Who’s In Charge?

The question of free will has been in the air around here lately, and more than one voice has been heard decrying the awful prospect of determinism. I have a rather blithe attitude toward the problem: I don’t think there’s any need to be upset by the notion that our minds are a product of our brains, which are themselves physical systems that operate according to the same natural laws that govern the rest of the world. But my insouciance regarding this matter is, apparently, a minority view. So I think it would be profitable all round to ruminate on this in public, and see where it gets to.

One of the folks who, I think, has the right attitude about all of this is the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has written two excellent books on the subject. The first, published in 1984, was Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, and the second, from 2004, is Freedom Evolves. Elbow Room is the denser and more academic of the two, but they are both well worth reading. Because so much of Dennett’s take on this ancient problem feel right to me, and because he does such a splendid job of burning off the dense and persistent fog that surrounds the issue, I will draw upon him heavily.

There are many places these ruminations must go. For tonight, let’s begin with this one: what do we mean when we speak of free will? Those who have the luxury of brooding about the problem at all — and they are a distinct minority, I think, because most people in the world are far too busy simply doing the things they must do to get by — seem generally to agree that it is of vital importance, but what is it? It can only be “threatened” by determinism in the first place if it is something we have hitherto imagined ourselves to possess. What, then, is this treasure we must guard so jealously?

It seems to involve the idea that our decisions come from us, that we are, so to speak, “Domino Number One”. But how can this be? And what do we mean, here, by “we”, anyway? Are we referring to our conscious minds?

In order for us to be Domino One, there must be no prior domino we are relying on to tip us over. We are faced with a choice between two alternatives, and must decide. If we have real, buck-stopping original agency, our decision must be wholly uncaused. An inner randomness won’t do; that our decision is merely a coin toss is hardly what we mean by “will”. We might want, then, our decision to be the result of deliberation: our consideration of the choice before us in light of our aims, our experience, and so forth. But that will be the case regardless of whether determinism is true or false; we use software all the time that makes decisions based on its inputs. So what is it, exactly, that is supposed to pull the lever? We tell ourselves that it is simply up to us: that we do deliberate, yes, but when push comes to shove we simply choose. And it is we who decide which to choose.

But do we ever see ourselves doing that? Do we have any actual experience of what is alleged to be the critical step in that process, the essential moment of genuine, uncaused, creative agency? No. Our decision simply appears, bubbling up from some place beneath our awareness. We tell ourselves, constantly, that we have decided this and that, as if reporting on the the conscious act itself, but in fact by the time our decisions become conscious they are already made. We may veto them, but that decision also arrives from beneath, in the same way.

So what is this “we” to which our free will is ascribed? It appears then, that our consciousness is not the origin of our will, but learns of it after the fact. Just what is happening here?

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  1. Charles says

    I’ve thought about free will in the past, and I must admit it makes my head hurt. Off the top of my head, though, the only reason I can think of as to why free will may or may not matter is the issue of responsibility. If, for example, we do not have free will, then we cannot be held accountable for our actions. But I have a feeling that this is a) a different type of free will than the one you are talking about and b) an oversimplification of the issue.

    That’s it for now, maybe more later.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 1:11 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Charles,

    No, it’s the same issue I’m talking about. This is a huge topic, and there are so many angles to examine that I’m going to take my time.

    But fear not, we are going to continue to be accountable for our actions, I think.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  3. JO says

    I feel so constricted by conversation when I can’t see the person and “determine” other aspects of the mind that is challenging me.
    So are you saying that you do not believe in free will. What exactly do you believe determined that you and I would have this discussion. Did I not decide to check your blog and comment?(which by the way I have erased over and over to get it just right!) Did I not choose to do this with my mind and conscious instead of my physical mechanical brain? And what exactly is determinism as it affects your life?
    Okay, what I really think is that I can’t carry on a coherent discussion through the written word!

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    I think, Jeanie, that you did decide to check my blog and comment, and that, just as you say, the decision was consciously represented in your mind. But I also think that all of this — the deciding, the conscious awareness — took place entirely as the result of physical processes occurring in your brain.

    None of this is inconsistent with the erasing and revising you did; I also did a lot of that too as I wrote this post, and even this reply!

    The point I wish to develop is precisely that the truth or falsity of determinism has no perceptible effect on our lives whatsoever, and is not at all the bogeyman that it is made out to be.

    One other point: rather than saying “I don’t believe in free will”, I think it will be productive first to look at what we mean by the concept itself: the term “free will” hides a lot of unexamined assumptions that it will be useful to get out in the open. My opinion is that even as fully embedded parts of a world that operates under “deterministic” natural laws, we are every bit as free as we could ever want or hope to be.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  5. JO says

    you’ve made me examine everything I think that I decided to do this afternoon! To be truthful my mind is swimming with all kinds of ideas. I’m in the middle of “The Search for the Miraculous” and I also finished “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse yesterday. Sunday I finished “Chaos” by Gleick(spelling). I’m also rereading “How to develop Chi Power” by William Cheung, so….I’m actually going to do some more research on “free will”. Can “I” take control of those physical processes in the brain?
    and why can’t I make all of this come into my hotmail?

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Jeanie, do you mean you’d like to get emails when posts and comments are published here? I do think there might be some WordPress plugins for that; I’ll take a look.

