Is there a choice?
Philosophers and scientists have long agonised over the question of free will. Two new books, by Julian Baggini and John Gray, offer some very different answers.
This article is a preview from the Summer 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
From Tunisia to Tibet, from Russia to Kurdistan, from Syria to the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo – the quest for freedom is central to people’s lives, a quest so vital that many are willing to give their own lives to ensure its success. For many intellectuals, however, freedom is but an illusion, a self-serving figment of our imagination.
Most of the intellectual arguments against freedom fall into two broad camps. One comprises scientific and philosophical arguments against the possibility of free will, the other political arguments against the desirability of revolutionary social change. In their new books, Julian Baggini and John Gray both link the two kinds of arguments about freedom. But they do so in very different ways and come to very different conclusions.
Baggini is one of Britain’s leading popularisers of philosophy, whose work often brings a measure of nuance to heated debates. Freedom Regained is no different. There have been, in the last three decades, a series of genetic and neuroscientific studies that seem to undermine the idea of free will. Perhaps the most famous is that of Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. In a series of experiments, Libet asked his subjects to perform a simple volitional act (such as tapping on a button whenever they wished) and to note when they became aware of their desire to act. At the same time Libet measured brain activity through EEG sensors. The experiments demonstrated that brain activity began before the subjects were conscious of wanting to act.
There have been some criticisms of Libet’s methodology, but the broad outlines of his findings have been replicated many times since. For some, such experiments reveal why there is no room for free will. “The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness,” the American writer and “New Atheist” Sam Harris has argued; “rather it appears in consciousness.” Others have tried to wriggle out of such implications by arguing that quantum physics or chaos theory introduces indeterminacy into the system and out of such indeterminacy emerges free will.
Baggini challenges both the free will naysayers and those who locate free will in randomness. Indeterminacy, he points out, provides no basis for free will. If our choices were based on the equivalent of a toss of a coin, there would be no sense in which such choices could be said to be “free”.
Equally unconvincing is the argument that science undermines free will. Take the Libet experiment. Why is it so surprising that consciousness of a decision is undergirded by brain activity? Would it not be more surprising if consciousness popped out of our heads without any brain activity?
For many free will deniers, thoughts, beliefs, desires and feelings are just “epiphenomena”, by-products of neural processes that are the “real drivers of action”. But thoughts, Baggini shows, have “causal efficacy”. Ideas, beliefs, desires can all change people’s behaviour. Experiments have shown, for instance, with delicious irony, that the belief that one has free will makes people behave more morally while the belief that they lack it makes them behave less so.
Even if we accept that thoughts are more than epiphenomena, however, a materialist view accepts also that they are causally linked to the past. Every thought is caused by something prior, and that prior cause is itself the product of an earlier thought or event or phenomenon, and so on. Introducing thoughts into the picture does not get rid of the causal chain that runs back eventually to the Big Bang. And if our thoughts are causally linked to the past, if they are the inevitable products of a chain of prior causes, in what sense can they be “free”?
To answer this, we need first to turn the question round. Would you want it any other way? Would you want your thoughts to be unconnected to all the elements that determine who you are? To simply pop into your head at random? Most people clearly wouldn’t. They would want their thoughts and beliefs and actions to be an expression of who they are.
“No sane person,” as Baggini puts it, “would want the ability to choose anything at all. If you are appalled by needless violence, you would want it to be true that you recoiled from torture, not that you would be as free to do it as to not do it… We want many of our choices to flow with a kind of necessity from our beliefs and values.”
“Here I stand. I can do no other.” So asserted Martin Luther, defending his right to challenge the authority of the Pope. To most people today, that probably sounds like an expression of Luther’s free will. Luther, however, did not believe in free will; indeed he thought the concept a blasphemy. In his mind, he was defending not his independence of will but his lack of freedom to believe or act in any other way. In one sense, both views are right. Luther was compelled to act as he did because he was acting freely.
There are two ways of thinking about this seeming paradox. The first is well expressed by the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore. When “we feel ourselves to be in control of an action,” Blakemore wrote in his book The Mind Machine, “that feeling itself is the product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed, on the basis of its functional utility, by means of natural selection.” According to Blakemore, “To choose a spouse, a job, a religious creed – or even to choose to rob a bank – is the peak of a causal chain that runs back to the origin of life and down to the nature of atoms and molecules.”
Insofar as it is true, the idea that our actions or beliefs are merely one link in a causal chain that runs back to the beginning of the universe is making a trivial claim. Insofar as it is saying something profound, the claim is untrue.
