[Y]ou should prevent your beliefs about how things are from being contaminated by how you wish they were. --Paul Graham
I find that the sensation of myself as an ego inside a bag of skin is really a hallucination. --Alan Watts
I've been thinking a lot about the notion of free will lately, which may have started in an email discussion I had with Orthoprax. Then, via Atheist Ethicist, I came across Denying Big God and the Little God: The Next Step for Atheists? It makes the following difficult point:
In atheist circles it's conventional wisdom to doubt god's existence on empirical grounds: there's no good evidence that such a being exists, so we don't waste time believing in it. But there's an equally suspect, supernatural entity that often lurks at the heart of commonsense ideas about human nature: the freely willing self.
We have, it is widely believed, the power to think, choose, and act in some crucial respect independently of those causal factors that create us as persons, and that surround us each moment of our lives. Unlike anything else in nature, human beings have a special contra-causal freedom to cause things to happen without themselves being fully caused in turn.
Sound familiar? It should, for such causally privileged freedom is a characteristic of god -- the uncaused causer, the prime mover, who acts without himself being at the effect of anything. The assumption of free will, so widespread in our culture, in effect sets us up as supernatural little gods, and it's this assumption that a thorough-going naturalism upsets. We should doubt the little god of free will on the very same grounds that atheists doubt the big god of traditional religions: there's no evidence for it.
Just as science has radically altered our view of cosmic reality, replacing the static earth-centered heavens with the Big Bang, and supernatural human origins with Darwinian evolution, so too it replaces the soul with the fully physical person, shaped in its entirety by the complex interaction of genetics and environment. Rapidly accumulating evidence from biology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive neuroscience suggests we are not causal exceptions to nature. There is no categorically mental agent or soul-essence floating above the brain which can exert a choice-making power that's independent of neural processes. There's nothing supernatural or causally privileged inside the head, just as there's nothing supernatural outside it.
I've resisted this idea for a long time for two reasons: (1) it seems intuitively that we have free will and (2) I found it disturbing to consider that I in fact don't have it. But intuition is often wrong, particularly when considering things which are at different scales from the normal human environment, whether we're considering the long time scale of evolution, the vast distance of space, or the counterintuitive workings of sub-atomic particles. And, as I'm always chiding theists who believe in God because of the perceived negative consequences of disbelief (ahem), I believe we must have the courage to face the truth however difficult it may be or we're just wasting our time here.
Evidence Against Free Will
At this time, though, I must for now accept that we have no free will as it's commonly understood. The only evidence for it is our unreliable intuition, and there is considerable evidence against it once you assume that the mind arises solely out of the brain. First, the brain is physical and as such, according to all the physics we now know, is either mechanistic (unlikely) or probabilistic. Neither choice allows for the kind of "small god" that free will implies. Second, there have been some scientific experiments which suggest that we come to believe we are choosing consciously after we've already reached a decision. In a famous experiment by Benjamin Libet, it was shown that the unconscious part of the brain begins to show activity that a decision was made to perform an action before the person is aware of a desire to perform the action. This seems to rule out conscious free will. (Libet allows for a reduced version of free will by saying that the consciousness retains veto power up until shortly before the action is taken. However, I don't find that line of argument very convincing.) In another experiment, Alvaro Pascual-Leone discovered that we can affect which hand a person chooses "randomly" by stimulating different hemispheres of the brain with a magnetic field. Nevertheless, the people believed they were freely choosing.
Morality Without Free Will
Much as theists like to argue that there can be no morality without God, people first react to the absence of free will with a similar argument: "If we are not free to choose, how can we be held responsible for our actions?" Alonzo Fyfe (the Atheist Ethicist) deals with this question in his entry, Morality and Free Will. As I mostly agree with him, I'll refer you there.
Personhood Without Free Will
The bigger concern for me is our very personhood. Can it be that at this moment I literally have no choice but to type these words? That if I decide to stop, I didn't really "decide" to stop? If I'm just a machine and not a "small god," why bother living? This really troubled me.
But then I realized that I was still assuming too many facts not in evidence. What is this "I" we speak of? Even without the sticky question of free will, the "I" in an atheistic (or Buddhist, I guess) universe is pretty much an illusion. I was introduced to this idea years ago, when I was still a wavering theist, by the Buddhist and Eastern Philosophy scholar Alan Watts's book The Book (On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are). He writes:
We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms- Most of us have the sensation that "I myself" is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body--a center which "confronts an "external" world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. "I came into this world." "You must face reality." "The conquest of nature."
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" inside bags of skin.
For Watts and the Buddhists, the lack of self is beautiful. Since there is no boundary between me and the universe, I am the universe. What I think of as myself is simply the universe manifesting itself through me:
Underneath the superficial self, which pays attention to this and that, there is another self more really us than I. And the more you become aware of the unknown self -- if you become aware of it -- the more you realize that it is inseparably connected with everything else that is. You are a function of this total galaxy, bounded by the Milky Way, and this galaxy is a function of all other galaxies. You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes. You look and look, and one day you are going to wake up and say, "Why, that's me!" And in knowing that, you know that you never die. You are the eternal thing that comes and goes that appears -- now as John Jones, now as Mary Smith, now as Betty Brown -- and so it goes, forever and ever and ever.
Those of us who had been believing in ourselves as little gods will have to do some mourning for our lost sense of self, but then we'll realize that we haven't lost anything since we never had it to begin with. Nothing changes but our perspective. As Alonzo writes in the comments of his post, "What will [free will] give you that you would not otherwise have? If I want a chocolate cake, I can still go get a chocolate cake."