Alison Wohler, July 28, 2019

Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus

What’s up with free will?  Did I choose this topic of my own free will?  It’s been a subject on my mind for a few years now and I’d been part of several exciting discussions on our Chautauqua cottage porch about free will, so when Reverend Marian said the theme for this month of July was freedom and responsibility the timing seemed perfect.  Given the absolute identical past input to my brain on the subject of free will, and my collegial desire to acknowledge the lead of our senior minister, – and ALL the other experiences and input that have been entered into my brain to this point over my entire life – would I/could I have ever made a different decision about the topic for this sermon?  And are such decisions made consciously, or in the unconscious interconnected activity of various parts of my brain – which, neuroscientists say, then informs my conscious self some fraction of a second later, creating the illusion that I have actually made a choice between multiple options?


This is a complicated subject.  After I’ve told you some of the details of the various arguments for and against free will, I will try to bring things home and make it relevant to us personally.


The subject of free will is a big deal in many different fields these days as we heard in our second reading from Sam Harris.  Harris writes: “People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about.”  (Free Will, p. 26)  It’s very hard for any of us to conceive that there is NOT a certain, as yet undetermined, entity within us, besides our brains, that directs our actions.  Whether you might call it the mind (apart from the brain), or the soul, there has to date been no evidence of its physical existence.  It’s all our brains.  Yet because, perhaps due to the strength of the feeling of our identity and our own agency (We all feel it, don’t we?) the sentiment is strong for free will.


Near the beginning of any wedding ceremony over which I preside, I always ask the two participants if they are entering into this marriage of their own, unencumbered, free will.  We presume its existence in almost all of our everyday activities, and we presume its existence even more for decisions of greatest significance.


Any discussion of free will begins with our brains.  Jan Faye, in a 2019 article called “How Matter Becomes Conscious – A Naturalistic Theory of Mind,” wrote: “The main function of the brain is to process information about the environment received by the sense organs and to coordinate this information with bodily behavior.  This is the evolutionary purpose of the brain.”  Our reading from Scientific American illustrated the complex interconnections that have evolved in the human brain that make each of us “us.”  Faye also asks the question: “Does the so-called conscious mind have an additional evolutionary purpose which is not the purpose of the brain alone?”  That is, since we evolved to have an illusory sense of our own agency as mentioned by Sam Harris, what has been the evolutionary advantage of that illusion?  Our experienced unique human agency has clearly been something we valued, even being the subject of one the Bible’s most famous stories – that of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Having eaten of that tree humans acquired the ability to contemplate what might be the results of their own actions.  We relish the seeming fact that we are the agents of our own lives.  


But the scientific, and philosophical, evidence shows us, and has for a long time, that we and our precious agency are merely functions of our brains.  There is no mind/body dualism – it’s only brain.  There is no brain/mind dualism.  It’s only brain.  We often think of the brain and the mind as different things, but what we think of as our mind is a creation of the brain.  This is tough, perhaps even disappointing, stuff to absorb.


But one of the big questions around which religious communities have been built is “What does it mean to be human?”  We therefore find ourselves paying attention to discussions such as these about free will.  As we heard in the list of sources from which Unitarian Universalism draws knowledge and wisdom, it is important to listen to what we learn from science.  Increasingly, these days, science is informing our religious and spiritual understandings of the nature of reality and our place in it.

Let’s talk about what might be the most powerful argument against free will: determinism, sometimes called biological determinism, or causal determinism.  Cause and effect.


Simply put, determinism is the idea (both philosophical and scientific) that our world, and the networks in our brains, follow certain universal laws.  An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by another force, said Isaac Newton hundreds of years ago setting in motion the idea of a mechanical clockwork universe.  Our unconscious will go to the connections in our brain that are the most powerful, the most referenced in the past, the strongest in our memory.  Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions – and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware.  (Harris, Free Will, p. 16)  Everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it.  (Chris Willmott, Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility, p. 2)  Causal determinism implies that any action one performs at a given time is the only action one could have performed at that time.  (Walter Glannon, Free Will and the Brain, p. 3)


We are already aware that a person’s behavior can often be directly related to their upbringing, their genes, and the experiences, good or bad, that they have had in their lives.  Determinism would also add in, just to name a few: the books you have read, the conversations you have had, the movies that made you laugh or cry, the scolding or compliments you have received for your past behavior, even the sermons you have endured.  Everything that has happened prior to the point of a particular action or choice.


Having free will, on the other hand, means that one’s actions or behavior are freely authored in our conscious minds.  To have free will is to, without compunction or influence, choose between two different courses of action.


Many people say the idea of free will and the deterministic nature of our universe and our unconscious minds are not compatible.  These people are called the incompatibilists or the hard determinists.  They accept the findings of neurologists who for many decades (since 1985 to be exact), have been showing that unconscious neural impulses set our decisions and actions in motion several hundred milliseconds before our conscious minds are aware of what is happening.  “The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.”  (Stephen Cave, “There’s No Such Think as Free Will, but we’re better off believing in it anyway” The Atlantic, June 2016)


I would probably be among those who are called “hard determinists.”  That is, I do not think that free will and determinism can coexist.   I’ll get to my “however” later.


The second major group are called compatibilists, who think free will can coexist within a deterministic world.  Among the recognizable famous philosophers who fall within the compatibilist camp are Thomas Hobbes and David Hume.  There are classical compatibilists, their heirs the conditional compatibilists, and the new compatibilists, and I cannot explain the difference between them because I don’t understand their positions myself.  One summarization, for example, of classical compatibilism, presented by Chris Willmott in Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility (p. 4) is derived from invoking hypothetical or conditional alternatives (choices) and reads “Nothing would have prevented you doing differently if you had chosen to do so, but you didn’t.”


