The illusion of 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.

12 thoughts on “The illusion of free will

  1. Wegner has done really interesting work, but his arguments and experiments only rule out some versions of how one might argue for free will. Also, the sensationalist claim that ‘there is no free will’ is nothing knew to people working on the question for a bit longer time. If you need an accessible introduction see my entry on this here:

    In short the main point is, that most philosophers have long realized what Wegner ‘discovered’. Accordingly, there is a great amount of interesting work on what how the notion of free will can be so embedded in our everyday practices, what role it does, why we use it, why evolution prompted us to use it, etc.

  2. It seems to me that the notion of free will is not unlike the notion of God. It’s original definition no longer seems tenable as our understanding that our mind is just another organ, not dissimilar to the others, and that our world is governed by very powerful forces has demonstrated that a very high degree of determinism exists. That is to say our choices ultimately do not change a very predetermined path. Many who seem to still cling to free will seem to have watered down the definition heavily. One of my friends actually simply defines it as “the ability to make choices” which to me seems far too vague to adaquately describe free will as the term ought to be understood.

    Although I feel this position needs to be explained a little further. Our “choices” fall on a limited number of options. I find Westerners especially cling to free will, but I feel this is an illusion created by their environment. For example, many will cite anorexia as proof that people can choose not to eat, or obesity as proof that people have the free will to choose to eat too much. Neither or these things seem compelling to me, but are rather symptomatic of living in an industrialized world. In third world countries, most, in not all, of these choices are abscent. Even within our own many of these choices are fairly predictable. Moreover these choices are rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

    Which really is the heart of the matter isn’t it? If our existence is simply the result of emergence and our “lives” are all going to meet the same eventual fate, then why bother being a good person? It’s a classic question, one that we’ve had the intuition to ask for quite a long period of time, even before science. Therefore it seems there is a biological function in believing that our mind is separate from our bodies, and functions differently than a lung to which we don’t ascribe magical powers. Unlike lower animals, humans have a very good sense of time, space and causation. We have virtually no power over any of these things, but we can react in defference to them which certainly is aided if we can construct a sensible account of them.

    In that sense the personality of each of us, or our conscious selves seems to like the atmosphere. The conscious self doesn’t have a strict boundary, but it filters our internal reactions and our external stimuli. I could see the conscious self and subconscious as two guys playing a video game. The subconscious is in another room, with a controller silently controlling the man on the screen. The conscious self is in the room with the TV and merely thinks he is controlling the character while he takes in the digital world surrounding him. The degree to which the conscious self understands how much he or she is being controlled ultimately dictates how well he will process the incoming information from the game…information that is being fed to the subconscious in the other room.

    This is somewhat akin to Plato’s Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself”. Understanding the rules of the game allows you to play the game better, confounding yourself with the ramblings of your conscious mind only serves to impede the ability of the subconscious to direct you.

    This, in it’s own way describes how we committ skills to memory, and how when we become good at something or when it becomes routine we no longer have to give it much conscious thought. Tom Brady doesn’t analyze a defense in the way you read this sentence, he does it without thinking. He’s seem that particular “look” so many times and he already knows what he will do before he even does it. He turns, screen pass to Welker and then touchdown. All these decisions made in his mind so fast the conscious mind couldn’t have even played a role.

    One of my final critiques of free will can be found in what’s usually thought of as very conscious: communication. If the conscious mind were really free one might expect humans to favor heavily rational speech that appeals to conscious and logical judgements. Funny story, we don’t. In fact people with Asperger’s, often called “Little Professors” have this exact problem because most communication is non-verbal and completely beyond our control.

    A Christian once told me a story that puzzled me. He said he was feeling down one day and a random member of his church approached him and asked him, out of the blue (his words) what was wrong. He was amazed, and thought God had essentially answered his prayers by sending council. He emphatically stated that he had not indicated to anyone his troubles. I’m not calling him a liar, but incidentally I don’t believe him. His conscious mind had concluded he had consciously said nothing to indicate his troubles, but I’m willing to bet his body language suggested otherwise. His eyes, the way he carried himself, and his demeanor probably told the story better than he ever could’ve in his own words. His subconscious cried out for help without him even being consciously aware that it did.

    Language is ultimately what makes a lack of free will hard to fully appreciate in my estimation. It’s like trying to understand a “moment” devoid of space and time before the big bang, or trying to comprehend infinite. These concepts are beyond us. Language is how many of us construct conscious thoughts, so it’s hard for us know to picture thought devoid of language yet we do it constantly. Our emotions, feelings, temperments and impulses are not things to adaquately describe in words. Socrates proved this time and again while debating others and finding their definitions of things like “piety” and “bravery” to be severely lacking. The problem is vague notions of things are unproveable and untestable, and much like God can be used to describe all sorts of things making them effectively meaningless.

    I think Yoda is my favorite philosopher on this subject, however. In Revenge of the Sith he says to Anakin “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” It seems to me free will is in fact fear of letting go. We grow very attached to our language and culture and to understand that these things really do not make us any less animals than the lesser forms below us is a touchy subject. However I find it amusing that people really believe that <2% difference in genetics between us at Chimpanzees is something that needs to be overstated. It's true, we have accomplished much but perhaps Yoda, an advanced alien would look at us as we look at dogs. As animals whose brains simply cannot compute the vast array of choices ahead of us. I think the more advanced animals would be puppets, much like us, but they would see the strings.

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