A good article on free will

Summary:  Although the majority of intellectuals deny the existence of free will, a few have defended it.  These posts have already referred extensively to Ayn Rand’s defense of free will as based on a primary choice to think or not.  This post will review the work of a scientist who also provides a vigorous defense of free will, and who makes other valuable points within the field of psychology and neuroscience.

In a previous post, a book chapter by Albert Bandura 1 was referenced as providing a devastating critique of neurophysiological determinism, that is, the view that all of our conscious activity is determined by brain states.  Some of Bandura’s key criticisms were discussed in that earlier post.  Bandura makes several other excellent points that there was no space to cover earlier.

The first point he makes is that the conceptual level is what is called an “emergent property.”   Such a property is something that results from the combination of elements, but is not present in those original elements.  An example is the saltiness resulting from the combination of sodium and chlorine, which is not present in either ingredient.  Bandura states:

“Cognitive processes are emergent brain activities that exert determinative influence. In emergence, constituent elements are transformed into new physical and functional properties that are not reducible to the elements. For example, the novel emergent properties of water, such as fluidity and viscosity, are not simply the combined properties of its hydrogen and oxygen microcomponents … Through their interactive effects, the constituents are transformed into new phenomena.”

This is the essential counter-argument against all of the neurophysiological determinists who claim that free will does not exist because it cannot be found in the brain’s physical components. Recall that the anti-free will argument presented by Harris rests on the idea that there would have to be something “extra,” some (in his view) mystical element to explain choice.  Speaking of a criminal, for example, and supposing he changed places with the criminal “atom for atom,” Harris states “There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.”  In contrast to this view, if free will and the cognitive processes it involves are combination-enabled “emergent” properties, there is no need to hunt for an “extra” property, let alone to assert it is mystical.  Free will is as natural as water’s wetness.

Bandura goes on to explain the proper level at which to view man’s control.  He rejects the anti-free-will view that because man is not aware of the brain states underlying choice, man therefore has no choice:

“In acting as agents, individuals obviously are neither aware of nor directly control their neuronal mechanisms. Rather, they exercise second-order control. They do so by intentionally engaging in activities at the macrobehavioral level known to be functionally related to given outcomes. In pursuing these activities, over which they can exercise direct control, they shape their neural circuitry and enlist subpersonal neurophysiological events subserving their chosen pursuits.”

Bandura gives the analogy of driving a vehicle, which requires combustion, conversion of energy into motion, steering linkages, brake pads, etc.  The driver activates all of these subsystems by choice, but not directly.  He does so through the conscious activities we normally take to be part of driving, which include planning the route (getting reservations if one is embarking on an overnight stay), gassing the car, starting the car, pressing the gas pedal, steering.  As Bandura states, in addition to the conscious choices made in simply starting and steering the car, “The deliberate planning … for these diverse activities far in advance requires considerable proactive top-down cognitive regulation.”

This concept of “top-down” cognitive regulation is the most important contribution Bandura makes.  What he is saying is that man actually exercises control over all these subsystems that operate in the background, but only at the “macrobehavioral” level (the “top”), i.e. only at the level of what one can directly choose.  Man cannot choose or know about the details of the combustion engine’s momentary operation (the “down”), just as he cannot choose or know about what his neurons are doing.  When he chooses to do something, however, man activates these subsystems.  In simple terms, he is a causal agent in enabling these subsystems to function to his benefit.

Bandura continues his explanation using an example from exercise physiology and psychology:

“Individuals obviously do not intentionally direct their atrial and ventricular cardiac muscle fibers to fire and their aortic and pulmonary valves to open and close.  However, by intentionally engaging in an exercise routine and controlling their activity level, they can enhance their cardiac function and regulate their heart rate without having the foggiest idea of how they indirectly recruited, by their intentional actions, the subserving neurophysiological mechanisms.”

You, the reader, can see the above mechanisms in an everyday example.  Suppose you are nervous about an upcoming job interview, or examination.  Suppose this causes you to feel shortness of breath.  You can choose to identify your nervousness, and the underlying worry about how you will perform. Further, you can choose to say to yourself: “Calm down, I know I’m prepared for this.  Breathe deeply and evenly.  Steady now.”  These actions – identifying and correcting mistaken thoughts, and purposely controlling your breathing – are at the “macrobehavioral” level, where choice is operative.  Yet they result in causing the underlying bodily systems to deliver oxygen to the cells more efficientlly, a function that no one can control directly.

Bandura summarizes (here, and below, brackets indicate words substituted to explain a technical term):

“Framing the issue of conscious cognitive regulation in terms of direct control over the neurophysiological mechanics of action production casts the issue in the wrong terms at the wrong level of control … Because individuals have no awareness of their brain processes does not mean that they are just quiescent hosts of automata that dictate their behavior.  Neuroimaging can shed light on the neural mechanisms of cognitive control and how controllable [chosen] action indirectly develops functional neuronal structures and orchestrates the neurodynamics for selected purposes.”

