An ode to the emotion behind free will, though it may be imprisoned by causality

[An open comment to Sam Harris]

Free will?Dear Sam,

As a layman with a keen interest in modern ethics and its development as a serious science, I am deeply grateful for what I think is the main political thrust of your recent discourse about Free Will1, 2, 3. Your supreme achievement through this discourse is, in my humble opinion, a powerful attempt to provide a scientific underpinning for morality in general, and a rational appeal for the eradication of judgmentalism from society in particular. A brief scrutiny of the evening news on CNN will show us that judgmentalism in some form or another is still a strong force in the world4, 5, in spite of the fact that sages throughout history have cautioned us against its efficacy, and suggested its replacement with equanimity6. Moreover, in some backward regions of the world like Saudi Arabia, a form of tribal judgmentalism exists7 that is a direct result of the mistaken belief in an absolute freedom of thought outside of one’s environmental backdrop, and hence outside of the metaphysical principal of causality. I think all rational thinkers aught to applaud your efforts toward guiding the masses away from these ideologies.

However, as your esteemed colleague and friend Dan Dennett was quick to point out, there are problems with completely dismissing the colloquial idea behind “freedom of will”. I will not comment on Prof. Dennett’s views on the matter, but instead respectfully introduce another line of thinking for your kind consideration. I apologize upfront if the way I present my idea is somewhat dogmatic and amateurish, it still merits your reading in my humble opinion.

Whether you admit it or not, you had intuitive expectations of Dan being a free agent, in every colloquial sense of the phrase, when you published your rebuttal8. This goes against the logic of your argument. That very paradox brings us quickly to the heart of my conjecture – we all instinctively posit a “theory of mind” on other human beings9, whose principal characteristic is the assumption that the other being can act in the world, and does so outside of our influence. Furthermore, a punitive reaction is commonplace – not against Dan perhaps, but for example striking out at a petty burglar you have just collared, accompanied by that reflexive feeling of outrage (“why did you do that???”). This behavioral reaction is akin to what folks like Antonio Damasio might phrase as an emotion accompanied by a feeling10, 11.

Neuroscience tells us that we humans (and perhaps apes, monkey and other mammals) seem to be having the necessary “firmware” (mirror neurons and other complex functions of brain centers like the Amygdala for example) to attribute a “theory of mind” to other creatures12, and posit on others the benefit of  “these are thinkers like us”. I conjecture that, if one were observant of society and intellectually honest, one would conclude that this precisely is the origin of the folk psychological idea of “free will”. It shows every sign of being an inherited emotion, universal amongst humans and possibly other animals (apes or monkeys for example). I conjecture that free will comes into play when we interact with another physical entity that we have posited a “theory of mind” to. I propose that it is not a concept built up through logical deduction based on intense self-reflection (a meditation “we don’t seem to have a clear causal link to our thoughts, therefore we are free” etc.) Rather, it is an emotion (and its accompanying feeling) about another physical entity that we have attributed as being like ourselves – machines of agency beyond our definite influence.

The sense of outrage (“why are you robbing me, you rascal?”), accompanied by retributive action (throwing a punch, for e.g.), is one of the commonest emotional reflexes we see in humans. It matters not if we are educated that volition is causal or not – i.e. if the inputs categorically predetermine the outputs, and if the thoughts itself are a mere post hoc epiphenomenal play. The judgment still comes reflexively into our thoughts. It appears to be a Darwinian crutch for dealing with other humans in a society.

And, I propose we are able to have this emotion about our own phenomenal selves, due to the complex and functionally hierarchical nature of cognition. Which is why we feel “free from others influence”, “in control”, “angry” etc. at ourselves. Whatever the exact nature of this process, I conjecture that its basis is an underlying emotion for dealing with other persons.

The key question is, is the thought of “freedom” that we reflexively posit on others (and ourselves) indeed a Darwinian adaptation? If it is, then one must necessarily admit that in a society of humans, the public concept of free will has sound empirical grounding – i.e. it mediates the physical evolution of human beings.

You might argue, so what? There is no independence of subjective thoughts from prior unconscious events (as “proven” by Libet’s experiment) and ultimately our entire cognitive capacity and behavior is based on prior environmental conditions. My point is, free will is another playing field – we are not worried about causality when we instinctively feel that others (or ourselves) are free, accountable, in control etc. Rather it is an emotion that is empirically effective (in a raw Darwinian sense) to thrive with other complex, unpredictable creatures in a society.

“Free will” after all is a language construct, and I propose is an approximate way of communicating a complex evolved emotion. It’s a language construct that has efficacy nonetheless, except when it’s given more credence than it deserves (e.g. introduce a cause-less Cartesian-type “soul” that must be punished etc.) That type of free will, which you propose is the instinctive meaning of free will, and which I think is not, is plainly beyond rationality. It arises from a confusion of ideas at best, and is the bathwater that must be thrown out. The baby, the instinctive treatment of others (and oneself) as independent persons, must remain.


  8. “I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running”. – You are hurt Sam, ‘cause you instinctively feel Dan’s an unconstrained thinker. See more at:
  10. A recurring topic throughout this excellent book:

One Response to An ode to the emotion behind free will, though it may be imprisoned by causality

  1. Pingback: The debate on Free Will continues | iZombi

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