From Cats to Dennett — Gradualism of Free Will

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Free or constrained? Suspended a hundred feet in the air in Bobur’s wooden probosces in Nikola-Lenivets — you feel both.


Compatibilism is the position that freedom of the will is compatible with natural laws and biological organization of the human brain. Dan Dennett constructs for us one such free will worth wanting. Key elements of free will thus conceived are rationality and self-control. We consider both in turn and arrive at some unexpected conclusions.

Empirical studies show that human rationality is very limited. Not only it can go haywire during the most simple of choices, but irrational forces guide us in actions of great consequence. Degree of rationality depends heavily on the cultural background, on the thinking tools and fictional constructs that one acquires. Language is often thought of as the enabler of human rationality, but it has a dark side too — it allowed as to be responsive to reason but it also allowed us to create fictional bloodthirsty entities that started ruling our lives. Rationality varies greatly not only between different people but also throughout human history, and even within a single person. Thus rationality is not an ability that we have as a matter of our biology, like that of language, or of walking upright. Rather it a skill that we acquire and perfect but never master. There is no infliction point separating rational from the irrational.

Self-control is also not something that all humans are equally endowed with. Empirical studies show that differing ability of self-control in a very young age is a strong statistical predictor of multiple life-long outcomes — income, education, health, crime. There is a more sinister side to self-control as well. Often when we feel that we are under control, we are actually guided by mind parasites that come in both biological and informational form.

Hence both elements that are crucial for compatibilistic account of free will — rationality and self-control — are gradual. We thus have to embrace gradualism about free will as well. There is no magical point when a sentient being suddenly opens its eyes and becomes free. From this follow some important implications about our self-image and how we should treat one another. For example, with acceptance of gradualism about free will comes acceptance of gradualism about moral responsibility.

Key pillars in evolution of our freedom may not have happened at the dawn of Homo Sapiens, but rather in Ancient Greece and India, and Medieval Europe. Evolution of freedom may in fact be at its fastest today and we might have barely just begun to scratch the surface. By declaring ourselves to be free we might have, ironically, postponed the evolution of our freedom. True freedom begins to come not with declarations but with explanations.

Free will worth wanting

If humans have free will, then there must have been been a point in evolutionary history when it first appeared. Did Australopithecus have it? What about Neanderthals? Or is it a Homo Sapiens only prerogative? If so, did free will appear simultaneously with the first Sapiens? Or was it quite some time after, perhaps with the development of complex society? Or perhaps free will came with language, be that before, with, or after Sapiens? Or is it something else entirely?

Majority of philosophers, with a few notable and prominent exceptions, insist that humans have free will. A fair number of cognitive scientists join them, although it is not clear which way the majority sways. The most popular (and the only intellectually honest position) in defence of existence of free will is called compatibilism. In broad terms, it states that freedom of the will is compatible with natural laws and biological organization of the human brain.

One of the most outspoken proponents of compatibilism is Daniel Dennett, Tufts University professor of philosophy. Dennett does not defend the common sense folk psychological notion of free will that contradicts causality and laws of nature. Instead he constructs for us a type of free will “worth wanting” — the power to be active agents, biological beings that respond to our environment with rational, desirable courses of action:

What we want when we want free will is the power to decide our courses of action, and to decide them wisely, in the light of our expectations and desires. We want to be in control of ourselves, and not under the control of others. We want to be agents, capable of initiating, and taking responsibility for, projects and deeds. All this is ours, I have tried to show, as a natural product of our biological endowment, extended and enhanced by our initiation into society.

Indeed, this makes sense intuitively. For if we disconnect free will from reasoning ability, it becomes simply the ability to do whatever one wants to do. This kind of free will is undoubtedly enjoyed by cats, for example. A cat can decide to pee in your boots or spoil your new carpet, it is not compelled to do so and it certainly could have done otherwise (I can personally vouch for a few well-behaved cats). But I have a feeling that when throughout the centuries philosophers and theologians proclaimed that Man is Free, they had something different in mind.

