E. O. Wilson: confused about free will

January 12, 2018 • 11:45 am

An article in the September 14 Harper’s, “On Free Will (and How the Brain is like a Colony of Ants”), gives an excerpt from Wilson’s book released that year, The Meaning of Human Existence.  In the piece and the passage below, Wilson appears to be a sort of compatibilist, but I find his discussion so confusing that I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say. But his message is pretty clear: we can act as if we have a kind of free will, and those who deny it are doomed to insanity and a “deteriorating mind”.  The main bits:

The power to explain consciousness, however, will always be limited. Suppose neuroscientists somehow successfully learned all of the processes of one person’s brain in detail. Could they then explain the mind of that individual? No, not even close.

. . . 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.

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.

While Wilson admits earlier in this short piece that the conscious mind “cannot be taken away from the mind’s physical neurobiological system”, he’s not as firm about the physical/deterministic nature of free will as he is about consciousness.

Note in the second paragraph that Wilson cites “chance” in support of free will. If by “chance” he means “things that are determined but we can’t predict”, then that’s no support for the classic notion of free will: the “you could have chosen otherwise” sort.  If he’s referring instead to pure quantum indeterminacy, well, that just confers unpredictability on our decisions, not agency. We don’t choose to make an electron jump in our brain.

From what I make of the third paragraph, his message is that because we are a long way from figuring out how we make behavioral decisions, we might as well act as if we have free will, especially because “confidence in free will is biologically adaptive.” Yet there are powerful arguments that at bottom our decisions are based on physical circumstances. We don’t understand the complete physics of a billiard game, either, but we don’t pretend that the balls have free will in where they roll.

As for free will and confidence in it being biologically adaptive, well, that’s an assertion without evidence. I often ponder where our feeling of agency comes from, and have come up with three or four evolutionary scenarios in which our feeling of being agents who can make free choices could have given our ancestors a reproductive advantage. But these are all pure speculations, and none are testable. Wilson is simply wrong in asserting with confidence that our feeling of agency is known to be an adaptation.

Finally, I have no confidence in free will, even though, like all people, I feel as if I have agency. But if I think about it for a millisecond, I know that I could not do otherwise than what I do—nor can anybody else. Has that made me fatalistic, subject to a deteriorating mind? I don’t think so!  This is just the old argument, one made by Dennett and other compatibilists, that we need to believe in free will because without such a belief, society will fall apart. Well, that’s what they said about religion, too, but they were wrong. (Look at Scandinavia.)

I don’t deny for a minute that all of us feel that we make real choices, and could have made different choices. But feeling that and believing that it’s true are different matters. We can still feel that we have agency, but at the same time realize that we don’t—and society will survive.  It’s members will be like me, and though you may say that’s not such a good thing, I contend that a nation of determinists is not a nation doomed.

And now physics has decreed that I walk over to the South Indian Studies department to give a professor a book to take to my friends in India. The real Moby-Dick in a few hours!

h/t: Greg Mayer

70 thoughts on “E. O. Wilson: confused about free will

  1. fine post, it covers many areas, but there is one point that ought to be pointed out, our choice in doing good, feeding the hungry, and other such things, this is the free will of the person, what makes you decide to do good is probably the most important issue of all. History tells us, and ancient writing proves, there is another world out there. In a world that is full of mood changing news, and technologies that have become most addictive, how does one decide on free will, particularly if you are a young soul; some call it propaganda let loose. The only factor to factor in, and it’s my opinion; where there is a power that is beyond us, and we know that it is real, it perhaps helps us solve the free will issue, just saying, an opinion.

    1. Well, that was seemingly a series of non sequiturs, bwcarey.

      Jerry, I agree with you that the existence of religion or free will or the lack of either doesn’t necessarily result in societal destruction, and the Scandinavian countries do prove your point nicely. However, I wonder if in the case of the U.S. and some other excessively religious countries whether the widespread belief of the necessity of religion or the existence of free will, without which society will devolve into chaos, isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy such that as religion continues to fade and the belief in the existence of free will does the same, that some will use it as an excuse to act antisocially. I don’t think that means we shouldn’t continue to do as we have done with regard to these subjects, but to make certain to explain the importance of maintaining some degree of social structure.

      1. we all need rules, but limits and something else. Perhaps, it all goes back to simplicity; the more well being the easier for all, niave perhaps, but the other options are just forms of imprisonment, thanks for the reply, amen

  2. Accepting you have no free will should not be more difficult than accepting you will not live forever but many do not want to face either. This is a great opening for religion and it arrives just in time to make you feel good.

