Freewill is a conundrum. We feel free, as though we can control ourselves and decide what to do rather than being forced along a certain path like a leaf blowing in the wind. But we can’t understand how we could be free, because understanding involves positing causes on top of causes and analyzing one thing in terms of something else. A fallen leaf moves along a certain path, because the leaf is blown by the wind. And why does the wind blow? That’s because of differences in atmospheric pressure. But why does wind blow this way rather than that? Well, that’s because the wind encounters objects in its path, including the curled-up shape of the leaf, which create pockets of turbulence and eddies. And why is the fallen leaf curled up so that it spins as it blows? That, in turn is because the leaf is dead, and so water and minerals no longer flow through its veins, preserving its former structure. And so on and so on until the process of understanding one event encompasses the history of life on Earth and the causes of our planet’s formation in the story of the whole universe. The one event of the leaf’s swirling in the breeze pales next to the immensity of what you have to know to understand why that event happened as it did.
Indeed, biologists and neuroscientists already have sufficient knowledge of how the body works, to render nonsensical our feeling that we have freewill. Yuval Harari summarizes some of the relevant findings in Homo Deus. Brain processes, he points out, are either deterministic or random. A neuron will fire either in response to stimuli or spontaneously due to the intrinsic uncertainty of the chemical factors involved such as the timing of the release of neurotransmitters. Virtually never-ending causal chains and randomness don’t leave room for personal autonomy. Moreover, although an action may be uncoerced, we don’t choose our desires. What we want is caused either by our genetic programming, by the formative environment in which we learned how to behave as children, or by the accumulation of our experiences. Desires have unconscious causes, as is shown by the fact that scientists observing brain activity can predict what a subject will do before the subject is consciously aware of her decision.
Also, with respect to what scientists can empirically confirm, there is no such thing as the single, essential self, let alone an immaterial spirit; instead, the brain is divided into regions that have different, sometimes conflicting functions. As Harari puts it, there’s the experiencing self, the part of the brain that processes moment-by-moment stimuli, and then there’s the narrating self, the part that gives meaning to experience by telling us what to think or feel and by ignoring most of the information processed by the experiencing self. We identify with our inner monologue because it adds meaning to our life. “It doesn’t matter that the plot is full of lies and lacunas,” writes Harari, “and that it is rewritten again and again, so that today’s story flatly contradicts yesterday’s; the important thing is that we always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death” (299). Finally, says Harari, we cling to the fiction of a soul, of a single self that bears ultimate responsibility for our actions, because we can’t bear the alternative that everything we do is in vain. “Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the stronger the story becomes, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused” (300).
Instead of challenging the scientific deconstruction of the self, I want to consider two meta-questions. First, is the notion of a scientific theory of freewill even coherent or is instead personal freedom naturally impossible from a scientific point of view? Second, what would a free creature look like in nature, speaking hypothetically? How would this creature’s internal components have to be arranged to liberate it from the rest of the world so that we could reasonably think of it as being both free and real?
Why the Concept of Freewill is Unscientific
I’ve already suggested the answer to the first question. Just as a miracle is defined as being beyond our comprehension, whereas science is precisely the most rigorous form of human understanding, and so there can be no miracles as far as science is concerned, absolute freedom in nature is antithetical to the way the world works according to science. Indeed, “complete freedom from nature” seems synonymous with “miracle.” If freedom is the ability to do what you want even if the world is attempting to compel you to do the opposite, you have the power to overturn the world, which is preposterous. Of course, this is a strawman interpretation of personal freedom. The idea of freewill isn’t that we can do whatever we want, including, say, taking flight by flapping our arms, or that we can resist the force of every natural cause. Even if the mind is willing, the body may be weak and so we may succumb to some temptation, for example.
Absolute freedom from everything other than the self (or other than the many parts that make up the self) should be distinguished from a more realistic, limited form of freedom. Absolute freedom would entail that the self alone—rather than anything else in the natural universe—is responsible for its actions, because this self operates according to supernatural laws and so the external web of causally-connected events has no bearing on what this self does. An absolutely free person in this sense would look something like a black hole: it wouldn’t be part of the fabric of natural reality, and so no account of natural mechanisms would be relevant to explaining what happens in this person’s inner domain or what might flow into nature from this estranged individual. A ghostly, angelic figure with a mandate from some supernatural realm might be absolutely free. Neo in the virtual reality of the matrix, who channels his knowledge from a higher reality, might likewise be perfectly free from the programs that dictate the matrix’s virtual causes and effects, which is why in the film he can perform miracles such as flying and dodging bullets.