Free will that we both have and want then, in Dennett’s opinion, is defined by our responsiveness to reason and our self-restraint. In his own words, these are the “necessary conditions for free will — rationality, and the capacity for higher order self-control”. This freedom comes to us as a matter of biology and culture, just as our linguistic capacity does, or our capacity for walking. It saves central tenets of our self-image — moral responsibility, praise and blameworthiness, arguably, our very soul. It reaffirms our common sense notion of ourselves. To have free will then is to be responsive to reason and to be in control of one self. Let us take each of these concepts for a spin and see where we land.

Rational animal?

Whether or not humans are rational animals is an empirical question that is easily tested. Simply quiz people with decision-making puzzles and see if they answer rationally or not. If they don’t, that means people are not rational. Easy. In fact, this is the topic that cognitive scientists, psychologists and economists have been very busy with during the last half century or so. And the results are already in. Let’s take a quick test. Which would you rather choose?

Case 1
[A] The Economist web subscription for $59
[B] The Economist print subscription for $125
[C] The Economist web & print subscription for $125

It certainly seems that you make a simple and rational choice here, out of your own free will based on your preferences. But you don’t. This experiment was made famous by Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He found that around 16% of respondents choose option A, 0% pick B, and 84% prefer C. But look what happened when respondents were presented with these choices instead:

Case 2
[A] The Economist web subscription for $59
[C] The Economist web & print subscription for $125

Removing option B does not change anything — no one picked it anyway. If these two surveys were completed by purely rational agents, the results would be the same. But surprisingly, when presented only with options in the second case, 68% of respondents now pick option A, instead of 16%. That is a staggering difference.

Turns out that our thinking is fraught with cognitive biases and distorted perspectives. We are easily swayed by emotions and just as easily succumb to pressure from the masses, often to a degree that borders with madness. Economic theories based on models of rational agent behavior fail badly. Our moral judgments follow our intuitions and we use reason to rationalize those intuitions but rarely if ever change them. What was the last time you saw someone change their opinion in real time when confronted with a well-reasoned argument? It happens rarely, if ever. And yet if we were responsive to reason, this should happen all the time.

Indeed, once we step back and take a look at our predicament, it is hard to see why we ever thought ourselves to be rational. Our personal life is pitted with irrational emotions and failure of self-control that often define key moments of it, often for the worse. How many people exhaust themselves in family quarrels or get stuck in self-reinforcing self-destructive behavior? Our situation in general looks no better either. Close to a billion people do not get enough food, countless more are stuck in oppressive regimes, many are subjected to wars and genocides. Terrorists constantly blow something up, religious fanatics profess lunacies of all kinds, Trump administration tries to undermine climate change progress, and so on. If we were rational self-reflexive creatures, wouldn’t we live in a largely peaceful and prosperous society engulfing our whole planet and beyond? Especially since we already have the technology and resources to feed and educate everyone on this planet many times over? Here is what Dennett has to say about this:

Why isn’t that the situation we find ourselves in? If we’re really homo sapiens, the “rational animal,” why are our prisons overcrowded and our judges overworked? One reason seems to be that we skimp on our institutions of enforcement, and hence people, being rational indeed, see that under certain conditions crime does pay, or at any rate is likely enough to pay to be worth the risk.

Does Dennett really believe that every crime was committed out of rational calculation of risk and reward? Does a drunk husband kill his wife in this way? Do genocidal outbreaks like St. Bartholomew’s Day happen because suddenly thousands of people decided that it would be quite rational to rape and hack to pieces thousands of their neighbors? Do rational animals fly planes into Twin Towers expecting seventy two virgins to await them in the next instant? Indeed, how can humans make rational risk and reward calculations in complex and emotional situations if they can’t make them even when choosing the Economist subscription?

In his excellent book Behave Stanford primatologist and neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky dives deeply into neurobiology of human behavior. He explains countless mechanisms responsible for our behavior that, no surprise here, have little to do with rationality and have a lot to do with our evolutionary history. Did you know, for example, that oxytocin has a dark side? Traditionally thought of as a hormone responsible for bonding, turns out it also plays a crucial role in forming Us/Them dichotomy. It promotes good behavior but only to members of your own group. Here is Sapolsky’s description of one of the consequences of this mechanism and of what happens when propaganda machine effectively makes insular cortices confuse literal with metaphorical (literal and metaphorical cockroaches in this case):

The killing ran for approximately one hundred days. During that time, there was not only a Final Solution–style attempt to kill every Tutsi in Rwanda but also killing of Hutus who were married to Tutsis, who attempted to protect Tutsis, or who refused to participate in killings. By the time it was done, approximately 75 percent of Tutsis — between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people — and around 100,000 Hutu had been killed. Roughly one out of every seven Rwandans. This translated into five times the rate of killing during the Nazi Holocaust. It was mostly ignored by the West. Five times the rate. For those of us schooled in the modern Western world’s atrocities, some translation is needed. The Rwandan genocide did not involve tanks, airplanes dropping bombs, or shelling of civilians. There were no concentration camps, no transport trains, no Zyklon B. There was no bureaucratic banality of evil. There were hardly even many guns. Instead Hutu — from peasant farmers to urban professionals — bludgeoned their Tutsi neighbors, friends, spouses, business partners, patients, teachers, students. Tutsis were beaten with sticks until they were dead, killed with machetes after being gang-raped and sexually mutilated, trapped in sanctuaries that were then burned to the ground. An average of roughly ten thousand people per day.

History is percolated with such behavior. Countless heads bound in chains crawling through time towards their fate, burned alive, hacked, impaled, raped, torn to pieces, hanged, drowned, mutilated, shot, bombed, gassed. Suffering unleashed on a scale never before seen on this planet. This behavior comes about not by rational consideration, rather it is fueled by strong emotions rooted deep in our evolutionary history which are amplified by fictional language constructs. Irrational xenophobia, hatred, primal rage, suppressed sexual drives — create a highly combustible mix responsible for the most terrible of atrocities.

We often think that the invention of language made us more rational, that it lifted us above other animals. But as it is often in life, there are two sides to the coin. Invention of language (and the capacity for abstraction that comes with it) was a powerful tool, and as all powerful tools it could be used for good and for ill. It allowed us to conceive of our situation as a whole, to invent philosophy and science, to construct modern democratic society. It has also allowed us to abstract our hate to whole groups based on any attribute we liked, kill and oppress on a scale never seen before. Language has allowed as to be responsive to reason but it also allowed us to create fictional bloodthirsty entities that started ruling our lives. It has allowed us to be more rational than our close brethren. It also allowed us to be guided by deranged fantasies of a madman. Depending on how you define rationality, it will not be an exaggeration to say that in some cases results of language use have made people less rational than other higher animals. Language has shown soaring heights above and cut open scorching depths below.

Language and rationality

All humans are endowed with capacity for language. It is a matter of our biology. We acquire it automatically on contact with culture in the critical period of our early age. As children acquire different cultural constructs, they make them more or less responsive to reason. For example, a kid who was indoctrinated in fundamental religion of one type or the other and was systematically denied access to skeptical thinking tools (barring a lucky encounter with the right book or the right person) will grow to be less responsive to reason in questions of morality and metaphysics. This is why in countries like Rwanda, where this type of upbringing is endemic, terrible events of 1994 can happen. In societies where all children are taught basic tools of logic, skepticism, empirical validation and history, even if very poorly, such events are increasingly unlikely. In countries where people are indoctrinated with the idea of personal freedom and human rights from the very childhood, like in the United States, dictatorship seems unlikely. In countries with little such cultural constructs dictators encounter little resistance, like in Russia.

Our rationality depends heavily on the kind of culture we absorb, on thinking tools that we acquire. It is best thought of as a skill that we can perfect rather than an ability that we are endowed with. Rationality is more like playing chess rather than walking upright. Although everyone knows how to move pawns (don’t put your hand into fire or you will get burned) significantly less people will know a good opening move (smoking kills your lungs and arteries) and even fewer people will know some good basic strategies (there is no invisible man sitting up in the sky). All of this leads to tremendous variation in rationality between different people. Would you rather find yourself at a negotiating table with a Hutu tribe from 1994 or a Massachusetts Institute of Technology tribe from the same period?

