Free Will Without Mind/Body Dualism


I hope to persuade hard (absolute) determinists that their position is based on a false dichotomy. Determinism does not preclude free will. It’s not either/or: there are other possibilities. I am presenting, here, one of those other possibilities. It’s a model based on reciprocal causality. It doesn’t claim to have proof: we know too little about the brain to prove how any high-order mental process works, so I’ll be appealing to your experience and reason using common ideas and concepts we all understand. As I will explain, free will does not require mind/body dualism: it doesn’t have to violate causality or determinism. The question of free will is a matter of opinion, hotly debated for centuries. I find it ridiculous when hard determinists write with authority about “the illusion of free will” as if they’re discussing settled, factual, points. If they don’t know the difference between a fact and an opinion, how do they know what they know? The pretense of certainty is foolhardy when dealing with a topic nobody can back up with evidence. I believe the main stumbling block for hard determinists is their tendency to material reductionism, driven by the misguided application of physics to things biological: a tendency that obfuscates the key differences between inanimate objects and animate beings.

Before beginning in earnest, I’d like you to consider this . . .

. . . If I were Magellan, trying to convince you that the Earth is spherical, I would point out how — no matter in which direction you look — the horizon advances as we advance toward it and how the arc of the horizon suggests a huge, round, planet, etc. If you adhered to conventional 15th century wisdom and held a contrary opinion, you would naturally react with skepticism and be inclined to resist my evidence and arguments.

However, if you sailed around the world with me, heading inexorably westward, you would be far more willing to accept the Earth as a globe once we arrive back where we started from. You might find fault with some of my ideas or metaphors but you would agree with my conclusion and, thus, would be more prone to seek clarification than to reject the theory outright.

Sometimes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. If I had to respond to every possible objection to every interpretation of my assertions, we would get nowhere in a hurry. Let’s not get bogged down in the minutiae: let’s look at the question holistically before quibbling over details: we are, after all, dealing with hypotheticals here . . . namely that reciprocal causation, as a potential key to free will (self-determinism) without mind/body dualism, demonstrates that hard determinism is a false dichotomy: there are other possibilities.

So, what IS free will? People clearly don’t agree on what it is. Philosophers can’t figure it out. No matter what our opinions of the requirements for free will, they all include choice, so let’s call choice a bare minimum requirement. But in what manner do we have choice? Certainly not the libertarian volition that denies determinism. That’s just not workable – especially for atheists with a knee-jerk reaction against mind/body dualism. And certainly not at the other end of the spectrum: hard determinism. To hard determinists, there is no free will: just the illusion of it. So, if free will really exists, it exists somewhere between these two extremes.

The way I see it, we are self-aware, intelligent, human beings, with uniquely powerful mental faculties of memory and analysis that sets us apart from all other known entities. We specialize in abstractions. We understand, or can figure out, causal relationships and their effects on us and our environment. Not only are we self-aware – we are time-aware – something so intrinsic to our intelligence that we’re inured to it, taking it for granted. To me, this time-awareness is an important key to the question of free will because it represents a temporal advantage over causality that allows us to anticipate and prepare for the future . . . whether that be 5 seconds or 50 years from now. Whether it’s preparing a grocery list; or a career path; or writing a last will and testament: we plot our own paths into the future. And that, to me, is self-determinism: my idea of what free will actually is. Self-determinism means that, within the constraints of causality, we are the architects of our own lives and are thus responsible and accountable for our own actions. To me, this is what it means to have free will.

I’m a compatibilist. I believe free will (self-determinism) is compatible with determinism – but not the absolute determinism of hard determinists. Such absolute determinism is based on linear causality; the causality of physics: cause and effect that is fixed: linear, binary and inexorable, unfolding in a precisely predictable way. Yes, the causality of physics is linear, binary and inexorable. But only with inanimate objects. Everything in the universe was an inanimate object until the advent of life. Thanks to the introduction of life, the universe now also contains animate beings.