By contrast, limited freedom would be an approximation of the absolute kind and would be due to some natural arrangement of mechanisms. Limited autonomy would require a dichotomy between self and world and even a conflict between them as the self struggles against external forces, controlling itself and the world as best it can and so breaking a prominent causal chain. Taking into account the free self’s relation to the rest of the world would thus necessitate an emergent, psychological or social level of explanation. For example, defying gravity and flying just by willing your body upward would be a case of absolute freedom, since this miracle would violate natural laws and the flight would be due solely to internal causes that are completely disconnected from your surroundings. Limited freedom that achieves a similar end would require a slow learning process, as you come to understand natural laws and how to exploit them. Thus, you might discover how to engineer an airplane that allows you to fly. In the latter case no miracle is performed, but there is an anomaly afoot, a partial disconnect from the environment as you live more and more in your head. Someone with limited freedom isn’t liberated from all physical limitations or from the limits of her mind or body, but this freedom does represent a Gordian knot of complexity so that the flow of outer causality doesn’t just wash through this sort of self; instead, she processes stimuli and meditates on her options so that the outcome of her reflections is dictated largely by the rules of her inner world, which is to say that she’s the primary cause of her actions.
Still, even if we discount absolute freedom as supernatural, limited freedom will likewise be invisible to scientific investigation. A scientist wants to know how events happen. Theories are added to theories as the complexity of causes requires an analysis, a breaking-up of phenomena into parts. The epistemic division can be temporal or mereological. We can explain later events in terms of earlier ones, and so a theory of how stars formed in the early universe can help explain why plants currently grow or why our sky looks blue during the day. We can also explain something’s capacities by examining its parts, and so the star’s current molecular composition can account for the star’s macrophysical characteristics such as its size and temperature. Science deals with facts in those respects, but limited freedom wouldn’t be a purely factual matter. To see this, consider the difference between freedom and independence. A distant galaxy is independent of ours, but it would sound strange to say that either galaxy is free from the other. Autonomy isn’t just the person’s relative independence from the world; the liberated self must be fundamentally at odds with everything else so that the self is thought of as having rights against being coerced even by natural forces, and so that the self’s opposition to the rest of nature has moral significance. For there to be even limited freedom, the world must be somehow in the wrong for abusing the autonomous creature. Scientific explanation, though, is indifferent to moral evaluation, and so “freewill” shouldn’t be part of any scientific theory’s vocabulary.
Harari shows that the concept of freewill is crucial to Western liberalism, but the concept may also help make sense of the earliest evidence of human cultures, such as the practice of burying the dead; any special regard shown to friends and family at the expense of hostile, indifferent, or rival others indicates a belief in limited freedom in the above sense. The belief would be that the loved one deserves to be buried rather than to have its decay be made a spectacle of, because the memories of that departed person’s specialness as a former moral agent should be honoured. Moreover, the idea of limited autonomy may be implicit in any complete account of animal behaviour, which is why illiberal hunter-gatherers attribute symbolic importance to the hunt and ritually thank the animal for sacrificing its flesh so that the hunters might live another day. There’s the sense that all living things struggle against their environment, since nothing cares more about a creature’s welfare than that creature itself, and the nonliving world cares not at all whether it lives or dies. People may be especially free in the animal kingdom, but all organisms are free to some extent, compared to the rest of nature which has no agency at all. Again, this means not that animals can perform miracles, but that they’re constructed in such a way that they can oppose the prevailing patterns in nature. Creatures aren’t supernatural; they’re antinatural: they oppose the world in so far as they make exceptions of themselves and fight primarily for their exclusive benefit.
The determinist may speak as though scientists have been open-minded about discovering a basis for freewill, but this underestimates the scientist’s methodological barrier to recognizing the freedom that might be hiding in plain sight. It’s not as though scientists explored the body’s interior and just happened to find no liberated source of ultimate responsibility for the person’s actions. To the extent that those latter terms carry moral weight, the scientist is professionally obligated to assume that they should be replaced with more operational, quantifiable terms so that the scientist can proceed with the instrumental business at hand of helping to engineer a modern civilization. The concept of moral obligation may be useful to the practice of living well, but science isn’t concerned with that kind of practicality. Scientists want empowering knowledge. In fact, Harari exposes this Faustian essence of modernity when he writes of “the modern covenant.” Modernity, he says, “is a surprisingly simple deal: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” (199). Scientists strip nature of the illusion of meaning, in their act of explaining events in strictly objective, material terms. Liberalism, then, is the religion that compensates for this deadening effect of science. Despite science’s having shown that there’s no real basis for freewill, we persist in assuming we’re free, but that’s just a gratuitous act of modern faith, for Harari. Again, though, this is an understatement. Even if we were relatively free from the nonliving world, scientists would have no business speaking about that aspect of how we relate to the environment; that is to say, scientists would have no grounds to speak thusly of why we relate to the world out of self-interest, and thus why in the limit case we oppose everything but ourselves.
