Freedom and Purpose

Commuting days until retirement: 34

Retirement, I find, involves a lot of decisions. This blog shows that the important one was taken over two years ago – but there have been doubts about that along the way. And then, as the time approaches, a whole cluster of secondary decisions loom. Do I take my pension income by this method or that method? Can I phase my retirement and continue part-time for a while? (That one was taken care of for me – the answer was no. I felt relieved; I didn’t really want to.)  So I am free to make the first of these decisions, but not the second. And that brings me to what this post is about: what it means when we say we are ‘free’ to make a decision.

I’m not referring to the trivial sense, in which we are not free if some external factor constrains us, as with my part-time decision. It’s that more thorny philosophical problem I’m chasing, namely the dilemma as to whether we can take full responsibility as the originators of our actions; or whether we should assume that they are an inevitable consequence of the way things are in the world – the world of which our bodies and brains are a part.

It’s a dilemma which seems unresolved in modern Western society: our intuitive everyday assumption is that the first is true; indeed our whole system of morals – and of law and justice – is founded on it: we are individually held responsible for our actions unless constrained by external circumstances, or perhaps some mental dysfunction that we cannot help. Yet in our increasingly secular society, majority educated opinion drifts towards the materialist view – that the traditional assumption of freedom of the will is an illusion.

Any number of books have been written on how these approaches might be reconciled; I’m not going to get far in one blog post. But it does seem to me that this concept of freedom of action is far more elusive than is often accepted, and that facile approaches to it often end up by missing the point altogether. I would just like to try and give some idea of why I think that.

Early in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, the child writer Briony finds herself alone in a quiet house, in a reflective frame of mind:

Briony Tallis

Briony Tallis depicted on the cover of Atonement

She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it?  There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self – was it her soul? – which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.

I don’t know whether, at time of writing, McEwan knew of the famous (or infamous) experiments of Benjamin Libet, some 18 years before the book was published. McEwan is a keen follower of scientific and philosophical ideas, so it’s quite likely that he did. Libet, who had been a neurological researcher since the early 1960s, designed a seminal series of experiments in the early eighties in which he examined the psychophysiological processes underlying the experience McEwan evokes.

Subjects were hooked up to detectors of brain impulses, and then asked to press a key or take some other detectable action at a moment of their own choosing, during some given period of time. They were also asked to record the instant at which they consciously made the decision to take action, by registering the position of a moving spot on an oscilloscope.

The most talked about finding of these experiments was not only that there was an identifiable electrical brain impulse associated with each decision, but that it generally occurred before the reported moment of the subject’s conscious decision. And so, on the face of it, the conclusion to be drawn is that, when we imagine ourselves to be freely taking a decision, it is really being driven by some physical process of which we are unaware; ergo free will is an illusion.

Benjamin Libet

Benjamin Libet

But of course it’s not quite that simple. In the course of his experiments Libet himself found that sometimes there was an impulse looking like the initiation of an action which was not actually followed by one. It turned out that in these cases the subject had considered moving at that moment but decided against it; so it’s as if, even when there is some physical drive to action we may still have the freedom to veto it. Compare McEwan’s Briony: ‘It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it.’ And this description is one that I should think we can all recognise from our own experience.

There have been other criticisms: if a subject may be deluded about when their actions are initiated, how reliable can their assessment be of exactly when they made a decision? (This from arch-physicalist Daniel Dennett). We feel we are floating helplessly in some stirred-up conceptual soup where objective and subjective measurements are difficult to disentangle from one another.

But you may be wondering all this time what these random finger crookings and key pressings have to do with my original question of whether we are free to make the important decisions which can shape our lives. Well, I hope you are, because that’s really the point of my post. There’s a big difference between these rather meaningless physical actions and the sorts of voluntary decisions that really interest us. Most, if not all, significant actions we take in our lives are chosen with a purpose. Philosophical reveries like Briony’s apart, we don’t sit around considering whether to move our finger at this moment or that moment; such minor bodily movements are normally triggered quite unconsciously, and generally in the pursuit of some higher end.