Finally, Bandura discusses the details of recent neuroscience research that rejects the mechanistic theories of the free-will deniers.  This research investigates what happens to the brain when man exercises choice.  Bandura urges lines of research that elaborate on these findings:

“Thoughts change the brain by cognitive practice in much the same way as does physical practice (Pascal-Leone, et al., 1995). … prior cognitive practice reduces the time needed to learn a skill by physical practice. There is much excitement [by current practitioners of neuroscience] about how the brain regulates behavior to the neglect of how individuals train the brain to serve desired purposes.

Research on brain development underscores the influential role that [choice] plays in shaping the functional structure of the brain (Diamond, 1988 2; Kolb & Whishaw, 1998). It is not mere exposure to stimulation but [choice] in exploring, manipulating, and influencing the environment that counts.  By regulating their motivation and activities, people produce the experiences that form the functional neurobiological substrate of [skill development] … This is a realm of inquiry in which psychology can make unique contributions to the … understanding of human development, adaptation, and change.”

Unfortunately, the great value of this article is undercut by Bandura’s views about the foundations of ethics.  His views are a mixture of individualism (standards derived from reason, applying to each individual man) and collectivism (group or societal standards, whatever they are).  Implicitly Bandura accepts the centrality of the individual valuer, in that he emphasizes the survival value to each person of being able to control his own cognitive processes and behavior.  In Bandura’s words: “Forethoughtful, regulative, and reflective capabilities are vital for survival.”  Because of that implicit individualism, Bandura has insightful things to say about the role of chosen moral values in shaping how people act.  However, despite that implicit individualism, parts of his section on man as a moral agent come from an ethical position that gives equal weight to individual and collective moral standards.  That perspective is also reflected in Bandura’s use of terminology (e.g. “biopsychosocial, ” “social cognitive theory”) that represent confusing package-deals of individualism and collectivism.  The package lumps together 1) biologically important aspects of each individual man in his control over his environment with 2)  man’s psychology (on this view) as a “social” agent.

This flaw aside, the article’s major contribution is to identify the actual psychological and brain processes involved in a person being an “agent,” that is exercising choice.  Removing the determinist and mystical aspects entirely, Bandura and those psychologists he cites are asking serious questions about the role of processes and mechanisms that accompany and are activated by choice.  This is neuroscience as it could and should be.

  1. Bandura, A. (2008). The reconstrual of “free will” from the agentic perspective of social cognitive theory. In J. Baer, J. C. Kaufman & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are we free? Psychology and free will (pp. 86-127). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Diamond, M. C. (1988). Enriching Heredity. New York: The Free Press.

4 comments to A good article on free will

  • ArkoOwl

    “However, despite that implicit individualism, parts of his section on man as a moral agent come from an ethical position that gives equal weight to individual and collective moral standards. That perspective is also reflected in Bandura’s use of terminology (e.g. “biopsychosocial, ” “social cognitive theory”) that represent confusing package-deals of individualism and collectivism. The package lumps together 1) biologically important aspects of each individual man in his control over his environment with 2) man’s psychology (on this view) as a “social” agent.”

    Could you elaborate on what you mean by this ‘package deal’? It’s not immediately clear what your issue with those terms or his positions are.

  • icouldanddid

    I mean that the source of morality is not social, not the group, but the needs of a rational, living individual. A group is nothing more than a collection of individuals and, as such, derives its moral code from the requirements of that individual. Terms that combine the group and the individual into one concept (like “social” “cognitive”) are a package of two disparate units. Such a concept is therefore not valid – confusing at best and potentially destructive in implying that the group’s “morality” might supersede the morality of the rational individual.

    • So the question is then: Can you living alone on an otherwise uninhabited island understand your own morality? Some people think they can, but that’s only because they are currently living in a society and have grasped the concept of morality socially.

  • icouldanddid

    Nothing could be more conducive toward developing your own morality than living alone on an uninhabited island. In such a context, one must survive alone, without anyone else in society bailing one out to give a false impression of the consequences of your actions. If a human being should somehow make it beyond infancy or early childhood on such an island, he would be confronted with the daily task of providing for his needs. That monumental task would require him to develop the first principle of a rational morality: focus on reality (identify facts, eschew self-pity and self-deception about the world around you). He would have to identify what plants or animals would be beneficial to his survival, how to acquire them (pick, plant, hunt, trap, kill), and how to prepare them. He would have to identify how to shelter himself from the elements and from wildlife, how to stay warm in a cold climate or cool in the baking sun. All of these tasks would require an unremitting commitment to reality and the methods of a rational being, an intransigent adherence to the highest moral virtues: focus, think, reason.

    In society, a person is exposed to the existing moral theories, but the responsibility of adhering to the above virtues is no less critical. Obtaining one’s moral code from the social milieu, without individual thought or criticism, has been responsible for the worst moral crimes: Consider an unthinking Southerner during the time of slavery in the United States. Or consider an unthinking German during the Third Reich. I am not arguing that each person is capable of developing a fully worked out moral code. What I am arguing is that morality is a responsibility and an attribute of the individual. Even where moral codes already exist, thinking critically allows the individual to choose between racism and the Declaration of Independence, between Nazism and individual rights. If the right alternative in morality doesn’t exist, the individual mind affords one the ability to reject what one knows to be irrational, to keep searching, and to develop a morality of one’s own to live by (rudimentary as it may be).

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