Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

2. The Free Will – Determinism Landscape

Before I outline what I'll be talking about tonight, for those who are new to the debate, let me give you a quick rundown on terminology. This helicopter view of the landscape will help you make sense of how the various approaches to the question of free will differ. The modern scientific view of the world paints human beings as an integral part of nature. This view sees us as part of the natural universe, subject to the same physical, chemical and biological forces as other entities in the universe. Our hopes, desires, beliefs and values all have a biological basis that can be explained using physical models and natural laws. What can be explained includes our volition; our choosing to act one way rather than another.

Functional Regions of the Human Brain
(Reprinted with permission from Webber Source)

Diagram showing regions of human brain dedicated to speech

Say we decide to read out the word 'cat' from a book. Look at the diagram to the right of a normal person's brain. Neuroscience tells us that we recognize the word in our visual cortex. That recognition is transformed into an auditory impulse in the angular gyrus. Wernicke's area then interprets the auditory code. Next, Broca's area prepares and controls the motor cortex for speech. Finally, the motor cortex activates the many speech muscles in our mouth and tongue. What is not shown in this diagram is that other parts of the frontal lobe, housing Broca's area and the motor cortex, are involved in our first forming the intention to speak.

All of this information processing occurs at the level of neurons, pictured in the image below on the left. There are some 80 billion neurons in a normal adult brain, with some 100 trillion connections between them. Each connection is made using very small electrical impulses moving along axons and dendrites. One neuron can have literally thousands of connections to other neurons. This electrical activity is further regulated by neurotransmitters acting in the brain. Two such chemical messengers are Serotonin and Dopamine. The point here is that according to neuroscience, all of this activity happens strictly according to the laws of physics. The upshot is that all human behaviours, voluntary and non-voluntary, are determined by physical forces. Hence the term 'Determinism' to denote this view of the universe and our place in it. This view, that all events in the universe, including our own behaviours, is determined by prior states of the universe coupled with immutable physical laws is often referred to as 'causal closure'.

Artists Impression of Neurons in the Brain

Image of neurons in human brain connected by axons and dendrites

The opposing view, that there are some activities in the brain that are not caused by prior physical events, or not completely caused by prior physical events, is called 'Indeterminism'. This view allows that some human behaviours, such as choosing to read the word 'cat', are not completely caused by physical forces. This account is called a 'contra-causal' view because it is 'contra'/against a complete physical explanation of human decision-making. This lack of a complete physical explanation could be because of quantum fluctuations in some neuronal activity or because there exist non-material minds or souls that act on some key neurons involved in human decision-making. In the handout, you'll see a reference to an article by Randolph Clarke and Justin Capes that gives an excellent overview of the various types of indeterminism. [Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2017]

Determinists and indeterminists can jump one of two ways when it comes to the question of whether human beings possess free will. The diagram below maps out the territory of possibilities. Note the two axes. The vertical axis indicates acceptance or not of the thesis of determinism. The horizontal axis indicates acceptance or not of human beings exercising free will, at least some of the time.

Take the determinists first. They could argue that determinism precludes us having free will – No free will. In that case, they are 'hard determinists'. Those that argue that determinism does not preclude free will are labelled 'soft determinists'. Today, they are more commonly called 'compatibilists', for the simple reason that they claim that the thesis of determinism is compatible with us having free will. A common misconception is that soft determinists/compatibilists don't fully accept the thesis of determinism, at least for the sake of argument. That is not the case.

Now consider the indeterminists. 'Libertarians' are those who argue that a necessary condition for free will (Yes) is that not all human behaviour is completely down to physical states and forces (No). The 'hard incompatibilists', on the other hand, argue that even if some human behaviours are not fully caused by physical forces (No), free will remains an impossibility (No).

Matrix showing four main philosophical theories on free will and determinism: Hard Determinism; Soft Determinism; Hard Incompatibilism; Libertarianism

Think for a moment about which of these four quadrants your own view on free will and determinism is located. Think first about where you sit on the Determinism axis: Yes or No for determinism? Then think about where you sit on the Free Will axis: No or Yes for free will? The intersection between your two answers locates your position.

For example, if you think that all of our actions are determined and, for that reason, you think we don't have free will, you are in the 'Hard Determinism' quadrant. On the other hand, if you think the truth of determinism does not prevent us from acting freely, you are in the 'Compatibilism' camp. If you regard human beings as lacking the capacity for free will irrespective of whether all of our actions are determined or not, you are in the 'Hard Incompatibilism' quadrant. Finally, if you feel that we can and do act freely and, for that reason, determinism cannot possibly be true, you are in the 'Libertarian' quadrant.

Copyright © 2018

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Book cover: An Idealist View of Life by  S. Radhakrishnan
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Book cover: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker
Book cover: The Free Will Delusion by James B. Mile
Book cover: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience by Francisco J. Varela, Evan T. Thompson and Eleanor Rosch

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