    …you’ve made me examine everything I think that I decided to do this afternoon! To be truthful my mind is swimming with all kinds of ideas.
    Well, that’s just what I was hoping for, so you’ve made my day!

    Can “I” take control of those physical processes in the brain?
    Well, to answer that, we need to be clear about what “I” means. Both in the context being discussed here, and also that discussed in ISM, this is an important question.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  7. hi one & all-

    For me it often becomes a question of personal morality. We do seem to choose to do what we do, or not. We deliberate ( does that mean negate our liberty ?)… Until our options get narrowed down. or perhaps until we marginalize the issues that deter us from what we will…

    Such a procedure uses the brain of course, but there is a sense – for me at least, that there is also a part of my consciousness that is very much in this moment and taking the reins of my own actions as I weigh the choices available…I am not as sure as you are Mac that that consciousness relies on my brain, but rather observes and uses my thinking as just another part of this human life I live as a spiritual being.

    The YiJing admonishes me to nurture the “higher” aspects of my being rather than the “lower” aspects, in other words, work to build compassion and honor and courage etc etc…- the better aspects of my nature rather than delight in all the various flavors and sensual delights etc…Stoic rather than hedonistic… and as you know that has indeed been a furious battle ground in itself!! It is assumed that there is an “I” that can choose to alter my behaviors as I see fit.

    so-I know I have made choices that seem to have mellowed me over the years. These are perhaps a reaction to aging itself. I think that they surely are to some degree, but I also believe that I have strengthened my inner sense of being to be guided by my higher self, and not my lower more animalistic nature…

    Do I spend money I can ill afford – to do something I presume will amuse me greatly? Not so much these days…I need a new brain!!!-


    Posted April 22, 2008 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  8. the one eyed man says

    Cue Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  9. Jesse Kaplan says

    Well, in terms of clearing away the underbrush, or straw, brain activity reflecting decision prior to external registration of conscious registration of that decision (per the physorg article of a week ago) is neither here nor there as regards free will. (Surely anyone who can grasp that sentence is not an unconscious agent!) Second, that a decision simply appears, bubbling up from somewhere, does not call free will into question so much as the locus/source/persona of the “decisionmaker,” especially as you are describing things above. You could have narrowed things to software versus “decisionmaking,” at which point the discussion will divert to the significance of qualia, and we will have been around this track a few times before. Just thought I’d offer a shortcut across the infield, though these metaphors about scarecrows and tired old racetracks suggest processing different from software, while the feelings that can guide decisionmaking can be cognate to qualia.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says


    Implicit in your remark is the assumption that we are able to tell, from within, whether or not our consciousness is the result of the brain’s physical activity — as if we were to say “well, I know that if my mind were just my brain at work it would feel like X, and instead it feels like Y, so I know it isn’t so.”

    But I doubt we are in a position to make that call purely on the basis of how it all feels. Our consciousness is at its most unreliable, in many ways, when it tries to become aware of its own foundation and limits.

    At any rate, none of this interferes in the slightest with our ability to introspect, to work toward modifying our behavior and even the habits and capabilities of consciousness itself! (Though I do think that the difficulty of this work is another glimpse of how much is hidden from view, and how deeply mechanical we are.) My point here is that all is still possible even with minds that arise from our brains — that are our brains at work — and brains that are natural objects like everything else.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says


    …brain activity reflecting decision prior to external registration of conscious registration of that decision (per the physorg article of a week ago) is neither here nor there as regards free will.

    That’s an interesting remark, and if you are saying that consciousness is not a key aspect of free will, then you cede a lot of ground already that many would want to defend, I think. I’m inclined to agree with you; I think our freedom is proportional to our power as deliberators, and consciousness is a separate issue altogether. But I suspect that for many people an unconscious choice is hard to see as “free” in the way that people like to think of free will.

    I’m not really talking about “software” here in any specific sense, though I suppose I don’t see anything about the brain — at least in terms of its “inputs and outputs” — that couldn’t in principle be modeled by a sufficiently enormous algorithmic computer. But I don’t think that is necessarily enough for consciousness, though that is, as already established, not the issue here. I suspect that consciousness depends on some physical properties of the biological brain, and not just on having the right simulation.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 9:43 pm | Permalink
  12. JO says

    Malcolm and all,
    what aspects of determinism have led to the lack of female commentors on this blog?
    What is “qualia”

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 10:20 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Jeanie, I’ve wondered often why almost all my commenters are male; I know I have more than a few highly intelligent and articulate female readers lurking out there, but they rarely join in. It’s a pity; they would be welcome.

    My fondest wish for this website is that it be a salon, not a soapbox! (And certainly not a stag party.)

    As for qualia (that’s plural; the singular is “quale”, which is pronounced “kwa-lay”): the term refers to our subjective experiencing of the things we perceive: the “redness” of red, the “painfulness” of pain, and so forth. Qualia are one of the central and most contentious topics in the philosophy of mind.

    If you’d like to get quickly up to speed on the topic, you might like to look at this informative article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and then this famous and provocative paper by Daniel Dennett.

    Posted April 22, 2008 at 11:03 pm | Permalink
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    Posted March 25, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink