• Free Will Is Un-Natural

    As you’ve probably guessed, I am interested in all things free will. Recently, I was reading a chapter from “Are We Free?” entitled Free Will Is Un-Natural by John A. Bargh.

    Bargh sets out the obvious issues:

    The psychological issue of whether free will exists thus boils down to whether undetermined choices of action exist and occur. No one today would deny that people have preferences, motivations, desires, goals, and so on, and that these at least influence what we do. This is after all the very subject matter of psychological science. But the doctrine of free will within psychology holds as axiomatic (see Locke & Kristof, 1996) that the choices made on the basis of these influences are free, made by a consciousness that is the source of original intentionality” (Searle, 1983). Now we have distilled the essence of the question of free will, in the psychological domain: Are behaviors, judgments, and other higher mental processes the product of free conscious choices, as influenced by internal psychological states (motives, preferences, etc.), or are those higher mental processes determined by those states? The influence model can be likened to an executive officer who takes suggestions from subordinates as to what to do but nonetheless makes the decisions; the determination model has those subordinates directly in charge with no need of an independent Decider.

    Yet any scientific—as opposed to philosophic—approach to the question of free will cannot rely upon extraphysical explanatory concepts, as Searle (1983) did with the concept of original intentionality, and as John Locke did before him with his mind-first cosmology (see Dennett, 1991). Locke had argued that mind was the originator of thought and action, but that nothing (save one’s own past personal experience) caused mind. Similarly, for Searle, only humans (not other living things) are said to have original intentionality, by which he meant that intentions (the will) originate in the mind and are not themselves the causal product of any physical or mechanical forces. As Konrad Lorenz (1962, p. 23) admonished us, “it is the duty of the natural scientist to attempt a natural explanation before he contents himself with drawing upon factors extraneous to nature.” Treating free will as a force outside the laws of nature in the Locke/Searle manner is similar to how intuition and creativity have long been popularly viewed as being due to some kind of mysterious “spark” or quasi-magical process. In all three cases, the argument that the phenomenon is an originator and not itself caused by some other process is actually just an admission that we don’t know what causes it; as Spinoza (1677/1951, p. 134) put it, “men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.”

    It is interesting that this chapter, since the book itself is dealing with these issues from a psychological perspective, looks at work involving how we perceive notions of free will within our mind, psychologically:

    The philosopher Harry Frankfurt (1971) has noted that we tend to invoke the notions of choice or free will only when describing our own behavior, not that of other people. And more recently, Pronin and Kugler (in press) have documented this attributional difference experimentally; choice or deliberation does not come up in accounts of why others did what they did, only for one’s own behaviors. When we are accounting for other people’s behavior we are like scientists, because the perceived and experienced behavior of others is in the past; but only we as individuals have privileged access to our own phenomenal state prior to acting. Arendt (1978) makes the following comments:

    In the perspective of memory, that is, looked at retrospectively, a freely performed act loses its air of contingency under the impact of now being an accomplished fact, of having become part and parcel of the reality in which we live. The impact of reality is overwhelming to the point that we are unable to “think it away”; the act appears to us now in the guise of necessity. . . .

    Once things have happened, and have receded into the past, they become part of the world of facts, of causes, and we just naturally, even inescapably feel that they were determined, caused, and that nothing else could have happened. We may not be able to predict what will happen but once it does, we feel we “knew it all along,” and believe what happened was inevitable. This fundamental difference between our subjective certainty and confidence about the past, versus our uncertainty and trepidation about the future, manifests itself in many judgment biases that have been documented by decision researchers.

    Free will, it seems, is an illusion, but a psychologically useful, if not necessary, one:

    We have also learned that feelings of being in control are far more beneficial to our functioning than are feelings of helplessness; thus these subjective feelings of free will are one of the “positive illusions” (Taylor, 1989) we hold dear. Yet this benefit is irrelevant to the scientific status or truth value regarding the actual existence of free will; however positive and adaptive the feeling, it is still an illusion.

    Where the essay starts going is looking at the biological and evolutionary usage of the will:

    Because natural selection processes, through gene mutations, operate over vast units of time, they cannot in any way adapt in real time to changes or events in the environment. Thus, genetic controls over behavior are relatively inflexible and can’t adapt quickly to sudden changes in the environment. (This is largely why 99% of the species that ever existed are now extinct.) All they can do is to instantiate the few specific principles most likely to be adaptive even far into the future—such as strong motives to survive, to eat, to reproduce—along with those general principles or strategies that give the organism some adaptive advantage that increases the gene’s chances of being passed down to the next generation.

