The Old In and Outputs: Neuroscientist Tom Chivers Doesn’t Think We Have Free Will. Is He Right?

A stunning tidbit from an interview, in The Telegraph, with neuroscientist Tom Chivers:

[I]f we are part of the universe, and obey its laws, it’s hard to see where free will comes into it. What we think of as freedom, he says, is a product of complexity. “An amoeba has one input, one output. If you touch it with one chemical, it engulfs it; with another, it recoils.

“If you see a light go green, it may mean press the accelerator; but there are lots of situations where it doesn’t mean that: if the car in front hasn’t moved, for example. The same stimulus sometimes makes me press the accelerator, but sometimes the horn. We are not one output-one input beings; we have to cope with a messy world of inputs, an enormous range of outputs. I think the term ‘free will’ refers to the complexity of that arrangement.”

In other words, the complexity of the inputs coming our way, and our reactions to them, mask our determinacy, giving us the (false) impression that what comes out the other end of us in response to stimuli—that is, our actions—might have been otherwise. Though complex, we are really no more free in our reactions to things than are simple amoeba.

Put another way, the below video really is done by a deluded robot:

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Tom Chivers’ world-weary and matter-of-fact assessment that we don’t have free will seems wrong to me. It’s a conclusion too decisive. Our contemporary understanding of consciousness, for example, is rudimentary. Until we arrive at a fuller understanding of consciousness’s relation to matter—and we are still very far from this—it’s premature to strongly conclude that what we don’t have free will. Of course, it follows that it’s also premature to conclude that we do.

But how should we then live? Should we live as if we have free will because it pleases us? Or should we live as if we do not have free will because it too might please us (by making us feel hard-nosed, wise-to-the-world’s bleak ways, and scientific)? A cat, for example, is pleased to treat what is an objective pile of socks as something else; that is, a bed for sleeping. Shall we be like the cat, indifferent to the objective truth of the world, but comfy in it (because we suit it to our purposes)?

The objective truth as we experience it in the 21st century is that we don’t know enough about consciousness to say one way or the other whether or not humans have free will. The other objective truth is that we have free will or don’t have free will—and we don’t really know which one is correct.

These two things are the truth.

And here’s a mind-blowing thought to counter the mind-blowing thought of Tom Chivers: what if matter is an epiphenomenon of mind, and not mind of matter? Can we ever really be confident about the free will question before answering the “who’s ‘epiphenomenoning’ who” question? At minimum, quantum physics, with its weird interactions between mind and matter, ought to give us pause before concluding that free will is an illusion.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to The Old In and Outputs: Neuroscientist Tom Chivers Doesn’t Think We Have Free Will. Is He Right?

  1. jessica says:

    I have been in heavy contemplation on this very subject all day. My conclusion is so: Just have the most fun and smile from the heart always. Be humble, walk in grace, love your neighbor as U love yourself. Respect and love our children and planet above all else! Things can get very complicated for the human pysche over the simplest occurance whether positively or negatively charged. The real problem occurs when the distinction of the two becomes a maze. Your thoughts exactly served up by my thoughts exactly.

    • santitafarella says:

      Jessica,

      Many large questions in life must go unanswered and yet we still must live, so I agree with you. Move in the direction of love and beauty, as Keats wrote (“beauty is true; truth, beauty; that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”). Then again, pain and suffering are also true—a big part of existence’s mix—but we don’t move toward them.

      Should we?

      —Santi

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thought provoking.

    However, Chivers’ reasoning is so simplistic that it deserved an equally simplistic follow-up question:

    “But, given that we obviously do have free will, isn’t it more probable that our current understanding of the laws of the universe is incomplete, or simply wrong?”

    Colin

  3. colinhutton says:

    Thought provoking.

    However, Chivers’ reasoning is so simplistic that it deserved an equally simplistic follow-up question:

    “But, given that we obviously do have free will, isn’t it more probable that our current understanding of the laws of the universe is incomplete, or simply wrong?

    Colin

  4. colinhutton says:

    Somewhat confused by new requirements!!!!!. Your site automatically knew who I was in the past.

  5. I’m really a little baffled by all this fuss about free will. People seem to take this in a very personal level. However in the end it boils down to either we, the ‘I’, the mind is a result of brain activity, so it’s meaningness to say “my brain” as if there were two distinct entities. I am my brain.
    If that’s so, and all evidence AFAIK points this way, then it is. Which means that all discution about free will, and the concept of free will itself must be reframed to say the least. Because the idea of “free will” in itself was thought in the dualist reference frame. But if dualism in the end proves false, and it’s always worth repeting that the evidenceis piling up, more and more, against dualism, then “free will” in the contra causal sense is false as well.
    Sorry for thsad news.

    • santitafarella says:

      Eneraldo,

      You’ve hit it on the head. Dualism is the issue. But dualism may well be true. Until the consciousness issue is better understood, the free will issue must remain open. How, exactly, does consciousness arise from the brain, and what role (if any) is consciousness playing in the world? Quantum physics seems to suggest that consciousness is not just along for the ride.

      I think your strict materialist and determinist assumption about matter’s priority over mind is premature. They may be ontologically coequal, or one may be prior to the other. I don’t think we know the answer to this yet.

      —Santi

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