Not only does responsiveness to reason vary tremendously between different people but it can also vary to a remarkable degree within a single person. Kurt Gödel was a a prodigy who overturned foundations of mathematics, and yet he starved himself to death on laxatives in paranoid fear of being poisoned. Newton spent more of his time on finding secret messages in the Bible than on formulating his laws of physics. Although it is very hard to see irrationality in ourselves, we all notice irrational sides of our good friends, even in those who are very reasonable overall.

Rationality also varies through out history and increases as homo sapiens marches through time. Given available evidence, it seems that ancient Greeks improved their responsiveness to reason markedly over previous civilizations as they discovered tools of formal reasoning and skeptical doubt. There was an unfortunate downturn in the middle ages, but by now we seem to have surpassed Greeks by a long shot, given our rediscovery and elaboration of ideas of previous civilizations, as well as the discovery of science and all the knowledge it has uncovered for us. Another downturn may or may not be ahead of us.

For now, rationality is evolving faster than it ever did. The core principles of where we are, what we are, and what we have reason to do are being questioned. We may well come to some profound discoveries that will change our notion of rational actions. For example, self interest has been considered the epitome of rationality throughout recent western history, enshrined by authors like Ayn Rand and endorsed eagerly by the Wall Street. But this approach may well be a self-contradicting nonsense, as Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit explains in his masterwork Reasons and Persons, where he carefully analyses selfish behavior and shows its internal inconsistency. Recent discoveries in logic may open some new and very strange avenues of thinking about the ineffable and mystical in a more rigorous way, as Graham Priest, professor of logic at CUNY, argues in many of his works. When neuroscience embraces insights from meditative tradition, the whole conception of ourselves as separate selves starts to unravel, as it is argued in the works of Francisco Varela, Evan Thomson, Thomas Metzinger and many others. This may well turn out to be a revolution in our understanding of ourselves as significant as Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, with overreaching implications on what kinds of behaviors we will consider to be rational. And of course there are debates about our free will, with important implications for our judicial and educational systems, as well as our treatment of one another.

To sum up, rationality is not an ability that we have as a matter of our biology, but rather a skill that we acquire and perfect. It varies greatly between different people, within a single person, and over historic time. Dan Ariely says that “We understand our physical limitations and build around them. If we understood our cognitive limitations as well as we understand our physical limitations, we could design a better world.” That means acknowledging strict limits to our rationality. And if we don’t, if we simply declare ourselves to be free and rational, we will continue in our old ways.

Self-control and marshmallows

Second condition required by Dennett for freedom of the will is higher order self-control. Here the case for graduality is even easier to make. If people had reliable self-control then losing weight wouldn’t present such a huge challenge. Weight loss does not require high intellect, natural talent or degree in biochemistry. Just eat less, cut out processed food, exercise more. It is a pure test of self-control, and not a particularly elaborate one at that. And yet studies show that around 90% of people who embark on this journey of transformation fail. Dennett himself could lose a few pounds.

What about all the variability in our genes and upbringing? Surely, a kid with a bad set of genes brought up in, for example, a compulsive environment will have a life-long burden to bear. Not so, says Dennett. He compares our genes and upbringing to a starting position on a marathon race — it does not matter much if you are several meters ahead or behind on the starting grid. But this picture of human nature can’t be right. I know by my own example, that at the age of 33, I am still trying hard to shed certain features of my character that I was brought up with. And my intellectual development started only at the age of 18 by a lucky encounter with the right book. It is hard to believe that a kid brought up in a tv-watching, beer-drinking, intellectually unstimulating environment (a rather typical scenario) has the same chances in self-realization as someone who has been exposed to important books and strong peers right from the start. Not to mention financial health of the family. And we haven’t even started talking genes yet. Dennett should really cite studies here to support his claim, but he doesn’t. Everything that I have read on this topic points to life-long influence of peers, stimulating environment and financial factors. Even a simple IQ test is a strong statistical predictor of multiple long term outcomes — income, education level, health, even longevity.

Take the notorious Stanford marshmallow experiments as an example. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. Not surprisingly, the ability to control one self varied among kids. But what happened next was even more revealing. In follow-up studies, after 30 years, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by educational attainment, criminal records and body mass index. Returning to the marathon analogy, genes and upbringing are then best compared not to the position on the starting grid but to the added weight you have to carry in your backpack for the whole race.

