Thursday, January 23, 2014

Free Will an Illusion? Patricia S. Churchland vs. Sam Harris

Sam Harris’s book Free Will was recently discussed. Harris is certainly a proponent of the notion that what we refer to as "free will" is an illusion. To have any discussion of that proposition, one must first define what is meant by the term. Harris provides his explanation:

"The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present."

Harris believes both of those contentions are false and draws this conclusion:

"One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it."

Harris is careful to distinguish between his beliefs and the assumption that the future is already determined. The lack of free will does not negate the importance of human choice.

"Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being."

Harris seems to be suggesting a significant imbalance between conscious and subconscious actions of our brains. Does it make sense that consciousness would have evolved in the mammalian brain if it would be merely the observer of subconscious mandates?

Patricia S. Churchland provides a wide-ranging discussion of our brain and how it is believed to work in Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. She provides an alternate way to address the construct of "free will."

Churchland is a firm believer that humans are completely under the control of physical processes that take place mostly in the brain.

"….we are what we are because our brains are what they are."

She also believes that there is not a well-defined separation between conscious and subconscious functions.

"The brain’s conscious and unconscious activities are massively interdependent, enmeshed, and integrated. You would not be who you are but for the well-tuned unconscious business and its tight fit with your conscious life. But for that unconscious business, you would not have a conscious life. You could not remember anything in your autobiographical life for example."

Consciousness evolved slowly and in piecemeal fashion over a long period of time. It would not have evolved if it did not augment survivability. Its role must be fundamental to the functioning of the species.

"Your conscious brain needs your unconscious brain, and vice versa. The character and features of your conscious life depend on your unconscious activities. And of course, conscious events can in turn have an effect on unconscious activities."

Churchland describes the decision process as one of constraint satisfaction.

"….we assign values to certain things, subject to constraints. Thus, we may have many goals and desires about both the short term and the long term, and a good decision satisfies the most important ones."

Exactly how this constraint satisfaction process works in the brain is not completely clear.

"Roughly speaking, we do know that in constraint satisfaction operations, the brain integrates skills, knowledge, memories, perceptions, and emotions and somehow, in a manner we do not precisely understand, comes to a single result."

However, the process need not be viewed as one devoid of conscious input.

"The unconscious brain contributes much to the process of constraint modification. Wise evaluation and intelligent decisions would be impossible without it. By learning and thinking and developing good habits, we give our unconscious brain better tools to work with."

What Churchland is suggesting in that last sentence is that consciousness plays a direct role in training the unconscious brain to behave in certain ways. In her view, the relevant issue is not whether or not humans possess the fuzzy concept of free will, but whether or not they are capable of practicing self-control. Self-control is essentially a means by which one consciously decides to overrule subconsciously delivered impulses—an exercise of free will if you wish.

Infants come into the world possessing a large, powerful brain. But it is a brain with relatively few hard-wired responses. The long process of maturation involves training the brain as to how to react to given circumstances. A child is born with the impulse to eat sweets. She will immediately reach for candy until she trains her brain to take a more flexible approach when encountering candy. This is what Churchland refers to as self-control.

"Much of early life is about learning self-control and acquiring the habits of suppressing costly impulses and doing things we would prefer not to do….All those virtues we are encouraged to develop—courage, patience, persistence, skepticism, generosity, thrift, hard work, for example—are rooted in self-control."

In this view, maturation is a process by which conscious and unconscious parts of the brain collaborate in a process of trial and error to create who we are and what our values are.

An analogy that is limited, but still relevant, can be made between the subconscious brain and a massive computer. A scientist might program that computer to solve complex equations, and provide it with data and a set of constraints. When the computer delivers a result that the scientist finds credible, he accepts it and uses it in his work. One would not say that because he did not consciously track each computation being performed that the process was not within the control of the scientist. Similarly, when the subconscious delivers a decision, it is a decision based greatly on rules that the conscious and subconscious have jointly developed.

The above analogy can break down because humans have physical and biochemical variations that can produce impulses so extreme that the process of self-control cannot tame them. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.

"What is not illusory is self-control, even though it can vary as a function of age, temperament, habits, sleep, disease, food, and many other factors that affect how nervous systems function. Nonetheless, evolution, by culling out the inveterately impulsive, saw to it that, by and large, normal brains have normal self-control."

Churchland is not above a bit of snark.

"With some disappointment, I am bound to say that I suspect that the claim that free will is an illusion is often made in haste, in ignorance, and with an eye for the headline and the bottom line."

Take that Sam Harris!

The brain is such a wondrous construct—and there is so much left to learn. Let us all practice a little self-control and keep an open mind regarding its processes.


  1. Excellent summary of P Churchland's views on free will and self control. We are grateful to this neurophilosopher to have reconcile philosophy and neuroscience. Many thanks to Rich for what he does to provide access to important stuff which people need to know but do not have time.
    Jacques Baldet, author of Jesus the Rabbi Prophet.

  2. RE:"Churchland is a firm believer that humans are completely under the control of physical processes that take place mostly in the brain. "….we are what we are because our brains are what they are.""
    This is indeed a belief without empirical evidence! She provides no pointer to any evidence, or the likelihood of there ever will be any evidence.
    Churchland seriously confuses 'brain', 'free-will' and 'self-control': for instance, self-control is needed to exercise free will; e.g., ‘I want to become a doctor’: such a free-will decision is wishful thinking without the self-control (discipline) of dedicating years of your life to education and study (one, among many other enabling & facilitating conditions). With that self-control, the will’s, or free-will’s, decision is executable (& perhaps realisable). But the self-control (with its spin-out virtues) is not the will or the free will. At best, self-control is its servant, and likewise the physical brain the servant of both, and their servants are (should be) the rest of the body with all its physical attributes, functions, capabilities: a unity with the will at the apex.

    Churchland seems unfamiliar with definitions, descriptions and discussions of the will, its object and its operations of the great philosophical thinkers –e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas. Without such discussion much of what is all too essential and significant is lost; even the real distinction between will and free-will is missed.

  3. Strikes me as a pointless discussion. Churchland is a neuroscientist. Harris makes his living as a sleazy propagandist for Dick Cheney and Benjamin Netanyahu. He wrote ONE (asinine fMRI) paper decades ago. No one over 7 takes him seriously.


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