      1. Oh yes, I think that is true. Religion comes in to explain that only g*d and belief in him gives you the power to overcome death and make it a good experience just for your.

      2. “I wonder if there is a form of „Death Compatibilism …” – it’s funny said (and I dont’t like these Compatibilists, as all what they are doing is a masquerade by inflated philosophical terms only for to give people the faith and suggestion there could be a kind of free will in accordance to science) but in this case you are missing the point – see my answer to Randall Schenck.

    1. I disagree. The illusion of free will seems to me deeply ingrained, universal in human experience, and difficult to escape; whereas the notion of eternal life is not.

    2. “Accepting you have no free will should not be more difficult than accepting you will not live forever but many do not want to face either. ”

      I don’t think you are right in this point. There are many societies both in the past and in the present that do not believe in a life after death. For example, the communist Russians, millions of atheists in Scandinavia and not to forget the East of Germany, which as a result of 40 years of dictatorship is the world’s largest atheist place (Eastern Germany: the most godless place on Earth https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/sep/22/atheism-east-germany-godless-place)

      But even in the atheistic areas, the number of people which deny the existence of free will, is just as negligible as in the religious places
      Because one has little or nothing to do with the other.
      To have the illusion of a free will already arises with the consicoussness awarness
      in childhood, and it stays with those who, like me or you, know that there is no free will.
      Every action, every judgment about others is influenced and effected by the illusion of free will-
      What happens after death, that is faith and hope and ignorance, but in any case one has no influence during life (except good behavior in the sense of the priests).
      But the illusion of free will has an effect on all thinking and feeling during the whole lifetime. That’s a huge, huge difference.
      For this reason, dealing with the concept of a life after death can not be compared with the acceptance or the negation of free will.

      1. I will just say that yes, one has nothing to do with the other for the atheist. The atheist knows there is no after life and is happy to accept this. But free will is another matter and there may be many atheist who also believe they have free will. They do not accept the science that tells us this is not true. But when speaking of the religious there is certainly a comparison to be made and we can just ask the theologians about it. The after life is of course a reality and they believe that g*d gives all men free will. Without free will there can be no punishment for sin.

        1. Free will, of course, is the implicit concept of all great monotheistic religions. One could say that religions are a subset of the idea of free will.
          But the concept of free will goes much further than the religious belief in an extraterrestrial sphere or in a god; it concerns the understanding that man has of himself and others in his mark, in his core. If it were recognized by society someday, it would have a massive impact not only on the criminal system but also on daily interpersonal behavior.

    3. That’s good – what do you mean “great opening” – like a selling point?

      Death compatibilism (below here)- that’s funny

      … how to transform “elbow room” into something that isn’t rude…

      1. Hey, less snark, please! I was only (virtue) signalling my love and knowledge of Rush. Sorry about the…ellipis.

  3. E.O. Wilson:

    The power to explain consciousness, however, will always be limited. Suppose neuroscientists somehow successfully learned all of the processes of one person’s brain in detail. Could they then explain the mind of that individual? No, not even close.

    It always amazes me when people with such a strong scientific background make that leap of faith.

    1. The power to explain consciousness, however, will always be limited. Suppose neuroscientists somehow successfully learned all of the processes of one person’s brain in detail. Could they then explain the mind of that individual? No, not even close.

      Actually we manipulate our own and others’ consciousness and minds on a fairly regular basis. The spoken word, falling asleep, anesthesia, recreational drugs, medicines, virtual reality and so on. The key question ducked by E O Wilson’s rhetoric is whether ‘the mind’, and by extension consciousness or free will, are ‘things’ or behaviours.

    2. Just think of Arthur C. Clarke’s first law:
      “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, they are almost certainly right. When they state that something is impossible, they are very probably wrong.”

        1. Now substitute “volition” for that “something”.

          Personally, I’d no more say volition is impossible than I’d say God is impossible – but we’ve yet to see any evidence for either.

  4. Lazily I like to invoke Hitchens when he quipped that we all have free-will, because we don’t have a choice.

    1. Sorry, what I meant is that we don’t have enough knowledge as observers to absolutely PREDICT what will happen in a billiard shot. Wilson’s argument for free will appears to be one based on our inability to predict how our neurons will behave.

