Ed Wilson has finally decided to wade into the murky hinterlands of Consciousness and Free Will, as seen in a new article in Harpers called “On free will: and how the brain is like a colony of ants.” (Sadly, you can’t read more than a paragraph without paying.) I’ll quote from the pdf I have, but, in general, the article adds little to the debate about free will, which to me seems largely semantic. The real issue—the one that could substantially affect society—is that of determinism, which most philosophers and scientists agree on (i.e., we can’t make choices outside of those already determined by the laws of physics).
There are two problems with Wilson’s piece: it doesn’t say anything new, its main point being that consciousness and choice are physical phenomena determined by events in the brain, and it doesn’t define the subject of the piece, “free will.” How can you discuss that when you don’t tell people what it means? After all, for religious people (and most others, I suspect) it means one thing (libertarian free will), while for compatibilists like Dennett it means another (no libertarian free will, but something else we can call free will).
So here’s Wilson’s tacit admission of determinism, or at least of the physical basis of consciousness and “free will”:
If consciousness has a material basis, can the same be true for free will? Put another way: What, if anything, in the manifold activities of the brain could possibly pull away from the brain’s machinery to create scenarios and make decisions of its own? The answer is, of course, the self. And what would that be? Where is it? The self does not exist as a paranormal being living on its own within the brain. It is, instead, the central dramatic character of the confabulated scenarios. In these stories, it is always on center stage—if not as participant, then as observer and commentator— because that is where all of the sensory information arrives and is integrated. The stories that compose the conscious mind cannot be taken away from the mind’s physical neurobiological system, which serves as script writer, director, and cast combined. The self, despite the illusion of its independence created in the scenarios, is part of the anatomy and physiology of the body.
And here’s what I take to be Wilson’s tacit admission, though he’s never explicit about it, that “free will” is a mental illusion, since it reflects not conscious choice but unconscious brain processes. There’s a lot more to be said here, but Wilson doesn’t say anything beyond this one sentence:
A choice is made in the unconscious centers of the brain, recent studies tell us, several seconds before the decision arrives in the conscious part.
But one novel part of his piece is reflected in the subtitle: an analogy between mental activity and colonies of social insects. Each insect is basically a little computer programmed to do a job, with its task sometimes changing with the environment (bee larvae destined to be workers, for instance, can become queens with some special feeding). But if you look at the whole colony, it appears as a well-oiled “superorganism” that works together to keep the colony functioning like a “designed” unit. Wilson sees the brain in the same way: each “module” or neuron is entrained to behave in a certain way, but the disparate parts come together in a whole that is the “I,” the person who feels she’s the object and (as G.W. Bush might put it) “the decider.” But this analogy isn’t terribly enlightening, and doesn’t point the way forward to a scientific understanding of consciousness. That understanding will come through reductionist analysis, I think, but we already knew that.
Wilson is a physicalist, and says that progress in understanding consciousness and volition (I won’t call it “free will”) will come not from philosophers but from neuroscientists. In the main I agree, though I do think philosophers have a role to play, if only that of holding scientists to some kind of consistency and conceptual rigor. By and large, however, I see compatibilist philosophers as not only having contributed little to the issue, but having sometimes been obfuscatory by sweeping determinism (the truly important issue) under the rug in favor of displaying their own version of compatibilism.
At one point Wilson, though, appears to abandon determinism, but makes the mistake of conflating “chance,” which is simply determined phenomena that we can’t predict, with true unpredictability: that which we see in the realm of quantum physics. Perhaps in the statement below he’s saying that human volition isn’t repeatable or predictable because of such quantum phenomena, which could make decisions differ even if one replayed the tape of one’s life with every molecule starting in the same position. But Wilson could have been much clearer about this.
. . . Then there is the element of chance. The body and brain are made up of legions of communicating cells, which shift in discordant patterns that cannot even be imagined by the conscious minds they compose. The cells are bombarded every instant by outside stimuli unpredictable by human intelligence. Any one of these events can entrain a cascade of changes in local neural patterns, and scenarios of individual minds changed by them are all but infinite in detail. The content is dynamic, changing instant to instant in accordance with the unique history and physiology of the individual.
Well, does that give us “free will” or not? Does it give us truly unpredictable behavior, even in principle? Wilson doesn’t say.
In the end, Wilson bails, floating the common but unsatisfying conclusion that we have free will because we think we have free will, and that the illusion of (libertarian) free will is adaptive.
. . . Because the individual mind cannot be fully described by itself or by any separate researcher, the self—celebrated star player in the scenarios of consciousness—can go on passionately believing in its independence and free will. And that is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it, the conscious mind, at best a fragile, dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism. Like a prisoner serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, deprived of any freedom to explore and starving for surprise, it would deteriorate.
So, does free will exist? Yes, if not in ultimate reality, then at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.
Wilson is right in saying that we all act as if we have free will; nobody disputes that. And I’d like to think that he’s right in claiming that our illusion of libertarian free will is adaptive, though I know of no way to test that proposition. (We can, as always, concoct adaptive stories about this. One writer, whose name I can’t remember, argued that knowing whether a “choice” came from your brain versus someone else’s is an adaptive bit of information: it makes a difference if your arm is pumping up and down because you’re doing it yourself or if somebody else has hold of it and is doing it to you.) I would have liked this conclusion better had Wilson been a bit more tentative in his adaptive storytelling.
But in the main, the piece adds little to the debates about consciousness and free will. In fact, I find that it muddles the debate. In my view, the best popular exposition of the problem of consciousness remains Steve Pinker’s article in Time Magazine in 2007. The reason the Harper’s piece got published was not because Wilson had something particularly new to say, but because the person who wanted to hold forth was E. O. Wilson. As for free will, I still like Anthony Cashmore’s piece in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.