Sloppy Dualism Denies Free Will?

When I was an undergrad in college, I was a philosophy minor. I spent countless hours debating ideas about things like free will. My final paper was a 60 page rebuttal to what I thought was a sloppy argument against free will. Now, it’s been more years since I wrote that than I care to admit – and I still keep seeing the same kind of sloppy arguments, that I argue are ultimately circular, because they’re hiding their conclusion in their premises.

There’s an argument against free will that I find pretty compelling. I don’t agree with it, but I do think that it’s a solid argument:

Everything in our experience of the universe ultimately comes down to physics. Every phenomenon that we can observe is, ultimately, the result of particles interacting according to basic physical laws. Thermodynamics is the ultimate, fundamental ruler of the universe: everything that we observe is a result of a thermodynamic process. There are no exceptions to that.

Our brain is just another physical device. It’s another complex system made of an astonishing number of tiny particles, interacting in amazingly complicated ways. But ultimately, it’s particles interacting the way that particles interact. Our behavior is an emergent phenomenon, but ultimately, we don’t have any ability to make choice, because there’s no mechanism that allows us free choice. Our choice is determined by the physical interactions, and our consciousness of those results is just a side-effect of that.

If you want to argue that free will doesn’t exist, that argument is rock solid.

But for some reason, people constantly come up with other arguments – in fact, much weaker arguments that come from what I call sloppy dualism. Dualism is the philosophical position that says that a conscious being has two different parts: a physical part, and a non-physical part. In classical terms, you’ve got a body which is physical, and a mind/soul which is non-physical.

In this kind of argument, you rely on that implicit assumption of dualism, essentially asserting that whatever physical process we can observe isn’t really you, and that therefore by observing any physical process of decision-making, you infer that you didn’t really make the decision.

For example…

And indeed, this is starting to happen. As the early results of scientific brain experiments are showing, our minds appear to be making decisions before we’re actually aware of them — and at times by a significant degree. It’s a disturbing observation that has led some neuroscientists to conclude that we’re less in control of our choices than we think — at least as far as some basic movements and tasks are concerned.

This is something that I’ve seen a lot lately: when you do things like functional MRI, you can find that our brains settled on a decision before we consciously became aware of making the choice.

Why do I call it sloppy dualism? Because it’s based on the idea that somehow the piece of our brain that makes the decision is different from the part of our brain that is our consciousness.

If our brain is our mind, then everything that’s going on in our brain is part of our mind. Taking a piece of our brain, saying “Whoops, that piece of your brain isn’t you, so when it made the decision, it was deciding for you instead of it being you deciding.

By starting with the assumption that the physical process of decision-making we can observe is something different from your conscious choice of the decision, this kind of argument is building the conclusion into the premises.

If you don’t start with the assumption of sloppy dualism, then this whole argument says nothing. If we don’t separate our brain from our mind, then this whole experiment says nothing about the question of free will. It says a lot of very interesting things about how our brain works: it shows that there are multiple levels to our minds, and that we can observe those different levels in how our brains function. That’s a fascinating thing to know! But does it say anything about whether we can really make choices? No.

31 thoughts on “Sloppy Dualism Denies Free Will?

  1. Jason Dick

    Well, it is somewhat sloppy language, but I don’t think it’s that far off. After all, these sorts of studies do seem to indicate that we frequently settle on a decision before we have come up with any sort of reasoning to support that decision, including some studies that have demonstrated rather well that the reasoning we come up with to support the decision is often completely unconnected to the decision itself.

    It clearly can’t be reasonably taken as an argument against free will, but I think it is a strong argument against the idea that we are rational (not that we can’t be, just that it often takes a lot of hard work to recognize and correct for our neurological biases).

    These sorts of studies also show rather well that the parts of our brains that are “aware” in some sense are often not aware at all about how many other parts of our brains behave. This shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise, given that a small amount of thought shows that we aren’t aware of a great many things going on in our brains (e.g. the specific motions we move our legs through to walk, how the information from our eyes is processed to produce recognizable images, how sounds are processed into recognizable language, how we go from a particular emotion to the physiological response to that emotion, etc.). But it sometimes is shocking just how much of our brain’s behavior is inaccessible to the parts that are conscious.

