John Searle, who is currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the world’s most highly respected philosophers. In a recent nine-minute interview with Closer To Truth host Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Searle succinctly defined the problem of free will, in laypersons’ language. Although Searle finds it difficult (as a materialist) to see how human beings could possibly possess free will, he also realizes that it’s impossible for us not to believe that we have it. If it is an illusion, then it’s one we can never hope to escape from. At the same time, Searle is withering in his criticism of “compatibilist” philosophers, who assert that even if our actions are fully determined, we can still believe in a kind of free will.
Intriguingly, Searle argues during the interview that there has to be an evolutionary basis for free will. After all, he declares, if free will is an illusion, and our actions are causally determined by neurophysiological processes over which we have no conscious control, then how do we explain the suite of behavior which we have evolved, not only for rational decision-making, but also for teaching our children how to make rational decisions? It would seem strange, says Searle, for evolution to make such a huge investment, for something which served absolutely no purpose.
Here are some of the highlights from Searle’s interview (bolding is mine – VJT):
John Searle: The reason that we have a special problem about free will – and this is typical of a lot of philosophical problems – is that we have inconsistent views, each of which is supported by apparently what are overwhelming reasons. The reason that we have for believing in free will is that we experience it every day. We have the experience that the decisions were not themselves forced by antecedently sufficient causal conditions, … where the causes are sufficient to produce the effect. But on the other side, you’ve got an overwhelming amount of evidence that everything that happens has a causal explanation in terms of causally sufficient conditions…. And we don’t see any reason to suppose that’s not generally true. As far as we know, human behavior is part of the natural world, and it looks like it ought to be explained in terms of causally sufficient conditions. But if that’s true, that everything has causally sufficient conditions, that we’re completely at the mercy of causal forces, then free will is an illusion.
John Searle: In the case of other illusions, you can live your life in the knowledge that it is just an illusion. There are certain standard optical illusions, and you live your life on the assumption that the two lines are the same length, even though they look different lengths, in that Muller-lyer illusion. But when it comes to free will, you can’t live your life on the assumption of determinism. You go into the restaurant, and the waiter says: “Do you want the veal or the steak?”, you can’t say: “I’m a determinist. Que sera, sera. I’ll just wait and see what happens,” because – and this is the point – if you do that, if you refuse to exercise free will, that refusal is intelligible to you only as an exercise of free will. Now Kant pointed this out. We can’t shake off the conviction of free will. This doesn’t show that it’s true: it could be completely false. It could be a massive illusion. If so, [it’s] the biggest illusion that evolutionary biology ever played on us, because we live our life on the assumption of that freedom. We can’t get out of that assumption – and yet, for all we know, it might be false. We might be completely determined.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: And that would make that evolutionary product an incredible waste, or an effort being done to create that, when it would be irrelevant.
John Searle: Totally irrelevant. Yes. Now, the only thing that inclines me to think, “Well, maybe there is some evolutionary basis for free will,” is that we don’t know of any other part of evolutionary biology where you have such an expensive phenotype as conscious, rational decision-making. We devote an enormous amount of resources to teach our children how to do it, and just in crude biology, an awful lot of blood has to go to the brain, in order to sustain this mechanism, and to be told, “Well, it doesn’t have any evolutionary function; it’s just a massive illusion, it doesn’t do anything for you” – that’s a highly compelling argument that it’s not so. But it certainly would make it something unusual, as evolutionary biology goes. We would have this expensive mechanism for conscious, rational decision-making, and it’s all useless; it’s all epiphenomenal.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: So we have these two pillars of information – each one self-consistent, each one based on enormous amounts of information – the physical world, every event has a cause – and our sense of volitional free will, our perception of free will, and you have the evolutionary cost – and they are absolutely incompatible.
John Searle: Yes. Not only are they incompatible, but it’s hard to see how we could give up on either of them. [You] see, normally when you get two incompatible things like this, you just give up on one. Now I don’t see how we can give up on either of these. There are various possibilities that I can canvass.
John Searle: Now, I should tell you most philosophers think this problem has been solved. They’ve been solved by something called compatibilism which says, “Well, really, if you understand what these words mean, you’ll see that free will and determinism are really compatible. To say that you have freedom is to say that you’re determined by certain sorts of causes – such as your desires – instead of somebody putting a gun at your head. I just think that’s a cop-out. Compatibilism evades the problem. The problem can be stated without using these words. The problem is: is it the case that for every decision that I make that the antecedent causes of that decision were sufficient to determine that very decision?
