Free Will: Implications of State-Of-The-Art Research in Natural Sciences for Humanities and Social Sciences

In law and in society, in general, it is assumed that humans have free will – and indeed we surely feel free most of the time! Still, the “problem of free will” (do we really have a free will ?) is considered by many philosophers and scientists as one of the greatest open problems of philosophy – and by extension of society at large. A staggering number of “great minds” have expressed their opinion on this topic, virtually from all disciplines and arts, from Aristotle to Kant, Spinoza, Einstein and Tolstoy. Even some of the most distinguished theoretical physicists of our time, notably the Dutch Nobel Laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft, are actively investigating this matter1. Simply stated, there are two camps, “libertarians” and “determinists”, but intermediate positions also exist. Libertarians are those who believe we have free will. To name only a few proponents in this camp: Aristotle, Kant, Popper (a famous philosopher of science), and Daniel Dennett (a well-known present-day public thinker from the US). Determinists are those who assert that free will is an illusion, only a feeling, and that our choices are actually determined by psychological, sociological, neurobiological, and ultimately physical laws. Some famous proponents in this camp are Spinoza, Einstein, Tolstoy, and Sam Harris (a popular present-day neuroscientist).

Since a few decades this question can be studied by neuroscience. Benjamin Libet, a neurophysiologist, reported in 1983 seminal research in which he monitored brain activity (via electric signals detectable in human brains) in correlation with subjectively felt ‘free choices’ (to press a button at a chosen and recorded instant). In short, Libet detected an increased brain activity well before the investigated person made his ‘free’ choice. Many neuroscientists have interpreted the Libet experiment as a strong argument that ‘we’ do not decide what we do, but that our brain does it for us by processes we are unaware of (and that may well have been determined by factors outside of ourselves). Recently, neuroscientists have reported, again based on the measurement of brain activity, that the choice of test persons (namely their choice to lift their left or their right hand) could be predicted more than 7 seconds before the test person consciously made the decision to pick one or the other hand (!). To many, this again puts free will in question. Others will want further research before jumping to conclusions. Psychologists in turn point to the importance of psychological factors in determining human behavior, factors linked to early education, parental care, family and genetic conditions, social environment etc.

So free will is a subtle matter. How can we reconcile these scientific findings with our obvious feeling of having free will? Can one maintain the notion of free will, which seems so essential for moral and legal responsibility? There seems little doubt that an informed notion of free can have a profound impact on how we understand notions as error, sin, merit, blame, praise, responsibility, agency, individualism (so present today in our society!), etc. Let us admit it: some of the team members believe that our basic philosophy of life is at stake! At the School of Advanced Studies, we believe that to advance the debate on free will, the only way is to adopt a decidedly holistic approach, and to investigate this problem by an interdisciplinary team, tackling the problem in a systemic way. Accordingly, in the Autumn of 2017 we formed a team with experts from philosophy, physics, history, IT / computer science and neurophysiology (the neurophysiologist, medical doctor Kristina Anfilofieva, will have a consulting role in the project; she will closely collaborate notably with a neuroscientist that will be recruited in the course of the project). Our first efforts aimed at conceptual clarity: what exactly could free will mean, what forms of free will are compatible with scientific findings? What are the best theories on the market? This is classic philosophical work, involving lots of reading – there are libraries full of books on free will! This work is on track and we have first contributions that are submitted for publication, or will be submitted shortly. The results were used by the historian of the team to scrutinize data and events of paradigmatic historical importance, as well as by the expert in IT to analyze neuronal networks (cf. below). One other outcome of this work is that it appears that the problem of free will is closely related to the problem of consciousness – another hot and eminently interdisciplinary topic in neuroscience and IT / computer science. Indeed, only a few months ago neuroscientists published in Science a call for support in defining certain concepts more precisely – notably consciousness, which remains a highly elusive concept (P. Stern, 2017, Vol. 358:465). The model we developed offers insights and avenues for further research related both to the question of free will and consciousness.

