Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Belief in free will is a belief in vitalism

Any readers who have checked out my web lectures or podcasts (particularly the "I-Illusion") know how I deal with the topic of free will and determinism.  I would recommend that those of you interested in this topic read this excellent open access essay in PNAS by Anthony Cashmore. (Figure 1 is a nice summary of models for the flow of information between unconscious neural activity and conscious thought.) The abstract and a figure:
It is widely believed, at least in scientific circles, that living systems, including mankind, obey the natural physical laws. However, it is also commonly accepted that man has the capacity to make “free” conscious decisions that do not simply reflect the chemical makeup of the individual at the time of decision—this chemical makeup reflecting both the genetic and environmental history and a degree of stochasticism. Whereas philosophers have discussed for centuries the apparent lack of a causal component for free will, many biologists still seem to be remarkably at ease with this notion of free will; and furthermore, our judicial system is based on such a belief. It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism—something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago.

Figure (click to enlarge) - Models for the flow of information between unconscious neural activity and conscious thought. In A, the commonly accepted model is shown whereby WILL influences conscious thought and, in turn, unconscious neural activity, to direct behavior. The difficulty with this model is that there is no causal component directing WILL. In B, a causal component for WILL is introduced; however WILL now simply reflects unconscious neural activity and GES (genes, environment, and stochasticism). That is, WILL loses its “freedom.” In C, WILL is dispensed with, and conscious thought is simply a reflection of unconscious neural activity and GES. Conscious thought is now primarily a means of following—more than a means of influencing—the direction of behavior by unconscious neural activity. This subservient role of conscious thought in directing behavior in model C, is indicated by the dotted arrow 2 (contrasting with the solid line for the corresponding arrow in A and B).


  1. "Will" is a sensation that we experience. Like any of our senses, different species and individuals experience more or less of it according to how the associated organs function. In this case, it's a higher-order function, so we tend to think of it as some vital "thing" we possess rather than what it really is, simply a sensation.

  2. In other words, saying "will" causes actions is like saying "vision" causes images.

  3. heribert büerger4:53 PM

    I would like to suggest to pass one step further: targetting the "real" question behind it: what is it all about, CONSCIOUSNESS, I, WILL.
    When considering communication between brains (not adding an "owner"), maybe a completely different story turns up.
    Knowing about the already known various (non-conscious) ways of communication between brains: there might be a real function to be found for consciousness.
    Its unique function would be (apart keeping alive the biological system it is integrated in) to easen communication between the world and single brain. Much more information of the surrounding world can be computed, if it has been "sorted" and "evaluated" before. A Symbiosis between neuronal systems and what we so far call "culture"

  4. Great article. I do, however, think that getting people to give up free will will be extremely difficult.

    Wilfulness has a very strong biological basis. Getting your genes in to the next generation requires a high level of something akin to wilfulness, as in "I can and will knock off the alpha male and claim his females". Evolutionarily, you'd want to be very sure that an attempt to take over will result in death before dropping the idea of procreating. I've seen an estimate based on DNA analysis that less than 20% of males participated in the production of the next generation. Under these conditions you can reasonably expect that to have kids you needed to be wilful to an extent that would today produce incarceration.

    I guess to the extent that we pride ourselves on our ability to think things through then we will call will free will. :)

    The further major problem is even if free will is an illusion created as part of the self for this biological purpose it certainly feel real. Judging from the inability of people to relinquish other external forms of vitalism, it's going to be a tough ask to get people to give up one they can feel for themselves. There's a great interview with Thomas Metzinger where he discusses, as an offside to the wider discussion of mind and consciousness, a current problem with the politicisation of Free Will in Germany, which he regards as retrograde and unscientific in the extreme. Anyone interested in the mind body problem who is unfamiar with Metzinger's ideas should follow the link. Our host, Deric, has posted some excerpts from Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel that you can search for.

    If there's only a few of us who have noticed this, what should we do?