Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Illusion of Free Will

Today's topic is, to say the least, controversial. Regular readers may have picked up the fact that I do not believe in "free will". I have danced around this topic since first beginning to write about neuroscience, the brain, life and "us" back in the fall of 2013 and feel it's time that I at last fully address it head on. 

First, however, I must attempt to make some things as clear as I can (I say "attempt to" for no matter how clear one states views there will be those who see it their own way regardless of what the writer or speaker writes or states).

This is not a "philosophical debate". 

I'm afraid I must say I have little to no interest in the traditional "philosophical stances" regarding free will. In my view, we may as well consult the book of Genesis to study geology and biology. Philosophical positions are little more than opinions based on one's own reasoning, which is largely based on similar reasoning from long expired philosophers. Virtually all philosophical "arguments" in favour of "free will" can be distilled down to abstract positions and who said what. Few of them - if any - actually examine the "territory" itself; the brain. Or in other words, the reasoning is based on flawed or incomplete premises. The best logical reasoning in the world will lead to wrong answers if based on faulty or incomplete premises

"Map vs territory" is something I'll have to leave for another day but briefly the vast majority of "studies" you will come across regarding human behaviour and concepts such as "free will" are "maps" - artificial constructs that reflect ideas and thoughts and impressions and theories but contain little of the actual "territory" itself. Imagine a city as complex as Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York or London. There is no one way to understand any of these cities. You could visit each a thousand times and come away with different perspectives and understandings with each visit depending on how you visited or with whom or the circumstances you fell into or how freely you explored each time. 

But what if your understanding of any of these great cities was only based on a simple map without ever having been to them? A map that reflected the map maker's mind and purpose? Or you do go and you allow your entire experience of the city to be shaped by the simple map? How could you argue that was an accurate depiction or understanding of the actual territory, the city itself and its nearly endless number of variables among neighbourhoods, peoples, lifestyles, infrastructures, the "flow" of each day according to weather and numerous other factors?

Again, this is a long and deep topic, but this is in fact what the vast majority of "studies" are; maps of understanding that reflect the mind of the map makers, be they philosophers, many (if not the majority) of scientists and so on. 

And so it is with the brain; the great majority of those who pretend to understand human behaviour study not neuroanatomy or neurobiology but are instead map makers who base their "maps" on previous (generally outdated) "maps" or maps of maps and on and on. 

If you truly want to understand the territory, then study the territory, not "maps".

Follow the evidence, not beliefs

It never fails to astonish me how much the vast majority of people want to match the evidence to the belief or set out with a belief and fit the evidence to it or ignore any evidence to the contrary. I am not talking religious "believers" here, though I would bet the farm that was the first thing that came to most of your minds. No, no, I'm talking a great deal of science, sociology, politics, mind sciences, business, and other fields populated, presumably, by very smart and well educated people. 

For the record, when I started studying all this brain stuff five years ago (very early in 2013), I felt very, very strongly in favour of free will. I felt - for the sake of corralling my brain and life - there had to be free will. I cannot tell you how much I wanted some sort of "free will" control over this often pernicious and wayward behaving noggin of mine. But evidence just kept trumping my need for my belief and the deeper I got into how the brain works, the enormous complexity of it all, the nearly incalculable number of variables at any given moment in a person's life that may steer them this way or that, it just hit me - "no way can we "control" any of that". 

Not only that, it was the complete absence of any hard evidence for free will. And I mean nil. 

This not an argument for determinism of any kind

It is very unfortunate that the first thing that comes to most people's minds when they hear a case against "free will" is that it is an argument for "determinism". 

Determinism is another term from philosophy which has long outlived its purpose, if it ever really had a purpose in the first place. 

Arguments for determinism are far, far too simplistic. Determinism implies that there are absolute predictable outcomes for given circumstance. Too often it is couched in "A" and "B" choices. 

In truth life on earth and the universe in which earth itself exists contains far too many unknowable variables for there ever to be any kind of "predetermined" outcome with absolute predictability. It's true that many circumstances will have predictable outcomes. An airplane that runs out of fuel at 36,000 feet outside of any kind of gliding range to a safe landing will fall from the sky at quite a predictable rate and the fate of all on board is, yes, "determined". But what led to that aircraft running out of fuel started with many, many unpredictable random events. 

