What is the aspect of being you that you cling to most tightly? For many, it’s the feeling of being in control of your actions, of being the author of your thoughts. It’s the compelling but complex notion that we act according to our own free will.
Few topics in philosophy and neuroscience have been as consistently inflammatory as free will. What it is, whether it exists, how it happens, whether it matters – consensus on these matters has remained elusive to say the least. There is not even clarity about the experience of free will – whether it is a singular experience or a class of related experiences, whether it differs among people, and so on. But amid all this confusion there is one stable intuition. When we exercise free will there is – in the words of the philosopher Galen Strawson – a feeling of ‘radical, absolute, buck-stopping up-to-me- ness in choice and action’. A feeling that the self is playing a causal role in action in a way that isn’t the case for a merely reflexive response, such as when you withdraw your hand from the sting of a nettle. This is why experiences of free will go naturally along with voluntary actions – whether flexing your finger, deciding to make a cup of tea, or embarking on a new career.
When I experience ‘freely willing’ an action I am in some sense experiencing my self as the cause of that action. Perhaps more than any other kind of experience, experiences of volition make us feel that there is an immaterial conscious ‘self ’ pulling strings in the material world. This is how things seem.
But experiences of volition do not reveal the existence of an immaterial self with causal power over physical events. Instead, I believe that they are distinctive forms of self-related perception. More precisely, that they are self-related perceptions associated with voluntary actions. Like all perceptions – whether self-related or world-related – experiences of volition are constructed according to the principles of Bayesian best guessing, and they play important – likely essential – roles in guiding what we do.
Let’s first be clear about what free will is not. Free will is not an intervention in the flow of physical events in the universe, more specifically in the brain, making things happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen. This ‘spooky’ free will invokes Cartesian dual-ism, demands freedom from the laws of cause and effect, and offers nothing of explanatory value in return.
Taking spooky free will off the table means we can also put to rest a persistent but misguided concern about whether or not determinism is true. In physics and in philosophy, determinism is the proposal that all events in the universe are completely determined by previously existing physical causes. The alternative to determinism is that chance is built into the universe from the ground up, whether through fluctuations in a quantum soup or through some other as yet unknown principles of physics. Whether determinism matters for free will has been the topic of endless debate. My former boss Gerald Edelman summed it up well with a provocative one-liner: Free will – whatever you think about it, we’re deter- mined to have it.
Once spooky free will is out of the picture, it is easy to see that the debate over determinism doesn’t matter at all. There’s no longer any need to allow any non-deterministic elbow room for it to intervene. From the perspective of free will as a perceptual experience, there is simply no need for any disruption to the causal flow of physical events. A deterministic universe can chug along just fine. And if determinism is false, it doesn’t make any difference because exercising free will does not mean behaving randomly. Voluntary actions neither feel random, nor are random.
Excerpted with permission from Being You by Anil Seth, published by Faber & Faber.