Free will – problems of definition

Some of the philosophically inclined readers have probably followed the recent internet discussion of “free will.” I am referring specifically to that between evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (blog: Why evolution is True) and philosopher  (blog: Rationally Speaking). It been interesting partly because the debate has also encompassed commenters on each blog. Regulars who might otherwise have lined up with the specific blogger but disagreed in this case.

I have no wish to get into debates on “free will” – I find them frustrating because people often argue past each other. And it seems to me that the debate often really boils down to how we define “free will.”  So I just want to restrict my comments here to the matter of definition.

I think much of what Jerry writes is good – but in this case I find his definition of “free will” too mechanical. And I think this leads him to doubtful conclusions. Here is how he defines “free will” in his USA Today article (see Why you don’t really have free will):

“. . .let me define what I mean by “free will.” I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it’s your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.”

It is the “consciously” which I wish to take issue with. It’s important because part of his argument refers to work indicating that decisions on an action may be taken by a person well before that person is conscious of the decision. As Jerry describes it:

“Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. . . . “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.”

Consciousness is much over-rated

I think this work is interesting because it suggests an important role for the subconscious (or unconscious part of the brain) in decision-making which, on the surface, appears conscious. In a way this isn’t surprising because most of the work the brain does is, has to be, unconscious. Just imagine if all the ongoing work involved in homeostasis were controlled by conscious decisions. That you had to consciously decide how to respond to every incoming biological threat and then pass those conscious decision on to the immune system!

So, I don’t think it is wise to differentiate so sharply between the conscious and subconscious working of the mind/brain. I have written before about the role of the subconscious in moral decisions and think this stretches to many more areas of our decision-making than we might think. And that is a two-way street – our conscious mental deliberations also influence our subconsciousness brain – and that in return feeds back into later conscious decisions. Our academic and social learning involves, over time, constant interaction between the conscious and unconscious brain.

My suggestion is that when we “freely and consciously choose” this decision is not restricted to the conscious, self-aware brain. It also, and inevitably, involves the unconscious. Using the particular definition Jerry has, and limiting the process of decision-making to the conscious brain, is just too mechanical.

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4 responses to “Free will – problems of definition

  1. I’m afraid your post amounts to nitpicking. However, I think Jerry Coyne would agree with it.


  2. It is quite remarkable that the question of consciousness is still a matter of debate among science-oriented academics in what one likes to think of as these enlightened times.
    Phenomena blithely invoked include quantum effects, fractals and “complexity theory”, when in reality it is just no longer a big deal.

    “What is consciousness” when stripped of the metaphysical baggage generated by introspection, is seen to be entirely accounted for by our current understanding of biology.

    It is, in fact, an evolutionary necessity. As is the very closely related feature we perceive as “Free Will”

    These are simply aspects of the navigational facility which enables an organism to interact optimally with its environment.

    The level of interaction of our species being inordinately high and the extent of consciousness correspondingly sophisticated.

    A point I have frequently made in various writings over the years is that this facility can be inactivated rather easily by a whiff of anaesthetic.

    The topic is discussed a little more fully in chapter 20 of “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?”, and in some detail in chapter 6 of “Unusual Perspectives” Both are free downloads.


  3. I recently wrote an essay on Free Will, after which I happened to come upon your article, which I found interesting, and, more to the point, made me aware of the recent debate. Next stop. Thank you.


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