The wind said

You know I’m

the result of

forces beyond my control

A.R. Ammons, “The Wide Land”

When the subject of free will resurfaced on the media horizon recently, all I could think of was that last dorm room bull session on said topic many, many years ago. But up it pops again, not just in philosophy journals, but in the esteemed science, and generally nonphilosophical, journals Nature and Science. A subject that has been fervently teased, manipulated, and debated (by scholars decidedly more rigorous than a clutch of college students with a couple of semesters of introductory philosophy under their collective belts) for at least 2,000 years has once again emerged from its largely philosophical confines, evoked, interestingly, by neuroscientists.

The more strident of whom insist that free will is a mere illusion.

Joe Keim Campbell
Joe Keim Campbell (Photo Robert Hubner)

Based on experiments in which researchers using brain scans were able to predict the action of a subject based on neuronal activity before he made a conscious decision to perform that action, the neuroscientists tried to close the long discussion with the peremptory decision that one’s neurons directing one’s conscious mind proves that there’s no such thing as free will. In other words, one’s biological brain telling one’s conscious mind what to do proves that we’re not really free to make “our” own decisions.

Joe Keim Campbell is bemused. A philosopher and chair of the Department of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, Campbell specializes in free will. He publishes scholarly papers with titles like “Free will and the necessity of the past.” He is the editor, with fellow WSU philosopher David Shier and University of Idaho philosopher Michael O’Rourke, of a collection of essays titled Freedom and Determinism.

“What’s the argument?” he asks of the neuroscience experiments. “Just because they’re precursors to a particular decision doesn’t mean the decision isn’t free… When I look at it, I figure it’s just the problem of free will and determinism, in another guise.”

For the sake of those unfamiliar with the innumerable permutations of the free will v. determinism debate, Campbell has just established himself a compatibilist in the persistent argument over whether free will can exist in a determinist universe.

Determinism is the notion that our actions are the result of a cascade of causes, whether they be metaphysical, cultural, genetic, or otherwise. An incompatibilist believes that free will cannot co-exist with determinism.

On the surface, the incompatibilists might seem the more logical in their either/or reasoning. The compatibilist, however, seems more intuitively correct—if not heroic, at least more commonsensical.

Think about it. Who will deny that any effect is determined by a prior cause? Whether through nature or nurture, our actions, and who we are, are determined by our genes, upbringing, historical events, a parent’s influence, the physical laws of nature, a sergeant’s command, and on and on. On the other hand, who’s going to convince you that you weren’t in full control of your decision about what shirt you put on this morning?

“For 2,000 years we’ve been talking about this issue, split between compatibilists and incompatibilists,” says Campbell.

It is only recently that science has gained the tools to address the same questions that philosophers have been tangling over for two millennia, and Campbell and other philosophers feel that some scientists have been a bit hasty, if not haughty, in their conclusions.

For they are not solid conclusions at all within philosophical standards, but mere inferences. And not strong ones at that.

Referring to the argued relationship between the subconscious neuronal activity and the subject’s subsequent action, Campbell diplomatically says, “This could be a fallacious form of inference.

“The data are indisputable,” he continues. “There are good reasons to think there are precursors to our decisions. What the consequences of that are, though, is another deal.”

Western philosophy and its consideration of free will have not endured over the centuries by way of jumping to conclusions.

Our definition of determinism, indeed, has taken on various forms and evolved over the years. Early on, belief in an omnipotent god raised serious questions about how we could possibly make free choices when this god already knew what would be the result. Lately, philosophers have been more concerned with what effect evolution and quantum physics have on our notion of free will. Along the way, they have developed a rigorous, logical methodology and vocabulary for discussing the intricacies of our metaphysical and existential well-being, a vast language indeed, for which the accused neuroscientists show scant appreciation.

But to the heart of the matter, what does this all mean? Does it really matter if we believe in free will or not? Isn’t it simply a metaphysical construct?

The truth is, we all think about “free will” more often than we imagine, for it has many manifestations.

Consider that last brownie, sitting vulnerable on the kitchen counter. How do you think about it? If you believe you’re a deterministic pawn, then you can simply chomp it down, blaming physiological forces over which you have no control.

Or you could decide (resisting those overwhelming forces) that no, you have already eaten the rest of them and that you can resist. Maybe you don’t need those added calories, or perhaps you could leave it for someone else.

Which leads us to moral responsibility. Are we responsible for our actions, or are we will-less robots? Do we decide on our actions, or did “the devil make me do it?”

Consider: If free will is an illusion, then intentional evil, or bad acts, is impossible. Was Hitler evil, or was he simply the unfortunate result of a series of events?

Campbell believes that much of the problem, even among philosophers, might essentially be a matter of linguistic meaning.

Pursuing a similar line of thought, prominent neuroscientist (and author of the recent Who’s in Charge?) Michael Gazzaniga has suggested that “free will” will eventually “go away,” replaced in our thinking by “nature of action,” eliminating the inferred discrete brain/mind divide, not to mention the incompatibility of determinism and free will.

“Who is going to make free will ‘go away’?” asks Campbell. “How exactly is the transformation of the usage of these expressions going to happen, from ‘free will’ to ‘nature of action’? That is just not how language works. For most contemporary philosophers, our will is free if and only if our actions are free; so we already think of freedom in terms of action. And we are always going to distinguish the actions of the average person, which are presumably free, from those of, say, psychopaths, whose actions are not free.”

The philosophical debate, in other words, is not about to wind down. Not after 2,000 years.