Free Will, Morality, and Control

In a recent article in Commentary magazine, Peter Wehner inveighs against some of the views expressed in Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape , and claims that “free will isn’t an illusion”.

Since different people mean different things by “free will”, we have to ask what Wehner means by this term. The most definite indication that Wehner provides is the following:

“Try as he might, Sam Harris cannot explain how morality is possible without free will. If every action is the result of biological inputs over which we have no control, moral accountability becomes impossible.”

Or, in other words, having free will requires that some of our actions are not the result of biological inputs over which we have no control. But what does this mean? What is a “biological input”?

Some of Wehner’s remarks suggest that “biological input” means something like “genetic constitution” or, perhaps, “genetic constitution plus developmental factors such as the state of one’s mother’s health during her pregnancy”. What Wehner seems to exclude from “biological inputs” is what we learn from our perceptual experience. This exclusion seems natural – the things you see and hear need not have anything to do with biology.

Even if you learn something by watching animals in a zoo, it would be unusual to think of yourself as having received biological inputs. You receive perceptual inputs at the zoo, and these enable you to know something about biological creatures.

But if “biological input” does not include what we learn from our perceptual experience, then Harris is not claiming that what we do depends only on “biological inputs”. I think it will be difficult to find anyone at all who holds such a view.

A view much more likely to be held is that all our actions are results of our biological inputs together with our perceptual inputs. I do not mean only perceptual inputs that are present at the time of acting (although those, of course, must be included). What we perceive changes us. It gives us memories, and provides information that we retain. It puts us into a state that is different from the state we would have been in if we had perceived something different. The state of our brains that we have at the time of an action is the result not only of present perceptions, but also of a long history of being in a state, perceiving, changing state, perceiving something further, changing state again, and so on and on.

Another key term in Wehner’s understanding of “free will” is “control”. You are in control of your action if you are doing what you aim to do, and you would have been doing something else if you had aimed to do that. Both of these conditions can be met if your actions are a result of current perceptions plus a brain state that you are in because of your original constitution and your history of perceptual inputs. So, you can have some control over your actions.

Of course, it is also true that there is much you are not in control of. You can open your eyes or keep them shut, but what you will see if they are open is not under your control. You can’t control your original constitution, and you can’t control the particular kind of change in your brain state that will be made by what you perceive.

Wehner worries that “If what Harris argues were true, our conception of morality would be smashed to pieces. If there is no free will, human beings are mere automatons, robots programmed to act (and not act) in certain ways. We cannot be held responsible for what we have no control over.”

But these alleged implications do not follow, if we understand Harris to be holding the more plausible view I’ve just sketched. The first point is relatively simple: We are not automatons if our actions are responsive to differences, not only in current perceptual inputs, but in matters of context that may have affected us at various times in the past.

The point about being a “robot programmed to act” is a little more complicated. We must distinguish between being actions being canned and being the result of some definite process. Outputs of grocery store readers are canned – someone has to type in what amounts to a rule like this: If THIS bar code is read, then display THAT price on the monitor and add it to the total. But that is not the way you, or robots, or even programs work. In genuine programming, inputs trigger a process that leads to a result that no one has previously calculated. Even a chess playing program takes in board positions that no programmer has previously thought of, and processes that information until an output (its next move) is reached. Since these board positions were unforeseen, good responses to them cannot have been worked out by programmers, and the responding moves cannot have been canned.

Regarding control, everyone must recognize that we have limits. But if we are not ill or befuddled by drugs, there will be many possible actions that we will do if we aim to do them, and won’t do if we don’t aim to do them; and so there will be many possible actions that are under our control.

[The article is Peter Wehner’s “On Neuroscience, Free Will, and Morality, Commentary, June 8, 2011. Available at Several of the points made in this post are more fully explained in Your Brain and You. Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape was published by The Free Press, New York, in 2010; an earlier post (12/1/2010) on this blog comments on another aspect of this book.]


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