The Obviousness of Our Real Freedom
To see the difference between explaining the natural basis of freedom and recognizing freedom itself, consider what it would be like to create a partially free creature in nature. Again, the goal wouldn’t be to create a magical being that can perform the miracle of withstanding everything nature can throw at it. Instead, pretend there’s no life in the universe and think of what sort of design would be required to assemble the first natural creature that’s liberated in certain striking respects from the overall flow of natural events. To begin with, the creature would have to be shielded from the rest of the world to prevent it from being overwhelmed and to allow the creature to decide how to act by consulting the contents of its inner world. So we’d have to erect a barrier, dividing nature into two parts (from the creature’s perspective), the inner and the outer. Were that barrier impermeable, we would have two universes on our hands, like ships passing in the night, and were the barrier impermeable only in one direction, from the outer to the inner, the creature would be absolutely, miraculously free which isn’t the goal. So the barrier must be permeable in both directions, allowing the inner and outer worlds to affect each other while providing the creature some breathing room to decide how to respond to the environment.
Also, the world inside the creature which is (imperfectly) protected from everything else must be organized to allow the creature to act with autonomy. This means the creature would have to understand that it’s one thing in opposition to everything else and that it can act on a limited basis to further its interests but will be resisted in some ways by the environment. Its thoughts would thus have to be processed by a control center somewhere safe behind its barrier. The creature must be driven to assert itself, to seek advantages to make it happy even if that should entail disadvantaging competitors; otherwise, however free its thoughts might be from the thoughtlessness of purely physical processes, the creature wouldn’t have the audacity to challenge the outer world, say, by studying natural regularities and modifying them to its benefit. This self-directedness might be accomplished by introducing the capacities to feel pleasure and pain, to discriminate between experiences by learning to heed certain enticements and warnings. To more fully liberate itself from baseline causality, the creature should learn to recognize itself as a distinct entity so that it can mentally model itself as an agent in the indifferent world. The creature would be even more fully liberated were its body equipped to apply the thoughts and feelings at its core. Thus, the creature might be outfitted with organs that allow it to sense changes in certain dimensions of the outer world, and also with appendages that allow it to manipulate the causes of stimuli to help improve its experience and living standard.
Such a creature would be naturally real (not magical), detached from that which lies beyond its barrier, motivated to oppose the natural environment in certain respects, and also enabled to apply its self-interested intentions, to make good on its partial liberty by injecting the contents of its mental space into the lifeless or foreign one and even replacing the wilderness as much as possible with an extended barrier. Of course, this creature is precisely what’s evolved in myriad forms on our planet. Cells have membranes, trees have bark, and animals have skin along with fur, feathers, or scales. Cells have nuclei protecting genetic instructions, and an animal has a brain ensconced in its skull to direct its self-interested (if not necessarily selfish) cogitations, as well as wings, fins, or claws to help it get what it wants. Some mammals evolved opposable thumbs, bipedal locomotion, and an enhanced brain which produces self-awareness and the capacity for higher orders of thought. These latter creatures which we call persons are apparently as liberated as real creatures can be. To wit, people have reshaped the planet in the Anthropocene Age, replacing the wilderness with villages, cities, and civilizations; rival creatures with domesticated pets; and jungle law with ideologies and cultural pastimes and enterprises.
Let’s return to Harari’s case against freewill. At each point we can see that far from discounting limited freedom, the mechanisms in question are its preconditions. Brain processes must be deterministic or random or else the creature couldn’t discern its opportunity to systematically oppose nature amidst the chaos that would ensue without the natural regularities which it can nevertheless transcend at the mental and social levels. Every thought and feeling has some cause or other, but the longer the evolutionary history and the more complex the brain, the less tractable becomes any objective account of why a certain mental state arises; hence the need to shift to a perspective that posits the subjective viewpoint which is apparently our brain’s byproduct. In a deterministic universe, the complete explanation of any event would have to take into account every other event, which would be impossible for reasons given in relativistic physics, and which would be fruitless, given the prevalence of natural chaos. In any case, the universe is fundamentally indeterministic (at the quantum level), so the pursuit of complete explanations is wrongheaded. We must choose between models based on their utility, and so a model of organisms that’s consistent with the phenomenology (that is, with the feeling that we have some degree of self-control) can hardly be dismissed—even if the model is unscientific because it introduces a subjective factor.