Determinism invariably comes down to the humancentric need for "certainty" and "predictability", this need for absolute predictable outcomes. I argue that the belief in determinism is ludicrous, again, because life on earth and the ongoing events of the universe contain too many unknown and unpredictable variables. Certain things are predictable, yes, but all of life itself? Your life? 

No. Your "life" is not "determined" precisely by any one thing. It is true that our life span is somewhat determined if you want some sort of example of "determinism". You are made up of trillions upon trillions of microscopic biological organisms called cells and these will break down at a fairly (though not precisely) predictable rate and at some point you will expire naturally as all living things will. Or you may meet your end through various circumstances of incalculable variables. In any case, you can count on the fact that you will die by some means (as all life forms on earth invariably will, if not become extinct or be extinguished by some cataclysmic event of one kind or another (think asteroid strikes and dinosaurs). 

It's also true that many, many possible factors will determine to some degree various aspects of a given person's abilities and life choices. 

However, there is no such thing as any kind of grand determined predictable "fate". This model of "determinism" ignores the vast complexities of life and the widely varying spectrum of any one aspect of life. There is something called "chaos theory" which somewhat helps understand this.

So no, please, do not jump to the conclusion that "no free will" is an "argument" for "determinism". 

In fact this not an argument "for" anything. Nor, precisely, "against" anything. Since beginning my Odyssey into the study of the human brain and behaviour, I have simply followed the facts as they were, starting with general neuroanatomy, then finer and finer neuroanatomy, neurobiology, etc, etc. What this does, what it doesn't do, what generates this and what regulates it <endless etcetera>. Then on to the cognitive neurosciences where we depart somewhat from the "concrete" of "hard science" and enter the realm of more abstract study of such things as cognition, thoughts, imagination, dreams, "reality" and perception, beliefs (an area full of irony, I can tell you), self-perceptions and the grand Holy Grail of all of neuroscience and philosophy, consciousness, all of which is our humancentric drive to understand the age old question of "who am I?" and other such existential naval gazing questions. 

Then into the study of "actions" and "behaviours", all through the lens of my (sorta somewhat famous) quest for "why?". 

It started out wanting to answer the question of why people committed suicide. Why this person and not that person? Why this time and not all those prior times? And nearly endless questions along these lines, all of which led to further and further questions of why we do anything

And again, I did not want answers from the usual philosophical twaddle people are fond of espousing, nor from the vast majority of psychology and definitely not the totally lost field of psychiatry. These fields were and are full of "map people" with either no direct meaningful knowledge or understanding of the actual territory or in fact completely ignorant of it or led completely astray by predetermined beliefs based mostly on commercial needs (yes, psychiatry, I'm talking about you and your pharmaceutical partners). 

For reasons I will probably never be able to adequately explain, I just fell completely in love with studying pure, raw neuroscience. Few things excite me more than journeying through a single neuron and what makes it "tick" or not, how it connects with others, and on and on and on (for a super brief introduction to all this brain geekery, please see neuroanatomy 101). 

So yeah, for me it's just simply pointing out how things actually work, rather than our outdated notions of how most people want to think it works. 

Follow the evidence, not beliefs. 

What the hell is free will anyway?

As with any abstract concept, the semantics of the term itself gets rather fuzzy. And frankly, having now examined the evidence (the territory, remember) for this question in great depth for some years now, I'm not sure most people who argue about "free will" really understand what it means (yes, I am aware of all the rocks pelting off my windows from enraged free will proponents wanting to boil me in oil). 

Just setting the semantics of free will, the definition of it, could trail off towards untold numbers of dark alleys and dead ends (at best) or never ending long and winding roads (at worst) so we'd better come up with something somewhat satisfying so we all sorta know what we're examining. 

Proponents of free will seem to believe that there's this "I" that has some sort of "agency" over our actions, thoughts, decisions, behaviours, and so on. There are numerous possible needs for this belief, no shortage of them centered around this need to hold people culpable for whatever they do; in other words, it's about blame and punishment. In other words, it's rather Biblical.

