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Now, I don't think there's any scientific grasp, any hint of an idea, as to how to explain free will. Suppose somebody argues that free will is an illusion. Okay. This could be the case, but I don't believe that it's the case. It could be. You have to be open-minded about the possibility. But you're going to need a very powerful argument to convince me that something as evident as free will is an illusion. Nobody's offered such an argument or even pretended to offer such an argument.

(Source)

I was quite surprised by the last sentence. I wanted to explore his views on the topic, so I did a quick google search and I found this interview.

In the last couple of years ago, there were experiments showing that, when people make decisions, for example when I decide to pick up this cup, milliseconds before I make the decision, there is activity in the brain in the areas where you are going to act, i.e., milliseconds before I make the decision, the motor areas of the brain are already organized to pick the cup up. That evidence was used widely to conclude that this shows that we don’t have free will. But this doesn’t show anything of this sort. This just shows that decisions are unconscious. We all know that, if we think for a minute: of course decisions are unconscious. Some of them reach the level of consciousness, some of them we can’t even act on, but there is a lot there going on unconsciously, probably everything of interest, and we don’t know how to deal with it.

(Page 231)

I don't understand what he means by unconscious decisions. Why is it so obvious to him that decisions are unconscious. To be honest, I don't understand his answers at all. His whole answer to the question "What is complexity in language? And in thought?" (Page 230) is beyond me. Any clarification of his position would be helpful.

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  • Whatup, Fluffy. You'd be interested in "Neuroscience of Free Will" (WP). The short version is that some people believe that conscious decisions are the crux of free will, and that by binding the conscious decision to the unconscious one, no free will exists. Chomsky, like many, just disagrees.
    – J D
    Feb 15 at 15:13

7 Answers 7

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I think his main point in the interview in question is that the "decision" to pick up the cup isn't really the sort of free will most people mean or care about. It's kind of a straw man version where showing certain trivial reflex like actions don't require the sort of reflection that is necessary for some version of rational free will.

The point he's trying to make in the earlier quotation (I'm not sure which is from the interview and which is from the book the way you write it -- or if the book is an interview making them both interviews) is that we definitely experience ourselves as having free wills and it's up to the denier to explain away this apparent phenomenon of consciousness.

Who exactly has argued that they can prove free will is an illusion and that our experience is false? I'm not in philosophy of mind as an AOS or AOC, so I can't say for certain either, but I haven't seen any arguments that are just utterly convincing. So many of the proofs against free will are just like the referred to in the first paragraph.

A true defeating argument would have to tell us that the virtue and other attributes built up that make it so some people didn't commit holocausts when others did is to be wholly explained away as dependent on deterministic factors -- not one that shows on brain-only level that whether or not a person would catch a falling cup is a decision that does not engage free-will parts of the brain in fashion timely enough to make them causitive of the decision...

Or to put it another way, the true free-will denying argument is going to have to convince us that moral outrages are just bad reactions on our parts to events determined in ways we cannot influence or control.

(I'm not really interested in arguing the point -- I'm just expanding of what I take Chomsky to mean).

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  • Sam Harris has a whole book on the topic, but it's not very convincing. But I'd guess he would be in the "free will is an illusion" camp, and has been there, publically, for at least a couple years.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 28, 2015 at 21:03
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Chomsky is merely pointing out that the fact you can measure some sort of response, prior to making the decision, tells you nothing about free will becuase we know nothing about the mechanism. If you knew the mechanism of how decisions are made and these measurements were consistent with determinism, then it is a rational theory. However, we have no clue as to how our brain does its decision making, so these experiments tell you nothing about whether decisions are deterministic or non-deterministic.

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Chomsky is using the term 'unconscious' in a sense that he probably shouldn't. A more appropriate term might be 'pre-linguistic' decisions. In other words, we might have a sequence like the following:

  • I see a cup of coffee on the table.
  • A number of non-linguistic things pop up: the taste and smell of coffee; the recognition that this is 'my' cup; a sense of the social context I'm in; check-ins on bodily senses of hunger and thirst
  • I make an inner evaluation of these various things, the result of which is the 'decision' to pick up the cup (or the 'decision' not to)
  • I begin the action, and then (and only then) can linguistically form the idea "I think I'll drink some coffee".

In other words, the linguistic expression of the decision occurs after the decision has been made. Even in cases where we want to 'talk out' a decision — going over the ramifications and possibilities and values — we 'talk it out' mainly to set up the context within which a pre-linguistic decision is made. We don't 'make' the decision in the act of language.

The kind of research outlined in the question shows that we make decisions first and then they rise to the level of linguistic expression, not (as many people assume) the other way around. However, it says next to nothing about the core problem of decision-making, which is whether our decisions are 'free' or 'determined'. I mean, if I drive up to a T-intersection, I can turn left or right (or I suppose go straight forward into someone's yard). The question is whether I have any independent control or influence over the choice. Am I doomed from the beginning of time to turn left at this particular time and place in history, or am I able to freely steer one way or the other by some process I don't fully understand? When a murderer says he had no control over his actions and killed someone because that was 'just what happened', do we take him at his word or do we hold him responsible for his acts?

