Thursday, November 29, 2012
For a religionist who believes in the supernatural, miracles, and the soul, the idea that humans can miraculously create themselves independently of all causality is no big deal. Hell, if you believe in an “almighty god” that miraculously created the cosmos, accepting that humans have the god-like ability to create themselves comes easy. This position is known philosophically as “libertarianism.” Such libertarians maintain that the special human freedom essential for moral responsibility must be independent of natural explanation and all natural causes. Contemporary libertarian free will has, over the last century or so, under the influence of the increasing success of scientific, natural explanations, become a bit more modest.
An example of this more restrained libertarianism is C. A. Campbell, who acknowledges the influences of heredity and environment that prevent any “man” from having a “voice in determining the raw material of impulses and capacities” and thus casting doubt on “whether there is any act of will at all of which one can truly say that the self is sole author, sole determinant.” His solution to this situation it to reduce the scope of the free will function. Rather than “making ourselves from scratch,” he argues that we make small, decisive choices that are the basis of moral responsibility. His free will has been referred to as a “free will of the gaps,” as it is only when we experience conflict between desire and duty that we have this “special power” to exert or withhold the moral effort required to restrain our desire and accomplish our duty. Campbell accepts that science can explain how desires are shaped, and the causes of much of our character and behavior, but asserts that science has no causal accounting of the inner act of exerting will power, which leaves a “gap” for the exercise of “acausal free will.”
As with the problem of the “god of the gaps,” when free will is placed in the gap of our scientific knowledge, it becomes vulnerable to the closing of those gaps. In this case, Campbell’s “gap” closed awfully quickly when neuroscience showed that one’s capacity to exert will power depends upon subtle but identifiable psychological factors, including one’s locus of control, one’s sense of self efficacy, and one’s degree of learned helplessness.
Clearly, we have an introspective sense of a conscious free will power that causes our acts and choices, but there is strong evidence that this sense of self-directed unconstrained will is not at all reliable. Here is not the place to go into great detail regarding this evidence, but a solid summary of the evidence can be found in The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002) by Daniel Wegner.
Briefly, there are cases where we have a strong sense of consciously willing an action when in fact we have performed no action at all; there are also cases in which one performs an action but experiences no sense of willing (obvious cases involve the Ouija board and so-called “facilitated communication”); as well as cases where one has a strong sense of having freely chosen and willed an act when in fact the choice was actually under the control or strong influence of external factors. An interesting example of this is when electrical stimulation of an area of the brain caused patients to turn their head from side to side. When asked, “What are you doing?” the patients always gave a reasonable answer such as “I’m looking for my slippers” or “I heard a noise.” Other experiments show this tendency we have to create reasons for our behavior after the fact.
One of my favorite social experiments shows how even trivial, unrecognized factors can influence and lead to dramatic and powerful effects on our behavior. In 1972, (when public phone booths were common) one group of experimental subjects found a dime in a phone booth and other subjects did not. As each subject left the phone booth, one of the experimenters (the subjects were unaware this was an experiment and that this person was part of the experiment) walked by and dropped an armful of papers he was carrying. The subjects who had found a dime nearly invariably stopped to help the experimenter pick up the papers while most of the subjects who did not find a dime simply walked on by! Subjects never gave finding a dime as a reason for why they helped, but the evidence strongly suggests it had a profound effect. Similar experiments have gone on to show that subtle situational factors have a much greater effect on our choices and behaviors than does any “underlying character,” all of which is in line with the anti-essentialist understanding of buddhism which posits causes and conditions over any substantialist understanding of “self-nature.”
On the basis of these experimental results, Wegner proposes an epiphenomenal account of the conscious experience of willing: the unconscious impulse to act occurs first and the conscious awareness of willing arises as a by-product of that unconscious decision, informing us that the willed action is our own. In this way, the experience of willing serves as useful feedback letting us know that an action came from “within” and thus was our own, and not the result of any external causal force (the movement of my fingers on the keyboard come from my own brain operations and nor from someone manipulating my fingers).
I hope you can see from this that Wegner is saying that while my fingers moving over the keys of my laptop is my free act, he denies that my “experience of conscious willing” is evidence of some special power of free will that is the source of my behavior. The vast range of experimental evidence covered by Wegner makes an impressive case against the truth status of our sense of conscious free willing. The ontological existence of some independent free will would need a much stronger basis than our incredibly unreliable sense of acting from freely efficacious willing.
Our experience of freedom signals to us that the action we have taken is our own action that comes from our own choices rather than being the product of some external force. If your arm is lifted by someone else, it is a very different experience than the experience of freely choosing to move your arm. The movement was initiated nonconsciously, but it is still your own movement rather than some external force. This is a naturally evolved useful tool for distinguishing our own motions from those initiated externally. This epiphenomenal understanding will have relevance for the later distinguishing of “action responsibility” from “moral responsibility” in that while we have the former, there is no real evidence of the latter.