Part 10 of 10: The Atman and Free Will
The question of free will is one of the oldest, deepest, and most important questions in philosophy. Since ancient times, philosophers have been divided over it. On the one hand, it seems like we have free will (and most of us want to believe that we do), but on the other hand, the scientific worldview suggests that our brains are only physical systems, which means that their future behavior is determined by the laws of science, not by some independent animus from within.
As in my previous essay, I have a personal preference in this debate. I want free will to be real. Honestly, if it were proven that free will doesn’t exist, then I think the only logical conclusion would be that there can be no reassurance about anything. If a scientist were to prove that your future behavior has already been determined, then that would be the worst day in world history. We would lose the illusion of control and spontaneity. We would lose any sense of moral responsibility. We would lose respect for ourselves, since we would have to perceive ourselves as just scientific systems following scientific laws. We could no longer believe that we have the power to shape our own future. Nothing could seem fun or enjoyable anymore. The idea that free will doesn’t exist is the ultimate horror.
In fact, I remember thinking to myself, about seven or eight years ago, that if someone proved that God doesn’t exist, or that the afterlife doesn’t exist, then I guess I could live with it, but if someone proved that free will doesn’t exist, I could never live with it. If someone proved that God and the afterlife don’t exist, I would be deeply disappointed, but I guess I could still find meaning and purpose in life. But if someone proved that free will doesn’t exist, that would mean that I have no power to shape my own future, and that no one else has the power to shape their future either, and I could not possibly live with that.
In recent years, some atheist philosophers, who consider free will to be impossible, have argued that we should just get used to the fact that it doesn’t exist. I am opposed to this strategy. I think the existence of free will is something worth fighting for. We shouldn’t surrender just yet.
Before continuing, let me specify what exactly I mean by free will. There are two ways in which philosophers conceive of the idea of free will: compatibilist free will and libertarian free will. Compatibilist free will (a. k. a. compatibilism) means that your future behavior has already been determined but that as long as you’re in a situation where no one else can tell you what to do, then you have free will. It’s called “compatibilism” because it holds that the concept of free will is compatible with a deterministic universe. Meanwhile, libertarian free will (a. k. a. libertarianism) means that there is a “ghost in the machine” inside our brains that makes decisions independently of all science and all circumstances. The science and the circumstances matter, but the “ghost” has the final say. I discussed the distinction between compatibilism and libertarianism in a previous blog post.
(Please note that the philosophical concept of libertarianism is not the same as the political concept of libertarianism. I might advocate philosophical libertarianism, but I will never advocate political libertarianism, which is my least favorite political theory.)
In my opinion, compatibilist free will is not free will. I think it is a lame excuse for free will, made by philosophers who don’t want to admit to the fact that they don’t believe in free will. If your choices have already been determined, then that’s not free will. If science alone governs what you do, then that’s not free will. Thus, when I speak of free will, I am referring only to libertarian free will, because the concept of compatibilist free will is just a distraction from the points I’m trying to make. In my book, “free will” means libertarian free will.
I think most people would agree that libertarian free will is incompatible with science as we know it, under which the brain is just a scientific system. This would imply either a.) Libertarian free will doesn’t exist, or b.) The laws of science are incomplete, because they fail to mention metaphysical forces, like free will, that affect the outcome of a person’s behavior. Most atheists endorse answer a, but I endorse answer b. I want to believe in free will, but if free will actually exists, that implies that when it comes to certain parts of your brain, the laws of science are not omnipotent. Don’t get me wrong: outside of those parts of a human brain, the laws of science reign supreme and nothing defies them. But in those parts of your brain, the laws of science are just one of two forces that determine the outcome, libertarian free will being the other.
Now, that is a bold claim. I have just claimed that something supernatural happens inside your brain. I mean, it overrides the laws of science. Therefore, it is supernatural. And because that is such a bold claim, I feel the need to explain it and qualify it. First of all, I’m only guessing. It is quite possible that free will doesn’t exist. But it could exist, and I hope that it does. No one has ever proven that free will doesn’t exist (and I doubt that anyone ever will), and that leaves open the possibility, even if it’s unlikely, that it does exist. Second, arguing that something supernatural happens in the brain is not quite as crazy as it seems, because I have already established that something immaterial (consciousness) happens in your brain. So if there’s something immaterial happening in there, why couldn’t the universe take it a step further and have something supernatural happening in there as well? If the brain contains the immaterial, it could contain the supernatural too.
However, I will admit that it is a little on the unlikely side. There is no way of knowing whether libertarian free will exists or not, but because it would have to be supernatural, it does seem to be a little on the unlikely side. If you asked me to estimate my degree of confidence that free will exists, I would say between 30% and 40%. It is a plausible idea, but it is a little unlikely.
However, the fact that consciousness is beyond science makes the idea of free will seem so much more plausible. If I thought that consciousness could be explained by science alone, my confidence that free will exists would be less than 1%. If the mysteries of consciousness were resolved through purely scientific means, then that would imply that our brains are just scientific systems, nothing more. This would render the idea of libertarian free will impossible. If everything that happens in your brain is merely a scientific process, then your brain cannot make decisions independently of science.
But because of my conviction that consciousness is beyond science, I still consider libertarian free will to be a plausible idea. Given that I believe that something exists inside our brains which can never be explained, or even detected, by science (consciousness), that makes it so much easier for me to believe that there is another non-scientific event in your brain, namely, free will.