  2. blu28

    I think you are being too hard here Mark. This argument is not based on a form of dualism, it is based on being against dualism. The problem comes done to your definition of free-will. For many dualists, particularly of a religious nature, the importance of having free will is to have a facility for choosing right and wrong and to therefore be judged by your choices. The fact that the decision making is ultimately not conscious negates that position, even if you haven’t resolved the larger question.

    Personally, I find the question a bit silly. To me, free will is clearly an emergent property and whether or not you would make the same choices if the exact configuration of the universe were repeated doesn’t make any difference. That just means we make choices for reasons.

    The point of the decision making happening unconsciously as shown by FMRI is also irrelevant. Again, to me conscious vs. unconscious is like in a computer microcode vs. software. When debugging we look at the program steps and the fact that a particular computer instruction causes a gate to close somewhere else on the chip other than in the ALU is not important.

  3. mozibur ullah

    If we were aware of everything that you suggest is shocking we don’t, we might never see the forest for the trees. I think it’s also true as we become more fluid in a learnt behaviour, we also become less conscious of the parts that make up that behaviour. I don’t find it surprising at all that we make decisions that we aren’t fully conscious of. Isn’t that what Freud called the unconscious? We toss & turn when we sleep etc. Besides a great deal of life is repetition & ritual, time is not linear but cyclical.

  4. Snarkyxanf

    My problem with arguments for or against “free will” is that I find few people have a clear conception of what it is, and those who *do* have a clear conception of it as a consequence don’t mean the same thing as a general audience does. The debates often seem a bit vacuous to me as a result.

    In particular, I think the common understanding of free will seems to think it is something which is neither deterministic, nor random, nor a predictable system with random perturbations. Unfortunately, I don’t really see what’s left after those choices are gone.

    1. Raphael

      I think you’ve missed out the fact that the interaction of particles has a purely random element. You cannot predict how they will interact and in that uncertainty lies the opportunity for free will. The physics based argument is fundamentally flawed which is why non-Physicists should stay away from using physics to back up their philosophical assumptions.

      1. MarkCC Post author

        I don’t think that randomness is really much of an answer when it comes to free will. I see it as a copout much like the “god of the gaps” arguments.

        When we talk about free will, we’re talking about some way that a self-aware entity can make a decision that isn’t just determined by an external physical process. In the philosophical sense, if my “choices” are random, that doesn’t give “me” any more freedom than if they’re deterministic – because it’s not the “me” that’s choosing; it’s the random process.

        I think the key distinction is one of continuity. I think that there’s a “me” – something that is actually making decisions based on my memories, my experiences, my thoughts. I think that the past decisions that I’ve made influence the future decisions that I’ll make. If my choice is really just in the fuzz of randomness, then it’s hard to see how there is a “me” whose experiences are really a part of that decision.

        1. mozibur ullah

          I’m not sure that its as simple as that. An alternative way of looking at that is to say that particles have ‘free will’ and your ‘free will’ coheres from that. The relationship between the part and the whole doesn’t have to be linear. But I think its also true, as you point out, that to dissolve your ‘free will’ into random motion kind of gets away from the notion of ourselves as a person. But that is just as true of physical objects. If you break apart a chair, you no longer have a chair.

          1. Jason Dick

            I have a hard time seeing how anybody could imagine particles which meticulously follow the Dirac equation as having free will.

          2. mozibur ullah

            @Jason:Well this is why I put ‘free will’ in quotes. But you’re kindof missing the point, don’t you find it a tiny bit interesting that philosophers imbued atoms with random motion over 2 millenia ago? It’s by no means a new idea. Of course, you follow Newtons law of gravity, plus many others…doesn’t mean you don’t have free will. You could argue that I’m profoundly misreading ‘free will’ by extending it to particles. Perhaps. I could argue, that you’re profounding misreading ‘Law’ by according it to electrons. The idea of Law is a human one, to be applied to humans, and has a moral element. Physicists are already ‘abusing’ language…

        2. Jeff

          I don’t see how dualism provides a rescuing argument for free will. If the decisions one makes derive in detail from, let’s say, the history of one’s experience, then they are still determined. Or else they are random. Either way, decisions being determined by internal causes aren’t any more free than they’d be if they were determined by external ones. You can still regard the decisions as a result of the “chemistry” of experience plus circumstance. If you walk the clock back to the point of time at which a decision was made, and suppose the exact same state, you’d have to posit the exact same decision. The weights and experience are all identical.

