An Unmoved Mover: The Irresistible Magic of Free Will

I can levitate birds. No one cares. (Stephen Wright)

You wake up to find your body and mind operating entirely on autopilot. You feel your eyelids opening, your eyes moving in their orbits toward the window, and a familiar soft voice inside your head saying, “It’s time to get up.” You feel your body getting out of bed, your feet touching the ground, and your knees straightening. After being escorted through your morning routine, you are taken on a familiar ride to work (now driverless), with the fingers tapping a beat on the wheel and the voice in your head musing over random trivia. You can’t even start worrying about what your mouth might tell your boss at the morning meeting until this concern is broadcast within your skull.

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A trick looks magical when we don’t understand how it works. Magicians create their illusions by making “magic” the most intuitive explanation of their actions. The illusion of free will may occur in a similar way. We have relied on this intimately familiar feeling as far back as we can remember ourselves. We may suspect that there is more to willpower than meets the eye yet still accept it as the most intuitive explanation of our behavior — until we stop to consider how exactly we manage to make things happen. Most of the time, however, we have little reason to reflect on such philosophical questions. Instead, we merely delegate the authority to the invisible driver inside. Yet there is something truly magical about turning intentions into actions, observes Terrence Deacon. How can the future influence the present (particularly an imagined one that may never come to materialize)? How can something that isn’t physical depend on the physical processes inside the brain and influence the physical processes outside of it?

The sense of being in control may tell us more about our misconceptions than about our true causal powers. Our first experience with making things happen probably comes from the system we interact with at all times — ourselves. And the more complex the system, the more likely we are to be mistaken about its behavior. Due to our poor intuitions about complexity, we may be easily confused about the outcomes of our actions. If the feedback is ambiguous or our interpretation of it is biased, we could keep arriving at the same mistaken conclusion every time, making the bias ever more deeply ingrained and harder to uncover. This process may also give rise to the ethereal protagonist of our life story, which subsumes anything that it feels free to control under its sway — and we can’t help but to identify with it.

We may routinely and mistakenly conclude that we are bringing about an outcome that we have no influence over. The “illusion of control” helps us cope with uncertainty by falsely attributing the observed outcomes to ourselves. For example, given enough time, our implicit assumption that we can hasten the arrival of an elevator by repeatedly pressing the button ends up reinforcing itself (unless the elevator is broken). On the other hand, we may not realize that an observed event was actually caused by us — just as a cat chasing a toy that it has just tossed out must perceive it as being alive, oblivious to the true cause behind the toy’s motion.

It takes time to “discover” ourselves as the cause behind our actions. As babies, we learn basic skills such as rolling over, crawling, and sitting by experimenting with our bodies. We gradually learn to use our unwieldy hands, arms, and legs to obtain our goals. Grasping, poking, pulling, sucking, and shoving, observes Andy Clark, create a rich flow of multimodal sensory stimulation. Random motions create the variation necessary for learning. The ones that have proven most efficient are retained through the “natural selection” of movements and eventually become habitual. At first, the sight of a toy may only trigger a flurry of uncoordinated energetic movements. Over time, visual feedback that helps our hands converge on the toy becomes transparent to our mind, making the process of motor control feel as if coming about “at will” once the desire to reach the toy manifests itself in our mind. But try reaching toward an object while balancing on an unstable platform (rubbing your belly clockwise, if you need an extra challenge), and you will find yourself going through wide oscillations that require sustained attention to converge on the target.

Despite the deep roots of the illusion and its omnipresence in our life, we can see through it without becoming tangled up in metaphysical speculation. Carefully observing our feelings, thoughts, and decisions, points out Sam Harris, eventually reveals that they arise on their own, without our intention to create them. Even the feeling of intention arises on its own, as do our skillful distractions from acting on it.

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From ancient times, to alleviate the discomfort of having little control over their natural environment, humans infused the entities around them with independent intentions and agency. “Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives,” observes Michael Shermer. Uncertainty is unsettling, and our default way of bolstering the sense of being in control is to come up with stories that make the world appear predictable.

While the sense of volition may feel hardwired, it is heavily influenced by culture. For example, according to Jeremy Lent, ancient hunter-gatherers perceived themselves as part of the integrated web of life in which nothing existed in isolation. It may have been the agrarian worldview that opened the possibility for humans to feel in charge of their destiny. Yet our progress in controlling nature did not immediately lead to the sense of separation and desire for dominance. For example, the Taoist Book of Changes in ancient China recognized that each part of the natural world affected every other part, “creating a kind of universal web in which the slightest movement of one part could cause undulations throughout the entire network.” Having conceived of the entire universe as a single organism, Taoist and Confucian sages learned from nature to prefer greater harmony over willful control .

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In the words of Deacon, agency implies the capacity to change things in ways that run counter to how they would have spontaneously proceeded otherwise. Organisms do not merely react to an external perturbation but actively compensate for it. From the inside, it may feel not only that our actions are causing the change but also that the impulse behind our intention to act is (magically) uncaused. This observation makes us an “unmoved mover” behind our experience. People who rate high on the internal locus of control may believe more strongly that they make things happen and that they are in control of their circumstances. Meanwhile, others may feel that circumstances are beyond their control and that things just happen to them.