On a personal - I would say egocentric - level, we just all want to believe that "we" are "in control". Admittedly, this is a seemingly handy thing to believe in. A sense of control is crucial for many people's sense of well being, their need to believe in their accomplishments, the fruits of their labours, their ideas, their creations, this sense that "they" did this and that. (a whole piece on the egocentric human is coming at some point)

So a great deal of this need to believe in free will seems to come down to this need to feel or believe in this "I" who is the agent of their life and this need for culpability which itself is rooted in our ancient (and I mean very ancient) needs to blame, judge and punish.

To me, however, it seems we should have grown past all that. To me it's the equivalent of believing the sun revolves around the earth (from our previous horrendously humancentric view of the universe).  

As necessary as it may seem to be, however, so called "free will" is an illusion, and like so many humancentric beliefs before it, the belief in this illusion needs to fall. 

And no, this will not lead to the collapse of civilization or any particular rise in bad behaviour at all. 

Au contraire, mon amies, I would argue that the stubborn belief in free will is actually dangerous, that is this belief that "we" are fully in control agents responsible for this or that action or decision is what is keeping us shackled to terribly outdated beliefs and notions of what does make people (or you) tick and furthermore, for correcting what we'll just call "socially incorrect" behaviours. 

Okay, to understand this, we need to look at a few basic things involved in this premise known - for better or worse - as "free will". 

Who are we? 

Who indeed is anyone. As regular readers will know, a great deal of this blog points out that whatever "we" are, it's created by or arises from that 3.1 tofu like blob between your ears, which for the vast, vast majority of you will be a fairly standard off the rack homo sapien version of literally millions upon millions of other versions of brains. As regular readers will also have been pummeled to death with, our spiffy modern homo sapien brain didn't just pop out of the oven spontaneously all by itself (Genesis adherents notwithstanding); it evolved from various of those millions upon millions of previous brain models in processes that themselves took millions upon millions of years. 

Take any human brain, cut away the "human parts" (the outer cortex of humans is quite unique and particularly the prefrontal cortex) and what you would find in there would be an even more standard off the rack brain that could be found in virtually any mammal species (yes, I know, takes a bit of the glamour out of this whole human business, doesn't it). 

And what would we find down there? Without getting into tedious neuroanatomical detail, we'd find pretty standard limbic region stuff and brain stem stuff, all of which does pretty mundane things like running a great deal of who "you" are; emotions, reactions, fears, regulation of responses to heat or cold, hunger, sex drives, and all kinds of instinctive drives that are pretty fundamental throughout the critter world. 

And what are some of those instinctive drives? 

We could gussy them up with all kinds of fancy terms that make we homo sapiens sound more sophisticated but basically they are:

- food

- shelter

- procreation (sex)

- avoidance of danger (fear)

These four elementary instincts will drive the vast majority of human behaviours for the great majority of people. Our more "advanced" and "sophisticated" modern selves of course have more interesting ways than baboons, for example, for acquiring them such as bartering (usually money of some kind) but at our cores, regardless of what we "think" we're doing, on some level we are satisfying these three fundamental needs or avoiding danger. 

Many, many, many other behaviours, "thoughts" (for lack of a better term), actions, etc will in fact be driven by perceived or real "threats" to these or the means to keep them. 

Which, I must point out, is not really all that different from most other creatures with whom we share this planet. 

So as wonderfully "advanced" or "sophisticated" as we all think we are with our "smart phones" (a term I am not fond of), snazzy cars, Home and Garden homes, Vogue clothes (and on and on), or even the "higher educations" many feel so proud of, at our very cores it's mostly all about those four things. 

Do we ever think of these deep inner drives as we go about all the minor or even major "decisions" in our day to day lives? Very likely not. Unless they're suddenly threatened or perceived to be threatened (usually by a "rival group" - hello politics and religions and racial discord). Then a whole lot of "thinking" kicks into gear. Or we're being driven by those deeper brain regions to acquire them or avoid danger. Or satisfying someone else's need to. 

Do we "control" any of that? What "decisions" did we make about any of these things we have, or where we live, or work, or eat - or anything?

What is a decision making process anyway?

For this we must have a basic understanding of conscious awareness. This is a little more abstract but let's have a look. 