Rather, before opting for one of the paths open to us, there is some mental process of weighing up and considering what the result of each alternative might be, and which outcome we think it best to bring about. This may be an almost instantaneous judgement (which way to turn the steering wheel) or a more extended consideration of, for example, whether I should arrange my finances to my own maximum advantage, or to that of my family after my death. In either case I am constrained by a complicated network of beliefs, prejudices and instincts, some of which I am probably only slightly consciously aware of, if at all.

Teasing out the meaning of what it is for a decision to be ‘free’ in this context, is evidently very difficult, and certainly not something I’m going to try and achieve here, even if I could. But what is clear is that an isolated action like crooking your finger or pressing a button at some random moment, and for no specific purpose, has very little in common with the decisions by which we order our lives. It’s extremely difficult to imagine any objective experiment which could reliably investigate the causes of those more significant choices.

David Hume

David Hume

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

So maybe we are driven towards the philosopher Hume’s view that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. But I find the Kantian view attractive – that we can objectively deduce a morally correct course of action from our own existence as rational, sentient beings. Perhaps our freedom somehow consists in our ability to navigate a course between these two – to recognize when our ‘passions’ are driving us in the ‘right’ direction, and when they are not. Or that when we have conflicting instincts, as we often do, there is the potential freedom to rationally adjudicate between them.

Some have attempted to carve out a space for freewill in a supposedly deterministic universe by pointing out the randomness of quantum events and suchlike as the putative first causes of action. But this is an obvious fallacy. If our actions were bound by such meaningless occurrences, there is no sense in which we could be considered free at all. However this perspective does, it seems to me, throw some light on the Libet experiments. If we are asked to take random, meaning-free decisions, is it surprising that we then appear to be subjugating ourselves to whatever random, purposeless events that might be taking place in our nervous system?

Ian McEwan must have had in mind the dichotomy between meaningless, consequence-free actions and significant ones, and how we can ascribe responsibility. The plot of Atonement, as its title hints, eventually hinges on the character Briony’s own sense of responsibility for those of her actions that are significant in a broader perspective. But as we are introduced to her, McEwan has her puzzling over the source of those much more limited impulses that do not spring from any sort of rationale.

Recently I wrote about Martin Gardner, a strict believer in scientific rigour but also in metaphysical truths not capable of scientific demonstration, and his approach appeals to me. Freewill, he asserts, is inseparable from consciousness:

For me, free will and consciousness are two names for the same thing. I cannot conceive of myself being self-aware without having some degree of free will. Persons completely paralyzed can decide what to think about or when to blink their eyes. Nor can I imagine myself having free will without being conscious. (From The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, Postscript)

At the beginning of his chapter on free will he refers to Wittgenstein’s doctrine that only those questions which can meaningfully be asked can have answers, and what remains cannot be spoken about, continuing:

The thesis of this chapter, although extremely simple and therefore annoying to most contemporary thinkers, is that the free-will problem cannot be solved because we do not know exactly how to put the question.

The chapter examines a wide range of views before restating Gardner’s own position.  ‘Indeed,’ he says, ‘it was with a feeling of enormous relief that I concluded, long ago, that free will is an unfathomable mystery.’

It will be with another feeling of enormous relief that I will soon have a taste of freedom of a kind I haven’t before experienced; but will I be truly free? Well, I will at least have more time to think (freely or otherwise) about it.

2 thoughts on “Freedom and Purpose

  1. Thought provoking.

    I agree with Hume on this, and think that small actions (like moving a finger) are not qualitatively different than the big decisions. In fact, the big decisions break down to small actions, they are decisions insofar as they are embodied in the world.

    Have you read Sam Harris’ “Free Will”? He tackles the subject from a more philosophical point of view, showing the paradoxes that arise from assuming free will.

    • I haven’t read Sam Harris, but after seeing your comment I watched a talk by him on YouTube, and found him a stimulating and witty speaker. It hasn’t really changed my view: I suspect I more or less fall into the first of the two categories of people he characterises at the beginning as ‘missing the point’. I look forward to reading the book and will probably come back with some responses to it. But thank you for bring him to my attention. He has some elegant and interesting arguments.

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