I was going to write a whole post about my take on free will... but why? I will say nothing that hasn't been said before in much more worthy fashion by people with philosophical and scientific qualifications that can't be garnered simply by idly perusing RSS feeds on Saturday afternoon in one's underwear. So I'm just going to give you a list of articles and essays I've read over the past few months that, I think, adequately parse different aspects of the free will debate. (I first heard about Benjamin Libet's experiments—just Google him, you'll find them—a few years ago, where that seed languished more or less undeveloped until recently.)

Two things before the list:

  1. Based on the current extent of my reading, I fall into the determinist camp these days, and I don't believe that, given the same conditions, we can choose other than we do.  Even if, as some have posited, random events complicate this statement, I don't see where freedom or control exist in indeterminacy.  Either way, we're beholden to events of which we have little or no knowledge.
  2. I am now retroactively mildly embarrassed by some of my previous comments on inhibition, originally written in response to a post by Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias regarding culpability in sleep rape. My suspicion of the punitive instinct stands, as does my reluctance to equate waking and sleep states, but my current thinking on free will demands that I revise my insistence on an agent's having a choice to prevent or allow an action to take place once that person becomes aware of his/her behavior. Though so-called "free won't" isn't an entirely unhelpful concept, I'm backpedaling now on my insinuation that inhibition is a controlled reaction (duh). In my post I cited an article entitled "Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?", of which I only ever read about half, maybe a bit less, before deciding I understood Baumeister's point (read: tired of it). Conscious thoughts may have a role in decision-making, but they are determined as well—even if consciousness itself is astoundingly complex—and the experience of awareness is merely a byproduct of brain functions that we for the most part do not perceive. However, the review article does point to and attempt to counter Thomas Huxley's steam whistle hypothesis and, in so doing, perhaps unwittingly provides what I think is actually a pretty splendid shorthand for how consciousness probably works.  I provide, with caveats mostly irrelevant to this already overly long list item,  Baumeister's explanation of Huxley's analogy: "It [the steam whistle hypothesis] says conscious thought resembles the steam whistle on a train locomotive: it derives from and reveals something about activity inside the engine, but it has no causal impact on moving the train." There is a larger discussion to be had about the proper role of punishment in light of an increasingly nuanced understanding of consciousness, but I thought it important (for me, at least) to outline where I feel I erred in my original criticism of Hanson.

Ok. The list that follows is presented in whatever order will strike me as appropriate during the following minutes, suffice to say the first two are my favorites.

James B. Miles. 'Irresponsible and a Disservice': The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma. British Journal of Social Psychology.
Miles criticizes the view that knowledge of a lack of free will would send society into an amoral/immoral tailspin and that people would, by definition, become selfish cretins.  Largely a criticism of social psychology and its relationship with free will (as Miles puts it, philosophical libertarianism, which is distinct from the political philosophy of the same name), this paper also provides a nice summary of determinismcompatibalism, and libertarianism, essential concepts to understand in order to appreciate the debate.

Sam Harris. Free Will. Simon and Schuster.
In what is, besides Miles's paper, my favorite piece of the bunch, Harris publishes what he claims will be his "final word" on his opinions regarding free will. This is a highly digestible essay that tackles a number of issues, from culpability to legal implications and personal understanding. (If free will were truly an illusion, we'd have to accept, as Harris says, that psychopaths were simply unlucky to have been born as they were.  Thus, hatred could not be warranted, nor could cruel punishment.  Presumably we would do what is necessary to protect society from murders, rapists, etc., and forego the revenge instinct, which is a programmed survival reaction but one that is not coherent once we take agency out of the equation.)

If you don't ever read this piece, do one thing that he suggests therein: sit down one day and simply pay attention to how your thought process operates. Thoughts just pop in there, to cop a Ray Stanz line from Ghostbusters. How could they do anything but?

(UPDATE: 4/14/2012)
Joshue Greene, Jonathan Cohen. For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Unfortunately, I read Greene and Cohen's article after writing this post, and it may be, as far as the practical implications of a modified conception of free will are concerned, the most interesting one on the list.  Drawing a distinction between consequentalist and retributivist compunctions, the authors argue for the former as a progressive, scientifically justified view of punishment rather than the revenge-driven legal system that seeks to wring remorse out of the prisoner, or right some cosmic moral scale.  The law's default disposition, compatibalism, will be challenged as advances in neuroscience make the causal chains that lead to decision-making more apparent; with this advance knowledge, a system aimed at punishment, rather than prevention, will seem untenable.

