Reframing the debate around free will - from the morass of moral responsibility to a grounding in biological agency

A recent article in the Guardian very nicely summarised “the free will debate”, or at least the more visible parts of it. The debate is a live one as new findings from neuroscience or even fundamental physics are supposedly constantly and cumulatively limiting any scope for free will to possibly exist. The article presents the two most popular positions among scientists and philosophers: free will skepticism and compatibilism, which are championed by influential figures like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. The trouble is, they are by no means the only possible options, and, frankly, neither is convincing or satisfactory, in my view, for many reasons. 


First, they often start out with definitions of free will or criteria for what would constitute it that are not just different from each other, but independently highly arguable. Second, both take determinism to be true, as a given. Free will skepticism argues that determinism rules out free will. Compatibilism argues that free will is – as the name suggests – compatible with determinism. What exactly is meant by “determinism” is not always clearly spelled out, however – there are in fact various meanings that are often conflated (see below). Usually the arguments actually rest on a reductive view of causality, as much as a deterministic one.


Moreover, the arguments are usually couched in terms of their implications for moral responsibility, and so the debate takes place on ground that is doubly treacherous. Indeed, people like Dennett argue that determinism is compatible with assigning moral responsibility to people for their “actions”, even though they actually do not make real choices or have real freedom in selecting such actions.


Anyway, you can read the article for more details of the respective arguments. The point I want to make here is that framing the issue solely in terms of these two positions misconceptualises the problem, misses whole fields of relevant literature, omits a number of other viable positions, and leads to endless debate, characterised by the two sides talking past each other. This is illustrated by a recent book – Just Deserts – by Gregg Caruso and Dan Dennett, in which they not only fail to reach agreement after a book’s worth of direct dialogue, they fail to even make clear to each other or certainly to this reader what it is they disagree on.


As a result, many scientists find these discussions not worth their time (as I get told repeatedly). Which is a shame - first, because the issues really are of fundamental importance in considering the human condition (and deeper questions about the nature of life itself). But also because they can actually be approached from a much more grounded, scientific perspective.


So, here are some suggestions – a mini-manifesto in twenty points – for ways to approach these issues that I think can let us make real progress in constructing a new conceptual framework for understanding agency and free will:


1.     Separate questions of whether free will exists from possible consequences for systems of moral responsibility. The latter issue muddies the waters and leads to motivated reasoning. We shouldn’t be trying to make convoluted arguments to rescue a “kind of free will worth wanting” (i.e., one that can justify praise and blame). That is almost a theological exercise. We should be trying to understand what kind of will we have and what kind of freedom we have.


2.     Don’t start with the most complex version we know of. You wouldn’t start trying to understand the principles of aeronautics by studying the space shuttle. You’d begin with trying to understand much simpler precursors and scaffolding your understanding by elaborating on basic concepts. We need to similarly ground the study of free will in the study of biological agency – how it is that living organisms can do things at all, how they make decisions and select actions, how they can be autonomous entities that merit being thought of as causes in their own right.


3.     Define and dissociate the different flavours of determinism and specify the implications and challenges of each kind. Too often discussions of the “problem of determinism” for free will slip between very different meanings:

a.     I’m wired a certain way, due to evolution and genetics and development and experience and though I make choices and do what I want, I don’t decide what I want. If I didn’t choose all the prior causes constraining me at any given moment, then I am not really making free choices. (Note that this kind of fatalism has actually nothing to do with physical determinism).

b.     “Every event has a cause”. So what? I can be the cause. (Unless the additional claim is made that the real causes are at the lowest physical levels; i.e., not just determinism, but reductionism).

c.      All that apparent choice is actually an illusion – it’s all just neural circuitry working away. Mental content is an epiphenomenon – you’re not doing anything. (Really neural reductionism seasoned with a pinch of dualism, but often presented as determinism).

d.     Even the neural circuit view is illusory – there’s no real function at that level. It all comes down to physics – the atoms are gonna do what the atoms are gonna do. This is the real hard determinism where the future is pre-determined and you are not deciding anything (because possibilities don’t exist). The counterargument – that the universe is not in fact deterministic – is often dismissed by saying: well, then randomness settles the outcome and you’re still not deciding anything. (Note that this is also really reductionism, not determinism).


4.     Make explicit the key problem of reductionism (thinking all the real causation happens at the lowest physical level). In particular, the deterministic idea that “every event has a cause” is only a problem for free will if you cannot be such a cause (or if the meaning inherent in the patterns of neural activity in your brain cannot be considered to have causal efficacy).


5.     Consider the nature and sources of indeterminacy and its implications. There is clearly still disagreement about what current physical theories imply about the nature of reality, especially the ontological status and origins of indeterminacy, both at quantum and classical levels. But the majority of favoured theories (from very diverse angles) incorporate some indeterminacy in a way that gets resolved through interaction, marking the present as a boundary when the indefinite becomes definite. This is enough to override worries of a pre-determined future and to allow non-reductionist causation to occur.


6.     Give the “rewinding the tape” thought experiment a rest. The framing of the question as: “could you have done otherwise?” at any given instant is conceptually misleading. There is no such thing as an instant. Decision-making happens over time. The real question is: do you actually have choices open to you in the present (which is not an instant of zero duration) and can you choose between them? Asking “could you have done otherwise?” is looking at that process after it’s been completed, when the possibilities have already been reduced to a definite outcome.


