The illusion of free will is itself an illusion

While debates about free will remain prevalent in theology, philosophy, and the popular imagination, the concept of free will does not do any meaningful work in modern science. Even philosophically-inclined neuroscientists who write about free will do not evoke this concept in their technical work about the brain. Similarly, we talk about “nature versus nurture” not “nature versus nurture versus free will.” According to writer, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris, free will cannot be made conceptually coherent. In his little book “Free Will” he writes that “either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” Sam Harris is not the first person to debunk the idea of free will but what makes his treatment of the subject stand out from most hard determinists (or hard incompatibilists) is his no-nonsense treatment of “compatibilism” and his smart take on the view that free will is an “illusion.” He also has a talent for using effective metaphors to make his cases as evidenced by sentences such as, “you are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

Harris is not a “compatibilist” and follows philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (“wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery”) and William James (“quagmire of evasion”) in identifying this position as a (subtle) attempt to change the subject. About the vast compatibilist literature he writes that “more than in any other area of philosophy, the result resembles theology.” Compatibilists like Daniel Dennet have spent considerable time in twisting the meaning of free will and putting it in an evolutionary context but as some of his critics have noted, the “free will” that is compatible with determinism does not capture the kind of free agency and moral responsibility that philosophers feel is worth talking about (for example, see Paul Russell’s article “Pessimists, Pollyannas, and the New Compatibilism“). “Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings,” writes Harris.

Harris follows philosophers such as Derk Pereboom in noting that neither determinism nor indeterminism can give rise to free will or moral responsibility. This also includes more recent attempts to find “free will” in quantum mechanics. “Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility…how would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?

While Harris still recognizes free will as an illusion, there are some passages in his book that reveal that he does not seem to agree that disciplined introspection is a credible source for a belief in free will. “If you pay attention  to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process…I do not choose to choose what I chose…there is a regress here that always ends in darkness.” This is a distinctly refreshing perspective because most literature is plagued by the belief that regardless of whether free will exists (or can exist) it is nevertheless an illusion, or worse, a necessary illusion. This “illusion of the illusion of free will” remains a mainstay of most discussions of the topic, despite its shaky foundation in introspection or logical analysis. In a rather Buddhist perspective on the matter, Harris concludes his book by observing that

“our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

So what then gives rise to the belief in free will and the desire to prove its existence? According to Harris, a belief in free will is closely associated with the concept of “sin” and retributive punishment. One might also add that “compatibilist” philosophy arises from the recognition that most normative ethical theorizing requires some kind of compatibilism. It is not a coincidence that the most exotic treatments of free will can be found in theological, ethical, and ideological writings. Obviously, Harris denies that a belief in free will is necessary for morality and justice. “Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: everyone else will be better off this way.” The fact that no criminal has free will does not mean that all crime should be treated the same. The reason why we are interested in, for example, whether the cause of a crime can be attributed to a brain tumor or a psychopathic personality type is because it is important to know what kind of person we are dealing with and under which conditions we should expect such crimes most likely to occur. There is no need for a complete overhaul of our criminal system but in a society in which there would be less emphasis on free will there would be more room for intelligent treatment of crime instead of hatred and retribution.

There is a brief chapter in the book where Harris discusses free will in the context of politics. He identifies modern conservatism as embodying an unrealistic belief in free will, as evidenced by the tendency to hold people responsible for their own choices and to glorify “individualism” and the “self-made man.” It is certainly the case that the concept of free will has clouded the mind of many political thinkers. For example, two writers that are closely associated with radical capitalism, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, have offered rather obscure defenses of free will. Ultimately, however, most dominant ideologies can be restated without a belief in free will. A denial of free will in conjunction with postulating values such as”egalitarianism,” “impartiality,” and “universalism” can give rise to modern liberalism but a denial of free will is also compatible with an elitist, aggressive, anti-democratic pursuit of human enhancement through state coercion.

Libertarianism does not require a belief in free will either as evidenced by recent attempts to derive it from Hobbesian contractarianism (Jan Narveson) or economic efficiency arguments (David Friedman). Incoherent discussions of free will in moral and political theory are easy targets for ridicule, and often an indicator of belief in other mysterious concepts such as “natural rights.” In fact, libertarianism cannot only be restated without any appeals to “free will” or “natural rights” but it does not even require the postulation that “freedom” is valuable (or needs to be be maximized) as has been shown in the recent writings of Anthony de Jasay.

Voting, cheering, and exploitation

In his little book ‘Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction‘ Ken Binmore writes:

Real people seldom think rational thoughts about whether to vote or not. Even if they did, they might feel that going to the polling booth is a pleasure rather than a pain. But…the pundits who denounce the large minority of people who fail to vote in presidential elections as irrational are talking through their hats. If we want more people to vote, we need to move to a more decentralized system in which every vote really does count enough to outweigh the lack of enthusiasm for voting which so many people obviously feel. If we can’t persuade such folk that they like to vote and we don’t want to change our political system, we will just have to put up with their staying at home on election night. Simply repeating the slogan that ‘every vote counts’ isn’t ever going to work, because it isn’t true.

