re going to do predictable?” can be solved less extravagantly, with no need for the sophistry of a modern psychology laboratory - as has been shown by poor philosophers dating back centuries.
Appropriate to content of their wallets, they confined themselves to only using frugal means - like logic - to come to the same conclusion, showcased for instance in Laplace’s famous demon. The idea: If you knew the position of every thing in the universe, math would light the way for knowing its every next position. After all, even the most minuscule action someone executes has to be preceded by something. A something that tips over an uncertainty which in turn impacts your choice.
Of course, the nature of such element of randomness knows no boundaries: It might be some sort of cosmic ray; a quantum fluctuation in your synaptic network; a raindrop falling on your shoulder, logging you out of the chain of thought you just had. Whatever it might be, you have no control over it and thus your will is similarly out of your jurisdiction. Put another way: There’s no reason to think the mechanisms underlying our conscious are immune to the laws of physics - which might tell us that it’s no coincidence that the people denying them tend to insist on free will as well. However, the same group of people doesn't seem to have a problem with determinism per se - how else could fate and destiny be such a beloved concept in these circles?
Instead, free-will-advocates do not like how the ability to calculate future events is interpreted as evidence against free will. And I can see their point: The resistance to the notion that math and materialism void our perception of free will is not as irrational as it might seem at first glance. While calculations can predict our actions, they can’t disprove that we used our free will to initiate them, making it an unfalsifiable hypothesis. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Moreover, the larger question remains unanswered: How does the feeling of a choice emerge if free will allegedly can’t exist?
As always, one could blame this on the narrow-mindedness of a brain structure that doesn’t need to understand itself in order to survive. From a pragmatic point of view though, denying free will then becomes a rather useless exercise. One thing remains certain, though: Repeatedly highlighting the fact that physics operates your executive control panel doesn’t change how we use it, similar how the pseudo-intellectual statement consciousness is an illusion™ won’t do away with your desire to eat, sleep and have sex, as well as the suffering that comes along when being deprived of any of them.
Not all intellectuals are of the pragmatic school of thought, though. Many of them willingly turn into this dead-end street, where the argumentative power of deduction soon comes to a halt. They might be rhetorically skilled enough to make capitalizing on this old idea fascinating, but after exploiting people’s initial engagement, it becomes hard create a compelling story about something that is essentially existential trivia. It’s just too tempting of an idea to deny yourself the potential fame that comes with repacking its most obviously conclusion.
Also, insiting on a lack of free will would set them back to step one - which triggers the resentment that science cannot explain one of the biggest problems in philosophy. Because what we're dealing with here is essentially a faintly disguised version of the hard problem of consciousness. Even new-atheism evangelist Sam Harris ups the stuttering a notch when trying to marry the concept of lack of free will with our experience of it. Trying to convey that there is no freedom of choice, while choosing your words with purpose is just too antithetical of an experience to suspend disbelief - especially your own.
To be sure, this doesn’t reduce the legitimacy of determinism - negating free will though, is not as easy as treating both as equals. Otherwise, this would imply that unpredictability of our actions is synonymous with free will - which doesn't sound quite right either. Thus, I’d like to make the case, the fact that a super-computer could predict what you’re going to do isn’t the last word spoken on your ability to make voluntary choices. But to do that, we need to move to another level of analysis: The one of our own experience.
From this perspective, we don’t do things because the laws of physics dictated them to us; we do them because we want to do them.
Doing What You Want
How exactly does what you want to do influence what you will do?
Well, before you make a choice, any choice, you want to make it. Put more precisely: Whenever prompted to make a decision, your imagination renders rough estimates of the likely consequences. These expectations prompt you to act accordingly - they motivate you; they are "that which inwardly moves a person to behave a certain way". Some of them are instinctual and shared across species - like the pleasing experience of a sweet taste or the arousing sight of an attractive mate. Others stem from the accumulated knowledge about the world, which conditioned you to retain behavioral patterns that proved useful in the past.