It is tempting to blame adults when they fail to control themselves, to think that somehow that person is to blame and that he could have done otherwise. But this line becomes blurred as we approach very young age and we start to see genetic factors showing themselves in an obvious way. Can we really blame young children for diminished ability to restrict their urges if we know they result from genetic disadvantage? What happens when that child grows up in an unfortunate family and later commits a crime? We used to say that if someone ended up in poverty then it was all their fault. We now know better. Yet when we talk about crime we still take the stance “its all your fault” even though considerations are similar in both cases.

So we see graduality coming into play here as well, as it did with rationality. Self-control is not something that all humans are equally endowed with — it varies between individuals. There are many external factors that determine how apt a person is at controlling himself and many of these factors are in turn not under his control. But there is also a deeper and more sinister side to this story. Even when we feel that we are under control, can we be certain that it is not an illusion, that in reality we are not under control of somebody else?

Parasites of cats and humans

Back to cats for a bit. Toxoplasmosis is a bizarre protozoan parasite. The only place where it can reproduce sexually is in the gut of a cat. It comes out with the cat’s feces, feces are eaten by rodents and now the parasite has to get back into cat’s stomach. How does it do that? It slowly migrates to the rodent’s brain and crosses some of the circuitry in the hypothalamus so that cat pheromones that used to active every alarm circuit in the limbic system now instead tap into sexual arousal system. When male rats smell cat pheromones they actually increase testosterone production, it makes cats smell sexy. And it is an easy step from there to finding yourself in the cat’s stomach again. So the parasite completes its lifecycle.

Interestingly, toxoplasmosis has the same effect in chimps, who become less afraid of leopards. What about humans? Although I couldn’t find any studies dealing with humans and, say, tigers, the parasite does have a measurable effect on our behavior in general. You are more likely to die in a speeding car accident if you are infected with toxoplasmosis, you are more likely to kill yourself if you have clinical depression, and you are more likely to have schizophrenia. Toxoplasmosis infected people also show subtle changes in personality which show up on neuropsychological profiles — they get a little disinhibited. So if someone dies speeding along a highway, and it turns out that he was infected with toxoplasmosis, can we insist with certainty that he was in control? Or maybe toxoplasmosis was a little bit in control as well? A little bit, but enough to kill the host, in some cases at least. Keep in mind that around half of people worldwide are infected with toxoplasmosis. And there are countless bacteria and viruses that manipulate host behavior and most of them remain unstudied.

However, the most potent viruses that change human behavior do not operate on the basis of DNA. In Dennett’s own words “…ideas, practices, methods, beliefs, traditions, rituals, terms, and so on. These are all informational things that spread among human beings more or less the way germs or viruses do.” Robert Aunger, professor of anthropology at Cambridge, puts it as follows:

So perhaps we are literally possessed by thoughts imported from those around us. To use a more medical analogy, maybe ideas are acquired as a kind of mental “infection” through social contact. We know that we can acquire terrible diseases in this way, from germs sneezed at us by someone else. What if we need to fear that something caught culturally from our compatriots can be dangerously infectious as well? We might become contaminated with treacherous brain pathogens just by talking with one another! In effect, through conversation, ideas might be able to move from brain to brain, replicating themselves inside our heads.

Why do we think the things we think? Do we have thoughts, or do they have us? This startling idea — that thoughts can think themselves — is the brainstorm behind a new theory called memetics. This theory is based on an important insight relevant to social species like humans. It begins by recognizing that many of our thoughts are not generated from within our own brains but are acquired as ideas from others. What memetics argues is that, once inside us, these thoughts then go to work for themselves, pursuing goals that may be in conflict with our best interests. These ideas have their own interests by virtue of having qualities that make them like biological viruses.