It is trivially true that every event is part of a causal chain. But the fact that it is tells us little about the nature of human behaviour or beliefs, except that we live in a world in which things don’t happen by magic.
Insofar as the claim implies something profound – that a causal chain denies agency – it is untrue. This leads us to the second way of thinking about this issue. Every individual is a concatenation of a host of formative elements. Those elements include my genetic make-up and the biological structures of my brain, but also the books I have read, the experience I have imbibed, the ideas I have come across. When all these elements form into the organic whole that is a person, that whole is able to take its constituent parts and create out of them something new and unique. Something new and unique that I call “me” that can respond to the world in a way that turns me into a causal element in the chain, that allows me to change things.
Those that deny free will in principle nevertheless act in practice as if it exists. They write books, give talks, want their beliefs and thoughts to change people’s minds. Sam Harris, for instance, wants not just to convince us that free will does not exist but also to transform our moral thinking and to revolutionise the criminal justice system, in particular the ways in which we punish people. What is that if not an expression of agency?
The logic of the denial of human agency has perhaps in recent years been best developed by the philosopher John Gray. Former Professor of Modern European Thought at the LSE, and one-time acolyte of Margaret Thatcher, he has over the past decade produced a series of books ferociously challenging the basic ideas underpinning modern conceptions of liberty, morality and the human.
“Humans think they are free, conscious beings,” John Gray wrote in Straw Dogs, the 2002 book that turned him into a public figure and established his contemporary public persona, “but in truth they are deluded animals.” Since, “we do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies,” he asked, “why then humans?” Only, he suggested, because humanists deny what Darwin taught us: that humans are animals, and like all animals we are “only currents in the drift of genes”. Morality is a “sickness”, freedom an “illusion” and the self a “chimera”.
Leave aside Gray’s misreading of science and the befuddlement of his argument. (Science, he tells us, reveals that “humans cannot be other than irrational” and that “the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth”; in which case, one might ask, on what basis do we accept the science, given that it, too, is a product of irrational minds that serve evolutionary success not truth?) What has turned him into a contemporary prophet, lauded for his profundity by everyone from Will Self to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is the bleakness of his vision and the depth of his anti-humanism.
In his latest book, The Soul of the Marionette, Gray maintains that sense of bleakness and despair. He has little to say on metaphysical ideas of free will but much on what he regards as human illusions of freedom. Like many of his recent works, The Soul of the Marionette is less a sustained argument than a buffet of intellectual canapés, ranging from a reading of 18th-century Prussian writer Heinrich von Kleist’s enigmatic essay “The Puppet Theatre” to a discussion of Aztec human sacrifice, from an exposition of Gnosticism to an analysis of sci-fi writer Philip K Dick’s work, from the unearthing of Dorset writer TS Powys’s 1931 short story “Unclay” to a retelling of the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro. The thread that loosely runs through all this is a desire to reveal what Gray regards as the follies of modern human self-aggrandisement.
Drawing on Kleist’s argument in “The Puppet Theatre” Gray argues that humans lack freedom not because they are puppets but because they are not. A puppet is free in a way no human being can be, precisely because it lacks consciousness. Freedom requires one to possess “either no consciousness or an infinite amount of it”. Only puppets or gods are really free.
The Ancients largely accepted that their world was constrained by fate. But the curse of modernity is a refusal to accept our limitations. Modern science, according to Gray, reveals humans to be products of unconscious forces and biological impulses over which we have no control. But modern ideologies are rooted in the struggle to transform the world, to challenge fate and defy our limitations.
Moderns imagine that knowledge will allow us to transcend our given nature. Modern Western liberals, in particular, have adopted, even if they don’t realise it, Gray argues, a Gnostic view of the world. Gnosticism describes a complex web of Ancient religions, most influential in the first two centuries AD, that held the material universe to be evil and the spiritual world to be good. Gnostics lauded Adam and Eve eating the forbidden apple and regarded the Fall of Man as a fall into freedom. “The Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can possess has become,” Gray argues, “the predominant religion” of our age.
What Gnostics, both ancient and modern, fail to understand, Gray continues, is that truth can never set us free because we are nothing more than deluded animals. What is unique about humanity is not consciousness or free will (“self-awareness may exist,” apparently, “not only in other animals but in plants, jellyfish, worms” – Prince Charles will no doubt read this book with interest). It is, rather, “inner conflict”. “No other animal seeks the satisfaction of its desires and at the same time curses them as evil,” Gray claims.