Inanimate objects and animate beings have different modes of response (reactive versus interactive) to causality because animate beings provide potentials for causality that aren’t possible with inanimate objects.For brevity’s sake, lets stick with human beings from here on out. Anyway, instead of the linear, reactive, relationship to causality found in the inanimate realm, human beings have a reciprocal, interactive, relationship with causality. This is one of the differences that distinguishes physics from biology. Physics deals with inanimate matter: its causality is simple and linear. Biology deals with animate beings: its causality is complex and reciprocal. Life makes all the difference.

We’re evolved to recognize, analyze, understand and anticipate causality in highly complex ways. Think about it for a second. What are the properties of causality that make it so predictable in the inanimate realm?

  • It unfolds in lockstep with the unidirectional arrow of time.
  • It’s binary: cause and effect. Fundamentally simple.
  • It’s highly repeatable and consistent. A fact that science relies upon.

Causality underpins all of nature. It’s a basic assumption of physics. It’s the first thing we need to master in order to understand the world around us. Intelligence can’t develop – much less, evolve – without causality as its foundation. The properties of causality are the seeds of intelligence. Without causality, there is only chaos.

So causality is at the core of both determinism and intelligence. And when causality and intelligence interact, we have self-determinism. The key to that interaction is feedback. How do you have interaction without feedback? Feedback is common to emergent phenomena such as consciousness and intelligence, both of which are intimately bound up with free will (self-determinism). In contrast, inanimate matter is insensate. It has no memory, no intentions, no alternatives. It has no feedback: it is reactive, not interactive.

Although human intelligence endows us with a temporal advantage over causality that allows us to anticipate, prepare for and harness causality for our own purposes, that doesn’t mean we’re not subject to great influence from causality. We can do nothing about much of causality’s influence over us. We have no causal control over our own genetics and very little over our physiology. We have no control over the weather or natural disasters. In the midst of a car crash, we have no control over the forces that violently toss us around. But we’re not absolutely at the mercy of causality . . . we can drive defensively and use seat belts, air bags, padded dashboards, laminated windshields, crumple zone designs and side impact protection beams as well as systems for: collision avoidance, anti-lock braking, traction control, tire pressure monitoring, electronic stability control and obstacle detection. With self-determinism, feedback allows us to recursively modify our surroundings or even our own behavior to guarantee more beneficial consequences than would otherwise occur.

Feedback occurs between our brains and stimuli from our surroundings (causality). I think this feedback loop is where emergent phenomena such as intelligence and consciousness form. But how can free will (self-determinism) emerge from feedback? Well, of course, I don’t really know. But when I think in terms of reciprocal causality, it’s not difficult to explain how self-determinism could emerge from the feedback of reciprocal causation. It’s easy to see how the human brain creates huge potentials for (reciprocal) causality that are way beyond anything possible in the inanimate realm. Here’s just one way in which that could happen, explained with ideas and concepts we’re all familiar with . . .

. . . Cause and effect from the past (experience) is stored in the brain as memories. Cause and effect are also projected into the future (anticipation) when we analyze or plan. As mental feedback, our brains integrate experience and anticipation with cause and effect in the present moment to synthesize perceptions, ideas, conclusions and decisions . . . which, in turn, are also stored in the brain. Now tell me, which of these causes and effects are important to this process?

I say all of them. This synthesis of multiple causal factors is impossible with the linear causality of inanimate objects. With human intelligence, causality has more “temporal potentials”, thanks to memory (past) and the anticipation and projection of imagination (future). To us, causality isn’t limited to the present. It’s stored in the form of memories we can recall and is predicted in the form of anticipation and projection. Memory and imagination, as mental abstractions, are virtualized forms (past and future) of causality. Their synthesis with real-time causality (the present) is transformative and might well be integral to the emergence of  free will (self-determinism).

