Sunday, May 20, 2012

Free Will

It's been quite a while since I've watched this video (Sam Harris on Free Will), and allowed its contents to seep into my mind and structurally change my fundamental assumptions about the nature of our existence. It's a phenomenal video, and I'd really recommend it to anyone who has an hour to spare. The aftermath might take quite a while longer, since it's hard to digest the implications quickly, despite Harris' lucid explanations.

I don't intend to paraphrase the entire video here, that would be a waste of time and wouldn't do the job as well as the original. I'd just like to take some time to pause and look back at my experiences, prior to watching the video and sort of understand them better.

First off, what do we mean by Free Will? Prior to watching the video, the concept of Free Will was something I intuitively (thought I) understood, and seemed to require no further exploration as to what my understanding actually was. I'm still quite curious as to what I thought Free Will was; I can't seem to remember.

In hindsight, it's a question that's hard to answer intelligently, because it involves a huge amount of subjective feeling. The intuitive allegorical understanding of Free Will would be that of a driver in a car, where we, subjectively, are the drivers, and the cars are our bodies, responding to our instructions. Such an explanation does not define Free Will at all, but seems to make intuitive sense. It merely shifts the burden of the definition away to this seemingly irreducible 'driver'; the focal point of our consciousness, which may or may not have a physical presence, depending on if you believe in dualism or not.

This 'driver', or our conscious presence, seems to be where our 'free' decision making process happens, although this seems to make only intuitive sense. It's almost as if our body merely relays information to us - the driver, where we decide what to do freely; as the driver of the car independent of the body. After our decision, we then convey it to the body and then, like a genie the wish is transformed into command. This seems to convey the essence of what we understand as Free Will. Such an understanding probably requires a belief in dualism of some kind, although sometimes implicitly so.

Such descriptions are still vague; it's like describing a Rembrandt painting in terms of streaks of boldness, intensity and passion rather than a simple and meaningful answer of 'clouds' when asked the question what the painting is about. There is a need for meaningful, concise and primarily objective definitions; those that can be quantified into enough useful sense that they can be proved or disproved by science. In essence, the definitions of Free Will should be clear enough that it is, at least, either right or wrong.

A definition of Free Will would have 2 parts:

(1) That we have some amount of control over our thoughts.
(2) That we could have acted differently in the past; that we were 'free' to do something different that would have changed the course of our lives and consequently the universe, that we, humans are indeterministic.

(1) again seems to make intuitive sense. After all, the distinction over what we are and aren't conscious about is very clear. In the process of eating food, we are in 'control' of the food until we make the big swallow down our throat after which the food vanishes into the black box of our digestive system, over which we have no control or perception. It's almost as though there's some uniformed officer telling our inquisitive consciousness - "I'll take it from here, that's all you need to know" and then the morsel vanishes, out of reach, feeling, or control.

But what is control?

The answer really lies when we pay close attention to our consciousness. Thoughts come and go, but from where? What control do we have over them? The experience of writing an examination is an interesting one in this aspect. Attempting a difficult theory question, all I can do is wait for the answer to arise in my consciousness. What else could I do? If I'm lucky, I would remember it (assuming I've studied the syllabus well enough) and if I'm not, then it wouldn't arise at all. In both cases, I genuinely have no control over my thought process. It just happens.

Such an experience suggests that we're almost helpless about our thoughts; circuits in our brains throw thoughts into our consciousness, and these circuits work unconsciously, out of our control. All we have left is the thought ultimately floating in our consciousness. Thoughts keep appearing in our consciousness, and we, the silent observer, just have to deal with them.

The illusion of control is a strong one. We keep imagining that our thoughts are 'ours', yet they just aren't. It's as though someone else is reading out your thought each time and you're just becoming aware of it. It just so happens that the person reading out the thought (bringing it to your consciousness) is your own, unconscious, body -  the circuits in your brain.

Thus, there are 2 consequences that seem to me to be immensely profound:

a. We, human beings, are deterministic machines.
b. Consciousness is the end of our decision making process, not the beginning.

A consequence of our lack of control is that our body is truly deterministic. To say that we could have acted otherwise in a situation is analogous to saying that given a voltage of V volts over a circuit of resistance R ohms, the current could have been anything other than V/R amperes. It just isn't possible. We are as deterministic as the humble electric circuit.

