Indications that free will does not exist

About a year ago I wrote the blog post On the question of whether we have free will in which I referred to the work of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, John Bargh and Daniel Wegner who all state that we do not have free will and that our perception of a free will is just an illusion. John Bargh, for example, mentions the importance of automatic processes and says that nearly all human behavior should be seen as automatic responses to environmental triggers. Daniel Wegner has shown that respondents in studies have said that certain of their behaviors were intentional while, in reality, these behaviors were evoked by the experimenter  In that case free will was indeed an illusion. I also wrote about Valery Chirkov and Daniel Dennett who do believe in free will. I ended my blog post in a certain confusion about free will does or does not exist. I wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to ask to which extent we have a free will than to ask whether or not we have a free will.


Book: Free will is not an illusion

9200000002271477 (1)In his book Vrije wil is geen illusie. Hoe de hersenen ons vrijheid verschaffen (Free will is no illusion. How brains give us freedom) Dutch neuropsychologist Herman Kolk  disagrees with these authors who see free will as an illusion. He begin his book by summarizing their arguments and evidence. In addition to Bargh and Wegner  he mentions several other authors such as Michael Gazzaniga, a well-known neuroscientist who says that our brains are determined just like all other physical objects. Kolk also mentions Ap Dijksterhuis, a Dutch social psychologist who has done research which seems to demonstrate that with important decisions it is better to rely on your unconscious thinking than on your conscious thinking. Another important researcher who is mentioned is Benjamin Libet. Libet did research in which he demonstrated that at the moment at which people according to themselves decide to make a certain movement the brain has already begun to prepare that movement 300 ms in advance. Kolk also describes two popular Dutch book which claim that free will does not exist. Victor Lamme wrote De vrije wil bestaat niet (Free will does not exist) in which he says that human behavior is directed by stimulus-response couplings and  Dick Swaab wrote Wij zijn ons brein (We are our brain) in which he argues that free will is an illusion because the vast majority of our behaviors and traits are fixed from our birth on. 


Much behavior is automatic but consciousness plays a big role

Kolk acknowledges that much of our behavior happens automatically but shows evidence that behavior is not caused by learned reflexes but by learned behavior patterns which lead to something which is valued. When we learn behavior we expect that behavior to produce something valuable. After much repetition, however, we no longer exhibit that behavioral because expect something valuable. We do it automatically even though the behavior normally will still yield those valuable outcomes. Existing behavioral patterns can temporarily be amplified by certain environmental triggers such as is the case with priming and unconscious imitation. Unconscious processes do indeed play a big role in the emergence of behavior. But, according to Kolk, consciousness and deliberate thinking also play an important role; a much bigger role that many contemporary researchers think. He mentions the research by Ap Dijksterhuis in which subjects had to choose between two cars on the basis of 12 pieces of information. The subjects were divided into two groups: the conscious group and the unconscious group. Subjects in the conscious group got some extra time to think about their choice; subjects in the unconscious group had to make a puzzle which had nothing to do with the cars. The researchers assumed that the subjects in the unconscious group could meanwhile unconsciously think about their choice. The study showed that subjects in the unconscious group, on average, made better choices than in the conscious group. However, Kolk disagrees with the interpretation which is provided that unconscious thinking leads to better choices than conscious thinking in complex decisions. First, it is, according to Kolk, very unlikely that the subjects in the unconscious group could continue to think unconsciously about the task  The parallel processing of  two tasks can only be done well when both these tasks are largely automated. Further, he points out that the conscious group has processed the information not only consciously but also unconsciously. From this he concludes that the difference in performance is not caused by the presumed benefits of unconscious thinking but by the harmful effect of conscious thinking. The amount of information in this task was too much of a burden for the short term memory due to which the subjects in the conscious group used only part of the information that was given to them.


The research by Wegner is also reinterpreted by Kolk. He acknowledges that the study showed an example of an illusion of free will. Human minds can afterwards construct intentions which, at first, were not there. But that free will is sometimes an illusion does not prove that this always the case.  For comparison  that we are sometimes tricked by optical illusions does not mean that everything we see is just an illusion.


The important positive role of conscious thinking

While it is true that conscious thinking can disadvantageous, according to Kolk, much more often its role is beneficial. A first example of this is that conscious thinking can stop automatic behaviors and change them for behaviors from which we expects something better. This process of overruling our automatic processes happens by focusing our attention selectively on behavioral patterns from which we expect more added value. A second example of the importance of consciousness is that consciousness is necessary for prolonged, broad, and deep information processing. Although we are often not aware of how our behavior emerges, consciousness more often than we think plays a role in it. Information which is at an earlier point in time consciously processed by us can at some later point influence us in way of which we are not aware. A third example is that consciousness plays an essential role in situations in which there is a conflict between two automated behavioral patterns (according to Kolk this also explains Libet’s findings). A fourth example is that we can free ourselves from the influence of environmental factors in the here and now by imagining past and future situations. By doing this we can identify possible behavioral patterns which add more value than the automated patterns which we already have to our disposal. Finally, Kolk shows how inner speech enables us to interpret and adjust our own behavior.


That we have fixed characteristics does not imply that we don’t have freedom

At the end of the book Kolk acknowledges that we have all kinds of limitations. But, he says, this fact does not imply that we do not have free will. Brains provide us with the possibility to, within the restriction that we have, realize behavior that helps us forward. He disputes Swaab’s argument which says that free will is an illusion because our  behavioral tendencies are fixed from birth on. Even if Swaab is right [which I seriously doubt, CV] from this cannot be concluded that therefore no freedom is left for us. The color of our eyes may be genetically fixed but does this mean we can no longer make free choices? Although it is true that some things are more or less fixed and that this fact bring with it certain limitations this does not mean we have no freedom left to make choices to achieve what we value. Kolk concludes that we are still free and that we are accountable for our behaviors and choices.


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