Their basic position may be summarized thus:

Existing legal principles make virtually no assumptions about the neural bases of criminal behaviour, and as a result they can comfortably assimilate new neuroscience without much in the way of conceptual upheaval: new details, new sources of evidence, but nothing for which the law is fundamentally unprepared. We maintain, however, that our operative
legal principles exist because they more or less adequately capture an intuitive sense of justice. In our view, neuroscience will challenge and ultimately reshape our intuitive sense(s) of justice. New neuroscience will affect the
way we view the law, not by furnishing us with new ideas or arguments about the nature of human action, but by breathing new life into old ones. Cognitive neuroscience, by identifying the specific mechanisms responsible for behaviour, will vividly illustrate what until now could only be appreciated through esoteric theorizing: that there is something fishy about our ordinary conceptions of human action and responsibility, and that, as a result, the legal principles we have devised to reflect these conceptions may be flawed.

Green and Cohen's distinction between what law wants (retribution) and what people will want (compassion, or consequentalism) largely drives their assumption that certain types of large-scale change will be unavoidable, and warranted. However, they remain of the opinion that law has been molded in such a way that it may incorporate these new findings, as well a shift in philosophy, without requiring an entirely new framework. Rather, the mechanisms of the system may simply be applied in a manner accordant with an understanding of free will and culpability informed by the latest science.  Libertarianism is out, and soon, compatibalism will be, too, they say.

For fans of thought experiments, the Boys from Brazil problem is an absolute must. Are we really so different than Mr. Puppet?

Massimo Pigliucci. The Incoherence of Free Will. Psychology Today.
I haven't included any writing by Daniel Dennett, a prominent determinist, because I haven't read any yet. But both Pigliucci and Harris mention his concept of a "free will worth having," an explanation that Pigliucci summarizes as follows:

What all of this seems to suggest is that the undeniable feeling of "free will" that we have is actually the result of our conscious awareness of the fact that we make decisions, and that we could have — given other internal (i.e., genetic, developmental) and external (i.e., environmental, cultural) circumstances — decided otherwise in any given instance. That’s what Dennett called a type of free will that is “worth having,” and I consider it good enough for this particular non-dualist, non-mystically inclined human being.

Whereas Pigliucci likes this explanation, Harris, in Free Will, accuses Dennett of "changing the subject." Regardless of this disagreement (in which, for the record, I side with Harris at the moment), Pigliucci does a nice job of tearing down dualist notions of free will and summarizing reservations many people tend to have when they are forced to consider that they may not have control over their actions in ways they previously may have assumed.

Kerri Smith. Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will. Nature News.
This is a traditional news piece over at Nature News that describes the respectively different treatments free will receives from scientists and philosophers. Most neuroscientists, the article states, are content to attack dualist notions of free will without considering the more robust philosophical debate that surrounds the issue. Philosophers, however, must explain how freedom to choose otherwise might exist in a causal physical system such as the one in which we, and our brains, exist. One of the large issues has been a lack of consensus regarding a working definition of free will from which further research and rationalization can proceed. For any of you interested in Libet's research, as well as recent studies that confirm and build upon knowledge of unconscious decision-making, the article cites and summarizes a few references. I've only read summaries myself, and I'm not sure full-text is widely accessible.

Björn Brembs. Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Of all the pieces included in this list, I am farthest removed from having read this one.  I have to go back through my highlighted PDF to refresh my memory, but Brembs, in searching for a different scientific understanding of free will, rejects both the dualist and determinist approaches.  Instead, he conjures quantum indeterminacy:

That said, it is an all too common misconception that the failure of dualism as a valid hypothesis automatically entails that brains are deterministic and all our actions are direct consequences of gene–environment interactions, maybe with some random stochasticity added in here and there for good measure [2]. It is tempting to speculate that most, if not all, scholars declaring free will an illusion share this concept. However, our world is not deterministic, not even the macroscopic world. Quantum mechanics provides objective chance as a trace element of reality. In a very clear description of how keenly aware physicists are that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle indeed describes a property of our world rather than a failure of scientists to accurately measure it, Stephen Hawking has postulated that black holes emit the radiation named after him [11], a phenomenon based on the well-known formation of virtual particle–antiparticle pairs in the vacuum of space. The process thought to underlie Hawking radiation has recently been observed in a laboratory analogue of the event horizon [12,13]. On the ‘mesoscopic’ scale, fullerenes have famously shown interference in a double-slit experiment [14]. Quantum effects have repeatedly been observed directly on the nano-scale [15,16], and superconductivity (e.g. [17]) or Bose–Einstein condensates (e.g. [18]) are well-known phenomena. Quantum events such as radioactive decay or uncertainty in the photoelectric effect are used to create random-number generators for cryptography that cannot be broken into. Thus, quantum effects are being observed also on the macroscopic scale. Therefore, determinism can be rejected with at least as much empirical evidence and intellectual rigor as the metaphysical account of free will. ‘The universe has an irreducibly random character. If it is a clockwork, its cogs, springs, and levers are not Swiss-made; they do not follow a predetermined path. Physical indeterminism rules in the world of the very small as well as in the world of the very large’ [9].

