You Can’t Possibly Believe That

by Tim Sommers

Old joke. A Calvinist preacher, a firm believer in predestination, is moving his family further west. Seeing him packing his wagon, a neighbor stops to say goodbye. The preacher brings one last item out of his house, a shotgun, and the neighbor asks, “What good is that going to do you? If you get attacked by a bear, and it’s your time to go, that won’t help.” The preacher responds, “What if I get attacked by a bear and it’s the bear’s time to go?”

Predestination is not the same thing as lack of free will (according to Calvinists at least), but, maybe, close enough. On a recent episode of This American Life (episode 662) producer David Kestenbaum made his case against free will like this. “[T]here are only four basic forces in the world – gravity, electromagnetism, and two others, the strong force and the weak force…Our understanding of these forces has been tested and explored again and again…These four forces explain how atoms stick together, how every bit of matter moves, and yes, even the bits of matter that make up us and our brains. We are just collections of atoms. I don’t see how those atoms can truly have any will. When you think you’re deciding, I’m going to wear this shirt today, you can’t really have decided otherwise. We are subject to the forces of nature, not one of them.”

Very convincing all on its own. (I especially like that last line. “We are subject to the forces of nature, not one of them.”) But later on in the show Kestenbaum got some back-up from neuroscientist, and official Genius (Grant Recipient), Robert Sapolsky. Here he is talking about the movement of an eyebrow. “So, let’s simplify it. A muscle did something. Meaning a neuron in your motor cortex commanded your muscle to do that. That neuron fired only because it got inputs from umpteen other neurons milliseconds before. And those neurons only fired because they got inputs milliseconds before and back and back and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that, from out of nowhere, decided to say something that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe, and ions, and channels, and all that sort of stuff. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will. And there is no such neuron.”

Something has gone wrong here. Did you catch it? I’ll come back to it in a bit, but first I want to talk, not about a reason to believe in free will, but about why you can’t possibly believe that free will (in some form or other) doesn’t exist.

Here’s a way at looking at free will I learned as a first-year philosophy student from my professor Jim Roper. Think of life as a vast arena filled with struggle and strife and the whole array of things that we do. Now, somehow via the power of philosophy, climb up and out of that the arena, up the very rim of the stadium, and look back. From here you can see that all the apparent randomness and, yes, all the apparent decisions and vows and threats and pledges of love being made down there in the arena are really the result of unseen, deterministic forces. The sense that anyone is deciding to do anything is, from this vantage point, clearly an illusion. Can you bring yourself to climb back down into that arena with this knowledge and go on as you did before? Well, guess what? You can’t stay here.

Consider this, though. You can’t decide to assert that there is no free will, without contradicting yourself. When you argue that there is no free will, you are contradicting yourself because the idea of “arguing” presupposes free will. In general, it’s very hard to not involve yourself in some kind of “performative contradiction” – where what you do contradicts what you say – when you try to disavow free will. I took a seminar with a philosopher once where he argued through the whole semester for “evolutionary epistemology” – which, among other things, denies that knowledge advances through volitional argument. I asked him at the end of it, if he really believed that, how could he argue for it? He gave me the second most brilliant answer to a philosophical question that I ever got. He said, “I’m not arguing for it. I’m predicting that eventually you will agree with me.” I didn’t fall for it, of course, because, of course, he was arguing for it – which implied that people did argue, which implied that what he was arguing for was false. (The most brilliant answer I ever got to a philosophical question, by the way, was when I asked my priest during religion class in 8th grade this. “You say we will be rewarded in Heaven if we volunteer at the fish fry. But you also say everyone in Heaven is perfectly happy. If everyone is perfectly happy, how can they be rewarded for working at the fish fry?” He said, “Well, you can have two full glasses of water and one can still be bigger than the other.” I don’t know if that even makes sense. But it sure blew me away at the time.)