Be it on an individual level - biology and character development - or on the level of the group - social or cultural learning - the actions we came to associate with a rewarding outcome are the tools we use to navigate through reality. You learn that something is rewarding, you begin to expect that you’ll like it and what you’ll get the next time the same something announces itself is the sense of wanting it. As such, wanting is what incites action. But not only that: Want is what makes any attempt worthwhile.
Depending on your school of thought, want is called motivation, meaning, flow or even god. From the big to the small, from the life wish to win a nobel prize, to the night snack, motivation is the theme that shapes your life story. It drives you forward, because it makes moving towards the goalpost pleasurable; it’s joy; it’s hope; the sense of anticipation; the reason to do anything at all. A meaningful life in turn consists of a chain of achieving challenging tasks, while aiming towards a grand one - the thought of which keeps your eyes on the prize when it comes to the annoying smaller ones. (Of which there are a lot.)
Point being: Without wanting something, you wouldn’t do anything, because the reason to do anything begins and ends with motivation. In theory, it doesn’t even depend on whether you expect the outcome to be likable. “The journey is the goal” holds true even in a neurological sense: You’re not deciding to do something because you will like it; you do it because of the expectation that you will like it.
As the fundamental axis upon which human behavior is based on, wanting is the governing principle that guides the decision of any living creature on earth - whether they call it by its name or not: The reason to eat is not food; it’s being hungry. Hunger though, is nothing but “the want to eat” - and therefore its justification. Destroy a rat’s motivational neural circuitry through your preferred way, and see how it will starve before getting to eat the food at the other end of the cage. Nevertheless, if you force feed it, it’s “like” center will still light up under a brain scanner. Conversely, if you destroy the “like” system, it will eat itself to death. Call one of the rats Gluttony and the other Sloth and you got yourself a scientifically sound parable at hand.
Acknowledging the importance of wanting for our decision making progress changes the free will debate. It means that you could never not act on your wants, whether free will exists or not. The reason is simple: There would be no incentive to do so, with the exception of trying to prove me wrong, which would be an incentive in itself and thus inadvertently prove me right. Thanks to the impossible fact that we have emotions, our will solely exists to experience the positive manifestations of them. Free will or not, you’re always going to act on what feels best, because it is the only meaningful way in which we arrange - in fact, can arrange - our world. Without these emotions, all acting would become obsolete.
So, while genes, hormones, quantum fluctuations, and the position of every atom in the universe influence our will, they don’t do so directly, but because they influence what we want. Just because we’re able to predict how we’re going to act doesn’t delegitimize the idea of free will, because our will would manifest itself the same either way. It just takes a look at the definition of free will to underline this point: Free will means acting at your own discretion. It doesn’t mean having control over your own discretion. Besides, such would be the pinnacle of absurd proposals, since you’d always be one step of discretion behind, due to the necessity of having wanted to decide to decide over what you want.
Ouch. My brain hurts.
Free Will is Horseshit
Obviously, the logical argument against free will emerges once more: Is your will really free if you can only follow your wants? To that I’d say: Would your will really be free if it makes you do the things you don’t want to do? Because without desire to achieve a certain outcome, the concept of “will” - free or restrained - doesn’t make any sense at all. Again, the whole reason your will exists is to follow your wants. A tree doesn’t want to lose his leaves, it simply reacts to the environment. Now, you could say the same thing about us, the only problem being that you perceive a reason why you do things, which would be completely unnecessary to explain your own actions from an outsider's perspective - but not your own. Which again, makes it just another route to the “hard problem”.
Saying that free will exists doesn’t mean we can do anything we want - it means we can only do the things we want. Just like the absence of free will would. Which is why I believe lack of free want to be the more appropriate way of describing our existential condition. To underline this point, let me offer you a thought experiment.
Let’s say you’re going out to eat at a restaurant. The menu consists of two dishes, looking as follows: Option number one consists of your favorite meal. The second dish on the menu is literally a piece of horse manure. Now, how would you choose?