Social scientists have long remarked that the pool of beliefs and values held in common by the members of social groups — their culture, in short — appears to evolve over time. New varieties of belief — mutants — pop up with fair regularity and then are selected by individuals based on a wide range of criteria, such as their psychological appeal. This resemblance between cultural and biological processes led the eminent zoologist Richard Dawkins to suggest that cultural evolution might be described using the same principles as biological evolution. More particularly, he identified a unit of information that plays a role analogous to that of genes, the biological replicator. He coined the term “meme” as the name for these cultural particles, which he presumed could replicate themselves as people exchanged information. The upshot of this view is that memes are ideas that collect people like trophies, infecting their brains as “mind viruses.” Maybe what we think hasn’t so much to do with our own free will as with the ongoing activity of something like “thought genes” operating inside our heads.

Dennett himself gives an excellent account of memetics in his impressive and sweeping book From Bacteria to Bach. If you find yourself on the skeptical side, I highly recommend you read Dan’s defence. Religious practices are the most obvious examples of powerful memeplexes, cultural DNA strands, that arguably carry strong evolutionary advantages by making humans behave in specific ways. For example, people become a lot more cooperative when they think somebody watches over them. However, if you want to gain freedom, what made sense from an evolutionary perspective does not always make sense from the perspective of a thinking self-reflective individual. A sea squirt, for example, digests its own brain when it finds a suitable rock, but we don’t want to follow suit. In his interview on BBC program Hard Talk Dennett says “A lot of people are really afflicted by their religion and I would like to see them cured”. So who is in control here? Is it you, or is it the cultural imperative you got from your community? How does Dennett reconcile mind viruses that control your behavior with freedom of the will? I don’t know.

And why stop with memes. Maybe we should talk genes as well. Take ants, for example. They are genetically programmed creatures, an outer shell, created by the replicator within — their genetic code. An ant will never disobey his genetic imperative and will follow its command to his death. We like to bring ourselves above our lesser brethren and think that we transcend nature. Our everyday language reflects this. Phrases like “I decided to have some food” or “That girl is so pretty, I want to go talk to her” may lead one to think that it is indeed “I” who is making these decisions, and that it could be otherwise. But have you ever thought that you decide to talk to a girl like an ant decides to pick a leaf — not ‘whether’ but only ‘when’ and ‘how’? (Kind female reader should forgive my male-centric example here. It is a compliment, really. Genetically determined sex-seeking behavior lies on the surface in males, our brains are feeble in this regard and succumb easily to spermotoxicosis.) Once again, who is really in control here, you or your genes?

To sum up, we see that self-control, just like rationality, is a gradual phenomenon — not all humans are equally endowed with it, and none are masters of it. Not only that, but it is also very hard to tell who really is in control. Is it the cultural imperative you got from your community? Or maybe biological imperative you got from your genes? Or a parasite you got from your cat?

Flux of freedom and responsibility

The kind of free will “worth wanting” that Dennett constructs for us depends crucially on both responsiveness to reason and self-control. Indeed, they are the “…necessary conditions for free will — rationality, and the capacity for higher order self-control”. As we saw above, both of these are gradual — there is no infliction point that separates rational from irrational, control from compulsion. We acquire both abilities gradually, our genetic endowment differs, and we can train ourselves to become better at them. There is no plateau that we all reach, as we do with language, or with walking. There is no magical point when a sentient being suddenly opens its eyes and becomes free. No demarcation point where it becomes the one to praise or to blame, and not its biology or cultural environment. It is all a continuous flux.

With this come important implications for our self-image and our treatment of one another. If we accept gradualism about free will, then we have to come to terms with many implications that free will deniers have been scaring us with, at least in part. For example, for the notion of moral responsibility to hold in everyday folk psychological way, we need a certain point in development of free will where people “just have it”. And then you can delight yourself in praising them, blaming them and seeking retributive justice against them. But if there is no such point, if our moral competence is a continuous flux, then engaging in such behavior becomes problematic. If a person had no control over what he did, how can we blame him. The blame is also diminished when a person has only partial control. And if all we have is partial free will, then all we get is partial control.

How would you know, for example, if a person really had what it takes to prevent himself from speeding and crashing a car? How much should we blame him if he had a stroke in that moment, disinhibiting his behavior? (Not much, it seems.) What about if we knew he had a traumatic childhood superimposed on a set of particularly impulsive genes, that he had trouble controlling his entire life even though he put a lot of effort in it? (Don’t know, tricky case.) What if it was Den Dennett? (Yep?) It is revealing that this last case is the only one where we are prepared to ascribe blame fully, but it is also the only case that will probably never happen. And last but not least — what if it was Dan Dennett who was infected with toxoplasmosis?

