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