Excluding entities for whom both options would result in the same outcome - like dung beetles - we could say you’d take the first option, with complete certainty. This decision could have been predicted nanoseconds after the big bang - but even our own wetware can pull off that equation. And why is that? Because we know which outcome will be appreciated more. That, combined with the intuitive knowledge that our behavior is based upon doing what feels good and avoiding what feels bad, allows us to reliably tell how the scenario is going to unfold. Completely predictable, without the need for a fancy DOStradamus.
Of course, no one would choose that kind of experiment to show that free will doesn’t exist, even though it illustrates the limitation in our choices equally well: It shows that you will act according to our desire, making what you’re going to do predictable - and thus asks the same question: Did you have a choice? You could say no, you didn’t, because the outcome could have been calculated beforehand - remember, predictability is essentially what all arguments against free will are based on. Consequently, this would mean if you really had a choice, you might have chosen to eat shit. But why would you?
Now, imagine a world where free will exists in its most idealized form. Say, for the sake of argument, we missed out on a fifth fundamental force that explains all the woo-hoo associated with the religious, working independently from what we know for sure about physics (because that is essentially what free will advocates are postulating when they express their stance on the matter without mentioning our lack of free want). A world where, for all intents and purposes, humans are essentially metaphysical spirits with dimension-bending powers occupying a meat puppet. How would they decide in such a situation?
They would behave exactly the same. It wouldn’t change the quality of anticipation, which, in the end, decides all of our actions. In a world where everyone would be free to do as he or she wants - drug addicts would still act compulsively, angry husbands would still shoot their lover’s boyfriend out of the affect, people would still eat themselves to death. Not only is motivation what causes action, it’s what justifies it - and so we oblige.
People always have a choice how to act - what they can’t decide is what choice leads to a good feeling and so they reliably take the path that is most likely to achieve such an outcome. They would be subject to their desires just like they are now - and nobody would notice any difference to our current state. The very thing that defines our consciousness - the ability to feel an emotion - is the only thing that guides us, and we wouldn’t ever want to do do anything but listen to it.
The point is this: Disproving free will by virtue of determinism isn’t scientifically sound, due to its lack of falsifiability. It is in our subjective desire to feel good where our free will begins and ends - long before any mathematical models about the universe are needed to explain why we act the way we do.
Actual Free Will
Summing up, you can believe one of two things:
1. we have free will, but no free want - thus making our lives predetermined
2. we don’t have free will, because we don’t have free want - thus making our lives predetermined
What you cannot do - if you hold logic in any regard - is saying we don’t have free will because our lives are determined. If anything, they are determined, because we have free will. Of course, the outcome is the same, which might make this argument seem nitpicky. Nevertheless, this is a mental leap many intellectuals like to make, for it completely ignores the possibility of free will for the sake of preserving a completely materialistic worldview. A temptation I can understand. However: It doesn’t need a physical limitation to refrain you from doing what you don’t want to do. It’s that you can't be bothered to do so.
There's a lot of mud thrown at free will - which is a real shame, as a little conceptual shift could alleviate some of the dillema. Arthur Schopenhauer said it best:"A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants." This perfectly encapsulates this paradox, while still being agnostic about its solution. So no, you cannot disprove free will. All you can prove is that we always act on our wants. Why? Hell, that's the real question.
But this begs the question: What do we mean by free will, then?
It’s for a reason that free will emerged as a concept emerged in our collective conscious. When we do to get what we wanted, we are satisfied - and thus it feels as if we applied the full force of our will to get it. However: Without liking being the consequitur to wanting, this probably wouldn’t be the case, e.g. if you lost your ability ability to like something, while still wanting it. Your will would still be free, but it wouldn’t occur to you to describe it as such. Because why do something that feels bad?(In such an alternate world it’d probably be in vogue to say we actually have free will, we just don’t notice.)
You’d slowly be driven insane because you would do things, no matter how horrendous the outcome and your knowledge of it awaiting you. Aside from the fact that we wouldn't be alive if our factory firmware were designed that way, it is an achievable state of mind, under which a subset of people lead an agonizing existence. Normally, such a scenario wouldn’t exist without fooling around with neurochemistry and black magic alike. But - in the occasional instance of fucking everything up - some of us do and get a first hand insight in how wanting is all that counts.