With acceptance of gradualism about free will comes acceptance of gradualism about moral responsibility. Dennett is very reluctant to give up this notion, in fact, I suspect, his effort to save freedom of the will is motivated in large part by the desire to keep the notion of moral responsibility. For without it, it may seem, our society will fall apart. Dennett points out the experiment where people, who are first asked to read a text on denial of free will, later perform more poorly in morally oriented tasks, they are more likely to cheat and so on. For if I don’t have free will, I might just as well cheat and commit evil things. What Dennett fails to mention is that similar experiments have been conducted with denial of existence of God — people who read such texts are later also more inclined to fail morally. This problem has of course plagued far more people, purely because God is a lot more popular than freedom of the will. “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” — said Dostoevsky through the lips of Mitya Karamazov. Isn’t it ironic that Dan Dennett, a devout atheist and an apt exposer of all harms of religion, uses the same rhetoric when defending free will? “If free will does not exist, everything is permitted” — might as well say Dan.

Dennett is quick to brush of concerns that demise of religion may bring moral chaos. He points out that atheism does not prevent one from being both a highly productive and a very moral person indeed. Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, Steven Wineberg, Steven Pinker, Dan Dennett himself, and countless others — all stand proudly to attest to that fact. But so is the case with free will. Sam Harris, Thomas Metzinger, Simon Blackburn, Jerry Coyne — are all very productive and, I doubt, any less moral. So plenty good specimen on both sides. But as far as masses are concerned, maybe Dennett is right. Maybe denial of free will does cause distress and uneasiness about moral issues. But I also wouldn’t be so quick to brush of concerns with religion. Denial of existence of God also causes a lot of stress and distorts moral compasses. And these is no saying how all of this will play out in the future. Humans are in a very fragile state. We have made up a lot of stories in the past to comfort ourselves with, and those stories have become deeply ingrained in our culture, they became part of what we are. Now as we begin to uncover the true nature of reality and of ourselves, these stories come crashing down. Reality turns out to be incomprehensibly queer and vast. We ourselves turn out to be absolutely not what we have thought ourselves to be. Are our brains equipped to deal with all of that? Time will tell.

Timeline of freedom

In light of this discussion the question that was posed in the very beginning — when did free will first appear? — opens for us from a rather unexpected angle. Not only was there no such sudden event, but key milestones may lie in our very recent history. The evolution of language was undoubtedly a crucial prerequisite, but what really moved our freedom ahead may have been the events that happened in Ancient Greece, India and China, as well as medieval Europe. Greeks have discovered the tools of formal reasoning, which in turn allowed for evolution of skeptical doubt and requisite of proof — two key components of rationality. Yogis of India gained meditative knowledge that facilitated greater freedom from emotional compulsion and provided powerful insight into the workings of our mind. Should Descartes have done a little meditative practice, he would have avoided his biggest blunder “I think therefore I am”. Instead, it would have been “Thoughts happen” and European philosophical tradition would have been spared the embarrassment of dualism that engulfed it for the next three centuries. Evolution of freedom has advanced in a very powerful way recently by the great scientific revolutions that overturned our notions of where we are and who we are. Having a correct self-image is crucial for rational behavior. For how rational can a monkey be if he thinks he is an angel?

Evolution of freedom may be at its fastest today. For the first time in human history an unprecedented number of people have access to all of the world’s knowledge almost in real time. Almost everyone today can read latest research on neuroscience, then see how leading philosophers reflect on that, and after that take a break and try out some ancient esoteric Dzogchen practice from a scanned book found on the outskirts of the internet. You no longer have to travel for months on end to find a meditation teacher, or survive the grinder of getting into top school to have access to state of the art research. It is all here, at our fingertips. It is exceedingly interesting to see how all of this will play out in the future.