    Bargh goes on to spell out three different areas of determinism: genetic, cultural and psychological.

    Thus, evolution gives us the general motives and strategies for survival, culture gives us the general rules and knowledge of how to live in the particular part of the world and the particular group of people into which we happen to have been born, and learning from our own direct experience gives us even finer-grained understanding and predictive anticipations. Note, however, that these are not independent influences; as Dawkins (1976, p. 193) points out, our ability to absorb culture depends on phenotypic plasticity (the openness of the evolved system). This in turn depends on genetic variation—that is, we as humans acquired the ability to acquire culture through natural selection. Similarly, in the case of learning, for it to be adaptive we must be predisposed (through natural selection processes) to learn about only certain aspects of the environment over others, because of the overwhelming amount and variety of
    information that constantly impinges upon us (Lorenz, 1962; see also Campbell, 1960; Norretranders, 1998; Plotkin & Odling-Smee, 1982).

    An interesting section follows regarding preferences of all sorts, including some interesting points:

    Immediate, unconsciously produced evaluations can produce even more powerful and abstract behavioral effects than simple arm movements. In a recent study by Todorov et al. (2005), ratings of competence of U.S. congressional election candidates, based solely on facial appearance with the faces presented for just 1 second each, predicted the outcomes of the 2004 U.S. congressional elections better than chance—for example, 68.8% of the Senate races in 2004 were successfully predicted from these immediate, intuitive inferences. Voting choices, of course, are important decisions and widely assumed to be based on deliberate, conscious, and rational processes, yet these findings suggest that even important decisions are influenced and predicted by immediate unconscious evaluative processes.

    Here is another example that most people find surprising, again because it involves important life decisions. It has long been known that we have a strong preference and liking for people who are similar to ourselves in appearance, attitudes, and beliefs, and this plays a significant role in interpersonal attraction (Byrne, 1971). Recent research has shown that this similarity-liking effect extends to new people who resemble significant others such as our parents (Andersen & Chen, 2002), although people are not aware of and do not report any such resemblance as a factor in their liking. The similarity effect is so strong, in fact, that it extends even to preferences for places to live and occupational choices that are similar to ourselves in merely superficial ways.

    For example, compared to what you’d expect by chance alone, there are more people named Ken who moved to live in Kentucky, Florences who moved to Florida, and more named Louis who moved to St. Louis; there are more Dennises and Denises who become dentists and Lauras and Lawrences who become lawyers, compared to people with names that do not share letters with these occupations. If your first or last name begins with “H,” you are more likely than chance to own a hardware store, and if one of your names begin with “R,” you are more likely to own a roofing company, with “C” a computer company, and with “T” a travel business (for 20 such studies, see Jones, Pelham, Carvallo, & Mirenberg, 2004; Mirenberg, 2004; Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002). This is not at all to say that name-letter similarity is the only basis for our choice of domiciles and professions, but that it is a statistically significant influence on those choices. Most people find this, well, surprising, and it is clearly an unconscious influence as no one would claim name-letter overlap as a reason for making these important life choices.

    And other fascinating examples follow, which is in turn followed by a section on how our actions are primed so very often:

    It is by reference to these same internal representations, then, that the adult human being is wide open to external influences, and even control, over his or her behavior. Fifty years ago, B. F. Skinner (1957) attempted to show that all behavior was under the direct control of the stimulus environment, but as single reflex acts, without reference to any internal mental representations. The transparent failure of this attempt was one reason for the cognitive revolution in psychology (Chomsky, 1959; Koestler, 1967; Neisser, 1967). However, by theoretically extending the reach of external stimuli to the internal representations of the environment that they automatically activate (e.g., types of behavior, goals, social groups, specific other people), much of what Skinner (1957) claimed in terms of direct environmental control over the higher mental processes has now been validated in contemporary research on priming effects across a variety of psychological phenomena (see Bargh & Ferguson, 2000). Yes, the internal mechanisms are cognitive, they are “mental,” but they are not dependent on a homuncular “ghost in the machine” (Ryle, 1949) as they can operate entirely unconsciously.

