Science vs Free Will. And the winner is... (article)

If science is right about free will, then there's no contest--what we call free will would defy physics, according to science, so it can't exist. And if it can't exist, then it doesn't exist. Science wins.

What is this free will that science says can't exist? It's our experience of being able to consciously think what we like, and to execute those thoughts in actions. Not all the time, but at least some of the time. Even only occasionally. Even, in a whole lifetime, just once.

The problem isn't that scientists don't experience what we call free will. They do, and they value it--I've asked some of them. But they think that in themselves, and in everyone else too, it's an illusion. We're not free to think and do whatever we like. Not ever. We're determined.

Ask them and they'll give you good logical reasons. First, just as our shadow is simply a projection of our body onto the ground, conscious experience is simply a projection into consciousness of what's happening in our brain chemistry. Since brain chemistry, like anything else material, is determined, our conscious experience must be determined too. We can't have free will.

Second, because consciousness isn't physical it can't interact with matter. Even if we do experience something that feels like free will, there's no way it could express itself in our brains or our behavior. There's no way it could affect how we think and act.

Third, the world's much too complicated for anyone to trace all the physical causes leading up to what we think and do and prove those causes couldn't account for our conscious decisions. So you can't prove you do anything free of physical causation. There's no conceivable way you can tell free will from being determined, to be sure you have free will.

It seems an open and shut case. Science has come up with a web of logic that it's wound around free will like a shroud, preparing it for burial.

Hold the eulogy. I'm not yet ready to say goodbye. Give me a little time to come up with a defense on free will's behalf.

It's hard to know where to begin. We don't have as developed a language for justifying free will as science has for denying it. You can do something and say, "I'm doing this of my own freewill" but someone watching you can just as easily say, "No, you're not. It was already determined that you'd to that," and there's no way to tell who's right. You can say, "I experience doing this of my own free will" but they can say "that experience is just an illusion," and how can you prove them wrong?

Let's take a closer look at the supposed corpse. Maybe there's a loose thread we can tug on to unwind some of the web of logic encasing it. First to hand is the last argument, that the world is too complicated for anyone to ever trace the chains of causes leading up to what we do and think, so you can never prove you've escaped them. But of course the same argument means science can never demonstrate that you are determined. That we're determined is revealed to be nothing more than materialist doctrine. There's no science behind it.

How about the second argument, that because conscious experience isn't physical it can't drive any physical processes, therefore free will can't drive changes to our brain chemistry. You could use the same logic to argue that the interaction can't go the other way either, from physical processes to consciousness, yet obviously it can. Physical processes can make us experience pain, for example. So the second argument breaks down; if matter can interact with consciousness in one direction there's no logical reason why consciousness can't interact with matter. And of course it does. Memories of conscious experiences in dreams get recorded in brain chemistry while we're asleep for us to re-experience when we wake. That's an example of conscious experience getting written into and being retrieved from memory. There's no logical reason why free will couldn't write itself into brain chemistry and express itself in our behavior.

That leaves the first argument: everything we think and do is driven by brain chemistry, only afterwards do those events show up in consciousness as thoughts and decisions. Oh, yes? Says who? This is no more than a mere claim. Experiments quoted as proving it are now seen as proving no such thing. You can just as easily assume the opposite, that thoughts can appear first in consciousness and go on to drive events in brain chemistry.

One-two-three! The scientific case proving free will's non-existence collapses. Free will could exist. That's not much, but it's a first step. Our boy is still alive. Let's help him sit up, feed him a little chicken soup. How is he now? Can he stand up?

Free will could exist. But does it--can we initiate decisions within consciousness and write them out into the brain and physical action? Again, I'll try a little judo. I'll try to use science's arguments against it to prove free will does exist.

According to science, it can't be free will that drives our behavior because only things that are physical can initiate physical actions. That means anything non-physical, such as conscious experiences or ghosts, can't communicate with anything physical, such as brain cells. If that's so, then the brain can't find out what conscious experience feels like. But lots of our decisions involve what conscious experience feels like--"I want to do this because of what it sounds like or tastes like." The brain could know something is desirable but not what experiencing that thing is like. So if a conscious decision has elements of conscious experience embedded in it, that decision can't be simply brain activity dumped into consciousness--the brain doesn't have the information about how things feel to answer the "why" question implicit in the decision--"Why do I want to do this? Because of how it feels."

Over and over again I experience wanting some conscious experience, such as the taste of ice cream, and immediately acting so as to have that experience. Since it can't be the brain that associates that decision with the experience of tasting ice cream, that decision must have arisen within consciousness. Neither the brain nor prior causes that could act only through the brain can be involved. It can only have been a free will experience in consciousness that drove me to act.

So free will does exist. We've got our contender back on his feet. Now let's see how much fight he's got in him. Let's start his comeback by trying to have a representative of science acknowledge the existence of free will.

Imagine asking our scientist, "How can you tell you're determined?" He probably won't say he actually feels he's determined, he'll more likely say, "We know free will can't exist because it would defy physics, so we must all be determined." It's not something he feels, it's part of a doctrine he subscribes to, ordained by contemporary science.

