Oct 02

Part 2—Free Will: R.I.P.

Is Free Will Viable?

This posting arises from Kathlena Contreras’ comment regarding my original posting on Free Will. A reply to her comment in the Comments section would be less visible to readers of this blog than a full discussion in a regular posting.

Briefly, Ms. Contreras challenges the contention that free will is an illusion because it is still a product of our brains and because absence of a free will essentially turns mankind into machines. Yes, our brains control all our actions and, no, we are not machines in the absence of free will.

The point of my mentioning the Libet experiment is that it destroys the contention that our conscious mind controls our awareness and the actions we take in response to that conscious thought. To analogize, we have to turn the key that starts the car before we can drive off. The measured brain impulse (the turned key) exists before the conscious thought reaches our awareness (driving off). Thus, our conscious awareness is not the driver of our actions. Rather, it is a tag-along factor.

Additionally, though not directly discussed in the original piece, the science of genetics is another reason to deny a role to free will in human behavior. As can be seen in microcosm in a Google search, there are thousands of papers and treatises available on the link between our genetic inheritance and our behavior.

Scientific research in behavioral genetics establishes beyond dispute that such a link exists and that it correlates with the behavior exhibited by humans. Researchers have carried out studies involving the behavior of identical twins separated at birth and on other cohorts that shed light on the role genetics plays in determining behavior in later life.

Not to be ignored is the role of environment, what is often referred to as “nurture,” in human behavior. Coupled with our genes, the environment in which we live is a vital determinant in whether humans can indeed exercise “free will.”

Let’s take a common example found often in real life. Joe’s father, an alcoholic, has exhibited sociopathic traits throughout his life, getting in trouble with the law and serving jail sentences on several occasions. He beat not only Joe’s mother, witnessed by Joe, but he has beaten Joe on numerous occasions through Joe’s childhood to such an extent that Joe was placed in foster care. Joe, now seventeen, is a confirmed truant who has been arrested for drunkenness and fighting four times. Finally, he has gone too far and robbed a store at gunpoint after first beating the owner half to death. He finds himself in court charged with armed robbery and attempted murder. The court-appointed psychiatrist reports that Joe is sane and was aware of what he was doing. Query: has Joe acted of his own free will?

Under the law as it exists today, Joe will likely be sent to prison for his crime because he was judged to have committed the crime being fully aware that what he was doing was wrong. This is free will in action.

Were free will to no longer exist in the legal system, a political as well as a judicial decision, we as a society would have to judge whether Joe’s behavior was a result of environmental and genetic factors. Only after this was determined would the court be sufficiently informed to decide whether Joe is a danger to society sufficient to imprison him and “throw away the key” or whether Joe should get a lesser sentence that includes meaningful psychiatric treatment until such a time as he is rehabilitated or shows evidence that he is too badly damaged to be released into society.

We have to ask ourselves which is the more humane approach. As it currently exists, we don’t really want to know about the hard wiring of genetics or what impact the bad environment had on Joe’s behavior. We are into retribution, not rehabilitation. Is it a dollars and cents matter? Which costs society more? Incarceration (retribution) or rehabilitation? That’s a subject for economists to deal with, but you’d be surprised at what they have found.

Ms. Contreras seems to assume that the genetic “hard wiring” is unalterable. What is the proof of that assumption? We know from numerous studies that humans are naturally altruistic and cooperative creatures. Were it otherwise, we would not have achieved our position at the top of the food chain.

She also assumes that our “hard wiring” would turn us into mere machines. If we concede that our genetic component determines once and for all our fate, then we would have to say that the history of mankind is a lie. We must not forget that environment plays a vital role in our behavior. The roles of genetics and environment are on a sliding scale: sometimes genetics is the weightier but more often environment carries the greater weight. The two always coexist. Looks like environment has outweighed genetics throughout history. Put another way, the machine analogy is a straw man.

Is this is a grim worldview? Seems to this observer that eliminating free will from our lives frees us to find the better side of our humanity. It would free us to look beyond the surface into what truly motivates us.

At the outset, I asked whether free will is viable? As it exists today, it lives a zombie existence: science has killed it but it stays upright and keeps us from allowing our better angels to step into the light. Time to recognize that free will doesn’t exist and that there are better ways of dealing with our problems. Let’s use them and create a more humane world.