When we start poking around in brains and seeing all these astronomically vast numbers of neurons, connections between them (often very tenuous connections), "wiring", neurochemicals, hormones and what these all "do", it quickly becomes clear that the average person has absolutely no idea what's "beneath the hood" of their skull. I mean not a clue. Other than a vague idea that there is "a brain" in there. 

What all that stuff is "up to" at any given point is way, way, way beyond our abilities of awareness, and that's presuming a higher level of self-awareness in the first place. 

And speaking of "you" or "I", where are "you" (or "me") in all of that?

The truth is nobody really knows. "You" just sort of "emerge" out of all that "neurostuff" which itself is connected to all kinds of "body stuff", all of which - your guts in particular (or gastrointestinal tract to be somewhat more formal) - probably have more "say" in what you do or "plan" than "you" do. 

Below the conscious "you" and whatever "thoughts" you may be aware of at any one point, all your sensory equipment and limbic region "hardware" is monitoring all that goes on around you, responding to smells, sounds, sights, tactile sensations, all well, well below your conscious awareness. And all of these regions are "talking" to other "higher" brain regions carefully steering "you" this way or that. 

The ever popular dopamine pathways (I know I love studying and writing about it) are always quietly keeping you tuned into - if not locked into - all kinds of "goals" (AKA; pleasure rewards), themselves mostly attuned to those basic survival needs.

We could go on for several hundred thousands more words about literally hundreds of neuroanatomical or neurobiological (read hormones and neurochemicals) factors that steer "you" this way or that, or create your "moods" this way or that way, 99.9% of which you have no awareness of whatsoever. 

Where, exactly, do the free will proponents think this "I" is in there? They literally have no idea and if they claim to they are being very dishonest. [the esteemed neurobiologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky addresses this towards the end of his acclaimed tome on human behaviour Behave though countless other esteemed neuroscientists have also addressed this question]

Where does this "I" come from even? At what point does this "I" who is the "agent" of our actions and thoughts begin?

As we saw briefly in Genetic and Environmental Factors in Individual Brain Development, who any person "is" is the result of
nearly unfathomable numbers of factors utterly, utterly beyond anyone's awareness, let alone control.

At what point in that incredibly complex process involving virtually countless possible developmental variables does this agent known as "I" "take the wheel"?

Many would probably answer something along the lines of the age where an individual starts to experience metacognition (usually at some point just before or after puberty). 

This point of "self-awareness", this metacogntion, is often linked to such things as autonomy, self-regulation, self-evaluation, moral and ethical reasoning and regulation and so on. 

But where do these come from? 

This is all happens in the frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex. But do "we" control what goes on in there? 

We may experience it as "control" but it is in fact just your standard off the rack homo sapien brain doing exactly what it evolved, developed and adapted itself for - guiding and regulating "you". "You", however, had nothing to do with its development or lack thereof. 

What factors develop healthily functioning frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex? The same factors we saw in Genetic and Environmental Factors in Individual Brain Development. 

Or we might just call it luck. The luck of being born into privilege and good housing, nutrition, family and education (and even this is no guarantee to produce a "well behaved" individual). 

Look at any kind of poor behavioural regulation (read: ethical, moral, socially/culturally acceptable  behaviours, actions, thoughts, etc) and you will find maldevelopment in key frontal lobe or prefrontal areas or critical white matter connections. Or perhaps lesions. Or perhaps the kind of neurodegeneration found in Alzheimer's, different types of dementia, CTE, much of which appears to affect frontal lobes more than other areas. 

At the other end of the brain, as it were, we come back to that standard off the rack limbic region where fears originate. It is nearly impossible to overstate how much the great majority of people are governed and motivated by fear or fears of all kinds; some of them instinctive, many of them learned. Or pain and avoidance of it. Many of these from childhood experiences that could never fully be overcome. 

Anything about any given person's behaviour can be altered for the worse (but not for the better, I'm afraid) by "knocking out" key regulatory brain regions or the white matter between those and behaviour generating regions (limbic and brain stem). 

What about thoughts, you ask. 

Yes, what about thoughts? Or memories for that matter?