      1. If the inability to predict the future would allow free will, then one would also have to assert that all animals or even clouds, would have a free will, because their behavior could never be accurately predicted for the future.
        One wonders who is going to get on this siding to clear the way for free will, not only Wilson, but also, for example, the astrophysicist Michio Kaku, who argued in the same way, though he admits on the other hand that there is no possibility to do otherwise.
        They all ride a dead horse, solely to keep the faith and longing of people for their own agency alive.

        1. Actually, it is our ability to predict the future by modeling the world we live in and the consequences of our actions that gives us (compatibilist) free will. For at least some of our actions, our will is free of genetic motivation and operant conditioning that governs the behaviors of other animals.

          1. Predicting the future by modeling the world does not give us free will; it only improves our lives and living conditions.

            If you refer to genetic motivation and operant conditioning as the essential attributes by which the free will is defined, you miss the decisive point: it is the physical laws to which everything is subject, which actually governs the behavior including man. There is no escape from them and they are the only reason why free will is an illusion.
            Don’t forget: the evoluton of the species itself started by modeling genetic material by selection, mutation, recombination and genetic drift.
            There never was a free will in any species because there is just no scientific basic for it.

  5. “Trust in free will is biologically adaptive” – of course it is, such as hatred, slavery or many religious beliefs were adaptiv for the longest time of humanity too.
    That a trait, as in this case the illusion of free will, was evolutionary adaptive cannot lead one to cling to these errors for the sake of past benefits. Then reigns the pure fear that you could not get along with the truth. To treat it in this way, would be almost a form of magical thinking, of superstition

  6. If a fully determined world looks exactly as the one we live in – with all its randomness, happenstances and chaos, then – be it. But then the argument of determinism is also as useless as the argument that we do not need to protect endangered species because it’s all just natural, what happens. Whether determinism or not – it’s just the same, we d o have to make decisions, all sorts of, easy ones, difficult ones, painful ones, and we can make bad mistakes, or do not decide when we know we should. We cannot just live like any other animal, we have to l e a d our lives, every day. Of course we do not have a supernatural free will, and of course nobody can have ultimate responsibility for who he is and what he does, but one can learn to overtake responsibility, and that’s what it is all about. Using determinism as the argument against a supernatural free will does not only throw the baby out with the bathwater, but also throws away the bathtub and the bathroom and the house and the whole world.
    Naturalism is completely enough.

  7. Finally, I have no confidence in free will, even though, like all people, I feel as if I have agency.

    We feel that we have agency because we can see that our thoughts have causal power to influence events in the external world. This is not an illusion; it’s a correct perception of the process by which we achieve our purposes. To say that we lack agency is to say that we lack the ability to act purposefully.

    1. We think we see our thoughts have causal power. ???

      I can catch myself in confabulations, but it surprisingly difficult.

      And remember our purposes are determined.
      So just acting out our purposes is not freedom in any useful sense.

      1. What more useful sense of freedom could there be? Acting in a way bears no relation to our purposes? How would that be useful?

        Thoughts have causal power in the same sense that computer software has causal power: they both process information in order to arrive at decisions that govern behavior. Clearly this is a useful thing to do, or we wouldn’t have evolved complex and metabolically expensive brains for doing it.

        1. Recordings have causal power. So what? Our purposes are totally caused are they not?

          The concept of free will, to me, has no utility whatsoever. It is a distraction.

          Freedom of action, in a legal sense may have some utility: eg there was no tumour or gun to my head causing my actions.

          1. Our purposes are represented by physical states of our brains. (Let’s set aside the question of whether those states are “totally caused”, i.e. 100% deterministic, since that gets into unsettled questions of fundamental physics.)

            Rocks are also physical systems. But it seems obvious that there’s a useful distinction to be made between the behavior of rocks and the behavior of brains; the rules we use for predicting the behavior of rocks are not useful for predicting the behavior of brains, and vice versa.

            The difference lies in the fact that brains process information and are therefore capable of conceptualizing goals, forming plans, and taking action to realize those plans. That’s what we mean when we talk about agency. (If you object to the term “free will”, let’s leave that aside too.)

            This isn’t just a legalistic distinction; it’s fundamental to the way we interact with the world. We sort things into categories and deal with each category appropriately. Agency is one of those categories that has robust utility in this sense, and you can’t operate effectively in society by pretending it doesn’t exist and treating people as indistinguishable from rocks.

          2. “Rocks are also physical systems. But it seems obvious that there’s a useful distinction to be made between the behavior of rocks and the behavior of brains; the rules we use for predicting the behavior of rocks are not useful for predicting the behavior of brains, and vice versa.”