Here’s the thing. What is a belief? Believe it or not, there’s lots of controversy about this among philosophers. But one way of thinking about a belief is as an attitude towards a proposition. I feel, or have an attitude, towards some proposition that that proposition is either true or false. Now, you can’t always just choose what to believe. Some beliefs are thrust upon us, to some we are immune, some just won’t go away. But, on most accounts, including this one, beliefs involve some element of volition. That’s will, to you and me. Can you choose to believe that there is no free will? No. Because if there’s no free will, you can’t choose anything or believe anything. Bottom line. When it comes to believing there’s no free will, well, you can’t possibly believe that.

Before you get too excited about this argument, compare it to these. If there is no God, life has no meaning. Or “If God is dead, then everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky). Kant, after dismissing all metaphysical arguments for the existence of God, insisted that God was a “postulate of practical reason”. He thought we should always follow the Moral Law, but he thought that even if everyone did follow it, things could still turn out very badly for everyone. The only guarantee that we can have that things will turn out okay is God – so we best just assume God exists. (Compare Wittgenstein’s claim that believing in God is really just believing that, in the end, everything will turn out alright.)

The fact that you can’t possibly believe that there is no free will doesn’t prove that there is free will. I am pretty sure there is still right and wrong and meaning in life without God. But I think Kant is right that the only guarantee that everything will work out is God. But that doesn’t prove there is a God. It’s not even evidence that there is a God.

I should say this too. We are very probably not nearly as free as we think we are. I am very sympathetic with people who want to reform our criminal justice system and our economic system in ways that acknowledge this. Our horribly punitive criminal justice system and cruelly-free market system are both based on views of human nature that, I think, are utterly implausible. So, I have every sympathy with critics of social injustice who downplay the amount of autonomy that real people actually have. But I just don’t believe there is no free will at all. I can’t believe that.

I don’t think Kestenbaum gets how differently the world looks without any free will at all, though. He does wonder about how we view our lives when we stop thinking of ourselves as making choices, taking responsibility, trying to start over. He says, “I’ve come to think of my daily existence as kind of like being in a movie, where I’m just along for the ride.” But if there is no free will, it’s not just like passively watching the very same life as before. Nothing means what it used to mean. “I’m making choices all day long. But the machine that is me couldn’t really have chosen anything else,” he says. But, again, it’s worse than that. Things just happen without any narrative or meaning. It’s all just atoms in the void, as Democritus said. (Unless sometimes the atoms swerve, as Lucretius thought. That’s free will.) I don’t really think we can understand or picture what it would be like to really believe that there is no free will. Kestenbaum says, “And if I’m being honest, it also feels kind of cool knowing this thing that no one wants to face up to, watching us all run around as if it’s not true.” And there it is. The appeal of denying the existence of free will. It’s cool to not believe in it. It’s the very definition of cool: unconcerned, detached, unflappable. You feel a little superior to all those suckers around you who believe in things.

A few years ago, philosopher Alex Rosenberg published a book called An Atheist Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. He defended “nice nihilism”: no god, no free will, no right and wrong, no meaning, nothing, but without all the gloom and fuss. He recommended smiling about it and just enjoying yourself. (Google Alex Rosenberg. Check out that smile.) It’s a sophisticated version of the self-important, YouTube-atheists who can’t stop going on about what they don’t believe in because they think that it shows that they are so much more rational than everyone else. But if there is no free will, it’s a little hard to see how we can respond to advice by choosing to smile. Me? I think that if you really “gaze long into that abyss”, you won’t be smiling, and, as Nietzsche said, eventually “the abyss also gazes into you”. Nietzsche. Now there’s someone who got nihilism. He had some fear and some respect. He knew that nihilism, while having a certain superficial coolness about it, is the end of everything we care about. He recommends enjoying art more. I am not sure that really helps. In fact, it’s uncomfortably close to Rosenberg’s advice that we should just smile. But at least Nietzsche had the good judgment to be afraid of what it really looks like when we face the “terrible truths” that are like the many “orifices of that pit of blackness that lies beneath us, everywhere” (to borrow a phrase from Hawthorne).