Willmott believes that some more contemporary philosophical arguments questioning the necessity of alternative possibilities in determining moral responsibility contain some robust arguments, but I’m afraid I cannot explain these either.


A third major category, the libertarians (as in liberty), believe in free will but do not believe in determinism.  For them ours is an indeterminist universe.  Some of the arguments in favor of this philosophy have to do with the indeterminate nature of sub-atomic particles as described in quantum physics.  My reading, however, has led me to the opinion that transferring  quantum characteristics, such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, to the macro world of our brain cells is an inappropriate comparison.


Yes, it’s a complicated subject and philosophers and scientists all have strong opinions.


Religions seems to go both ways.  On the one side, some religious thinking says free will cannot coexist with God’s omnipotence (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing) nature.  On the other side, some religious thinking is that “we are rewarded for our good works and punished for our bad ones (the worlds of karma [and of heaven and hell]).  They say that if there’s no free will how can we be rewarded or punished?  Therefore free will exists.


But, what if it doesn’t?  What does that do to our system of law, order, and judicial process?  If there is no free will, is anyone responsible for their actions?  If there is no free will, is anyone ever justified in feeing proud of something they’ve accomplished?  Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has come to the painful conclusion that “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will. “Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism – the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend.”  (Cave, The Atlantic)


If there is no free will, why do we not take our felons and criminals and try to rehabilitate them, not punish them?  For the most part we practice retributive justice, the kind exemplified by the grieving parents who say they want their child’s murderer to suffer for their crime.  Rarely do you hear (although we do hear occasionally) of someone who wants to learn what happened to this person that caused them to commit this crime – and what can be done to prevent this in the future.  This is called restorative justice.  What a novel way of administering justice this would be, but it’s going to be a hard sell.  It is easy, in a society that reveres free will, to hold others responsible for exercising that free will in a bad way.


Perhaps this growing discussion of how our wills are shaped, possibly totally, by the pre-existing conditions within our brain networks, will help soften our knee-jerk reactions to criminal and antisocial behavior. “In a deep sense, their crimes are not their fault.  Recognizing this, we can dispassionately consider how to manage offenders in order to rehabilitate them, protect society, and reduce future offending.  Sam Harris believes that in time “it might be possible to cure something like psychopathy, but only if we accept that the brain, and not some airy-fairy free will, is the source of the deviancy.”  (Cave, The Atlantic)  Sam Harris does not mince words.


If you knew that given the exact makeup and the exact experiences of another person you would make the same bad decision that they have made, it might make you more compassionate…


So my own bottom line on the subject of free will is that it does not exist.  For me, determinism reigns.  However (here’s that however I promised earlier) it is useful, and perhaps essential, that we act as if free will is real.  The illusions of consciousness and free will have helped humans from the very beginnings to form themselves into communities for protection and power.  


We behave better when we think it matters what we do.  Thus my father’s instructions to me and my brothers to consider the implications of our actions before we did anything.  Societies work better when people act in each other’s interest.  As Michael Gazzaniga, in the conclusion to his book Who’s in Charge? (p. 217) writes: “It is the magnificence of being “human” that we all cherish and love and that we don’t want science to take away.  We want to feel our own worth and the worth of others.”


Personally, I do not find that my opinion that we live in a deterministic world diminishes my feelings of wonder and love and gratitude, or that anyone is worth less than before.  To the contrary, our amazing brains have evolved just the way that seems to work very well.  It’s rather awe inspiring, actually.  


 Some people become fatalistic when they think there is no free will.  They think their efforts will make no difference.  They are confusing determinism with fatalism.  Determinism is based on everything in your brain at the very moment of any particular decision or action.  It is not inevitable that you will act in any determinable way in the future because by then your brain will have absorbed other influences.  “A creative change of inputs to the system – learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention – may radically transform one’s life,” writes Sam Harris. (Free Will, p. 46)


If what I do in my life is dependent on what’s stored in my brain, then if I learn more, or experience more, or love more, or read more, than am I not adding to the material my brain has to work with?  This is my cure for fatalism – doing something positive in advance of decision making.


You have now heard this suggestion from me, so it is now a part of your unconscious mind – just like my suggestion that we may feel more compassion toward others having learned about how decisions are made in our brains – so perhaps instead of succumbing to a serious session of couch potato you will think about getting out of the house to reinforce your love of nature, or to meet some new people because you know these activities will have a positive influence on your future unconscious thoughts and actions.


We are only as good as the information and the experiences stored in our brains.  It’s sort of like a computer – garbage in, garbage out.  But in this case let’s hope for good things in, good things out.  Adding to our brain’s content of knowledge and ethics, for example, will change the way your unconscious makes decisions for you in the future.  


This is the “responsibility” part of this sermon for July’s theme of freedom and responsibility.  Now that we know more about how our brain works, is it not the responsible thing to do to add positive input.  The software is already there.  Our lives add the data the software works with.


Go read a good book about someone who did the right thing in the face of life’s difficulties.  The next time you are in a tough spot, the memory of how someone else handled their situation will be part of the equation that becomes the future you.


Free will may not exist in our deterministic universe, but we human beings, with our complicated psychologies and social constructions, need to act like it does.  And just to play it safe, practice some positive data input.  


Closing Words – by T.H White, in The Once and Future King

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”