When multiple potential agents are available, we must decide which one of them is to be held responsible for the action. If our own self is only one of several candidates, it should be possible to replace it with another “virtual” agent. Indeed, when our body is “taken over” by a hypnotist (or is believed to be “possessed by a spirit”), it may no longer feel under our control. Those afflicted with the “body integrity identity disorder” may experience the failure of agency, quite literally, firsthand. The feeling that one’s arm has a mind of its own has even been dubbed “the alien hand syndrome” (popularized by “Dr. Strangelove”). The part of the brain that controls the arm must have been largely cut off from other brain areas, leaving the alien hand partly disconnected from the self. For the sufferer, according to Kevin Nelson, it may feel as if the out-of-control arm moves “of its own volition” and “does what it wants to do,” disregarding the preferences of its “owner.”

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To an alien scientist, we would appear hopelessly stuck in the matrix of influences. Physically, we are bound by the forces governing the particles in our bodies. Biologically, we are bound by our genetic makeup and physical attributes. Psychologically, we are bound by our inborn preferences, idiosyncratic personalities, and lifelong conditioning. Socially, we are bound by a mix of cultural influences and tribal superstitions. All of these manifest through electrochemical exchanges in an organic network of neurons. What kind of mystical powers to defy these natural constraints can possibly reside in our skulls?

Freedom to choose is also a freedom not to choose (making the term “free will” incomplete without “free wouldn’t”). We may consciously select between alternatives while believing that we could have chosen otherwise. In contrast with knee jerks, hiccups, and tics, such actions are voluntary since we can start or stop them seemingly as we please. For example, from an alien perspective, a sudden blow of cold wind could result in the constriction of our capillaries and shivering of our body, followed by a burst of neural activity in the motor cortex producing a set of muscle contractions that enabled putting on a jacket. From the inside, we were seemingly free to not put on the jacket and tough it out instead. To an alien, however, our stoic resistance would be just another burst of neural activity suppressing the jacket-donning impulse (which it might have predicted given enough data). How could we let the alien observe the voluntary nature of our decisions?

Unlike aliens, we don’t need sophisticated equipment to anticipate the actions of our fellow humans. Imagine your adolescent offspring deciding to skip a class on a whim and go play video games with his friends. Knowing your kid quite well, you can choose to step in and disrupt the plot — to his utter amazement. While children (and some politicians) may appear genuinely erratic at times, we should still be able to predict their “free” choices given sufficient information.

Although it may feel as if we are fully responsible for our choices, we often remain unaware of our hand being gently nudged by invisible forces. For example, advertisement guides our product selections while keeping us oblivious to its stealthy influences. We usually forget an ad featuring a product against the backdrop of generic feel-good images. Nevertheless, research shows that it makes us more likely to choose it over an unfamiliar competitor’s brand. When asked about the reasons behind our (not-so-free) choice, we tend to rationalize them. We may sincerely point out the objective strengths of our selection while failing to consider the competitor product’s advantages. Meanwhile, we could be completely unaware of our bias injected by the ad that made the attractive features of the product “jump out” at us. Perhaps, if not for the ad, we may not have considered those features in the first place.

As Arthur Schopenhauer put it, we can do what we want, but we cannot want what we want.

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Einstein once observed that if the moon were gifted with self-consciousness, “it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord.” Similarly, he wrote, “a being endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.” (To anticipate an objection, whether or not we have free will is unrelated to whether the “God plays dice,” as randomness is no better news than determinism when it comes to free choice — except, perhaps, making the journey more thrilling.)

Imagine a highly reliable predictor that can announce your decisions even before you become aware of them. It may use an advanced machine learning algorithm trained on a comprehensive database of everyone’s brain scans and choice histories, including yours. Or it could be an alien black box. Or a time machine. (Pick your story.) Assuming that such a predictor is possible, what is the difference between you and a robot whose actions can be simulated and thus known in advance? Doesn’t this mean that your fate is sealed? And if you believe the predictor to be impossible, what magical juice could be running through your biological neural network that puts its decision-making forever out of the scientific reach?

If the existence of the predictor still sounds far-fetched to you, start going down the evolutionary tree until you stumble upon a creature over which your omniscience is unquestionable. For example, imagine a frog sitting on a lily pad in the middle of a pond. It seems quite plausible that a herpetologist (frog scientist) who has studied this frog extensively could anticipate its behaviors almost perfectly. For example, she could reliably predict when the frog will snatch at an approaching fly. If the frog became self-aware and experienced itself as having the freedom of choice, it would have been genuinely surprised at the scientist’s inexplicable foresight.

Now, let’s project the evolutionary tree in the opposite direction. Keep following it until the tables turn, and you encounter a hypothetical alien creature with a level of intelligence so astonishingly high (by our standards) that it can predict our behaviors just as easily as we can predicted those of the frog. Where would your freedom go?

Are you convinced, finally? Then imagine a frog that is also capable of understanding human language. What would happen if the herpetologist were to secretly share the reasons behind her expectations with the frog (such as the sights and sounds that the frog was expected to react to) right before the experiment? The frog would then become free not to respond to them, perhaps ignoring the next fly coming its way. Meanwhile, the herpetologist would go on to impress her colleagues by making a highly counterintuitive prediction that a hungry frog would remain indifferent to a juicy fly zooming by it.

Aliens, beware.

This story is best enjoyed as part of the The Uncharted Present series of articles, starting with an intro. If that’s how you got here, please continue to the next one.

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