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Is Free Will a Dangerous Myth?

The denial of free will is a much more dangerous myth

Historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (September 2018) tells us in an essay in The Guardian on why free will is a dangerous myth in modern technological society:

Governments and corporations will soon know you better than you know yourself. Belief in the idea of ‘free will’ has become dangerous

 The first sentence is true—governments and corporations probably already know us better than we know ourselves. The second sentence is false. Free will is real, and the denial of free will is far more dangerous than government or corporate surveillance. In fact, denial of free will greatly magnifies the danger of surveillance and of the repression that may follow it.

Here are some excerpts from Harari, with my commentary:

Liberalism is founded on the belief in human liberty. Unlike rats and monkeys, human beings are supposed to have “free will”. This is what makes human feelings and human choices the ultimate moral and political authority in the world…

But Harari will have none of this unscientific “free will” nonsense:

Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.

Yuval Noah Harari

Free will isn’t a myth inherited from Christian theology. All cultures, in all of recorded history, have affirmed the reality of free will, with one important exception, which I will get to. Belief in free will—the belief that we have the morally culpable power to choose good or evil—is part of the human toolkit.

We have always believed that, and even those who deny it implicitly believe it. Try deliberately scratching Harari’s car and see if he lets you off the hook because you had no power to choose otherwise.

What does Harari mean by the “unscientific” nature of free will?

This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Humans certainly have a will—but it isn’t free. You cannot decide what desires you have. You don’t decide to be introvert or extrovert, easy-going or anxious, gay or straight. Humans make choices—but they are never independent choices. Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself.

Humans have emotions which are indeed not free, in the sense that we cannot freely choose our passions. Appetites—lust, greed, hunger, fear, etc—are common to all animals, rational and irrational. While humans can tame our appetites to a considerable extent, we are indeed subject to them and do not have libertarian control over them.

Will is a different matter entirely. Will is an immaterial power of the human mind, and it follows on intellect, which is also immaterial. The immateriality of intellect and will is obvious from the objects of intellection and will—universal and abstract concepts, which are immaterial themselves. The contemplation of these concepts is necessarily immaterial in turn. The immateriality of human intellect and will has been demonstrated logically and philosophically for several millennia by philosophers of all (and no) religious stripes, and the immateriality of intellect and will is strongly supported by modern neuroscience, despite Harari’s uninformed claim.

Will, which is free, is certainly influenced by passions, which are not free. My anger can dispose me to say things I know I shouldn’t. But ultimately the choice is mine. I can succumb to my passions, or I can frustrate them, according to my understanding of the situation. I retain free will despite my passions, although the influence of passions can be strong.

We all, on a certain level, know this. Much moral decision-making turns on the struggle between our animal passions and our free will. Sometimes a devil whispers in our ear, so to speak, but we choose, ultimately. So why would Harari make such an absurd claim—the claim that free will is a myth?

I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc – and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.

Harari claims that his will is determined by his biology and his environment. Like most free will deniers, he leaves no room for freedom from material determinism. He is wrong about the metaphysics, and about the science.

Ironically, materialists who “champion” science generally peddle junk science on the question of free will.

There are four reasons to affirm the reality of free will against denial by materialist determinists. Two reasons are logical, and two are scientific.

1. Intellect and will, because their natural objects are abstract (e.g. justice, mercy, fairness, courtesy, morality, etc.), are themselves immaterial powers of the human mind. This is the view of Aristotle, of essentially all of the scholastic philosophers, and of most philosophers up to the mid-20th century. It remains the viewpoint of many philosophers today. There is no coherent argument against the immateriality of the intellect and will. Materialists state that the will is not free; they do not demonstrate that it is not free.

2. Material processes like biochemistry and genetics are not propositions, and thus have no truth value. A chemical reaction is neither true nor false. It is merely a chemical reaction. A materialist like Harari who claims he is mere meat necessarily claims that his opinions have no truth value. Meat is neither right nor wrong. Why would we pay attention to an opinion “secreted” by a chemical reaction? Why would we pay heed to meat? Free will denial based on materialist determinism is self-refuting.

