On the Question of Free Will

Presented at the June 1, 1997 service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the full clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

That's Invictus by William Ernest Henley. And it feels good, doesn't it?

But as Freethinkers we naturally ask: is it true? Are we really the masters of our fates and the captains of our souls? Or are we, rather, the pawns of Fate and the chained slaves in the hold of a ship that's buffeted about by uncontrollable forces of Nature? Is not wincing or crying aloud the most that we can really do, and, even then, is such courage — if it is really more than bravado (?) — something that we really choose, through pure force of will, to exercise?

Did you choose to come here today? If you say that you came here today because you wanted to, that may very well be true. But why did you want to? Did you choose to want to? And was that choice not determined by your past experiences — like for instance how you spent your day yesterday — and by the attitudes that those experiences and a long chain of previous causal/contributory events stretching back into the distant past have forged in you?

Isn't it the case, in fact, that we — even what we consider the physical basis of our "souls" or "minds" or "essential selves" — are material beings? Are we not composed of organs and tissues which are, in turn, composed of cells and their structural products? And are they not, in turn, made of miscellaneous molecules composed of atoms of the various elements which are built up — so the physicists think — of quarks and gluons and leptons and such?

None of these things "choose" to want or do anything. Rather, their behavior reliably follows what are often called "Laws of Nature." And we are agglomerations of these physical — or energy field, if you like that better — entities. Granted, each of us is a vast and enormously complex -as well as unique — arrangement of these particles — or Schroedinger wave functions if you prefer. But we are nonetheless nothing more — or less — than a big seething, roiling pile of them. And if their behavior is fully determined by what they are and did not choose to be, then how can we be otherwise?

Ah, poor Albert Einstein. He insisted that "God [Spinoza's God, that is — Don't let believers tell you that Einstein was one of them!] does not play dice" with the universe. Like the French mathematician Pierre Simon de LaPlace, it seemed intuitively obvious to him that it ought to be possible — to quote LaPlace himself — "[to] embrace in the same formula the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom … [so that] nothing would be uncertain, and the future as the past would be present" to us. How's that for 18th Century "Age of Reason" audacity? And just remember that such a formula would contain within it even the inevitability — the necessity, in fact — of its own discovery. As I said, poor Einstein … he thought quantum indeterminacy and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, unlike the speed of light, were walls that would eventually be breached by human ingenuity.

But experimental evidence — including household appliances — has instead made a relentlessly random universe appear more and more solid. The behavior of a single solitary photon, a particle that has little or no rest mass and can be crammed into the tiniest of spaces with innumerable quantities of others of its kind, cannot be completely predicted by theory. Rather, the theory says there is no way to precisely predict the behavior of such things as a photon. And so, say some, if the movements and modifications of matter and energy are not completely deterministic, then our behavior need not be either. This minuscule margin of quantum uncertainty, they suggest, offers us an objective basis for free will. Oh yes, there have been whole books published that make such claims.

But I think it's deceptive to frame the question of human freedom — as it is inevitably framed — as one of Free Will vs. Determinism. Certainly, of course, there can be no free choice if everything is determined by preexisting physical conditions. But how does adding in some quantum uncertainty change things? If everything in the objectively observable universe is fully determined by the intrinsic and unchosen nature of matter, energy, and space-time and the regularities — and irregularities — that govern them, where does that leave room for us to freely choose anything?

The idea of human freedom, you see, is not just that our actions are not predetermined. Nor is it simply the notion that what we think and do are objectively, scientifically and/or mathematically indeterministic or unpredictable. Rather, on the contrary, to say that human beings have free will is to say that what we think and do are determined, but that our actions are determined not by purely objective, physical factors, either random or required, but by what we freely choose. That is, the sort of choice in question is one which is altogether outside of — and cannot have anything to do with — the objective, physical realm of cause and effect and even of quantum particles and their strange behaviors in their strange quantum world.

But it gets even worse than that. For what do we mean to speak of ourselves, the supposed agents of a free will that operates outside of, but must necessarily operate — somehow — onthe objects, microscopic and macroscopic, of the objectively observable, physical world of reality? If we are physical entities, how, then, can we possess such a nonphysical power as free will? And how can we wield such a nonphysical power so as to have objectively tangible effects on the physical world?

Imagine an enormous but exact representation of your brain. Perhaps it's bigger than the whole solar system, so that we could travel about in it. Or suppose that somehow we could shrink down to a few billion-billionths of an inch and explore a living human brain. In either case, imagine what it would be like to wander about with any measuring or recording instruments you like within the substance of the physical basis of your own consciousness. There you would see the arrangements and operations of every neuron and every synapse. You would see potassium ions flooding out of cell membranes and violent storms of neurotransmitters being released and consumed.

But where would could we find you in all this? Not in any single molecule or collection of them, certainly. I hope you would agree with me that, in fact, you wouldn't be in the physical matter itself, but in its particular arrangement and operations. We could replace individual atoms, molecules, and other items with impunity, just as we could put new brakes and shocks on your car without turning it into some other car. We could even replace whatever we liked with something completely different, as long as the substitutes were functionally identical to the original items. Maybe we could even build a functional equivalent — identical in every respect to the performance of the flesh and blood — out of silicon chips or even ropes and pulleys. It would still be you wouldn't it? Maybe we could even make some changes here and there without losing the essential you — what Henley and the poets call your "soul." Maybe, for example, we could remove a few forgotten or unimportant memories, or perhaps your violin lessons. Or possibly we could lop out much larger portions without causing the overall mechanism, whether organic or something else, to generate an output of "OUCH! I'm not myself anymore!"