Our scientist may really believe he's determined, it's what he thinks. But is it what he does? Let's visit him when he's just finished an experiment, something to do with chemistry, say. As far as he's concerned, his thinking is chemical reactions, just like the chemical reactions in his experiment. The reactions in his test tube are determined by physical laws. Now a product of those reactions, the "results" of his experiment, have become raw material for chemical reactions going on in his brain. Soon he'll come up with a new hypothesis based on his conclusion. All just chemicals, he assumes, all determined, one reaction in a test tube leading to another reaction in a brain leading to another in a test tube leading to another reaction in a brain, and so on, all determined.

Is that really science? When strings of chemical reactions happen in the ground over billions of years, we don't call the crystals we dig up "science." They've just the inevitable result of chemistry. If doing science is nothing but chemical reactions, how is it different from those crystals? Why should we pay particular attention to the output of one particular series of chemical reactions and call it "science"?

No reason. That's not science. What we admire in science is that its findings have been through processes that weren't determined like a string of chemical reactions. Science finds things out precisely because the thinking of scientists involves creativity in coming up with hypotheses, in the ingenuity involved in devising experimental apparatus, and judgment in interpreting results. The chemicals inside the test tube can't do that, they are determined, they have no creativity or judgment. If there's creativity and judgment in the practice of science then they must lie in the scientist's conscious experience. Free will must exist, because you couldn't do science without it.

Our scientist is not ready to make any concessions. If free will existed that would threaten the integrity of the entire scientific world view. That worldview couldn't be mistaken. Oh, no? I say. I think it could.

Here's how I view the world. My first impression is of consciousness, of everything: feelings, thoughts, emotions, urges, learning experiences. That's my primary experience. Set in that primary experience is a window, my view of what's not me--of matter and nature, the outside world. And set into that window is a still smaller window, really a porthole--that's science. It's the small part of the outside world that we've found behaves according to the rules of physics and chemistry.

Now look a little closer at that porthole, and you see someone peering in. It's our scientist, waving his hands. He wants to tell us something. "Everything you see when you look out through this second window is determined," he calls out, "so everything I see when I look in through it from the outside must be determined too." You say, perhaps things appearing determined is a property of the glass in that second window. But you can't convince him, he's sure how he sees things through that window, looking in or looking out, is how they really are. And through this window everything looks the same, everything's determined. That wouldn't be a problem except he uses the highly-developed language of science to describe things his way. Because he can describe everything he sees through that little window so precisely he's convinced what he says about my conscious experience is truer than my experience of it. "What you call free will is an illusion," he says. "Consciousness isn't physical, so it can't make anything physical happen in the real world...." and so on.

Maybe it's not me who's suffering from an illusion, maybe it's the scientist. Let's compose a little dialog. I'll play questioner. "How important is science," I ask him? "It's absolutely essential," he replies. "That's good," I say, "science is no doubt progressing just fine on several planets in other galaxies." "No," he'll say, "what matters is, it's got to be going on among us, here on Earth." "Ok," I say, "let's imagine every human being on Earth is reproduced atom for atom as a zombie, behaving just as we would and able to reproduce just like us. So everything is just as it was. Except, zombies aren't conscious and don't have freewill. There we are, still doing science and teaching science in school so science will still progress. The only difference is no one will be conscious of science. Is that OK?"

Scientists don't do science just so textbooks get published. They do it to appreciate it in consciousness. And to enjoy the exercise of judgment and creativity it involves. These all have to do with consciousness and free will, not with brain chemistry alone.

Our scientist won't give in. I try to help things along by sharpening the choice. He can announce his findings and conclusions to an audience of zombies, or the people the zombies are exact copies of. The only difference is, the people have consciousness and free will, but that won't make any difference to his experience. If consciousness is merely a reflection of brain chemistry and all response is initiated in brain chemistry and not in consciousness then it should make no difference to him which audience he addresses, one with or one without consciousness and free will. The response will be the same. Which will he choose?

OK, our scientist admits, he'd rather address the humans, he'd relish knowing they savored his report as part of conscious experience, and responded of their own free will rather than through chemical reactions determined ever since the Big Bang.

I advance another choice. "You've a choice of living in either of two worlds. In one, science is at today's level and progressing rapidly, and you're physically identical to yourself now, but you don't experience consciousness. If consciousness is merely a passive reflection of brain chemistry, and unable to act back on the brain, then you should not be able to tell consciousness is missing. Your brain works just the same and you behave just the same, as determined by physics and chemistry. Or you can choose a world where science is as primitive as it was in Shakespeare's time, before the birth of modern science, but you're as you are now, with consciousness and the experience of having free will. Which world would you choose to live in?"

What do you think? Won't our representative of science shrink from losing the experience of consciousness? I am going to assume so. Hey presto--I've generated a conceptual framework for getting even hardened determinists to acknowledge that free will's more important, more precious, matters more, than science.

Science's view of reality is incomplete, free will exists, and in a head to head contest even science's supporters come out for free will. I declare free will the winner.