So, if you’re hung up on “uncaused causes”, consider the mental synthesis of multiple causal factors and its implications for emergence. We don’t operate on just the unfolding linear causality of the present. The past, present and future are homogenized and simultaneously incorporated into our thoughts and deeds.There is no “uncaused cause” — no violation of determinism — because there is no single cause but, rather, a synthesis of causal factors past, present and (virtual) future. I think this synthesis is exactly what is needed for the emergence of intelligence and free will (self-determinism) without mind/body dualism. When you stop to think about it, the human capacity for analysis is amazing. It’s an exercise in abstraction. We draw feedback from experience (past) and imagination (future) to mentally evaluate hypothetical scenarios. They’re not even real: just mental constructs! Reciprocal causation seems to have almost limitless potential. If reciprocal causation isn’t the key to free will (self-determinism) as an emergent property of the brain, what else could be?

The whole point here is to show that hard determinism is a false dichotomy. It’s not either/or. There are other possibilities. Emergence from reciprocal causation is one of those possibilities.

I believe that free will (self-determinism) is a prerequisite component of human intelligence in as much as it seems impossible to have human intelligence without it. What is human intelligence? Can we have it without the ability to make choices? Not to my way of thinking.

The ability to make choices, to me, implies an ability to anticipate causality. We make decisions based on expectations and pursue plans to usher those decisions to fruition. Planning would not work if choices were ephemeral. Clearly, we plan all the time, so part of intelligence must include keeping track of choices relative to our plans. This means that, at many points along the way, our choices are re-entrant or recursive; otherwise we could accomplish nothing.

If so, feedback is part of the causal stream of stimuli we’re constantly responding to. It’s internal instead of external but it joins the stream of stimuli by looping with it. After all, causality doesn’t stop at the skull. If we interact with causality, then feedback must be the mechanism by which we direct that interaction. Feedback informs our decisions.

We’re very good at analysis and executing plans. Sometimes we fail but usually, we’re confident in the outcomes. The fact that we can make plans and execute them is proof that we anticipate the future and factor causality into every step along the way. We can engineer moon missions and scramble to avert disasters and land our astronauts back on Earth safe and sound.

If that isn’t self-determinism . . . then what is it? I think it’s the only form of free will we really have.

Reciprocal causation becomes easier to understand once you acknowledge that animate beings, through feedback, offer causality more potentials than can occur with inanimate matter. Thanks to our advanced intelligence, we virtually dance with causality. Innovation, invention, creativity . . . these all indicate that causality is a plaything to us.

The reductionist mindset of hard (absolute) determinism doesn’t take reciprocal causation into consideration . . . and as long as you’re dealing with inanimate matter, that shortcoming doesn’t matter. The biggest mistake hard determinists make is treating animate beings like inanimate objects: applying linear causation instead of reciprocal causation. The brain is more than a collection of atoms: it’s the most complex object in the known universe. Life, consciousness and intelligence are emergent phenomena. Why not free will (self-determinism)?

I find it curious that so many intelligent people are so quick to surrender their identity on the altar of ABSOLUTE determinism. Here’s a few quotes that sum these folk up for me . . .

  • “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” ~José Bergamín
  • “Knowledge is a relatively safe addiction; that is, until it becomes idolatry.” ~Anonymous
  • “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~Albert Einstein

The Bergamin quote reminds us that certainty is a fool’s game. Absolutism is the pretense of certainty. The anonymous quote reminds us that what we think we know is subject to new paradigms. The Einstein quote encapsulates hard determinism perfectly. By applying the linear causality of inanimate objects to animate beings – as if there’s no difference between them – hard determinists are making things simpler than possible. Free will (self-determinism) is probably not even possible without the feedback of reciprocal causation: it’s certainly unimaginable with just linear causation. Life, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will (self-determinism) are unthinkable without reciprocal causality.

We all live as if we have free will (self-determinism). Jurisprudence, competition, incentives, rewards, praise, blame, loyalty, betrayal . . . these all pay lip service to free will (self-determinism). We ponder our futures and evaluate our options for the best available opportunities that fit our priorities and abilities – then we set about to achieve them. There are constantly choices to be made. Free will (self-determinism) seems to be a fact of life.

The challenge is to explain it: NOT deny it.

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