          One’s sensation of there being weights and probabilities which are evaluated suggests that different decisions *might have been* made, but the argument for determinism isn’t against an evaluation, or against whether we can set up a situation in which you will be forced to make a given evaluation, the argument is against whether that evaluation can be principled and still be unpredictable, or, if it is unpredictable, can fairly be called will.

          For non-dualists, quantum physics (or the “atomic swerve” of Lucretius) doesn’t seem to me to provide any better support for “freedom”. Either the implementation of the decision process is random, or there’s some sort of Copenhagen-esque emergence of a deterministic thing. Either way, it’s not what is meant by free will. Nobody is arguing against a unique locus of experience that is “you”.

          For those that feel an (unnecessary) sense of “trappedness” in this approach, I suggest Dennett’s _Elbow Room: Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting_.

        3. Larry

          I think what he means is there is an “element” of randomness, not that the decision making is entirely random. The degree of randomness may vary as it does in all processes, but in most cases it is small enough that we can make predictions that we consider to be accurate, even on the quantum level.

      2. mozibur ullah

        Historically its the other way around. Particles were given random motion by Epicurus to allow for the possibility of free will. This was two millenia ago. Of course it was forgotten. Who says philosophy can’t do physics?

  5. Bashir

    I really don’t get a lot of these discussions about free will. They seem to rely both on a sloppy definition of free will and a lack of knowledge of basic psychology. I’m not sure how metacognitive awareness got mixed in all this. Much of “what your brain is doing” is not open to introspection. Perhaps that is shocking to a lay person, but take a psych class or two, there are dozens and dozens of examples. Even so, I don’t see how metacognitive awareness = free will or has anything to do with determinism.

    1. Bashir

      Sorry maybe that’s jargon. Awareness of your own cognitive state. So if I ask “what are you thinking” or “when did you make that decision to move your hand?” that all involves metacognition. Thinking about thinking. The problem is that thinking about thinking isn’t very accurate.

  6. lily

    This is sort of tangentially related but I think there is good reason to believe that free will exists. My view is this: the reason humans feel for other humans is that we are a social species. I.e. groups of people who care about each other are more likely to survive and reproduce that isolated humans or groups of people who are aggressive towards their group mates. But without free will there is no benefit to experiencing emotion at the suffering of others, since the person experiencing that emotion can’t act on the basis of that emotion. So in a world without free will it would be unlikely that emotions would have evolved which exactly match what we would expect to see from a world with free will.
    I realize that’s not perfectly water-tight, but it’s not totally vacuous.

    1. Jason Dick

      Two points:
      1. An illusion of free will is entirely sufficient to explain this.
      2. Why can’t you have a deterministic system that responds to emotions?

      1. lily

        The answer to both questions is the same. It could be the case that determinism holds but then you might wonder why the emotions exactly correspond to something that leads to survival. For example you could experience anything when you see someone die but most people experience grief, which is explained by free will and evolution in a simple way.

          1. lily

            sure it does, that’s what I’m trying to say. Emotions like grief is what evolution uses to mold human behavior.

          2. lily

            Assuming free will, people can act in any one of several ways many of which are not likely to lead to survival. However there is a mechanism, namely emotions, that try to lead people to act in a way which will lead to their survival. For example in people some of these emotions would be empathy, grief, motherly instinct, etc.
            Without free will there is no motivation for this mechanism so I claim that it is unlikely that it would have evolved.

