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Are We Free?

Jason Runyan

What philosophers have to say about human agency

Associate Professor of Neuropsychology, Indiana Wesleyan University
May 5, 2014

Do we have free will? I think our preoccupation with this question has distracted us from more basic questions that underlie discussions about human freedom:

In everyday life, do we actually do and accomplish what we typically think we do? Do we think about what we do and accomplish in an accurate way? Are we the kinds of agents we think we are?

Here, I want to talk about these questions specifically with regard to what neuroscience is revealing about human agency. As we will see, what neuroscience is often thought to reveal undermines the idea that we are actually agents who do and accomplish much of what we typically think. But I don’t think this is the only way—or even the best way—to interpret neuroscientific findings.

The question as to whether we are the kind of agents we think we are—agents who successfully act in the world—is important because it undergirds our thinking about what it is to be a person. Doing and accomplishing what we typically think we are able to is, obviously, using abilities we think people have. That we have personal abilities and attributes is pivotal to questions about whether we have souls. If we don’t really do and accomplish what we take ourselves to, then we don’t have the abilities we think people have, and, then, in a real sense we are not people in the way we thought. That is, we are not the souls we thought we were.

Also of relevance to our thinking about what kind of agents we are is what it means to be in a morally responsible, mutually loving, personal relationship. If the disparity between what we typically think and what we actually are able to do and accomplish is substantial enough, then that threatens our understanding of moral responsibility.

To illustrate, say we met this wonderful philanthropist—a person of great benevolence and care for all—with whom we, over the course of time, developed a loving relationship. After some time we come to find out that, for as long as we have known them, this person has been completely controlled by neurophysiologists who have implanted electrodes throughout her brain. These neurophysiologists have controlled her behavior, thoughts, emotions, etc., in such a way that even the philanthropist thought she had been in control the whole time. It seems clear that, though this is quite farfetched, we would no longer think the person was morally responsible for their good deeds or, throughout that time, genuinely loved us.

Similarly, it seems that if the way we typically think about human agency is sufficiently wrong, not only would we be incapable of being morally responsibility, or loving in the way we thought we were, we would, in a substantial sense, not be people in the way we thought we were. And, in this case, we would not be able to enter into the kind of personal relationship we thought was possible, whether with others or God. This is a problem for Christians who understand (i) the suffering and enduring patients and steadfast love of God, (ii) the existence of at least a certain amount of pain and suffering, and (iii) the incarnation, as coming out of God’s desire to foster and form a mutually loving personal relationship with morally responsible people.

The question, then, is whether what neuroscience is revealing about us goes against our ideas about the kind of agents we are. But, first, what kind of agents do we think we are? Well, minimally, we think we are able to settle whether certain things happen. Furthermore, we think we are able to knowingly do so, and have some awareness of how things will play out differently because we are acting in a certain way. For example, I think certain words are, at this moment, being typed, and my hands are, at this moment, moving because I am acting; am typing and am moving my arms. If I were not exercising my agency in these ways—thereby changing the way the situation plays out—neither would be happening. I, as an agent of change, settle whether or not the typing of words or the moving of my hands (or whether something else) takes place at these moments. Additionally, I believe that I settle these matters knowingly: I know at least some of the things I am settling while I am typing (e.g., whether my hands move, whether words appear on the page, whether my work gets done). Further, I am acting purposefully; I know why I am doing what I am doing. I am acting so that a certain point gets expressed that will not, if I do not act, get expressed. And I am purposefully acting (or acting so that such-and-such happens), and actually accomplishing my aim, only if I am in a situation where the point that I am expressing in that moment will not be expressed if I do not act; that is, if I do not settle the matter.

Current neuroscience research is often taken to reveal that we, as human beings, do not knowingly settle matters. Under popular theories, I as a person (or an entity with personal-level abilities and attributes) do not settle the matter as to whether I am typing, or as to whether my hands are moving, right now. Rather, neural causes that are operating in concert within my brain have already settled the matter before I knowingly do anything. In this case, if I think I knowingly settle matters, or purposefully act and accomplish my aims I am deluded. And if I do not knowingly settle matters then I really can’t be held morally responsible for anything that happens. We do not hold people morally responsible for what they unknowingly let happen (granted, of course, they could not have found out about it). Also, it is hard to see how we can love others or enter to a personal relationship with them in the way we typically think if we do not knowingly settle how we interact with them. Thus, what current neuroscience research is often taken to reveal is problematic for Christian ideas about who we are in relation to God and others.

However, taking neuroscience research to reveal that we, as human beings, do not knowingly settle matters is as problematic for the truth claims of neuroscience, or any empirical/rational enterprise, as it is for the truth claims of the Christian faith. For to conclude that we do not knowingly settle matters, or actually purposefully act and accomplish our aims, for any reason (neuroscientific or otherwise) is, itself, a contradictory act. The content of the conclusion contradicts the confidence one manifests in one’s ability to knowingly settle matters by making such a conclusion. This indicates that there is something wrong with neuroscientific accounts that undermine the idea that we do not knowingly settle matters, or actually, purposefully act and accomplish our aims.

But not only are there signs that the theory that all that we think we knowingly settle is settled by neural causes deeply problematic, it is far from evident that such theories are the only, or even the natural, way of interpreting our neuroscientific findings. What we continue to learn from neuroscience research is that being in a state of consciousness—the state one is in granted one knowingly settles matters—involves a precisely balanced state of simultaneous neurobiochemical and neurophysiological activities throughout one’s nervous system. And while in this state one can know of and be aware of all kinds of things without thinking about them, or otherwise directing one’s mental activities toward them. If we, then, image the brain while individuals do or experience various things we see that distinct patterns of activity are associated with what one does and/or experiences. However, at the same time, there are changes in the relevant patterns of brain activity with every instance of doing something or experiencing something—so the relevant brain activity involved when one does the same thing two times in a row changes.

Additionally, two different individuals can be doing the same thing and the associated brain activity can be very different between them. For example, the left side of the brain is predominately active while some individuals talk or listen while the opposite side is predominately active while others talk or listen. Further, it seems that when we look at the overall state of a person’s brain activity while they are conscious and navigating through life it is stochastic. What this means is that it seems that even if we know all of the relevant causes operating at the neural level we could still only probabilistically predict the state of the person’s brain activity the next moment or the moment after that, etc. So even if we know all of the neural variables it is, within certain limits, still left open how the state of the person’s brain activity will change over the course of time.

Now, of course, one could develop a complete explanation of the person’s brain activities in terms of neural variables that is consistent with the facts. But the facts also allow for the development of an explanation wherein the conscious person causes some change to brain activities by knowingly settling certain matters: that is, by doing and accomplishing things we typically think a person can do and accomplish. The stochastic nature of the relevant brain activity states is what one would expect if this were the brain activity of a person who settles certain matters, and changes the way situations play out by acting.

So there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that what neuroscience reveals is inconsistent with the way we, in an important sense, think about our agency. In this case, there is a more natural way of interpreting our neuroscientific observations than the way these observations are often interpreted; that is, than in the way that is inconsistent with the way we think about our agency. This natural way has the added bonus of not being problematic in the way we saw theories that undermine the way we typically think about what we do and accomplish. It also aligns with a Christian understanding of who we are in relation to others and to a God who is continuing to work His plan out but in a way that allows for morally responsible agents, such as ourselves, to have a loving, personal relationship with Him.