Later in the book Binmore returns to this topic when he discusses the “myth of the wasted vote”:

If a wasted vote is one that doesn’t affect the outcome of an election, then the only time that your vote can count is when only one vote separates the winner and the runner-up. If they are separated by two or more votes, then a change in your vote would make no difference at all to who is elected. However, an election for a seat in a national assembly is almost never settled by a margin of only one vote….Naive folk imagine that to accept this argument is to precipitate the downfall of democracy. We are therefore told that you are wrong to count only the effect of your vote alone – you should instead count the total number of votes cast by all those people who think and feel as you think and feel, and hence will vote as you vote…This argument is faulty for the same reason that the twins fallacy fails in the Prisoner’s Dilemma . There may be large numbers of people who think and feel like you, but their decisions on whether to go out and vote won’t change if you stay home and watch the television.

Faced with the criticism that game theorists who openly disseminate such observations lack “public spirit” he responds by drawing an analogy between voting and cheering at a football game.

“No single voice can make an appreciable difference to how much noise is being made when a crowd of people is cheering. But nobody cheers at a football game because they want to increase the general noise level. They shout words of wisdom  and advice at their team even when they are at home in front of a television set. The same goes for voting. You are kidding yourself if you vote because your vote has a significant chance of being pivotal. But it makes perfectly good sense to vote for the same reason that football fans yell advice at their teams.”

Whether this analogy is accurate or not, it is doubtful that such explanations of voting can salvage the idea that participation in an election is a meaningful public activity, let alone a civic duty. A recent Reason article, Your Vote Doesn’t Count,’ is a good survey of this topic and the desperate attempts to rehabilitate the case for voting. With the exception of economist Gordon Tullock, few scholars are known for publicly admitting to the futility of voting, let alone admitting to not voting themselves.

One explanation why people vote is that many do not explicitly recognize that they are no longer deciding an issue in a small hunter gatherer tribe. The fact that the scale of our decision making has changed substantially throughout the history of mankind is increasingly being discussed though. For example,  one presentation at the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium reads as follows:

Richard Nikoley, B.S. – Paleo Epistemology and Sociology

Primitive peoples evolved to account for the values and actions of a relatively small tribe of family and close acquaintances comprising of 30-60 members whereby, every individual had a critical role and opportunity to influence the behavior and actions of the group or tribe as a whole. This is far removed from the unhealthy social trends in modern society where individuals are fooled into believing that they have real power at the voting booth and other activism when in reality, their influence is insignificant and pales in comparison to the social power a primitive hunter-gatherer would have wielded.

A more sophisticated argument about conditions under which which it would be rational to vote was recently expressed by the social philosopher Anthony de Jasay in a 2011 interview:

It is in fact widely held that because millions vote, no voter can rationally expect to influence the result. Millions nevertheless keep on voting, which looks a bit strange. Many parapsychological stories have been written to explain why they do so. I am not sure that we need them. In a well-oiled democracy, the perfect election result yields a wafer-thin majority because that outcome maximizes the size of the losing coalition ready to be exploited and minimizes the size of the winning coalition whose members share the spoils. This idea, of course, is the well-known median voter theorem. When the majority is literally wafer thin, the displacement of a single vote turns the majority into a minority, and vice versa. Thus, the perfectly oiled democratic mechanism produces outcomes with a majority of one vote; a single vote is decisive; and, hence, the voter is quite rational to cast it. In a less perfectly oiled democracy, where the majority is thicker than a wafer, the probability of a single vote’s being decisive is less than unity (the median voter theorem does not quite hold), but it need not be negligible. Because voting is not very costly, to affirm that it is irrational to vote is much too strong a claim.

Jasay’s explanation why people vote, or under which conditions it would be rational to vote, deserves closer scrutiny because it aims to do more than coming up with a “feel-good” story about voting. What Jasay is saying here is that in elections that are purely distributive in nature, it can be rational to vote. Real-world elections, however, do not take place in such “well-oiled” democracies and virtually all large elections are decided by majorities much thicker than a wafer.

The problem with Jasay’s argument about the rationality of voting is not just that it has little relevance for actual existing democracies but it also raises questions about whether such a cynical form of democracy could be viable at all. Although most people recognize the redistributive component in politics, it is doubtful that a democracy in which politicians operate without any illusion about serving the general interest could persist. Just like it is doubtful whether voting would survive widespread recognition that it is just another form of cheering (or signalling), it is also doubtful that a democracy that would function in the way that Jasay describes it would be able to secure stable compliance, especially from its victims.

Public choice scholars often praise themselves as doing politics without romance by stripping the political process of all its lofty rhetoric and just analyzing it in terms of interest. But if people would actually recognize public institutions solely as vehicles to form coalitions to exploit others, the resulting governments would have little resemblance to the Western governments scholars and philosophers currently analyze. In other words, it may be a mistake to assume a distinctly different view of human nature and social interaction but keep political institutions unchanged.

While economists sometimes recognize the futility of voting in technical works, Bryan Caplan has been one of the few scholars who has developed this fact (and its implications for public policy) into a general theory about the microfoundations of political failure. In two excellent blog entries for EconLog he further reflects on the illusion of choice in American elections and how politics discourages self-correction (as opposed to markets).