Is this all just wild speculation? I don't think so. It's happening now, in fact. People are having strokes. Others suffer from progressive neurological disorders like Alzheimer's. Still others are recovering from other sorts of damage and injuries to their central nervous systems. They're having to relearn to walk and talk. And maybe to think and feel with different parts of their brains too. The worse-off are having trouble recognizing their loved ones. And the worst-off have loved ones that are having trouble recognizing them.

I never did get a straight answer when I used to ask the priests how such people were going to be able to enjoy their eternal reward. Do good people who suffer some brain injury that leads to an irresponsible act lose their salvation? Well, then, how about delinquents who mellow out after some horrific head trauma? Do lobotomies, deliberate or accidental — both of which have been described — earn people a ticket to heaven?

But let's go back to wandering around in your brain. (My own brain is too messy just now for me to think about having guests!) Where in all that roiling matter and energy would we find free will? We could say, as I suggested, that you, your mind or sour "soul" is contained in the overall physical arrangement — or even an approximation of the pattern — of your brain. But how could such an arrangement of stuff possess a nonphysical power of free will that is not subject to physical constraints? Aren't we really talking about something that's … supernatural?

C.S. Lewis, that great apologist for a kind of enlightened Christianity, argued that God could easily conduct all his supernatural business by manipulating the physical world in subtle ways that did not really violate our understanding of an orderly natural world. Bullets in flight, for example, could be slightly deflected so as to avoid targets that He intended to be preserved from harm. And even the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, he suggested, was just an accelerated molecular rearrangement of the same sort that the grape plant and the fermentation of its juices represents.

But I daresay that such macroscopic effects brought about by fully permissible — even if unlikely — manipulations on the microscopic quantum scale would certainly be detectable. The claim that free will operates through such means is surely testable.

Strange that no one who makes such claims bothers to test them. If they did, and found nothing, or the results could not be replicated, it would probably be said that human freedom exerted through quantum indeterminacy could not be detected but that they just "know" that this is how the world works. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And what would be said, I wonder, if it ever came to pass that Einstein was right, that there are "hidden variables" that make objective reality fully deterministic?

I want to suggest a way out of this absurd impasse, a way to escape having to think of ourselves as robots, a means of avoiding confusing appeals to our uncertain and ever-changing understanding of objective reality, and an approach that Freethinkers can accept as rational and sensible.

Let's go back to your brain. Where in your brain is love? Caring? Patience? Or courage? Where would we find the rapture of beauty? The joy of accomplishment? Or the confidence in our future? Where would we find fear? Anger? And horror? Where would we find these and innumerable other subjective states of consciousness that we clumsily describe in such terms?

I'm not talking about the objective correlates of these things, you see. I'm not saying that they're not dependent on the mindless interactions and transformations of matter and energy that go on in our central nervous systems. I'm talking about what you actually experience in the solitary seclusion of your own subjective experience. And I'm suggesting that if you experience something that seems to you to be described more or less by the term "free will," then such a thing exists. It doesn't exist objectively. You can't measure it or show it to others. But love and all of those other things can't be objectively demonstrated either. Yet who would say they do not exist?

Free will, like these other things, is a figment of the imagination. But figments of the imagination do exist — in our imaginations. And why should that trouble us? It shouldn't. We should no more discount or devalue human freedom because it is wholly subjective than we should discount or devalue life because it is ephemeral or discount or devalue the meaning of morality because it is not supplied to us by a deity. Leave it to the superstitious to wail and gnash their teeth over such things.

The "Great Agnostic" Robert Ingersoll suggested that the power of love comes closest to a sensible interpretation of divine power. In fact, he argued that because of our capacity to love, "We are gods." Yet, as we see, love — as human beings experience it subjectively — is not a part of the world of objective reality. In a very important sense, it is entirely outside of the world of nature. We might even say that it is "supernatural" — not because it is "out there" in a mystical/metaphysical realm, but "in here" where the tools of science do not reach. Perhaps several centuries from now, that will be the common understanding of the term "supernatural," just as we can hope that "God" will join the ranks of Paul Bunyan and Mighty Mouse and most every church will be something like ours.

I am still leaving some loose ends on this business of free will. The question of human freedom has obvious and enormous implications in broad terms, such as politically, and in more narrow practical areas such as criminal justice. There's also the possibility that what is wholly subjective today may someday become at least partially objectified. Bertrand Russell, for example, once suggested that it might in the future become possible to hook up connections between the nervous systems of different people so that someone could feel another person's toothache.

Finally, as should be obvious, I don't say that there is any final "answer" or "answers" to the problem of human freedom and free will. Those who look for the comfort of incontrovertible dogmas won't find much of it in the company of Freethinkers. But I hope I've been able to set you thinking in some new directions today. As always, that's what's really important: thinking.

Thank You and Good Morning.

© 1997 Tim Gorski