Brembs studies invertebrates, and in this paper he is most concerned with concocting working models of behavioral variability. Quantum mechanics is often used to obscure dishonest claims, to shield them behind the shroud of mystery the indeterminate world underlying our existence provides, but Brembs doesn't seem to be invoking it in such a way. Citing some interesting studies with fruit flies and leeches, he illustrates cases of seemingly spontaneous decision-making and behavioral variability in invertebrates exposed to controlled constant stimuli. It could be said, of course, that each action affects subsequent actions deterministically regardless of the constancy of the stimulus, but I'm already out of my ken with this entire post.

I highly recommend Brembs's paper.

Eddy Nahmias. Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? The New York Times.
This article doesn't impress me much, as Nahmias seems more concerned with rhetorical gymnastics geared toward discussing an alternative definition of free will than he is dealing honestly with the gruesome holes neuroscience is poking in the formulation most people probably consider when the term is used: that we are autonomous agents able to choose between one or more outcomes and that, given the chance, we could choose otherwise.  (In other words, most people would probably concede that our actions are in some way affected by the physical characteristics of our brains, but unprompted, my guess is that most of those people would also likely assert that they are able to control the trajectory of resultant actions once conscious awareness sets in.)

Nahmias instead posits the following definition, which sounds a bit like Dennett's:

These discoveries about how our brains work can also explain how free will works rather than explaining it away. But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way. Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

But what Nahmias seems to have described is consciousness, not free will. For him, free will represents the opportunity to perceive and experience the various facets of consciousness, including the prepackaged illusions with which it shipped, free from coercion.  To me, it sounds like we're now talking about something else altogether. But, read it for reference, if you'd like.

SHOWDOWN: Pigliucci v. Coyne
The following three articles represent a public discussion (argument) between Massimo Pigliucci and Jerry Coyne, in which Pigliucci takes a compatibalist tack while Coyne defends from the determinist's corner.  (Actually, Coyne started it with an op-ed for USA Today.)  Coyne tends to rub some people the wrong way, even those who might otherwise agree with him, as he's often both quick and a bit fervent on the draw.  Still, I think any notion of free will must describe how that will circumvents or changes the outcome of physical events, for it seems any will beholden to physical laws as we understand them would exist within the broth of causal relationships that surround it, however obscured by complexity those relationships might be.  At any rate, I'll preempt the list of articles with the observations of a commenter on Jerry Coyne's second piece, Ron Murphy:

Given that there is no evidence yet of anything that might be considered non-physical then the null hypothesis is that everything does follow physical laws. We are looking for exceptions. On this basis the dualist notion of free-will is the alternative hypothesis, and that it does not exist is the null hypothesis.

That free-willies think that theirs should be the null hypothesis is based only on their ‘feeling’, the historical and personal notion that we have free-will. But ‘feeling’ that something is the case doesn’t cut it as sufficient evidence, or reason, to think that it should form the basis of the null hypothesis.

Whether it is traditional dualist free-will (or soul), or even this other form of free-will that is supposed to be non-dualist and yet has no concrete explanation, they are both alternative hypotheses awaiting even a good definition let alone the possibility of falsification.

The illusory nature of free-will is simply the common sense view derived from all we know about the universe so far. That some of us don’t like it, and even that all of us appear to act as if we have free-will, is no support for that alternative hypothesis, whichever way it is framed.

So now that I've attempted to prime you in favor of Coyne—oh, how dastardly of me—the respective parries and thrusts:


My Dubious and Tenuous Conclusions (*grain of salt not included)
As I said, I'm siding with the determinists for the time being, with no less wonder than I've ever had in this weak heart, with no less awe in this shackled mind. I will caution those who may be tempted to view a deterministic world as one in which actions mean nothing to differentiate determinism from fatalism (Harris makes this important distinction in Free Will). Were we all to stop acting, the world would be an unrecognizable place. A lack of free will, in the magical terms it has most often been described, is no cause for despair. After all, you have no choice but to live the illusion. And should free will one day be unequivocally proven to be such an illusion, you would not find yourself in a different plight than that of all prior generations. You would simply be better acquainted with your nature.

Personally, I find the concept "freeing" in a certain sense: my actions, good, bad, or indifferent, occur due to factors beyond my control, and in recognizing this I can "choose" to bend my "will" toward changing those actions and characteristics I don't like. I can show more compassion to others and deal better with their faults and shortcomings, knowing that I too am in the same boat. The instinct to tune out and give up does not, to me, hold much appeal. I feel, for whatever reason, that a path to self-improvement is more evident, which is not any sort of proof; it's just the manner in which I've come to view the matter. Some will view it otherwise.  But as you've no doubt noticed, our language is currently unequipped to deal with the implications of such a shift in thinking: I was unable to write this paragraph without the insinuation of agency and choice—a fact that may, admittedly, say more about my prowess as a writer than anything else. I have slipped, as I often do, into incoherence.

There is simply no escaping the storm and, as always, much more reading to be done.