Wanting to Not Want Something
Let’s do a recap: We consciously base our decisions on what choice we perceive as the better one. “Better” can be defined by what is liked more. But when asking yourself ”What decision will result in the better outcome?”, better becomes a proxy for anticipation. Meaning, the choice that is anticipated more is the one you’ll take. Thanks to the carefully calibrated system our brain runs on, "wanting" and "liking" occur in tandem. Which is why we tend not to realize that there are actually two different kinds of positive emotion at work here: There’s motivation/anticipation and than there’s satisfaction (the expectation of which causes motivation/anticipation).
If you think about it, there have to be at least two kinds of feeling good - if you liked everything you do, there’d be no incentive to change anything about your current state. Liking exists for the sole reason to reinforce wanting something. Conversely, if you wanted everything, there would be no target; no theory; no method to the madness. In each case, you’d be dead within a short period of time.Thus, people who experience an asymmetrical relationship between these two things want what they don’t like. At first this seems rather bizarre, but it can happen. The causes for which can range from brain damage to genes to drugs to a combination of all of them. I’ll focus on drugs, because their use makes for the most ostensive device to understand what’s going on. (Also, you can try it at home.)
Too Much, Yet Not Enough
A hallmark of pleasurable psychotropics is their ability to increase the feeling of wanting to do something, without discriminating what this might be. It’s the enjoyable sense of anticipating something great, without greatness ever needing to occur. In other words, being hyped for everything. Taking drugs to do that is theisolated manipulation of the brain's reward center for the purpose of experiencing a sense of incoming reward. Habituation of such behavior can lead to addiction. In particular, once a person is to realize a schism in their cognition: They know they take too many drugs, but somehow, not enough. They want their fix, without even enjoying what it brings them.
It's indeed a hellish circle. Once the addict's dose doesn't have the same effect anymore, he increases it, which leads to greater withdrawal symptoms induced by his now desensitized brain, which in turn creates the tendency to take larger doses. Nothing of which leaves him with the chronic satisfaction that he attempts to achieve. So he tries to stop. Perhaps not for the first time. Cause somehow, he can’t live up to his aspirations, getting stopped in his tracks as soon as he faces the challenge of withdrawing from the divine raison d'être he introduced into his live. His repeatedly failing attempts make him feel as if he lost something. He might call it dedication; his willpower; his free will. Whatever the name, it is about the psychological manifestation of the perceived inability to make a decision on one’s own accord.
But how can you lose something Sam Harris says you don't have?
What gives us the impression that we are free to do as we like is array of options at our disposal and the ability to choose from them according to our values - which makes our perception of free proportional to a subjective sense of willpower. After all, values are nothing but wants manifesting themselves as motives across time in your life. To prioritize them over more acute desires, like stealing money when nobody looks, is an ability we attribute to it. Similarly, we use self-control to get through cravings of any type, which is effectively synonymous with willpower: The way of actively monitoring your actions in pursuit of a goal. It is the thought of a desirable outcome keeps your behavior in check, by accessing the same kind of motivational pathways. But introduce a value that gives you unearthly amounts of pleasure - like a strong stimulant - and you disrupt the whole system by forcing your brain to prioritize its concsumption over anything else.
It’s here where the addict’s psychology is messed up: The willingness to exercise restraint originates from the same reward pathways that affords him the habit, because withdrawing from a pleasurable drug means withdrawing from pleasure itself. The reason to keep using can be greater than the reason to stop, due to the fact that it can be compared across the same vector of levels of anticipatory pleasure - like every other activity. Put simply: It all runs on the same engine - and there’s only so much gas in the tank.
Ironically, the addict's willpower is as strong as ever: For neither it nor his free will ceased to exist - it just started to serve one thing exclusively. In his case, the consumption of a drug. The sense of having lost control over himself is his conscience getting overturned constantly, since it is only as effective as its ability to compete with the strongest want the presence bestows on him. Before he first tries to quit, addicts sing the ”I can stop anytime I want to” song. Funnily enough, he isn’t even lying - because he’ll simply never want to if the addiction is strong enough. Heck, he might want to stop more than anything else in the world - except continuing to use.