            The only difference between rocks and humans is that the one is much less complex than the other.
            The whole universe is subject to only four different forces: gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear power.
            Both rocks and humans can be described by these fundamental laws of physics without execption.

            That living systems such as humans require more levels of description because of complexity than non-living ones does not change the fact that neither determinism nor random quantum processes leave room for free will

          3. “Both rocks and humans can be described by these fundamental laws of physics without execption.”

            I challenge you to describe the rules of chess using only fundamental physics, and to do so in a way that’s equally valid for games played on a marble chessboard or on a computer screen.

            If you’re unable to do that, then it seems to me you must admit that there are aspects of human behavior that can’t be captured by reductionist explanations in terms of particles and forces. This is not to say that chess is somehow magic; what it says is that the common features that unify all chess games are not physical, they’re informational.

            Insisting that there’s no meaningful difference between systems that process information (such as brains) and those that don’t (such as rocks) is not a fruitful strategy for understanding how self-regulation and agency work, because the computational capacities of brains are largely independent of their detailed physical implementation in the same way that the rules of chess are independent of any particular chessboard.

            Recognizing that humans, like rocks, are physical systems is just the start of the conversation. If we want to understand how humans differ from rocks, we have no choice but to set physics aside and talk in terms of information.

          4. The only difference between rocks and humans is that the one is much less complex than the other.


            That’s the “only” difference of relevance?

            Seems to me you are missing just a little detail there.

            Let’s say you hired someone for a job as a salesman, and first day of the job you found them absent and a rock had bee placed in their seat instead.

            You phone them at home ask why the hell they are’t doing the job, what if he replies “Why are you talking to me as if there is any significant difference between me and a rock? The rock is less complex than me…that’s all.”

            Do you think your employee has just made sense of the situation?

            Can you see why we think you seem to be rather missing some issues of importance in your analysis?

  8. I’ve said this before, but I can freely repeat myself.

    A sane scientific person will note that any concept of “will” is a concept of “freedom”.

    Everything happens because of chance and necessity. But people are responsible for their choices. In philosophy of science we can think about this on three levels:

    12. The mundane fact is only things resulting from chance and laws of nature can be studied. If a god can change the laws at will, it’s goodbye to all method.

    11. On a deeper, quantum, level it’s not possible to predict every single occurrence, even in principle, but for a fairly 🙂 complex system probabilities apply.

    13. On the superficial :), that is to say moral, level: people, like any decision makers, have to make choices. This is as free as it gets. In this sense most adults are free, but sometimes courts of law have to make decisions (are free to make decisions?) of an individual’s competence.

    No one put a gun to my head and told me to write this comment, but it’s still a result of someone developing human language and inventing the Web and so on.

  9. I have a new model system to study the absence of free will : traffic, and specifically, getting pulled over.

    Say you go to a grocery store. It’s real busy. You get there, something occurs – that makes you decide against going to the store, like a call from your friend who says he has milk and eggs, you don’t need to go, save an hour. You up and leave, get into traffic, there’s a guy who you try to avoid, go a while, then see the flashing blues – you’re pulled over. Boom – $200 fine. You cut off a cop!

    How did that happen? A chain reaction, that started with your friend saying not to waste your time in the store. You moved the car, you decided to press your foot on the pedals, but did you decide when to do those things? did you decide to get a ticket? It was a product of the chain reaction.

  10. Wilson is a lovable old fellow and a wonderful writer of nature. I wish he’d not bother to get involved in such philosophical musings. He seems out of his depth and time.

  11. But even if it’s biologically adaptive to believe free will exists, that doesn’t mean it does. Unless there’s an underlying beliefs=truths assertion here?

  12. I sometimes feel in control of my destiny. Then I come to a perfectly inconsequential fork in my future, and my mind performs the classic dopped-cat-with-buttered-toast-on-his-back.

    Two nights ago, my consciousness was wracked with a choice: do put my clincher wheels on my bike or tubeless. The warring neurons were equally divided — it seemed the bike tires were indeterminate. I took a step to the left, then to the right, reached for one tool, then the other.. At some point, my consciousness said, “you guys work it out”. The next morning, when I took my bike out, it had the clinchers mounted..

  13. If I am free to do or choose what I want to do, then I’m happy. If I’m forced to do what I don’t want to do, then I’m unhappy. Never mind how my choices are either determined by past experiences or by random events. By what I want to do or by what I have to do. Free will vs determinism is an empty dichotomy as far as I am concerned.