These are incredibly hard questions to answer and more is being discovered all the time but once again I am afraid "you" had next to no say in where any of that comes from. Hell, you had next to no "say" in the vast, vast majority of what went into your brain, let alone what it actually produces. There will be untold hundreds of possible influences into where the information in one's brain came from, how it influenced one, all of which just "happened" as we went about our childhoods, teen years, and early adulthood, the great majority of which resulted from cultural influences, the societal and family norms one grew up in and dozens and dozens of other possibilities. 

All of which bubbles up from deep subconscious regions and functions to produce what we consciously perceive and experience as "thoughts", "memories", "decisions" and anything else we "think" we "control". 

Yes, sobering, I know. 

But there it is. 

Why is "free will" unnecessary? 

Here we come back to my love and admiration for the human brain. It is, quite simply for now, the most remarkable biological organism ever to have evolved. All brains' purpose is to get their host organism through life. And the human brain is the most powerful "survival" organism that exists. It has powers that do not exist anywhere in the known universe nor in the history of life on earth. 

The human brain is wonderfully adept for the most part at navigating through life and adapting to circumstances and finding solutions. All brains do this, the human brain can do it better than any other. 

Presuming, of course, that it is fully healthy and all the brain regions necessary developed properly. And this is a very large - and dangerous - presumption. 

Why then is the illusion of free will dangerous?

For many reasons and this will take further explorations. 

My initial reason for studying what really creates moods and behaviours and dispelling the illusion of "free will" in people was to truly understand the real world struggle so many people have in overcoming their moods, understanding their "faults", the behaviours in themselves they don't like or consistently regret, the thoughts they have trouble controlling, the poor choices they made and all those other things so many of us struggle with, try so hard to overcome yet just, for whatever reason, cannot. And to lessen the suffering they experience from being blamed and beat up by others, or blaming or beating up themselves. 

But also because so much of society is about "blaming" and "judging" and worse, "punishing" with the vast, vast, vast majority of "punishment" having absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever - except in the mind of the punisher(s). 

There are many, many neuroscientists who see it this way as well. 

How can we as individuals improve ourselves if we don't understand the biological and physiological basis for what we are experiencing? 

What if poor brain health, or maldevelopment or damage of some kind has taken away individual "agency" over our actions, thoughts, behaviours and so on?

This, dear readers, is perhaps one of the most important issue facing us today. 

The belief, the assumption, that every individual has "free will" agency over all aspects of their lives, decisions, thoughts and so on is the very thing standing in the way of people asking for help, of seeking help. I would argue that it is a great part of what gives rise to denial. 

It is what stops society from accepting that many people need help, not punishment.

Many, many people struggle with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. Imposing one all encompassing notion of "free will" on every individual is again a major roadblock for understanding the real struggles of so many people and for them seeking and getting what might best help them. 

How can we "correct" behaviours or improve lives if we don't know the real underlying root causes of the issues? 

The truth is that we can't. 

And any belief that we can is pure illusion. 

An illusion that is standing in the way of more humane and effective ways of treating and rehabilitating those who find themselves at the bottom of or "afoul" of society. 

Which, quite frankly, I simply find barbaric. 


  1. I agree, there is no such thing as free will, just pre-determined outcomes depending on circumstances. It's very very easy to give an illustration of this.. I use my well used one of two drivers going for city A to B.. one has an item of information the other does not - and there are different outcomes solely based on this one bit of information. Then suggest someone to rerun this a million times, with exactly the same knowledge, and when would either of them have ever made a different apparent decision based on their information. The answer is they would always "choose" the same... so where was the choice, if they were only ever going to go in one direction... the bigger question is why do people find this reality so distressing... "oh I worked hard to get to where I am"... "so where did that work ethic come from" = silence.. change the subject...

  2. So, the bottom line is, we are trapped in a web of influences both physiogical and psychological. We have the sort of logical mind to understand our problem, and the ability to exert faith in dealing with it. Okay. Then there's the consciousness conundtum, for which we have philosophies masquerading as theories in an attempt to explain it. And that's where we're at. My influences are telling me it's time for a drink.

  3. I am not some independent entity in control of my brain. I am my brain ( well, I'm the rest of my body too). So I see no conflict between me making decisions (often called free will) or the mechanisms of my brain making decisions. They are the same thing.

  4. As Tony Parsons put it: "life happens as if in free fall" (