Saturday, April 15, 2017


311. Reason contributes freedom to the will

According to what I will call ‘the brain boys’, there is no freedom of the will because what we choose or decide is determined by brain processes we are not aware of. We rationalize choice afterwards, when we become aware of it.

This is not new: it was asserted already by Spinoza, and by Nietzsche.

I had a discussion on this with Dick Swaab, a well-known Dutch author in this field. He defines Free Will as follows: the ability to take a different decision under precisely the same conditions. That is impossible. Given the setting (‘conditions’), our choices are determined, they could not have been otherwise. We cannot correct or change them by reason. This is classical determinism.

One can hardly disagree with this. It seems to be saying: the same causes yield the same outcomes; other outcomes require other causes. Thus, the statement is not very informative. It seems necessarily true, hence not falsifiable, and hence, according to a received view, not scientific (which requires falsifiability).

My definition of free will, following the philosopher Kant, is as follows: conscious, rational deliberation has an effect on our conduct. I immediately add that this effect is very limited, and indirect, acting though neural processes that entail much else, as I argued earlier in his blog, in item 5 (posted 27-07-2012). I then put it as follows: our consciousness is not in control but it does affect choice.  

Our decisions are determined mostly, often entirely, by unconscious reflex, impulse, routine or heuristic. However, conscious reason does have an effect, more or less, and to that extent there still is free will, according to my definition.    

For Swaab (I checked this with him) such conscious deliberation does play a role, and is part of the ‘conditions’ that effect the unconscious decision. So, we agree, in spite of our difference in definition of free will. 

Thank God much of the workings of our brain are unconscious, in a similar way that it is a blessing that we are not conscious of our digestion (if it goes well), our bloodstream, and the production and injection of hormones into it, and their absorption into our metabolism.

There is the familiar notion of ‘tacit knowledge’: ‘we know more than we can tell’, we know things, and have skills, we are not aware of and could not explain. It is often built by exercise and then becomes tacit. Think of a carpenter, a surgeon, an art critic, a sportsman.

Many years ago, in Lisbon, I tried to draw money from an ATM, but the screen displayed a sign ‘communication disturbed’. I thought that meant a technical breakdown in the communication system, and tried again a bit later, with the same result. I then realized that whereas the number pads of ATM’s in my home country count from top to bottom, here they counted van bottom to the top, so that the habitual movement of my fingers on the pad produced a wrong number. I did not know the number: it was embodied in an unconscious movement of my fingers. I had to mentally reproduce the number from the movement of my fingers on an imaginary screen, of the type I was used to, and transform that to a different, awkward feeling, conscious movement on the Portuguese screen.

Let us picture the brain as having two parts: the unconscious and the conscious. Now choice may proceed along several paths, as follows:
1.      Directly from perception to an unconscious decision.
2.      The process then moves on from the unconscious decision to the conscious, in awareness of the choice. That may indeed produce a rationalization that in fact had no causal influence on the choice.
3.      Perception triggers the conscious, which conceives of reasons, which are then fed into the unconscious decision making process, with more or less effect on it. The greater the effect the freer we are. Whether, to what extent and how the conscious and the unconscious are triggered depends on the setting, and is subject to ‘priming’.

When consciousness is on the afterburner, as in 2, it may contribute, as an ‘input’, to the ongoing construction of neural networks that produce future choices. This saves the rationale for punishment (apart from the rationale of retribution): it affects the future making of unconscious choice (in normal, not pathological brains).

Now the interesting question, to me, is to what extent, and in what way, conscious reason has an effect in the choice process.

For an example, let me take trust. That is heavily loaded by emotions, often yielding unconscious ‘gut response’. However, as I discussed at length in his blog, it is also amenable to reason, in analysing reasons for people to be trustworthy, such as dependence, reputation, incentives, morality, position, responsibilities, and outside pressure to cheat. It would be interesting to find out how the two come together, or not, in the decision making process.