There is “no convincing scientific theory,” Gray observes, as to “how this split personality came about.” Instead, Gray turns to the Bible, suggesting that the “best account” of the divided human soul is “in the book of Genesis”. Gray is well known for his claim that much of modern humanist thinking is really a ragbag of reworked religious myths, that “all modern philosophies in which history is seen as a process of human emancipation” are “garbled versions” of the Christian narrative. What is striking is that his own argument is but a secularised version of the Christian story of the Fall. Indeed, for Gray, “the Fall is not an event at the beginning of history but the intrinsic condition of self-conscious beings.”
Because it is “divided against itself”, so “the human animal is unnaturally violent by its vary nature”. Humans, Gray insists, need protecting against themselves. The premodern world understood this, recognising the world as constrained by fate and violence as an inherent part of human nature. Many premodern societies contained the darkness of the human soul by ritualising violence. Gray provides a gruesome account of Aztec rituals of human sacrifice. He sympathises with their reasons. Aztecs practised human sacrifice “not to improve the world” but “to protect them from the senseless violence that is inherent in a world of chaos”. It was a means of “giving meaning” to their lives.
Modern humans, on the other hand, abhor violence, and want to create a better world cleansed of violence. But in trying to create such a world, they often unleash more violence, through wars and revolutions. The very attempt to make the world a better place can, Gray insists, only lead to mass slaughter and corrupt the human spirit. It ensures that “we do not accept our lives for what they are but instead consider them always for what they might become”.
Aztec human sacrifice is, for Gray, more rational and more in keeping with human nature than the people killed in the struggle for freedom in, say, contemporary Syria. “Those who struggle to change the world,” he wrote in Straw Dogs, are merely seeking “consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear”. Their “faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality”. We’re all going to die anyway, so why bother with grand schemes of social change?
At the end of The Soul of the Marionette, Gray observes that freedom is slipping away in much of the world. “New varieties of despotism are emerging” while, in democracies, essential props of freedom, such as habeas corpus, open courts, the rule of law, “are being compromised or being junked”.
So what should we do about it? Nothing, says Gray. For to do something would be to create an even worse world. “If freedom of any kind can be found in these conditions, it is some version of the inward variety that was prized by the thinkers of the ancient world.” He suggests that in “some future turn of the cycle”, freedom may return; in the meantime “it is only the freedom that can be realised within each human being that can be secure”.
There is such an absurdity to Gray’s argument that it is difficult to believe that he is not parodying himself. A decade ago, on the eve of the Iraq war, Gray published an essay in the New Statesman entitled “A Modest Proposal for Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracy from Being Abused, and for Recognising their Benefit to the Public (with Apologies to Jonathan Swift)”. It suggested that there should be a universal right to torture enforceable by regime change and that torturers should receive counselling for the mental traumas they suffered.
Few readers got the joke. “Months and years later,” Gray subsequently complained, “I continued to receive protests taking me to task for my indecent suggestions.” The episode might say something about the sense of humour of New Statesman readers (or lack of it). Or it might just be that, when it comes to Gray’s writing, it is genuinely difficult to separate the serious from the satirical. How does Gray think that the freedoms whose loss he bemoans were won in the first place? Through people turning inwards and waiting for a “turn of history”? Or through people struggling for human betterment, often risking everything to achieve it?
Gray may laud the Aztecs as having a better understanding of human nature than Enlightenment philosophes. But it was the philosophers whose work helped lay the foundations for many of the modern arguments about liberty and tolerance that Gray claims to prize.
“Rather than trying to impose sense on your life… be content to let meaning come and go,” Gray advises. A retired philosophy professor living in Britain might be able to live off such gnomic pronouncements. But it is not a “freedom” likely to provide much solace to people in Syria or Libya, or Ferguson or Baltimore.
“Inner freedom” and “outer freedom” are not as easily separated as Gray imagines. Humans are social beings. What Gray calls “the freedom that can be realised within” can only be realised in relation to others. It is true that throughout history, some people – hermits and hippies, mystics and monks – have tried to realise themselves by withdrawing from society. But that is not a luxury open to most.
That is why, as Baggini acknowledges, the questions of free will and of political freedom are inextricably linked. Free will expresses our capacity for “autonomy and self-regulation”. Political freedom describes “the external condition of fully expressing an internal condition we all have”. It is in engaging with the world, not withdrawing from it, that we come to realise ourselves.
Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will is published by Granta. John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette is published by Allen Lane