7.     Develop a broader framework of causation (to include organisational/structural/configurational/criterial causation). The fact that the organisation of a system has causal power in determining how that system behaves (and how its components behave) is utterly commonplace, but has been banished from the reductionist worldview. There is a real science of systems that is not just “a convenient way of talking about” complex things – it really does capture why they behave as they do, in a way that even complete low-level descriptions miss.


8.     Understand how freedom (at one level) relates to constraint (at a lower level). Constraint is not a bad word. Organising the components of a system towards some purpose necessarily involves restricting the degrees of freedom of those components. This is how higher-level function emerges – how a coordinated system can do things that uncoordinated components cannot. It’s why we pay football coaches so much money.


9.     Develop concepts of causal insulation, coarse-graining, multiple realisability, hierarchy, and macroscopic causation. Living organisms resist the drive towards thermodynamic equilibrium partly by erecting a barrier between “them” and the outside world. This is not just a physical and chemical barrier, but a causal one. They sense what is out in the world through a veil and respond to that information (not to a transfer of energy or matter). The same thing happens between neurons or between whole areas in the brain. Causal insulation allows meaning to be extracted as information is transferred from one element to the next and allows that meaning to have causal power.


10. Operationalise purpose, function, meaning, and value as crucial causal elements. These properties do not have to be mysterious or vague – they can be precisely defined and conceptualised in scientific terms. In creatures with nervous systems, it is possible to develop a framework to understand how patterns of neural activity have casual power by virtue of what they mean.


11. Clarify the relationship between pragmatic and semantic meaning. An evolutionary view can chart the transition from direct sensorimotor couplings to uncoupled communication of signals (representations) to higher levels for more integrative decision-making. These are not mutually exclusive – the brain uses both.


12. Embrace a process view of life and self. Avoid the trap of thinking about “instantaneous” states and substances, as opposed to ongoing processes. Life and self are defined by continuity of processes over time.


13. Emphasise the historicity of living systems (lineages and individuals). Organisms literally incorporate information about the regularities of their environment into their own physical structure and use that to set criteria for future action. This means causation is spread over space and time. And this kind of historicity packs causal potential into the structure of the organism, analogous to potential energy – it takes work to put it in there and it can later be used to do work.


14. Consider the evolution of the nervous system as the development of more and more sophisticated levels of control of behaviour. The idea that the nervous system is dedicated to information processing and logical computations is a legacy of early thinking in artificial intelligence. While the nervous system can do those things, that is not what it is for. It is primarily a control system, the job of which is to define a repertoire of actions and choose between them. This control system has been elaborated over evolution to give greater and greater causal autonomy over longer and longer timeframes.


15. Avoid dualistic intuitions about the self as corresponding only to our conscious minds. Allow that: (a) our consciousness has a physical basis, and (b) much of our decision-making is done subconsciously, for very good reasons. Most of our daily behaviour is controlled by habits, heuristics, and policies that (thankfully) do not require constant conscious supervision. Deliberation and introspection are possible, however, and understanding such processes should be grounded in the science of executive function and metacognition, where goals, beliefs, and desires become objects of cognition. We can and regularly do inspect our own reasons.


16. Avoid abstract problems of instantaneous self-causation or top-down causation. It is not that the organisation of the whole system (the brain or the whole organism) at any given instant somehow simultaneously both comprises and influences the arrangement of its parts. A realistic picture of decision-making and action selection involves interaction between different parts of the nervous system, extended over time, sidestepping this metaphysical pothole.


17. Consider how consciousness supports or enhances the causal agency embedded in neural systems. What more does it get you? Are thoughts a model of one’s own cognition? Did a need for social communication of beliefs, goals, and reasons drive the capacity for cognitive introspection? Does this conscious access to our own reasons provide an opportunity to choose to reconfigure them?


18. Develop an understanding of long-term willed action as an interplay of present freedom and future constraint. Control of our behaviour extends through time. The conscious development of character over our lifetimes, active reconsideration of habits and heuristics, and adoption of goals or policies shape (inform and constrain) future action.


19. Embed this biological understanding of human agency in the context of culture and society. People’s choices are constrained by external factors in all kinds of ways. Even if we establish that human agency is real, that does not mean it can be deployed by everyone equally across all situations.


20. Only then, in my view, will we be able to relate this perspective to questions of moral responsibility. Our systems of morality are complex, evolved from biological systems of social cooperation, but socially constructed in diverse ways across cultures. Whether humans are biologically capable of free action in a general sense is relevant to questions of morality, but cannot be considered separately from all the social and cultural factors that also contribute to our moral systems.


Admittedly, that’s a lot. I’m not suggesting any one of those tasks will be simple or uncontroversial, either scientifically or philosophically. But I do think it charts out some actionable areas where a more productive framework for understanding agency and free will could be developed. The good news is there are lots of people working on lots of these elements and tons of new theoretical and empirical findings to inform this work.


Fleshing out this framework is my job in a new book I am currently writing: “AGENTS – How Life Evolved the Power to Choose”, to be published by Princeton University Press in 2022.


And you can hear more about these ideas in this recent talk I gave (virtually) at the Santa Fe Institute. 




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