Free Will and Autonomous Will: A Physicist's Perspective on How We Are Accountable for Our Actions

By Stenger, Victor J. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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Free Will and Autonomous Will: A Physicist's Perspective on How We Are Accountable for Our Actions

Stenger, Victor J., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

IN A RECENT SHORT BOOK NEURO-scientist Sam Harris pulls no punches on one of humanity's oldest philosophical problems: "Free will is an illusion." (1) We don't exist as immaterial conscious controllers, Harris claims, but are instead entirely physical beings whose decisions and behaviors are the fully caused products of the brain and body.

Even having an immaterial soul as many suppose, Harris notes, would not give us free will: "The unconscious operation of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does." He thus concludes: "We are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way people suppose ... The idea that we, as conscious beings, are deeply responsible for the character of our mental lives and subsequent behavior is simply impossible to map onto reality." (2)


After centuries of disputation philosophers have identified several different positions on the question of free will. Incompatibilists hold that free will conflicts with determinism--the idea that our behavior is fully determined by antecedent causes such as fate, acts of God, or laws of nature. (3) Incompatibilists are themselves split into two camps. Libertarians hold that we have free will since humans transcend cause and effect in ways that make us ultimately responsible. In an actual situation as it occurred, we could have done otherwise. (4) Determinists hold that we do not have free will, either because determinism is true (we could not have done otherwise in an actual situation as it played out) or indeterminism (randomness) doesn't give us control or responsibility. (5) Both of these groups are opposed by compatibilists, who argue that free will is compatible with determinism, or indeterminism for that matter. (6)

A Physicist's Perspective

In this article, I will argue from a physics perspective that although quantum mechanics reveals that the universe is fundamentally indeterministic and that randomness plays a much bigger role in nature than most people realize, the human brain is basically a Newtonian machine. That is, quantum indeterminacy cannot be called up to provide a break with determinism that can be interpreted as some kind of free will. However, we will see that the human brain is performing such complex tasks and has to deal with so much data that it is forced to generate a simplified model of conscious decision-making that feels free. So, while our notion of conscious free will is an illusion, we--defined as both our conscious and subconscious brains--are still responsible for those actions that are not either forced upon us or are the result of brain injury or disease.

The Unconscious Will

Research in neuroscience has revealed a startling fact that revolutionizes much of what we humans have previously taken for granted about our interactions with the world outside our heads: Consciousness is really not in charge of our behavior.

We have generally assumed that our senses take in data from the world and send it to our brains where it is stored in our memories to provide us with a knowledge base for our actions. These actions are then performed consciously by an entity called the "self" or "I" that's thought to be the essence of our personhood. For example, when I lift a fork to my lips at the dinner table, my conscious self performs a deliberate act by telling my arm and hand what to do. This is, at least, the common understanding of what we call free will.

However, laboratory experiments pioneered in the 1980s by physiologist Benjamin Libet have shown that before we become aware of making a decision our brains have already laid the groundwork for that decision. (7) While the interpretation of Libet's original results remains controversial, (8) continuing research has strongly confirmed the main feature of the phenomenon, which is the significant time delay between the brain beginning to shape a decision and our awareness of making that decision, which ranges from a fraction of a second to several seconds in length.

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Free Will and Autonomous Will: A Physicist's Perspective on How We Are Accountable for Our Actions


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