          3. blu28

            What you are describing is just a complex feedback loop and applies just as much to more direct mechanisms like pain. So, the existence of pain implies free will? I don’t think so. These are all just the subjective feelings we attribute to the body’s feedback mechanisms.

          4. lily

            It does apply to pain, that’s what I’m saying. If not for free will there would be no reason for the subjective component of pain to exist. the chemical aspect of it would suffice as a mechanism for shaping behavior.

          5. blu28

            But the chemical aspect is all there is. The subjectivity of pain is simply your interpretation of the chemical aspect. That is, there is a component of pain that varies by degrees which allows you to ignore it if necessary.

            If what you said were true, that would imply that all animals that exhibit a pain response likewise have free will.

          6. lily

            The chemical aspect is not all there is, the subjective aspect definitely exist and is the important one when it comes to humans learning not to touch hot stoves for example.
            You can will yourself to not feel pain to an extent but painkillers exist for a reason.
            And yes I am claiming that it is likely that certain animals have free will.

          7. blu28

            It wouldn’t be certain ones. Things like worms, snakes, etc. exhibit the same pain response.

            But really, I don’t see how having an unpleasant subjective experience shows the existence of free will. It just shows that some stimuli should not cause an automatic response, but at the same time should be difficult to ignore. I suppose that you are saying that because evolution has selected for a system that tries to influence the decision making process that this shows that a decision is made, but I don’t think that anyone claims that decisions are not made, just that the final decision could be anything other than what it was given the state of the Universe.

          8. lily

            I don’t think you can have it both ways, ie. you can’t have it be the case that a decision is being made and that decision was given in the state of the universe, that sort of contradicts the definition of decision.

          9. Jason Dick

            The problem, Lily, is that you’re assuming a definition for “decision” that already assumes free will. Let me try to answer this by way of analogy to a computer program. Imagine that we have the following code:

            if user_has_bad_breath:
            print “Please brush your teeth.”

            In this bit of code, if the variable, “use_has_bad_breath” is set to ‘true”, then the compute will display the message, “Please brush your teeth.” Now, whether or not the computer prints this statement is completely and utterly determined by the value of this variable. The computer can’t decide to do something else entirely: it has to print this statement, or do nothing here and move on to the next piece of code.

            And yet, we can still use the word “decide” to describe this process: the computer can be said to have decided to print this statement at the time the computer processes the “if …” line. The outcome of the process is not in question, but we can still talk about a decision being made.

            You might personally object to the language of using the word decision here, but the choice of wording is irrelevant to the point at hand: it is possible for a human to respond to external and internal information. That the ultimate shape of the response is determined entirely by the configuration of the input and the makeup of the person’s brain does not mean that the brain doesn’t go through a process of determining the output, rather like the if statement above.

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  8. Pjs

    I’m a couple years late to the game here, but I thought I’d share some thoughts, mainly because I have a belly full of Chinese food and I don’t feel like getting up and doing anything else.
    I understand why people think we have free will, because we have this awareness that we call consciousness, and it feels like we’re making decisions. However, what I believe this really is is just a self-reflection, using language, to describe what is actually just a sensation. I believe consciousness is an innate trait of any physical information processing system that has memory, takes inputs and processes that information in some way, including animals and computers, even the entire universe if you consider it an information system at the ultimate scale. Most people, I think, believe that humans have free will because we have consciousness. I don’t believe, however, that this is a logical conclusion. Consider a human infant. Most people, again I think, would say an infant does not possess free will, despite having “consciousness”, because it doesn’t yet possess the logical capability to consciously make a decision. So when does a human “acquire” free will? This is where the entire augment breaks down. If consciousness gives us free will, then an infant baby should have it. Even if you don’t think an infant has consciousness, when does it acquire that?
    So even though I don’t believe in free will (for all the reasons stated in this article), I understand why humans think they have it. It “feels” like we’re making decisions, but again I think that’s just a sensation, like sight or hearing. It’s the sensation of our internal decision-making that all happens at a subconscious level, coupled with our abilities for language to describe it to ourselves.
    I realize now that this post is somewhat incoherent, but hopefully someone somewhere understands what I’m trying to convey.


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