Free will is a self-evident perception: we innately feel as though we have free will and that we can choose to do this or that according to subjective factors like intellectual understanding, moral apperception, attraction, repugnance... That doesn't mean that it's a true perception (any more than the perception that the sun 'rises' is true). But it's what we have to work with until research tells us something new. Some philosophical circles have an aversion to the concept of free will: mainly philosophies with an anti-religious bent. Free will is often conceptualized as the manifestation of a 'soul', and it is often easier to discard the concept of free will entirely than separate it from its metaphysical/theological quandaries. But there aren't many good arguments against free will out there, and no research (yet) that manages to put a solid nail in that self-evident, intuitive apperception.

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For the last half hour, I've been thinking of getting a cup of coffee and probably after finishing this post, I will actually go ahead and make one.

When then, was this decision to make a coffee made: half an hour ago, when I first thought about it or when I actually went ahead and made it?

Now, this is not an unconscious decision but to a degree it is. It's not as though, I'm continually thinking about it, that is, I'm continually conscious of it. Instead, first I think about it, then I don't act on it and it goes away whilst I then think about something else or do something else and then it comes back, etc and etc.

What this shows is that many decisions aren't simple discrete events which the experiment you reported on suggests they are. And that they have both conscious and unconscious parts.

Here is another example. When you first learnt to write with a pen, you would have been conscious of every movement of the pen and the position of your fingers on the pen but now when you write, you are merely conscious of what you want to say and these previously very conscious decisions of how to hold and move the pen have been simply relegated into unconscious thinking.

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Although I don't agree with Chomsky's arguments, I think I can clarify them.
1) Some people have used the results of some experiments to "prove" that we don't have free will.
2) the experiments show that prior to the time of making a decision, like grabbing a cup, there is activity in the motor areas of the brain a few milliseconds prior to making the decision to grab the cup. This is used as "evidence" that we don't have free will.
3) Chomsky thinks that the experiments only prove that decisions are made unconsciously, and since he agrees with that, then for him, the experiments prove nothing. This is his way of dismissing the results of the experiments.

I find statements 2 & 3 false. Number 2 is false, because the decision to grab the cup started the activity in the motor areas of the brain in the interest of saving time in case of an affirmative decision. Number 3 is false, because Chomsky is confusing a reflex with a decision. I believe that decisions are made only when you are conscious.

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  • Apparently it's more like seconds: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18408715 Also what started the activity in the motor areas of the brain to grab the cup could also be the fact that there is a cup and that the experiment requires to do something with it, the decision in that case would be "the go" that you give, so to say the affirmation.
    – haxor789
    Aug 17 at 12:51
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I think it's far more obvious than what you're trying to make it out to be. He is essentially saying he has no idea, and neither does anyone else.

I don't particularly agree with him, and it may just come down to semantics. That is to say, what he categorizes as "unconscious thought" may very well be part of the "no free will" argument.

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The quote attributed to Chomsky:

"Nobody's offered such an argument or even pretended to offer such an argument",

is simply incorrect. At least as far back as Democritus, there have been notions equivalent to the idea of a 'hard deterministic' universe (Roughly: All events are the result of prior events. Nothing - including a decision - is the cause of itself. Free will is therefore impossible).

Free will continues to be denied/supported by contemporary philosophers:

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/apr/27/the-clockwork-universe-is-free-will-an-illusion

There are persuasive logical arguments against free will that would seem to achieve 'proof' until we discover a solution to the determinism/randomness dichotomy (Simplistically put: The notion that an event - including a thought or a decision - is either determined via cause and effect, or spontaneous/random/involuntary. Both options seem to deny any agency or true freedom).

The experiments to which Chomsky refers are likely the 'Libet' experiments, which were flawed and never designed to address free will. Stack Exchange has a particularly relevant post:

Free will and the Libet experiments

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent resource:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/

In 2019, the Templeton Foundation produced a white paper on free will which provided an overview of the predominant current approaches/theories.

https://www.templeton.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/FreeWill-JTF-Final.pdf

This Stack Exchange post provides an argument against free will and invites critique:

Proof for the Absence of Free Will?

You can participate in a persuasive free will thought experiment here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwjD4hfrDsg

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  • 2
    Not everybody's conception of free will (or at least the feeling of free will) is contrary to determinism.
    – TKoL
    Aug 5, 2021 at 8:33
  • 1
    True. I've provided a link to Stanford's material on compatibilism in my answer to address this. Aug 5, 2021 at 8:36
  • 2
    I think I would phrase my position on free will like this: any conception of free will which is incompatible with determinism is a confusion. I'm not certain that determinism is true, I'm not certain if compatiblist definitions of free will might also be confused or incorrect, but I am certain of one thing: non-compatiblist conceptions of it are entirely confused.
    – TKoL
    Aug 5, 2021 at 8:38
  • On “seem to achieve 'proof'”, this just seems like you’re using scare quotes to say something otherwise indefensible! Proofs are well-formed structures of axioms and logical consequences - a defeasible argument is never a proof! Aug 5, 2021 at 15:49
  • @Sofie. Oh. What are 'scare quotes', Sofie? I used quotes because, as strange as it seems, some people accept some logical arguments as proof whereas others don't. As an example, the penultimate link in my question leads to a 'proof' which I currently tentatively accept, because - whilst I welcome criticism - no-one has yet coherently identified a flaw in it. Perhaps you can. Aug 5, 2021 at 16:02

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