The Open Door, William Henry Fox Talbot (British, Dorset 1800–1877 Lacock), Salted paper print from paper negative

the open door/William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877)

3. Determinism in nature, on which the materialist claim to deny free will is generally based, is scientifically wrong. At the most fundamental (quantum) level, nature is not deterministic. That is, the outcome of a change in a system is not determined by the state of the system immediately prior to the change. This has been experimentally demonstrated. The theoretical and experimental underpinnings of this fact of nature, based on the work of Bell, Aspect and others, are complex but they are clearly demonstrated by experiments over the past several decades. Nature does, in fact, play dice, and any materialist claim based on determinism in nature is nonsense. Ironically, materialists who “champion” science generally peddle junk science on the question of free will.

4. While scientific experiments do not entirely settle the matter, an objective review of the neuroscientific evidence unequivocally supports the existence of free will. The first neuroscientist to map the brains of conscious subjects, Wilder Penfield, noted that there is an immaterial power of volition in the human mind that he could not stimulate with electrodes. The pioneer in the neuroscience of free will was Benjamin Libet, who demonstrated clearly that, while there is an unconscious material predisposition to acts as shown by electrical brain activity, we retain an immaterial “free won’t,” which is the ability to veto an unconscious urge to act. Many experiments have followed on Libet’s work, most of which use fMRI imaging of brain activity. They all confirm Libet’s observations by showing what is at most a loose correlation between brain activity and volition (for example, nearly half the time the brain activity that precedes the act is on the wrong side of the brain for the activity to determine the will)—the looseness of correlation being best explained as evidence for libertarian free will. Modern neuroscience clearly demonstrates an immaterial component to volition.

Harari is wrong about free will. It is not a myth. Free will is a real and fundamental aspect of being human, and the denial of free will is junk science and self-refuting logical nonsense.

To the totalitarian mind, human beings are livestock, to be managed and culled, not free agents to be held personally accountable for good or evil. The denial of free will is the essence of totalitarianism.

Harari does point out the very real dangers of government and corporate surveillance. But he gets the consequences of belief in free will exactly wrong. It is the denial of free will that poses the greatest danger to human liberty and dignity. I noted above that all but one human culture has affirmed the reality of free will. Hannah Arendt, who is the seminal philosopher of totalitarianism, has observed that totalitarian society differs fundamentally from all others in its denial of free will.

Fractal fist iconTotalitarians deny free will and the individual moral culpability that follows on it. In the totalitarian view, people are to be rewarded or punished according to their membership in, for example, racial or economic groups, not according to their individual culpability. Hitler didn’t gas millions of Jews because he thought they were individually culpable of crimes and thus had abused their free will. He gassed them because they were Jews, just as one would cull a herd of animals to eliminate an undesirable trait. Stalin didn’t starve millions of Ukrainian kulaks because he believed they were individually culpable of freely choosing to defy his economic policy. He starved them because they were of a class and nationality that needed to be eliminated if his economic policy was to prevail. To the totalitarian mind, human beings are livestock, to be managed and culled, not free agents to be held personally accountable for good or evil. The denial of free will is the essence of totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism is essentially government-as-livestock-control. Undoubtedly, government and corporate surveillance make our risk of totalitarian oppression even greater today than in the past century, but it is the denial of free will, rather than the affirmation of it, that serves as the fundamental philosophical pretext for totalitarian oppression. You don’t ask the cattle for their opinions and you care not at all about their choices or “culpability.” You breed them and cull them, according to your own purposes.

Denial of free will, in a culture of pervasive surveillance, is the straightest road to totalitarianism.

Michael Egnor

Also by Dr. Egnor: AI is indeed a threat to democracy (a response to Harari)

A computer scientist responds to my parable: Jeffrey Shallit argues that a computer is not just a machine, but something quite special

Michael Egnor: A further response to Jeffrey Shallit: Brains don’t learn either. Only minds learn. Learning is an ability of human beings, considered as a whole, to acquire new knowledge, not an ability of human organs considered individually.

Is Free Will a Dangerous Myth?