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Because if they are…
John Searle: We have no free will.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: And it’s an illusion?
John Searle: That’s right.
John Searle: There is an “experience gap.” We do have an “experience gap” every day. You decide: who am I going to vote for in the next election? Now you don’t just sit back and wait to see something happen. You actually have to think it through and make up your mind. Now that’s what I’m calling the gap: the conscious experience that the reasons that you have for an action, though they are rationally the basis for that action, don’t typically compel that action. Yes, I did like this feature of that candidate, and I did like this other feature of that other candidate, but I voted for this guy. But I could have voted for that person, equally well. I wasn’t compelled or forced.
John Searle: Here is the puzzling feature: as far as our conscious experiences are concerned, it seems to me our conscious reason, at the level of the mental, is not causally sufficient to force the next [decision]… I mean, you can see that by contrasting the cases where it is – where you really are in a grip of an obsession – with the cases where it isn’t. But the tougher question is: what about at the level of neurobiology? If the neurobiological level is causally sufficient to determine your behavior, then the fact that you have the experience of freedom at the higher level is really irrelevant.
Readers can watch the interview here (h/t Professor Jerry Coyne):
(Closer to Truth has a larger series of videos on the subject of free will, which is available here.)
Searle takes causal determinism for granted in the foregoing discussion, but as physicists are well aware, determinism does not hold at the submicroscopic level, where quantum indeterminacy reigns supreme.
Could the phenomenon quantum indeterminacy rescue our belief in free will? The renowned astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) thought so, although he expressed himself more cautiously in his later years. Nowadays, quantum indeterminacy is often pooh-poohed as totally irrelevant to the problem of free will, on the grounds that if an action is random and undetermined, then it is no more of a free decision than a causally determined action would be.
However, this objection presupposes that proponents of free will are identifying a free choice with some quantum-level event. But if we define a free choice as a macroscopic event which is imposed upon a large number of submicroscopic quantum-level events, and if we reject the common reductionist assumption that causation is always “bottom-up,” then it is possible to describe how a higher-level macroscopic event could be non-random, without being causally determined. I have described in several previous posts (see here, here, here and here) how this could work:
…[I]t is easy to show that a non-deterministic system may be subject to specific constraints, while still remaining random. These constraints may be imposed externally, or alternatively, they may be imposed from above, as in top-down causation. To see how this might work, suppose that my brain performs the high-level act of making a choice, and that this act imposes a constraint on the quantum micro-states of tiny particles in my brain. This doesn’t violate quantum randomness, because a selection can be non-random at the macro level, but random at the micro level. The following two rows of digits will serve to illustrate my point.
1 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 1
0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 0 1
The above two rows of digits were created by a random number generator. The digits in some of these columns add up to 0; some add up to 1; and some add up to 2.
Now suppose that I impose the non-random macro requirement: keep the columns whose sum equals 1, and discard the rest. I now have:
1 0 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1
0 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0
Each row is still random (at the micro level), but I have now imposed a non-random macro-level constraint on the system as a whole (at the macro level). That, I would suggest, what happens when I make a choice.
Top-down causation and free will
What I am proposing, in brief, is that top-down (macro–>micro) causation is real and fundamental (i.e. irreducible to lower-level acts). For if causation is always bottom-up (micro–>macro) and never top-down, or alternatively, if top-down causation is real, but only happens because it has already been determined by some preceding occurrence of bottom-up causation, then our actions are simply the product of our body chemistry – in which case they are not free, since they are determined by external circumstances which lie beyond our control. But if top-down causation is real and fundamental, then a person’s free choices, which are macroscopic events that occur in the brain at the highest level, can constrain events in the brain occurring at a lower, sub-microscopic level, and these constraints then can give rise to neuro-muscular movements, which occur in accordance with that person’s will. (For instance, in the case I discussed above, relating to rows of ones and zeroes, the requirement that the columns must add up to 1 might result in to the neuro-muscular act of raising my left arm, while the requirement that they add up to 2 might result in the act of raising my right arm.)
I’d now like to throw the discussion open to readers. Has Searle successfully refuted compatibilism? Can belief in libertarian, “contra-causal” free will survive, in an age of science? Could I have done otherwise than write this post? Finally, does evolution provide grounds for believing in some sort of free will, as Searle thinks?
Over to you.