In Parts 1 through 3 of this series, I essentially argued that the human brain must be the weirdest thing in the universe. I argued that the mysteries of consciousness lie beyond the realm of science. That means consciousness is immaterial. And since I am not a panpsychist, I think that this immaterial phenomenon is found only in the brains of humans (and presumably some animals). It is found nowhere else. That means the brain must be the weirdest thing in the universe: it is the only thing, anywhere in the universe, that forms a connection between the physical world and the metaphysical world.
Given that I have already established that the brain is the weirdest thing in the universe, it no longer seems so implausible that supernatural events could happen in there. I’ve already established that the brain is the only place in the universe at which the physical and metaphysical worlds are connected. It is the only place in the universe that is more than just science. Thus, it seems plausible that the normal rules of science don’t apply in there. There could also be other forces in there, like libertarian free will, which would exist independently of all science.
As you can see, the idea of immaterial consciousness and the idea of libertarian free will are related to each other. In Part 4, I attempted to resolve the mysteries of consciousness by postulating that there exists an immaterial entity, which I call an Atman, inside our brains. If libertarian free will exists, then it is the Atman that commits it. The Atman is the ghost in the machine, the thing that is responsible for making free choices. I can add that to my list of properties of the Atman: it has the power to make free choices, independently of neuroscience. And because of this, we are indeed be responsible for our actions (if free will actually exists).
With this result, I can finally answer a question that I posed in Part 4. I had stated that the Atman is immaterial, but I had not answered whether it is supernatural. But now, I have the answer. I am arguing that the Atman is the agent of free will, and free will is supernatural. Therefore, if free will exists (and I hope it does), then the Atman is a supernatural entity. It has been bestowed with the power to override the laws of science, a power that exists nowhere else in the universe. If free will exists, then the Atman has supernatural powers ……… but I am not so confident that free will actually exists.
Also, it may be that some Atmans have free will and others don’t. For example, a dog probably has an Atman, but I find it hard to believe that it has libertarian free will. The same goes for very young children. Thus, just as there are psychophysical laws that dictate who gets an Atman and who doesn’t, there would also be psychophysical laws that dictate who gets a choosing Atman and who gets only a passive Atman. In order to be awarded a choosing Atman, an organism must pass a certain threshold of development. And I would think that only humans could ever pass this threshold, but perhaps I am wrong about that. At this point, I am just speculating.
I stated above that the idea that free will doesn’t exist is the ultimate horror and that if it doesn’t exist, then we can never be reassured. Then I stated that my confidence in its existence is only 30–40%. That means I am only 30–40% confident that we can ever be reassured. Sadly, that is correct.
However, on a more optimistic note, my discussion above also shows that the immateriality of consciousness has saved free will. If I thought that consciousness was only physical, then my degree of confidence in free will would be basically 0%. But because I’ve concluded that consciousness is immaterial, my degree of confidence in free will is 30–40%. The immateriality of consciousness has saved free will from extinction, just like it saved the existence of a personal God from extinction (see Part 7).
The fact that consciousness has no scientific explanation is the savior of the philosophical world: it has saved us from physicalism, determinism, atheism, and nihilism. Thank you, consciousness.
We’ve reached the end of my series. I’d like to conclude with a quick summary and a few little appendices.
I began this series with two “mind-blowing” questions:
1. How is it that I’m me and you’re you?
2. How (and why?) does consciousness exist at all?
I argued that the answers to these two questions, whatever they are, lie beyond the realm of science. I attempted to answer them by proposing that there exists an immaterial entity, which I called Atman, inside our brains. I defined the Atman to be the “ghost in the machine”, the things that makes you alive, the thing that allows you to be conscious, and the locus of your consciousness (when you’re conscious). In later parts of the series, I speculated that we have the same Atman throughout our lives and that the Atman has the supernatural power for free will, although both of those statements were only guesses, which could never be proven or disproven.
I admit to the fact that I am rather unqualified to be writing this series. With regard to my education, I have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in atmospheric science. Neither of those subjects is relevant to this series, which was mainly about philosophy, and also about neuroscience, in some ways. My qualifications in philosophy are somewhat lacking, and my qualifications in neuroscience are absolutely none. I do have a lifelong interest in the subject of philosophy, and over the course of high school and college, I took a total of eleven courses which were in either philosophy or theology (and I loved all of them). However, I do not have any actual degree in philosophy. Meanwhile, I know next to nothing about neuroscience, and I should admit to that.
However, in spite of my lack of qualifications, I still think that my ideas are worth something, because this series was really about the philosophy of science, not about science in itself. Science needs to know its limits.
Most of the photos in this series are from Wikipedia. The only exceptions are 1. The photos of Colin McGinn and Annaka Harris in Part 6, 2. The diagrams, and 3. The photo of myself. The photo of Colin McGinn was taken by Carlos Morales. The photo of Annaka Harris comes from her personal website. I made the diagrams myself (which is why they’re so primitive). And the photo of me was taken by my good friend, Michael Unger.
I’d like to thank my brother, Stephen, who suggested that I change the name of this series. And I’d like to thank my parents, who humored me by participating in numerous conversations with me about all these “mind-blowing” questions.
Just remember: science isn’t everything.
Other parts of this series:
Part 7: [under revision]