A similar scenario get me first interested in the often indiscernible difference between being unwilling and being unable: I was out and about, getting the pleasurable vibes of an incoming cigarette craving, which, at the time, came with the conviction to satisfy it recklessly. Bemoaning my lack of any cancer sticks, I ended up bumming one off an acquaintance. Lighting up, I told him I found it fascinating that I felt as if I could give up the habit anytime; I just didn’t want to - and so I wouldn’t. Which got me thinking: Maybe that’s the same thing. And you’ll only ever figure it out once you try to quit.
The idea of free will gets cherished for one simple reason: It is used as evidence that we are not just machines, but individuals with autonomous capabilities; that we can manifest our unique preferences in the world and act outside the domain of primitive urges - a place we’d like to think of as reserved for all the “lower” creatures inhabiting the planet. We do not think of wanting as a compulsion, but an organic incentive to initiate a certain behavior - still subject to our veto privilege. But it's easy to forget that the distinguishing element between us and other animals isn’t the ability to resist a want, but our larger mental capacity to take more factors into account, which in turn influences our wants. A bad conscience, for example, can deter you from doing something, but it doesn’t do so by stopping your impulses; it overpowers them.
The fact that we are aware of our own consciousness and the reason we at least experience the sensation of free will is no coincidence either. Just like how the words conscience, conscious and conscientious describe what is essentially one thing: Awareness and appropriation of your actions towards the possible outcomes your mind can conceive of. “Knowing oneself”, being able to see all the wants in your life and aiming at what creates the most desire. That's another reason we generally don’t attribute free will to other animals: We expect them to be less conscious than us. And even though it’s hard to define what that means, it makes sense to us to say it.
Our knowledge of cause and effect makes for a nice psychological paradox. We could take the implication that we lack free will and run with it, which is more of a philosophical straitjacket than anything. Lack of free want, on the other hand, rids us of the need to reduce our experience to a quantum level in order to gain the understanding that the course of each of our actions is predictable. At the same time, it leaves the door open for theorizing free will to be part of our existential condition. Of course, in the end it's all just semantics - but so is the whole of philosophy.
At the very least, a conceptual shift to lack of free want at least doesn't compromise the linguistic utility that free will as a term offers. Because if we deny its existence, we essentially do away with a concept that describes an experience we have - without even being able to disprove it. The addict, for example, is a morbid display of humanity’s eternal struggle to break free from the limitations of their will, while being the most convincing reason to accept free will as a legit concept. After all, he self-expresses a lack of it. This tells us that what we call free will is just a more poetic way of saying that we have consciousness that constantly calculates potential scenarios that are implicated in the decisions we’re going to make. We view it as unique to our species, because it allows us to redirect our actions with the future in mind without being bound to one single course of action.
What allows for such a perception? Probably a highly interconnected neo-cortex that allows for increased communication within the brain. Because in order to prioritize the future over the present, to restrain yourself in the heat of the moment and to forego pleasure today for more pleasure tomorrow, there needs to be an observer keeping things in check. An observer that constantly reminds of potential outcomes in the next second, day, year or generation. An ego that watches over all the desire in order to orchestrate an overarching goal, with some kind of veto privilege. Of course, we still can only follow our impulses. It’s just that they come in many different manifestations.
An unwarranted arrogance is exhibited in a great many people when they try to ground their arguments against free will in determinism. They refrain from having the last word on consciousness, but do it with free will - which is just one of its facets. Which is why this is not an essay for or against free will, but for agnosticism: If you want to believe in free will, physics doesn’t stop you, because the arguments for free will are essentially out of its domain. Physics can predict that we’re going to do what feels better, but it cannot explain why something can feel good at all, except by defaulting to abstract languages describing the processes that underlie the experience. The reason being, that there’s no physical law saying we have to do what feels good. The thing that does is an enigma - just like consciousness itself.
What it comes down to is this: Free will is predictable. You can do anything you want, but nothing else. And why would you even want to?