Next, the team is investigating the links with physics. One of the classic arguments in favor of ‘absolute’ free will is that nature at the quantum level is indeterministic, probabilistic – and not deterministic. This is, by the way, one of the most hotly debated topics in the foundations of physics, started by Einstein and Bohr in the 1930ies, and continued nowadays by ‘t Hooft, ourselves and others. But even if the quantum world were indeterministic at its base, can it really be that free-willed choices are generated by indeterministic, i.e. random, events in our brain? Can it really be that free (conscious, purposeful) choices are random choices? Here, for instance, we project an interesting interaction between physicists and philosophers. For the moment we are involved in research arguing that any probabilistic system, even a quantum one, must be deterministic at its base. We try to establish collaborations with experimental physics groups to back-up this claim, first of all at the University of Tyumen (Prof. Natalia Ivanova), but also with well-known labs at the University of Paris, MIT, and the University of Liège. We plan to investigate consequences of this claim both in philosophy and physics, in the latter case for instance for Bell’s theorem. Needless to say, many other fascinating research topics are possible in this realm, such as:

1) Are there sub-nanometric systems in the brain, involved in decision making, that could be the carriers of quantum phenomena (it seems that very little empirical research is done in this area)?;

2) Can dynamical systems theory of nonlinear (possibly chaotic) processes be applied to the human brain, as several have claimed?; etc.

A historian of the team has started research on how decision-making is conceptualized through history, and investigates examples of decision-making influenced by medical conditions and drug use – examples that relate to the ancient problem of mind-body interaction. A case in point is the recently reported addiction of Adolf Hitler to certain drugs, and the far-reaching influence it had on his decisions, notably at the end of the Second World War. Examples of fascinating questions for the academic discipline of history are the following: if Hitler’s behavior was strongly affected by chemical substances, how does this influence our reading of him as a free agent who carried responsibility for all of his actions? If we can trace the outcome of some decisions to a mind-altering event such as drug use, what does it say about the agency (at the point of origin) and moral responsibility (in terms of consequences) of those actions? Is classical source analysis (of written documents) enough to discover the full complexity of a historical period under investigation? If not, what skills from other disciplines do historians need to acquire to help them to create a fuller picture of events? Do case-studies as these imply that, from now on, more emphasis should be put in historical research on collaborations with psychologists, neuro-pharmacologists etc. to write the ‘deep history’ of decision-makers? Should we then take the ‘grand narratives’ of the ‘grand nations’ really seriously, or with a serious grain of salt? Should this moderate the sometimes boundless admiration that strong regimes promulgate for their ‘fathers of the nation’?

An expert in IT collaborated with us during four months only, but long enough for us to realize that there is an obvious and fascinating link between free will and artificial intelligence (AI) — a link we hope to investigate further after recruitment of an expert in AI or related fields. As one example of research in this area, we started reflecting on the question how far AI-experts are away from developing computers or robots that could be termed ‘conscious’ or ‘free-willed’ (if possible at all!); more precisely how AI could come closer to such systems. To give a beginning of an answer to this complex question we compared the above mentioned model elaborated by the team to the functioning of artificial neural networks. Since our conclusions are not yet published, we cannot disclose them here. But clearly, we expect that neural networks and AI are helpful to understand philosophical and neurobiological aspects of free will / consciousness, and that an intense interdisciplinary interaction between these fields is possible – as many have claimed before us.

Once the basic scientific work is done, notably in neuroscience, physics, IT and philosophy, probably the most subtle and difficult task that awaits us will be to investigate the impact of these findings on social sciences and humanities — and, consequently, on society as a whole. One broad conclusion of our present findings is that human actions and decisions seem often (or alwa ys?) determined by much more subtle, hidden, or unexplored factors than one would suspect at first sight. Therefore we are looking forward to collaborate with any researcher in human and social sciences who is interested in investigating the (yet unknown and strategic) consequences of science-informed research on free will for her or his discipline. One may think here of psychologists, social scientists, legal theorists, economists – it seems the possibilities are wide. We do believe that such an impact exists, and that it is essential to study it by the best methods of social and human sciences.

1 Cf. G. ‘t Hooft, ‘Free Will in the Theory of Everything’, arXiv:1709.02874 [quant-ph] (2018)