How can there be a single self, though, if the brain is divided into modules that evolved to achieve different functions? This question can be turned around: How could limited freewill have evolved with no miracles, unless natural selection gradually lengthened the leash, as it were, by adding parts to the brain that make creatures more and more independent, that accrued layer upon layer of internal causes of the creature’s behaviour so that an objective explanation that discounts subjectivity becomes cumbersome to the point of being misleading? We don’t choose our desires if we think of ourselves as exclusively our conscious egos, but we needn’t think of ourselves that way. Evidently there’s an unconscious side to a personal self, as becomes plain when we dream in personally-distinctive ways without being consciously alert while we’re asleep. So neuroscientists have greater access to what’s occurring in the brain than the patient herself: before the patient becomes aware of her choice, experimenters can predict whether she’ll go left or right, by hooking her up to a machine that reads the brain’s electrical activity. This need imply only that her thought originates from one side of herself rather than another; her personhood, that is, her capacity to act as a person with limited freewill in a moral context encompasses her whole brain as well as her whole body. All are needed or are at least convenient in achieving her purposes. Moreover, objectivity and quantification don’t have the high ground when scientists know more about our choices than do their subjects. Strictly objective, impersonal processes didn’t devise scientific methods of inquiry or brain scanners in the first place; creatures that have opposed nature at every turn on moral grounds and that are thus manifestly free from their natural environment have done so.
Indeed, far from showing that freewill is an illusion, science and technology are themselves classic proofs that an anomaly is playing out in this corner of the solar system. Whereas natural systems tend to become more disordered, organisms struggle against entropy by eating each other, robbing the order found in each other’s bodies and ingesting it. Whereas natural processes don’t react to each other with any awareness or design, organisms do and their history isn’t fully explained without some understanding that living things seek to preserve themselves in an environment that can crush them in a billion possible ways and that even requires them to die to make room for more fitting adaptations, as the environment changes. Whereas the interiors of nonliving things, including rocks, planets, and stars, aren’t fundamentally different from their exteriors and can be explained in the same theoretical terms, biological, neurological, psychological and social patterns are irreducibly different from ones found in nature’s lifeless parts; the former require some appeal to subjectivity, to an inner-outer distinction that carries moral weight, or else there’s a crucial point being missed. And whereas natural transformations such as the evolution of star systems don’t indicate that the later forms are liberated from the earlier ones, the spread of extended phenotypes, that is, artifacts, demonstrates precisely the existentially-weighty fact that organisms set themselves against their environment for love of themselves (and perhaps also of their kind).
So if scientific investigation is instrumental in empowering our species to the point of making us infamous for wiping out most of the planet’s biodiversity and displacing lifeless and less-free nature with intelligently-designed cultures, machines, and cityscapes that serve as outer vessels for the contents of our minds, this rigorous search for knowledge further detaches us from the natural processes that have hitherto prevailed. Uncovering the mechanisms that enable us to process information with intelligence and with anti-natural intentions may show that we’re machines as opposed to immaterial spirits—unless you interpret “spirit” as a simplified image of the creature that’s strangely liberated and thus alienated from natural cycles and thus that seeks not homeostasis (that being the evolutionary purpose of less-free animals), but cancer-like growth of the mind throughout the lifeless void. In any event, what science certainly doesn’t show is that people are just physical objects like everything else in the universe. After all, why then wouldn’t rocks or stars practice science to achieve power over the rest of the universe in the name of all rocks or stars?
The foregoing is what philosophers call a compatibilist picture of freewill, since it assumes that causality is inescapable in the sense that there’s no miraculous, absolute freedom from natural regularities. But these regularities develop something that opposes them, by evolving bodies that simulate foreign, unnatural worlds in the organization of their innards; that is, nature creates organic subworlds, from cells to animals to people and perhaps to societies, each complete with barriers so that we might have expected we wouldn’t miss the existential significance of this emergence. And here Harari may have a point against liberalism despite the ineffectiveness of his premises against freewill. Liberalism may be a modern religion championing liberty, reason, and personal empowerment, but limited freedom as I’ve represented it isn’t a godsend. Just as we can incur back pain for having evolved the ability to walk upright, so too we can suffer from alienation if we don’t retreat to an undignified state of childish delusion, for having been cut off from the world by our inner depths. Thus, another proof of limited freewill is the forlornness associated with grasping that we don’t belong to nature and might as well have been abandoned when we’ve been equipped with ultra-complex, self-isolating brains. Freewill is the ability not just to choose what we want—albeit often at an unconscious level, objective processes notwithstanding as complete causes of mental states, with no reference required to a subjective viewpoint. Freewill is the ability also to travel down the wrong path and it’s the mental space needed to understand that the moral and aesthetic evaluations of the culture-laden worlds we create are ultimately absurd. We’ve been liberated from nature only by accident, and our revolt against the mindless vistas is very likely doomed to be terminated before any absolute triumph has been achieved. Creatures revolt not because we know best but because we’re often selfish and are disgusted with the world as it physically is, so that we’re desperate to replace it with so many reflections of us.