The bearded man in the photograph to the left is Daniel C. Dennett, whom I consider to be the highest authority on the matter which I am about to discuss. He has written truly excellent books on the topic. Consciousness Explained and Freedom Evolves are the most noteworthy. Dennett is one of these authors whose books must be read more than once in order to fully grasp his thoughts.
I want to write a few things which I believe to be entirely consistent with Dennett’s view of consciousness and free will.
What is human free will?
This is the obvious question that must be answered before one can attempt to answer the next logical question: do we have it? Of course, there is not a lot of agreement out there as to what free will is. The concept of God finds itself in the same situation. This is the real reason why science cannot say anything about God: it is an ill-defined concept. If we take some time to answer the question of what God is and end up with a fixed definition, we can do science with it. This is exactly what Victor J. Stenger does in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, where God is defined as the God of the Bible, who answers prayers and intervene in human affairs.
Now, we can do the same with free will. We can even test multiple definitions of free will. We can even go as far as defining free will as something that is consistent with our understanding of physics and biology, and test it. I want to propose a version of free will that is “worth wanting” and that passes the test of being consistent with a materialistic worldview. Just try to do that with God.
By the way, I just finished reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. In it, he explicitly says that free will does not exist. But there, free will is defined as something making us independent causal agents. Defined this way, free will definitely does not exist. I’m fine with that. However, when free will comes up in a casual conversation, I don’t think it is used as such a metaphysical notion.
I think free will is generally thought of being the capacity of one subject to make choices without being influenced by the outside world. Nobody likes the idea of our choices being ultimately controlled by our context. It is actually possible to make this definition work along with science, but we must draw the frontier between the subject and the outside world very carefully.
What am I?
I am, first and foremost, a biological system. That means that I exist because right after the Universe was born, hydrogen was created. From the gravitational collapse of countless hydrogen atoms emerged stars, which eventually exploded, producing more complex atoms in astronomical quantities. These remnants collapsed again to form new stars and planets. After a few of these cycles, the Solar system as we know it formed in a complex choreography orchestrated by the conservation of angular momentum. The Earth happened to be rightly placed around the Sun to host water in its liquid form along with complex organic molecules and mineral compounds. Somehow, special combinations of these substances formed and began a dance of self-replication.
Requiring resources, this self-replication quickly became a ruthless competition. Some replicators happened to be better at gathering resources and replicating. Little modifications in these replicators happened all the time, giving advantages, changing nothing, or impeding the replicators in their goals. A full spectrum of aptitude to replicate was visible across the replicator population. Those at the good end of this spectrum tended to thrive and generate new diversity, moving the spectrum upwards. Those at the bad end of the spectrum gradually vanished. Eventually, the advantageous modifications piled up so high that life as we know it took off. The dance of the replicators lasts to this day on planet Earth, and we are one of the many fruits it begets.
So far so good! This is a glorious chain of events of which I am very proud to be a product. Nothing in there allows for the emergence of some sort of independence of the laws of physics that would be necessary for us to be independent causal agents. Nonetheless, do not underestimate the laws of physics. They allow for much more than you think, especially in complex systems. Let’s keep going.
I was born out of the meeting of two different but compatible human reproductive cells. They merged and generated a unique, unprecedented genetic combination. The first resulting cell of my body started dividing, partitioning the chemical content of its inside asymmetrically among the new cells. These new cells divided in turns following slightly different instructions. After a few iterations of asymmetric divisions, a draft of a mammal body emerged. This body, which was dedicated only at spreading its genetic material would become the host to a human brain, which would be capable to override this primal directive.
Once born, I would begin to learn to move my body, interpret what I am seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and feeling. Every single experience in my life would leave traces in my brain, which was first built using genetic instructions with the materials my mother would provide. What I am now is the sum of my experiences, my genes, and nurturing. My fears, desires, ambitions and aptitudes all result from these. The direction I want to be free to follow is the product of a mind-blowing chain of events in our Universe. I am not free to choose this direction, but I really don’t care. This direction is what I am.
Am I free to do what I want?
Knowing that we are born from this world defines us. Finding out if we can make choices without being influenced by the outside world suddenly become very complicated. We can think of our consciousness as being the interface between our past experience and the current experience. From this perspective, it becomes trivial that our past experience will influence how we perceive the current experience.
In the previous section, I argued that our past experiences are not merely things that influence us, they are what we are made of. Let’s look at the following sentence:
Our past can have any degree of power to influence how current events will affect us.
Now, just replace “Our past” with “We”. This is pretty much the argument I am making. Notice that I have been careful in using “any degree of power”. I have not forgotten that a lot of things that influence our decisions are subconscious and seem out of our control. But somehow, being conscious of this limitation makes the limitation a little bit weaker. It can be weakened even further by educating ourselves about the specific ways we are influenced subconsciously. The “power” of our past to influence how we will be affected by the present can be fostered to allow us to make more informed decisions. This makes it possible to better follow the direction of our personality.
Note that our past keeps changing with the passing of time, as we accumulate new experiences. Therefore, we keep changing as well. The direction we want to follow is therefore also capable of changing with time, and there is nothing preventing the past direction to influence the future direction. After a few iterations of this feedback, we start to “own” the direction of what we want.
I think I have presented an entirely causal interpretation of free will. This kind of free will exists at the boundary between our past (ourselves) and our current experience (the outside world). It can be made more powerful with more knowledge and more self-monitoring. I think it is the most complex and astonishing feedback process in the Universe.