Monday, 18 May 2009

No such thing as free will?

In this week's Nature there's an article entitled "Is free will an illusion?" by a German biologist, Martin Heisenberg. The article makes the oft-repeated assertion that stochastic noise from quantum mechanical processes may be the key to free will in animals such as ourselves. Since it's transparently obvious to me that randomness is no better than pure determinism when it comes to explaining free will (assuming such a thing exists), I fired off a response to Nature. While my suggestion is entirely mechanism-free (I've got nothing on this front), I do think that the appearance our personal reality presents to us is at least suspicious, and hints at some degree of freedom in our actions. I don't entirely buy this myself, principally because I really can't think of anything approaching a plausible mechanism, but I have thought about this on and off for a long time without committing my thoughts to paper or blog. Anyway, seeing as they're so capricious, it's always worth a dabble with Nature, but since the odds of publication are vanishing I thought I may as well reproduce what I submitted here ...

Martin Heisenberg (Nature 459, 164-165)1 makes a number of intriguing points concerning the reality (or illusion) of free will in humans and other animals. However, to my mind (free or otherwise), his review overplays randomness as a route out of slavish determinism. Stochastic noise, quantum mechanical or otherwise, hardly seems the path to a triumphant restoration of self-determination. Instead, while it counts more as a hint or indication rather than hard empirical evidence of an underlying mechanism, the appearance of free will is telling from an evolutionary perspective. Assuming that free will is annulled (and I include Heisenberg’s stochasticism in this class), a biologist might well question why natural selection has gone to the bother of giving organisms the perception that they are ploughing their own furrow. If there is no possibility of any consequences of this perception feeding back to guide events, why has selection acted at all? Furthermore, why has selection furnished the minds of animals like ourselves with all sorts of carrots (pleasure and love) and sticks (fear and pain) to guide us towards goals that service the genes that build us? Heisenberg is right to question overeager neurodeterminists, but he may have chosen (or not, of course) the wrong route for doing so. One question for those who deny a seemingly obvious feature of personal reality is why, given that we are only scratching the surface of neurobiology, that we have yet to determine which flavour of quantum reality is the right one, and that the universe contains as-yet inexplicable entities such as dark matter and dark energy, why we can so quickly preclude free will.

1 Heisenberg, M. (2009). Is free will an illusion? Nature 459, 164-165.
Before I fired this off, I circulated it to a few of my friends at NOCS. While they generally liked it (or perhaps were just very polite), none of them bought it. What's more, it turns out that two of them, APM and BS, physicists to a man, very much subscribe to the "free will as illusion" school of thought. Not entirely to my surprise since there appears to be nothing by way of a mechanism (let alone a plausible mechanism) for material to somehow be both self-aware and capable of channelling this to affect reality. On this I'd completely agree with them, but I do still have a problem swallowing the idea that we're not free (to a degree) on, well, wishful-thinking grounds. Regardless of the subjective fact that I feel free (cf. my articulations in the submitted correspondence), I just don't like the idea that I might not be, and that I am living in a world where it's not possible. APM and BS seem OK with this, but it's not for me. Partly because agreeing with the idea seems somewhat tautological: what, simply, does it mean for me to agree with the proposition that I have no free will, when agreement itself seems to undercut the very notion?

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