    1. That’s a bit simplistic because “forced” is ambiguous. Someone who sacrifices pleasures to send his kids to college is “forced” to some extent. It’s tautological to say that he must want to do that because he does it.

      As far as “free will versus determinism being an empty dichotomy”, well, maybe to you, but not to the vast majority of people who argue about this (see the massive Oxford Handbook of Free Will), and I think that most people would realize that the concept of determinism does have ramifications for a. religion and b. the judidicial system. For religion, for example, if you admit of determinism (and I think all scientifically minded people, and virtually all philosophers do), then the Christian concept of “freely choosing a savior” goes out the window (and with it the reward/punishment dichotomy). Also, if you ditch libertarian free will, then the theist’s argument that moral evil is an unavoidable consequence of God’s having given us free will is also dead in the water.

      This is not an empty dichotomy by any means, though it may be for you.

      1. Well, thank you, Jerry, for taking the trouble to reply to my comment. However, I don’t think I’m being overly simplistic though It may look that way. What I am arguing about is the conflation of models which shouldn’t occur. You study evolution which is biology plus geology (fossils) plus chemistry (genes) etc. but physics is usually not too useful when studying evolution.

        The opposite of determinism is indeterminism, it’s not free will. In fact, I don’t think I know what free will means anymore. I don’t think it means a “ghost in the machine” now. The best I can do with that concept is to say that if I am free to choose what I want, then I’m happy. If not, then I’m unhappy but I have to do what I have to do. I live in society and have to conform to the rules of society. But the laws of physics are not the laws of society. I can’t break the laws of physics but I can break the laws of society, though I may get in trouble if I do so.

        I don’t know if the above helps but I think the free will vs determinism argument mixes up models and I’m unhappy about that. Best wishes.

  14. Just got back from surfing. So exhilarating, and exciting. But then I read this and find out that I didn’t chose to go surfing. Totally ruined it. All that fun and excitement means nothing if I didn’t choose it. Now that I know I don’t have free will life means nothing. I’m never going surfing again. I’m not going to do anything. Why bother? Not even going to get up to pee and poop. Might even go out and rape some people. Why not, right? Screw it. Life is meaningless without choice.

    Said no incompatibilist ever.

    A world run by incompatibilists would be the most humane world imaginable.

    Where’s Coel?

  15. You say you could not have done otherwise than what you did. But then why did you have to think hard about some things before you acted? For example when you devised your fly experiments you had to think long and hard to come up with a good experiment, didn’t you? Why should that be? In your mind you must have been rejecting some choices and going with others. Is that just blind physics?

  16. Maybe Wilson sees ‘free will’ as a kind of ’emergent property’?
    Although indeed all our actions and thoughts are the result of physical molecular ‘cascades’, the use of ‘free will’, or rather agency, may still be useful, since at present we have indeed no way of observing/recording in detail. Moreover, the illusion is so powerful, why not work with it (keeping in mind it is an illusion, of course)?.

    1. To be frank, I can’t understand how any scientifically minded person could see this thing otherwise.

      Belief in “free” as somehow “contra causal” ought to have died with the Middle Ages.

      1. It’s not Wilson that’s confused. Like any sane person he doesn’t see the metaphysical problem at all. He’s a compatibilist determinist.

        Surprisingly many of us believe in one and only one reality. We don’t live in the Middle Ages, in the Catholic Church, in a Madrasa or in a Department of Philosophy…

  17. I would LOVE to live on a planet full of Jerry’s. I doubt there would be much crime, zero wars, and incredibly fun conversations.

    Though there might be too many cats… 🙂

  18. I find E.O. Wilson’s arguments quite compelling. Not perfectly constructed, but certainly providing a few pointers to the deeper arguments supporting Compatibilism. Example randomness: Although nobody could ever argue that having behavior triggered by random processes is therefore “free will” it must be recognised that randomness does BREAK THE CAUSAL CHAIN. This means that agency is freed from the full extent of a specific determined result. This then begs the question of what MOST influences the action of an agent. This, in the case of human agency, is the self – the recursively self formed individual. Wilson’s argument that the complexity of mental process is beyond our ever having an understanding that lends itself to prediction is valid if just for the reason that randomness is in effect as well as multifaceted complexity. Lastly he points to the incoherence of agency being wholly determined in the complex interactions involved in human society – an equally telling point which has been made many times in these free will debates.

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