Not only that, but what we learn about ourselves may very soon begin to loop back on itself. We are biological beings, and as such our desires and cognitive abilities are fully constrained by our biology. We cannot easily change, if at all, what we desire. We cannot change at all the mechanisms that underlie our thinking. Indeed, if a small shift in our genetics lead to rewiring of Broca’s area which was sufficient for language to appear which in turn lead to everything that we have now, who’s to say what other such rewirings may do. As science gets powerful enough to peer into our own internal functioning, we begin to reverse engineer ourselves. Today we stand at the very beginning of this journey. And we certainly cannot imagine what is to come when we begin to significantly alter our biology or leave it altogether, when we begin to remake the very constraints that define who we are, what we want, and how we think. We might have barely just begun to scratch the surface of freedom.

The story of free will

Over the aeons of history we have been stuck in the darkness of complete ignorance, having no idea why things happened the way they did, in fact, having no idea why we did many of the things that we did. To cope with this situation we invented stories like the story of a thunder god who strikes down a tree with lightning. We had no idea what lightning is, what thunder is, and why that particular tree was struck. So we invented a story to help cope with the happening. Over the course of time these stories turned into powerful myths that put us in severely deranged state. We have proclaimed ourselves to be every possible kind of center to everything that is. Our little planet has been the center and most important part of the whole universe, around which this whole universe rotated. Our species was unlike and separate from every other; not a species at all in fact, but a creation in the image of perfection itself, possessing the divine right to do as it pleases with nature and lowly beasts. Diagnosis — severe mania, loss of touch with reality, dangerous behavior towards oneself and others.

The story of free will is no different. We once again proclaim that we are special, that all of us are equally endowed with a unique capacity that we alone among the beasts posses. And that we are endowed equally with it, so that everyone can be blamed and punished equally as well. In this way, we are still stuck in pre-scientific, pre-Copernican, pre-Darwinian times. This story stems from the fundamental confusion about the workings of the universe in general and our minds in particular. We tell ourselves that we are the thinkers of our thoughts, when a five minute observation, sitting with your eyes closed on a chair, shows that thoughts just appear in our consciousness. You know what you are going to think next as much as you know what I am going to say next. We say “I just really liked that girl and decided to go flirt with her” implying that it was our will to like her, that we were in control. But in reality our genetic and subconscious mechanisms made the decision for us, cultural tradition constrained the how, and we did what we were told. That is a tough spot to be in — we don’t know why we do certain things, we can’t chose them, and it is an uphill battle to try to fight it all. How very soothing in this situation to tell ourselves that it is indeed ‘I’ who is doing all that out of my own free will. Especially when we knew nothing about genes, memes, brains and evolution.

Imagine, for example, a cleric from ancient Egypt explaining why he feels lust towards his maid. He probably wouldn’t even guess that these kinds of things can be questioned or explained. He does them because he wants them, that’s the explanation — “I am an eternal soul free to do as I please, and I please to be promiscuous with my maid!” This is his story. If only he knew what kind of a grand explanation actually lies underneath — the mind-boggling cellular machinery operating in trillions of cells that he is made of, connected in evolutionary history to every living being on the planet, and his sexual behavior originating billions of years ago from pressure to save genes from free radical damage in the environment of rising oxygen levels, all superimposed on recent mammalian mechanisms of emotion control and game-theoretical considerations of maximizing gene output. A free eternal soul indeed.

Freedom begins to come with explanations. By understanding why things are the way that they are, we open avenues for influence and change. By perpetuating mythical stories we go nowhere. By telling ourselves the story that humans have this unique capacity of free will that is equally shared by all of us, we ironically delay the evolution of our freedom. By better understanding our limited capacity for rationality and self-control, we may begin to design ways to improve on them. For example, instead of blaming crime on individual people, we may come to change the circumstances that push people to commit crime. In fact, our institutions of welfare, education and imprisonment all around the world may be so outdated precisely because of our belief in free will.

For the first time in history all existing explanations begin to be available at the fingertips of every human being. Not only that, but for the first time in history our explanations begin to reach into our very soul. It is an uncomfortable process, as every myth-shedding process is, but it slowly allows us get in touch with reality. And reality appears to be far stranger and far grader than any of our fantasies, as it always does. And it provides the only solid foundation to move ahead. It takes some time to get used to it, but it is all worth it.

Written by

Mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur.

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