Monday, November 10, 2014

How Free is "Free Will"

by Brian T. Lynch
In my opinion "Free Will" should be very narrowly defined compared to how most people think about it. I see it as something that emerges incrementally along a continuum of actions ranging from autonomic or purely impulsive to counter intuitive and rationally planned. Free will isn't an all or nothing phenomenon. 

For starters, neuroscience tells us that desires and urges are completely separate processes in our brain. Each has its own distinct origins and separate neural pathways. We experience these two processes as indistinguishable drivers of behavior when we accede to them, but their separate nature is quickly apparent when we attempt to consciously defer or delay satisfying them. Urges are far more powerful, and in some cases nearly irresistible. They are at the root of addictions. 

Desires are based on our brains emotional systems. They can also be powerful drivers of behavior, but they can be more easily controlled or differed by our rational brain processes. And, of course, both desires and urges can operate in concert, the perceived strength of our desires often masking the strength of underlying urges. For this reason the early signs of substance addiction is perceived by the addict as a free will choice to participate. It is only when they attempt to change their behavior and refrain from substance use that they discover the power of their addictive urges. We have to take care here to recognize that urges are biologically adaptive drivers of behavior. They help assure survival by powerfully motivating us to fulfill our primary needs, including sexual reproduction and eating. Needless to say urges and desire are often hopelessly co-mingled in areas of primary survival needs further masking the power of urges in control of our behavior. 

I exclude free will from any actions that are driven in part by impulse because it is virtually impossible to know if actions that satisfy an impulse are free will choices or not.  Actions that spring from emotions, including desires, may or may not involve conscious rational though. How ever you might define free will, some element of conscious rational thought must be a component. So actions that arise purely out of raw emotion, without forethought, I would also exclude from free will actions. It is here that the gradual blossoming of free will is most evident. 
When we act to satisfy urges or emotions we really cannot distinguish "free will" from the actions taken since acting on a urge feels identical to acting by choice. That is why people don't even know the extent to which they are addicted until they discover they can't simply stop. Addiction is insidious in that way. No one can say for sure that they smoke by choice after that first cigarette because even six months later the brain can trigger powerful urges for another cigarette.
The same holds true, by degree, with our emotions. We can't know for certain if we are acting on free will when we acquiesce to our feelings since emotions can also overpower free will. We even say we are "acting on our emotions" to explain certain behaviors, but it still feels exactly like a choice, even if we can't help it. So inwardly speaking, we can only no for sure that we are acting on free will when our actions are contrary to both our urges and our feelings. It is only when we place them in check that we can know for sure we are acting on our own free will.
What about free will in circumstances where our only available options for action are proscribed by others, or by circumstances out of our control? If we have no choice but to act, do we have free will? If we have only bad choices, are we exercising free will by making that bad choice? Was Socrates exercising free will when he choose to drink hemlock rather than face a public execution? It so, and I believe he was exercising free will, then a limited form of free will must exist even under extreme forms of coercion.
How we define "free will" has enormous social and political implications because we assess the free will choices of others when judging their actions. It is especially within the Justice system that we see free will emerge as a continuum of responsibility. It is reflected in the various levels of proof and it sentencing guidelines and levels of criminal intent. Jurors are often asked to weigh mitigating and aggravating circumstances. We punish people more harshly when they show criminal intent, which is a level of free will in the commission of a crime. We find people not guilty by reason of insanity when their mental state prevents them from knowing right from wrong, and there are all gradations in between.

These are just examples. In fact, we use these sort of calculations everyday with each other or our children in judging their actions and in modulating our responses. So the idea that free will is an all or nothing phenomenon just isn't born out in our every day experience.
Anyway, here is an interesting article on the subject.…/free_will_debate_what_does_free_will…
It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells...

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