But all of this can actually be guessed by introspection. The illusion of control can be dispelled by close examination of our thought process; we can see that our thought process follows an infinite Markov chain; each thought arises from the last, seamlessly, whether related or not.

(b) however, is something that could be known only by neuroscience. The fallacies of our own subjectivity makes it difficult to understand. The startling, counter-intuitive fact, through neuroscientific research, is that -  in our decision making process, the decision at hand is first made unconsciously, not consciously.

It's as though to make a decision, our body has already made a decision out of our conscious knowledge. Meanwhile, we, in all earnestness, consciously ponder the question and arrive at the decision. The caveat is, we are not even consciously aware that the decision has already been made, on our behalf. It's as though our body just wants to indulge us in our illusion of freedom, knowing full well that we'll decide what's been decided in advance.

Thus, the circuits in our brain physically make the choice before we are consciously aware that a decision has been reached. This I find particularly interesting. Intuitively we would assume that the processes of conscious (subjective) and unconscious (physical) decision making happen simultaneously, but they are temporally spaced in exactly the way we would never expect them to be.

The mind is really something that never ceases to amaze me. It's as though we are faced with the biggest questions of the nature of our existence, and all of us have the tools to work on to answer them. It's quite another question if we actually can.

Examination of the notions of Free Will creates a better understanding of the sense of the self. Rather than the driver of the car, what we are is actually someone in the passenger seat, of a car that drives itself. Each one of us is, what we can pinpoint our existence to, ultimately only a conscious witness of the universe.

The car we happen to be in, operates by the law of causality, and nothing else. It is impossible to escape cause and effect. But that's where the beauty of our existence lies. In our role as the conscious witness, seeing how our subjective experience merges with the determinism of causality, it's just beautiful to witness life unfold.



Aravindh Cee said...

I too have intuitively assumed a form of free will. When I actually started pondering about this, I realized that I had never really thought about this. It is somewhat upsetting to know that we may not be conscious participants in our own decision making processes, but I suppose thats reality for you.

I don't think the question of free will has been answered completely, there are lots of unsolved issues in neurobiology, like the problem of how our subjective consciousness is connected to our physical bodies. I'm reserving judgement on free will for now, though Im sure traditional free will doesn't exist.

ecthelion said...

The only meaningful statement Free Will can be reduced to is non-determinism.

Whether or not we have solved questions in neurobiology or our own consciousness are not strictly relevant. The truth of determinism renders any definition, traditional or otherwise, of Free Will incompatible with reality.

As Sam Harris said, the buck never stops.

SurajSingh said...

After my similar post in the fb forum I actually felt little depressed by this thought that we don't have free will. But that video made it quite clear. The point I wanted to make there was that concept of free will is a supernatural. I would like to know your views on it. Can you elaborate how is "Free will incompatible with reality" ?

ecthelion said...

Free Will is incompatible with reality in the sense that the notion of free will collapses in itself. We are free to do what we want, but where do our wants come from?

Aravindh Chidambaram said...

Strange how much my views have evolved since I posted my last comment almost a year ago. I'm completely sure that "contra causal" free will does not exist now.

You might be interested in reading Tom Clark's Encountering Naturalism (its a free pdf, uploaded it to Rats Forum) or the website He traces out all the implications of not believing in free will - in criminal justice, addiction, homosexuality and also in your day to day life. far from being depressing it helped me to deal stuff with equanimity.

Its great Sam Harris has the guts to say it like it is, but he does not seem to be a materialist and seems to harbor a belief in the soul. Wonder what his justifications are.

ecthelion said...

I was quite familiar with Clark's work on naturalism and contra-casual free will (although I don't believe I've read Encountering Naturalism) before even hearing of Sam Harris. Somehow at the time it was only of academic theoretical interest, on the fringes of my mind. I guess I just didn't take it so seriously.

What makes you think Sam Harris harbors a belief in the soul?

Aravindh said...

I am not exactly sure on the point. In one his other talks on free will he explicitly stated that he's not a materialist, and I remember reading Meera Nanda's article (that I think you posted) in which she blasts him for scoffing at the materialist position and believing in some sort of soul. Still, I'm not really sure whether he exactly believes in the soul or not.

Clark's book is good, and I consider it one of the two most important books I've read in my life (other one is Sagan's Cosmos). I have it here: