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The topic of free-will is one of the largest problems facing modern philosophers. An increasing empirical onslaught has done little to alleviate these murky waters. In actuality, each scientific breakthrough has resulted in greater philosophical confusion, whether it be due to an impractical knowledge base that is needed to interpret these results or counter-intuitive outcomes (RP signal, brain activity precedes conscious action). My own attempts to shed some light onto this matter are equally feeble, which has precipated the creation of the present article. What is the causal nature of the universe? Is each action determined and directly predictable from a sufficiently detailed starting point or is there a degree of inherent uncertainty? How can we reconcile the observation that free-will appears to be a valid characteristic of humanity with mounting scientific evidence to the contrary (eg Grand Unified Theory)? These are the questions I would like to discuss.

‘Emergent’ seems to be the latest buzzword in popular science. While the word is appealing when describing how complexity can arise from relatively humble beginnings, it does very little to actually explain the underlying process. These two states are simply presented on a platter, the lining of which is composed of fanciful ’emergent’ conjourings. While there is an underlying science behind the process involving dynamic systems (modelled on biological growth and movement), there does seem to be an element of hand waving and mystique.

This state of affairs does nothing to help current philosophical floundering. Intuitively, free-will is an attractive feature of the universe. People feel comfortable knowing that they have a degree of control over the course of their life. A loss of such control could even be construed as a faciliator of mental illness (depression, bipolar disorder). Therefore, the attempts of science to develop a unified theory of complete causal prediction seems to undermine our very nature as human beings. Certainly, some would embrace the notion of a deterministic universe with open arms, happy to put uncertainty to an end. However, one would do well (from a Eudamonic point of view) to cognitively reframe anxiety regarding the future to an expectation of suprise and anticipation at the unknown.

While humanity is firmly divided over their preference for a predictable or uncertain universe, the problem remains that we appear to have a causally determined universe with individual freedom of choice and action. Quantum theory has undermined determinism and causality to an extent, with the phenomenon of spontaneous vaccuum energy supporting the possibility of events occuring without any obvious cause. Such evidence is snapped up happily by proponents of free-will with little regard as to its real-world plausibility.This is another example of philosophical hand-waving, where the real problem involves a form of question begging; that is, a circular argument with the premise requiring a proof of itself in order to remain valid! For example, the following argument is often used;

  1. Assume quantum fluctuations really are indeterminate in nature (underlying causality ala ‘String Theory’ not applicable).
  2. Free-will requires indeterminacy as a physical prerequisite.
  3. Quantum fluctuations are responsible for free-will.

 To give credit where it is due, the actual arguments used are more defined than that which is outlined above, however the basic structure is similar. Basic premises can be outlined and postulates put forward describing the possible form of neurological free will, however as with most developing fields the supporting evidence is skimp at best. And to make matters worse, quantum theory has shown that human intuition is often not the best method of attempting an explaination.

 However, if we work with what we have, perhaps something useful will result. This includes such informal accounts such as anecdotal evidence. The consideration of such evidence has led to the creation of two ‘maxims’ that seem to summarise the evidence presented in regards to determinsm and free-will.

Maxim one. The degree of determinism within a system is reliant upon the scale of measurement; a macro form of measurement results in a predominantly deterministic outcome, while a micro form of measurement results in an outcome that is predominantly ‘free’ or unpredictable. What this is saying is that determinism and freedom can be directly reconciled and coexist within the same construct of reality. Rather than existing as two distinctly separate entities, these universal characteristics should be reconceptualised as two extremities on a sliding scale of some fundamental quality. Akin to Einstein’s General Relativity, the notions of determinism and freedom are also relative to the observer. In other words, how we examine the fabric of reality (large or small scale) results in a worldview that is either free or constrained by predictability. Specifically, quantum scale measurements allow for an indeterministic universe, while larger scale phenomenon are increasingly easier to predict (with a corresponding decrease in the accuracy in the measurement tool). In short, determinism (or free-will) is not a physical property of the universe, but a characteristic of perception and an artifact of the mesaurement method used. While this maxim seems commonsensical and almost obvious, I believe the idea that both determinism and free-will are reconcilable features of this universe is a valid proposition that warrants further investigation.

Maxim Two: Indeterminacy and free-will are naturally occuring results that emerge from the complex interaction of a sufficient number of interacting deterministic systems (actual mechanisms unknown). Once again we are falling back on the explanatory scapegoat of ’emergence’, however its use is partially justified (in the light of empirical developments). For example, investigations into fractal patterns and the modelling of chaotic systems seems to justify the existence of emergent complexity. Fractals are generated from a finite set of definable equations and result in an intensely complicated geometric figure with infinite regress, the surface features undulating with each magnification (interestingly, fractal patterns are a naturally occuring feature in the physical world, and can result from biological growth patterns and magnetic field lines). Chaos is a similar phenomemon, beginning from reasonably humble initial circumstances, and due to an amalgamation of interferring variables results in an overall system of indeterminacy and unpredictability (eg weather patterns). Perhaps this is the mechanism of human consciousness of freedom of will; individual (and deterministic) neurons contribute enmasse to an overall emergent system that is unpredictable. As a side note, such a position also supports the possibility of artificial intelligence; build something that is sufficiently complex and ‘human-like’ consciousness and freedom will result.

The two maxims proposed may seem to be quite obvious on cursory inspection, however it can be argued that the proposal of a universe in which determinism and freedom of will form two alternative interpretations of a common, underlying reality is unique. Philisophically, the topic is difficult to investigate and discuss due to limitations on empirical knowledge and an increasing requirement for specialised technical insight into the field.

The ultimate goal of modern empiricism is to reduce reality to a strictly deterministic foundation. In keeping with this aim, experimentation hopes to arrive at physical laws of nature that are increasingly accurate and versatile in their generality. Quantum theory has since put this inexorable march on hold while futile attempts are made to circumvent the obstacle that is the uncertainty principle.

Yet perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel, however dim the journey may be. Science may yet produce a grand unified theory that reduces free-will to causally valid, ubiquitous determinism. More than likely, as theories of free-will become closer to explaining the etiology of this entity, we will find a clear and individually applicable answer receding frustratingly into the distance. From a humanistic perspective, it is hoped that some degree of freedom will be preserved in this way. After all, the freedom to act independently and an uncertainty of the future is what makes life worth living!

Most of us would like to think that we are independent agents that are in control of our destiny. After all, free-will is one of the unique phenomena that humanity can claim as its own – a fundamental part of our cognitive toolkit. Experimental evidence, in the form of neurological imaging has been interpreted as an attack on mental freedom. Studies that highlight the possibility of unconscious activity preceding the conscious ‘will to act’ seem to almost sink the arguments from non-determinists (libertarians). In this article I plan to outline this controversial research and offer an alternative interpretation; one which does not infringe on our abilities to act independent and of our own accord. I would then like to explore some of the situations where free-will could be ‘missing in action’ and suggest that the frequency at which this occurs is larger than expected.

A seminal investigation conducted by Libet et al (1983) first challenged (empirically) our preconceived notions of free-will. The setup consisted of an electroencephalograph (EEG, measuring overall electrical potentials through the scalp) connected to the subject and a large clock with markings denoting various time periods. Subjects were required to simply flick their wrist whenever a feeling urged them to do so. The researchers were particularly interested in the “Bereitschaftspotential” or readiness potential; a signature EEG pattern of activity that signals the beginning of volitional initiation of movement. Put simply, the RP is an measurable spike in electrical activity from the pre-motor region of the cerebral cortex – a mental preparatory action that put the wheels of movement into action.

Results of this experiment indicated that the RP significantly preceded the subjects’ reported sensations of conscious awareness. That is, the act of wrist flicking seemed to precede conscious awareness of said act. While the actual delay between RP detection and conscious registration of intent to move was small (by our standards), the half a second gap was more than enough to assert that a measurable difference had occurred. Libet interpreted these findings as having vast implications for free-will. It was argued that since electrical activity preceded conscious awareness of the intent to move, free-will to initiate movement (Libet allowed free-will to control movements already in progress, that is, modify their path or act as a final ‘veto’ in allowing or disallowing it to occur) was non-existent.

Many have taken the time to respond to Libet’s initial experiment. Daniel Dennet (in his book Freedom Evolves) provides an apt summary of the main criticisms. The most salient rebuttal comes in the form of signal delay. Consciousness is notoriously slow in comparison to the automated mental processes that act behind the scenes. Take the sensation of pain, for example. Initial stimulation of the nerve cells must firstly reach sufficient levels for an action potential to fire, causing dendrites to flood ions into the synaptic gap. The second-order neuron then receives these chemical messengers, modifying its electrical charge and causing another action potential to fire along its myelinated axon. Now, taking into account the length that this signal must travel (at anywhere from 1-10m/s), it will then arrive at the thalamus, the brain’s sensory ‘hub’ where it is then routed to consciousness. Consequently, there is a measurable gap between the external event and conscious awareness; perhaps made even larger if the signal is small (low pain) or the mind is distracted. In this instance, electrical activity is also taking place and preceding consciousness. Arguably the same phenomenon could be occurring in the Libet experiment.

Delays are inevitably introduced when consciousness is involved in the equation. The brain is composed of a conglomerate of specialised compartments, each communicating with its neighbours and performing its own part of the process in turn. Evolution has drafted brains that act automatic first, and conscious second. Consequently, the automatic gains priority over the directed. Reflexes and instincts act to save our skins long before we are even aware of the problem. Naturally, electrical activity in the brain could thus precede conscious awareness.

In the Libet experiment, the experimental design itself could be misleading. Libet seems to equate his manipulation of consciousness timing with free-will, when in actual fact, the agent has already decided freely that they will follow instructions. What I am trying to say here is that free-will does not have to act as an initiator to every movement; rather it acts to ‘set the stage’ for events and authorises the operation to go ahead. When told to move voluntarily, the agent’s will makes the decision to either comply or rebel. Compliance causes the agent to authorise movement, but the specifics are left up to chance. Perhaps a random input generator (quantum indeterminacy?) provides the catalyst with which this initial order combines to create the RP and eventual movement. Conscious registration of this fact only occurs once the RP is already starting to form.

Looking at things from this perspective, consciousness seems to play a constant game of ‘catch-up’ with the automated processes in our brains. Our will is content to act as a global authority, leaving the more menial and mundane tasks up to our brain’s automated sub-compartments. Therefore, free-will is very much alive and kicking, albeit sometimes taking a back-seat to the unconscious.

We have begun by exploring the nature of free-will and how it links in with consciousness. But what of these unconscious instincts that seek to override our sense of direction and seek to regress humanity back to its more animalistic and primitive ancestry? Such instincts act covertly; sneakily acting whilst our will is otherwise indisposed. Left unabated, the agent that gives themselves completely to urges and evolutionary drives could be said to be devoid of free-will, or at the very least, somewhat lacking compared to more ‘aware’ individuals. Take sexual arousal, for instance. Like it or not, our bodies act on impulse, removing free-will from the equation with simplistic stimulus:response conditioning processes. Try as we might, sexual arousal (if allowed to follow its course) acts immediately upon visual or physical stimulation. It is only when the consciousness kicks into gear and yanks on the leash attached to our unconscious that control is regained. Eventually, with enough training, it may be possible to override these primitive responses, but the conscious effort required to sustain such a project would be psychically draining.

Society also seeks to rob us of our free-will. People are pushed and pulled by group norms, expectations of others and the messages that are constantly bombarding us on a daily basis. Rather than encouraging individualism, modern society is instead urging us to follow trends. Advertising is crafted in a way that the individual may even be fooled into thinking that they are arriving at decisions of their own volition (subliminal messaging), when in actual fact, it is simply tapping into some basic human need for survival (food, sex, shelter/security etc).

Ironically, science itself could also be said to be reducing the amount of free-will we can exert. Scientific progress seeks to make the world deterministic; that is, totally predictable through increasingly accurate theories. While the jury is still out as to whether ‘ultimate’ accuracy in prediction will ever occur (arguably, there is not enough bits of information in the universe with which to construct a computer powerful enough to complete such a task) science is coming closer to a deterministic framework whereby the paths of individual particles can be predicted. Quantum physics is but the next hurdle to be overcome in this quest for omniscience. If the inherent randomness that lies within quantum processes is ever fully explained, perhaps we will be at a place (at least scientifically) to model a individual’s future action based on a number of initial variables.

What could this mean for the nature of free-will? If past experiments are anything to go by (Libet et al), it will rock our sense of self to the core. Are we but behaviouristic automatons as the psychologist Skinner proposed? Delving deeper into the world of the quanta, will we ever be able to realistically model and predict the paths of individual particles and thus the future course of the entire system? Perhaps the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle will spare us from this bleak fate. The indivisible randomness of the quantum wave function could potentially be the final insurmountable obstacle that neurological researchers and philosophers alike will never be able to conquer.

While I am all for scientific progress and increasing the bulk of human knowledge, perhaps we are jumping the gun with this free-will stuff. Perhaps some things are better left mysterious and unexplained. A defeatist attitude if ever I saw one, but it could be justified. After all, how would you feel if you knew every action was decided before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye? Would life even be worth living? Sure, but it would take alot of reflection and a personality that could either deny or reconcile the feelings of unease that such a proposition brings.

They were right; ignorance really is bliss.

Compartmentalisation of consciousness

Humans seem to have an innate tendency to derive meaning from the meaningless. An example of this is the “poor man’s philosopher”; a naive chap who has an obsessive fixation on discovering the true meaning of life and attaches the utmost importance to the answer. In this superficial view, the question “what is the meaning of life” is taken at face value; literally the agent is searching for meaning in their existence. Alternative questions include “why are we here”, “what is our purpose” and “who or what created us”.

It is my intent to show that such questions are not only unwarranted, but also unnecessary in a modern society with access to empirical reasoning and inquiry. In short, questions that seek to find meaning in life, are themselves ironically meaningless. Life does not need to have a purpose in order to explain its substance; it simply is.

Perhaps this desire for intrinsic meaning is a direct precursor to more formalised, teleological concepts such as theism. Indeed some philosophers argue that in order for reality to hold any sort of value there must be meaning to life. For without it, every action would be reducible to meaningless, unconnected events.

But what exactly is meaning? Firstly, meaning does not equate with truth. Both are mutually independent variables, although there does seem to be a one-way relationship with ‘meaning’ necessary for ‘truth’ but ‘truth’ sufficient for ‘meaning’. Put another way, in order for a truth to exist, it must have meaning, however a meaning does not have to be true in order to exist. Interpretation is thus the main ingredient for meaning; you and I can hold vastly different meanings for the same object. The same can be said of truth (except in the case of universal truths). In the case of linguistic meaning, it is only when our mental representations of meaning either coincide or can be transferred through the medium of explanation that the essence of things can be communicated. Naturalistic meaning concerns the non-linguistic type of meaning of things, such as ‘the sea means wave’ or ‘the clouds mean rain’. In this sense, meaning is also highly subjective; to you clouds might mean rain but to me, clouds mean darkness. So is there any hope for objective meaning in the universe? Does life itself have a meaning?

