Imagine you are given the task of sorting a sequence of numbers into two subsets – ‘odd’ and ‘even’. Let’s also imagine that your sorting process is analogous to the algorithm we would use if we were programming a computer to do the same job. The rules may look like this:
1: Divide number by 2.
2: Check for remainder.
3: If there is a remainder the number is odd.
4: If there is no remainder the number is even.
5: Load the next number (until end of sequence).
6: Go to step 1.
This criterion-based selection procedure is how we conventionally understand processes of evaluation, whether we’re looking for numbers with specific properties or deciding what to wear before going out (‘I can’t wear that I wore it yesterday’).
Typically, criterion-based selections require adherence to preset rules (and preset contingency plans) in order for everyday life to run relatively smoothly. But free will must fit into our scheme somewhere and this is where the problem lies for, as a concept, it proves to be perversely confusing.
Returning to the number sorting task, if you allow yourself to make deliberate mistakes by placing even numbers in the odd group and vice versa, you demonstrate your capacity to ‘break’ away from your inner sorting algorithm and act independently. However, if a computer were to similarly err when executing its program we would suspect either a software bug or a hardware malfunction. Is this, then, what free will amounts to – an instance of malfunction? In human terms is it nothing if not a moment of madness?
There’s a philosophical puzzle concerning a mule and two bales of hay. The mule stands midway between the bales which, importantly, are indistinguishable in size and quality. The question is can we rely on reason to predict which bale it should pick first? The inevitable answer is that the mule, if it relied on reason, would eventually starve to death through indecision as each bale is equally attractive as a starter or main course. Its survival depends instead upon choosing irrationally.
Irrational decisions are essential for survival. Our instincts can and will bypass logic, and not only in matters of life-and-death. Choosing partners, watching a film, picking a different starter (if hay is off the menu) – a great deal of human activity consists of acting ‘crazily’ this way. But instinctual preference is biologically driven so the above activities still fail to capture the freedom we associate with the essence of the human will.
Scientific opinion on the matter is generally divided into two camps – classical and quantum. Classical models tend to deny free will on the grounds that neurological processes are sufficient to produce its effects whereas the quantum mechanical approach attributes it to the essentially random behaviour of atomic elements in the brain. Both sides make compelling arguments but neither provides a completely satisfying explanation.
For example the experiments of H.H. Kornhuber in Germany in 1976 demonstrated that a subject’s conscious decision to move a finger at randomly selected times lagged significantly (up to a second) behind recorded rises in the brain activity associated with the movement. Materialists have championed these results as evidence of the illusory nature of conscious autonomy, but the problem with Kornhuber’s work is that although it weakens the intuited link between consciousness and intention it serves only to transfer the mystery of free will to earlier brain activity. The question to be answered now is ‘what prompts brain cells to fire at one particular moment and not another?’ In other words where does the neural impetus come from?
Things are equally inconclusive in the quantum domain. The recent findings of US neuroscientist Peter Tse – who has discovered that some signal flows through the brain’s synapses are controlled by the action of a single magnesium atom, which is sufficient to produce and amplify quantum effects – may lead some to believe that behavioural outcomes, in the final analysis, rely upon random selection. But then why waste time deliberating if your choices are no more rational than the toss of a coin?
From a philosophical perspective free will is nothing if not human. Attributing it to chemical interaction, determinate or otherwise, strips the concept of a necessarily broader personal dimension and reduces humanity to mechanism. Free will belongs to the ‘I’, that elusive intra-cranial homunculus who engages in discourse and creates invisible things called ‘contexts’ and ‘ethics’ and ‘games’, and its ability to be a malfunctioning computer is just one of the things that makes it – and us – special.
First published on Tumblr