    • Linda on October 8, 2013 at 19:02

    Hmmm, there are interesting points on both sides. The examples given in support of free will being non-existence seem credible; however, what popped into my brain is learned behavior. If one has learned and has done something over and over, it makes sense to me that our brain’s subconscious would already be alert to the action that will soon take place, like putting a key in the ignition of a car. The same might hold true for the child growing up in an environment of abuse and, thus, repeats that cycle. So, while I haven’t read Libet’s study nor do I come close to understanding how the brain works, in determining a simple task of deciding which button to push, even while it may be a different button under different circumstances, it is an action performed by most over and over in a lifetime and the processing of the action may be so similar that I can believe that the subconscious will begin to process the action and select the button prior to our conscious mind ultimately completing the task physically.

    I see my two year old grandson listen and watch intently instructions being given in doing new activities. With his initial attempts at replicating the act, he may stumble. He experiments until he is able to successfully complete that act. The more he does it the better he gets at it and the faster he is able to perform the act. I can imagine that even at two years old, his subconscious has already begun the memory process that his conscious mind ultimately performs. Acts become second nature, as they say.

    In contrast, I see my 95 year old mother struggle at simple tasks once done with ease and seemingly without thought. It is clear that her brain is not functioning in the same way or capacity that it had even from six months ago. She must give simple tasks like walking her full attention and thought. If she is to stand tall, rather than hunched, she must consciously do so or she will remain hunched over. Every movement requires making a decision and takes longer for her to accomplish. I assume that unlike my grandson who is able to retain information and process it quickly, my mother’s brain is not able to do this nearly as well and is limited to the moment. I imagine her subconscious is not able to process and make determinations as quickly as my grandson’s brain so her conscious follow through is much slower and takes much longer.

    In other words, I see that our conscious may not be the driving force of the action but I do not see it merely as a “tag along” factor but as a continuation of the entire thought process.

    I was under the impression that in certain legal cases, genetics and environmental influences might play a role in determining innocence or guilt. I researched and found that in 2011, Barbara Sheehan was acquitted of second degree murder when she shot her abusive husband eleven times. According to the NY Times, the critical question was whether she was in imminent danger when she killed her husband. Her husband was shaving just prior to Mrs. Sheehan shooting him. Evidence of Mr. Sheehan’s physically abusing Mrs. Sheehan was presented. This played a vital role in the jury determining her innocence. The case was viewed as a test for the battered woman defense.

    Likewise, I am confident I would also find cases where evidence of mental retardation or mental illness has played a part in determining guilt or innocence. So in some instances, I think that the notion of free will is already disregarded in its purest sense. I think this is a good thing. And, yes, I believe that in these cases we present ourselves as a more humane society.

    I do believe what we call “free will” is governed by learned behavior that is affected by our genetics and environment as Don stated. And, since no one has absolute control over the decisions or actions they take, I suppose free will does not exist. In spite of the influences, however, I don’t think it negates the existence within most of us of having the ability to think and determine choices and accept the responsibility of our own limited or restricted will. Gosh, it seems I agree with both Don and Ms. Contreras.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion!

      • Don Bay on October 9, 2013 at 19:13

      Taken together, Linda’s and Kathlena’s comments tell me that what still seems clear to me was not stated in such a way as to be clear to them and maybe to others that Free Will is not viable. If I were to do it over, I would probably eliminate the Libet study and rely solely on genetics and environment. I included the Libet study only because it destroys the central tenet of Free Will: the necessity of conscious awareness.

      Linda correctly points out that there are instances of evidence of genetics and environment leading a jury to find in favor of an accused and genuine justice being served. Those instances are, however, few and far between and depend on both competent counsel (a good lawyer) and an aware judge. Overwhelmingly, juries and judges accept the Free Will doctrine and fail to receive or understand the genetic and environmental factors that might mitigate the punishment given.

      Unfortunately, many accused criminals who are mentally deficient or individuals who are innocent of the crime charged have been put to death by the state. When you think about it, innocent or guilty, there is no more premeditated killing than that done by the state. Killing the mentally deficient and the innocent is abhorrent.

      It must be made mandatory that the latest scientific evidence on genetics and environment be presented in any criminal trial. Only then will it be clear that the doctrine of Free Will is dead. Only then will we get to see what really matters. Only then will we take a step toward real justice.

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