Modern science aims to improve the situation but attempting to discover universal meanings (that are true) through empirical, rational measures. In a sense, physicists develop theories of universal meaning by probing the question “does the universe itself hold intrinsic, objective and true meaning ?” As in the comedic TV show and series of novels “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, the meaning of the life turns out to be a seemingly nonsensical number; 42 (to quote a cliche that has been beaten to death). This might not be so far from the truth. In a recent issue of New Scientist it is proposed that mathematics is the fundamental, underlying constant that could, theoretically, describe the entire set of parameters for the universe in a set of equations. As physics unearths fundamental truths about the nature of the world we live in, it becomes apparent (through universal constants eg cosmological constant) that there is consistency in meaning. Fundamental and objective meaning can exist, and in fact, describe the set of constraints that both created our universe and set up the necessary conditions for life (among other phenomenon such as gravity and other forces) to develop to fruition.

But we still are lightyears away from a definitive answer to this age old conundrum. Does life need to have meaning and purpose in order to be worthwhile? Mental illness, in particular depression, seems to indicate that no, life without meaning isn’t worth living, if suicide becomes the ultimate test of such a proposition. Conversely, an individual that is enmeshed with life and the world around them is said to be full or purpose, bristling with energy and affirms a sense of meaning to their lives. Again, the notion of relativity and subjectivity is brought into the fray. In short, the meaning of life is whatever you want it to be.

A generalised meaning of life (in the sense that most people speak of it) presupposes the existence of a deity; some external observer that both created the life (and universe) to begin with and also infused meaning into the essence of its new creation. Religion is just another form of scientific theory, albeit incorporating some distinctly non-scientific (and unethical) practices. It has been used in the same vein as science to explain the unknown, and reaffirms the point that humanity is driven towards searching for meaning in reality. From a theistic viewpoint, the meaning of life takes on a distinct impression of servitude and eternal gratitude towards the creator. This seems to betray the congitions of the religious; are they unwilling and simply incapable of taking responsibility for the direction of their lives? Is artificially infused meaning better than no meaning at all? If it prevents such people from prematurely ending their lives due to such a lack of meaning and gives them the capability to act productively towards society then yes, the manufactured meaning offered by theism is better than having no meaning to life. This is one of the reasons why religion (in its milder form) does have its uses in society as the total removal of it could be immoral and unethical ( if meaning is held as a valuable commodity, a human right).

Could this search be fruitless? Are we desperately clutching at straws and telling ourselves everything is ok, life does have purpose and meaning?

The crux of the matter comes down to a matter of opinion. Are we even asking the right question? Does our question make sense? Surely meaning to life can take on any form that the individual desires. Universal moral principles do tend to constrain the array of all possible ‘meanings of life’ such that they gravitate towards the positive, betterment of the self, helping of others etc. The ‘getting your hands dirty’ approach of evolution and naturalism posits that the meaning of life can be reduced to simple drives to procreate; life’s meaning is thus to subdivide, grow, recreate and expand. Personally this isn’t appealing as surely our conscious brains count for something (although the purpose of lower life forms could be said to have such a primitive meaning, and anyway, what about couples that choose not to reproduce?). Humanism aims to tone down the debate by equating the meaning of life with subjective maxims. The power rests with the individual. Life does not have to have an intrinsic meaning in order for that organism to lead a purposeful life. One can simply codify their personal principles and uphold them consistently in order to gain meaning.

The search for meaning, in the sense that it is popularly described, is futile. Not only does it distract from the real issues (the questions of how, not why), but also prevents humanity from taking personal responsibility for their actions. Over-mystifying the question of ‘life meaning’ just muddies the water when in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t such a complicated issue. “Life”, in the sense that we are familiar with presently, is not special; statistically it is impossible that we are unique. As such, humanity needs to surrender its presupposed notions of grandeur and move away from asking why, and focus more thoroughly on asking how. Only by achieving a societal-wide mindshift of this magnitude will we truly be free to ponder deeper, more meaningful questions as a collective rather than it being left to the philosophers and (reputable) scientists.