So, back to what went wrong in the juxtaposition of the two arguments we started with. Maybe this seems like a roundabout way of explaining it, but bear with me a little longer. When I was a teenager, I bought a book off a remainders table at the grocery store where I worked. I don’t know why they were selling books at the grocery store, but, believe me, they were. Anyway, this book was called something like “Chemical Gods” and it was by a chemistry professor. He argued that everything that happens is the result of various chemical processes. Everything, at bottom, is just chemistry. Since humans too are made of chemicals, there can’t be free will because everything is just chemical reactions.

Now, do you see what went wrong above? Is there no free will because everything is chemistry or because everything is neuroscience or because everything is just physics? Which is it? Or is it somehow all three?

Lots of philosophers of science used to believe that there was a hierarchy of sciences with political science or history or economics, or something, on the top depending on psychology below it, psychology depending on biology below it, biology depending on chemistry below it, and everything depending on physics at bottom. But, one fine day, they believed, everything will smoothly reduce to physics. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anymore, or any time soon, at least. Sure, bits of chemistry do reduce pretty nicely to physics (see the periodic table), but the wholesale reduction of all the sciences to physics looks more and more unlikely. And, anyway, it was always a matter of faith. There was never much reason to believe it. It was a promissory note for a project. There are reasons to believe a weaker claim, namely, that biology, for example, can’t violate the laws of physics. But we now have a very specific reason to believe the larger project is hopeless, even in principle.

A philosopher named Jerry Fodor (who passed away last year after a long and fruitful career) was the first to provide that reason in a perspicuous, explicit fashion. He called it “the independence of the special sciences” (where basically everything except physics is a special science). Here’s a simplified version of the argument. Take neural events and compare them to physical events. A single kind of neural event can be multiply-realized. That is, at the level of neuroscience you have, say, y-neurons firing, but at the level of physics there are lots of different ways particles and forces can be arranged to “realize” “y-neuron firing” types of events. So, say that in neuroscience there’s a law that says y-neuron events always lead to x-neuron events, but at the level of physics there are just lots of different particle interactions that look meaningless from the point of view of physics even while realizing these different neural events. So, neural events and neural laws just don’t smoothly reduce to events at the level of physics. Again, the neural events don’t violate the laws of physics. But they are not explained by them either. They have their own laws that they follow.

This is basically a more sophisticated version of what half the sophomores in any introduction to philosophy class come up at some point in the semester and what physicist Sean Carroll keeps insisting on in his books. (No offense to, Carroll. I read him all the time. And I’m about to agree with him.) See, there are like, levels, people, and on one level, there’s like physics, and on another there’s like biology, and on another – you feelin’ me? – there’s like free will. Something like that. (Philosopher’s call this class of positions, as applied to the mind and consciousness, “nonreductive materialism”, in case you were wondering.)

Here’s a problem. This picture works perfectly with the special sciences where these are defined by natural kinds connected in a law-like way to each other, but that don’t smoothly reduce to the natural kinds or laws of physics. But it’s not clear that it can really solve the problem of free will and consciousness and all that.

The problem is that even if everything isn’t physics, the special sciences are still all about causal relations and causal laws. And if everything is just caused, no matter how many causal levels there are, what we do is still just caused and, maybe, there’s still no free will. Now, some philosophers think free will is compatible with everything being caused. But that’s another long story. And I won’t to try to go any further here. I am just saying that, I think that something has got to work here (or elsewhere, but near here) to explain how free will works, because when it comes to trying to say there is no free will, like I said, you can’t possibly believe that. Or, rather, to be more precise, if you do succeed in believing that there is no free will, that belief is necessarily false (because you do have beliefs, because you do have free will).

One last try. Saying that there is no free will at all is not just saying that you don’t have any control over your life and that your life has no real meaning or narrative and that everything you care about is an illusion, it’s also self-contradictory. It’s saying that, I believe that I have no beliefs. If there is no free will, you don’t believe anything. Hence, that there is no free will is something that you can’t possibly believe (or, at least, can’t believe and also have that belief be true at the same time).