    One particular nugget which chimes with something I mention in my book to do with the use of free will within co-operative societies is as follows:

    Note in regard to this finding of unconscious motivation to cooperate that Tomasello et al. (2005) have identified cooperation and helping as an evolved motive, one that they argue is the key difference between humans and other primates. Tetlock (2002) has similarly argued, with supportive evidence, for evolved social motives of accountability to the others in one’s social group (the intuitive politician mind-set) and of enforcing group standards on others (the prosecutorial mind-set). This is important regarding the present argument against the existence of free will (at the psychological level), because many would take from the nonexistence of free will that people have no responsibility for their actions and therefore can act entirely selfishly and without regard to the consequences of their actions for others. Thus even if behavior is (multiply) determined and “free will” does not exist at a psychological level, part of the determination of behavior includes motivations to be responsible to others and to be vigilant about and act against their own potential irresponsibilities.

    Lots of evidence is given to show how are minds are primed, both internally, and externally. As Bargh sums up:

    Again, given as well the field of psychology’s meta-assumption of the primacy of conscious will, the extensive documentation of unconscious controls from our distant and recent past and our present seem surprising and controversial. But reversing the causal assumption and recognizing the substantial role played by unconscious forces of evolutionary design, cultural assimilation in early childhood, and our minds as wide open to environmental priming influences, makes these and other similar findings much less controversial and more understandable. The lines of priming research described above show how action and motivational tendencies can be put into motion and cause us to behave in a certain way, without our being aware of the source of those tendencies.

    Bargh continues this excellent summation of the relevant fields until he files his conclusion:

    I have argued here for a new way of looking at the issue of free will, one that begins with the assumption of mainly unconscious instead of conscious causation of action and phenomenal experience, and that is better aligned with our knowledge of the rest of nature, in which examples of amazing, complex yet unconsciously
    operating design (in animals and plants) are plentiful (see Dawkins, 1976; Dennett, 1995). As has often been noted (e.g., Blackmore, 1999; Dawkins, 1976, p. 67), the value of a new perspective can be seen in terms of what phenomena it can readily explain that were previously difficult to account for. Among such phenomena that were surprising from the starting assumption of conscious choice and free will, but which make sense within the present perspective of the primacy of unconscious forces, are (1) the automatic evaluation of novel objects, (2) the immediate connection between automatic evaluation and behavioral (motoric) tendencies, (3) the name-letter and birth-date effect on important life decisions, (4) the unconscious mimicry of others’ behavior, (5) unconscious goal pursuit over time in the absence of ability to accurately self-report on one’s intentions, (6) the very recent and rapid acquisition of language abilities in evolutionary history, (7) that unconsciously made decisions involving integration of relevant features are superior in quality to consciously made ones, (8) the misattribution of free will, (9), that brain-wave impulses to act precede conscious awareness of the intention to act, and (10) the scarcity of conscious self-regulatory capacity. To me, this is rather impressive evidence for the value of the new perspective, in which
    unconscious, not conscious, causes are primary, and unconscious, not conscious, processes are assumed at the outset of any new line of inquiry. Regarding the psychological concept of free will, the evidence reviewed above, along with the substantial banks of knowledge already gained in the other natural sciences, leads to the conclusion that there is no need to posit the existence of free will in order to explain the generation of behavioral impulses, and there is no need to posit free will in order to explain how those (unconscious) impulses are sorted out and integrated to produce human behavior and the other higher mental processes. The phenomenological feeling of free will is very real, just as real for those scientists who argue against its actual existence as for everyone else, but this strong feeling is an illusion, just as much as we experience the sun moving through the sky, when in fact it is we who are doing the moving. Each of us lives in a difficult to predict present and near future, which includes our own behavior in it, and which therefore makes our behavior feel spontaneous and undetermined—but what we don’t experience, yet which are just as real, are the multitude of unconscious influences and determinants of what we think, act, and feel. Finally, as psychologists who are also natural scientists, we need to keep in mind that the “unconscious mind” is the rule in nature, not the exception. It is, perhaps, time for us to stop being so surprised.

    All told, an excellent chapter in a fascinating field, and well worth reading in full.

    Category: Free Will and Determinism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce