Free will, facticity and their (not-so) surprising consequences


Most of us tend to take our world and its inhabitants for granted and we tend not to put a lot of thought into what is what. For example, while growing up as a child, as soon as we become aware of the world and our surroundings, we are told that people are either good or bad. In our adolescence, our categories become a little more well defined. Depending on our inclination (and here’s the key, as you will see later) we may either regard children who do well at studies as good kids, or we may instead idolize cool kids who bunk classes and have fun all the time. So early in our life, what makes us fall into one group and not the other?

this way, that way

Growing still more, we may happen to find ourselves good at a specific activity. Some can tell extremely funny jokes, others can play piano, some excel at tennis, while others may score fantastic grades and secure admission at a top-notch university. Fast-forward a few years, and we stumble across something called career. Then it suddenly dawns to us that people we grew up with would end up with so much different lives and careers. How did this happen?

If you are an investment banker earning a million dollars a year while your kindergarten buddy is now a carpenter, should you feel pride? Or should you feel wonderment about what’s so special about you that you deserve making a million bucks? Wait, do you really deserve it?

What is facticity?

Quoting Wikipedia’s article on facticity:

In the works of Sartre and de Beauvoir, facticity signifies all of the concrete details against the background of which human freedom exists and is limited.

And here’s an alternative definition:

Heidegger discusses facticity as the thrownness (Geworfenheit) of individual existence, which is to say we are “thrown into the world.”

The way I like to see facticity is the influence our world exerts on us without our consent. There are multiple ways to analyze this effect. An obvious one is congenital or genetic influences and disorders. For example, if a person happens to have born blind, that condition is a fact and it is something he hasn’t chosen for himself. He just happened to find himself blind. What this also means is that people with normal vision should not feel superior or pride over blind people (but of course feel extremely lucky) because normal vision at birth is not something they have chosen. They were simply given this trait. The same goes for other attributes of body like beauty or fairness. As a beautiful person, one may get privileged treatment at work or in society (thank you, evolution!), but it would be a silly mistake to think you deserve all that. Or even worse, the assumption that other mediocre looking (and hideous) people are inferior in some sense. They’re not since they happened to find themselves with a particular face.

Unexpected meeting

Facticity goes even further than mere influences at birth. Do you remember how you become friends with that particular person you call now your best friend? Chances are that you just happened to sit with him or her on your first day at school or college. You didn’t survey all the people in your class or college or locality before zeroing into your best friend. As they say, it just happened. Again, there’s nothing to be proud about having that particular person as your best friend.

Influence of genetics

Intelligence, personality, predisposition to commit murder, love for a particular genre in art and literature and (heck!) even preferences for financial investment schemes have been demonstrated to have genetic influences. The field of behavioral genetics is littered with examples of how much influence our genes exert on our behavior. And fortunately (or unfortunately) our genes is not something we choose — we just happen to find ourselves with a particular set of genes.

Genetics

This of course does not mean that genes dictate our behavior. Genes merely predispose us to certain types of behavior. How we eventually turn out is a curious mix of our genetic predispositions and facticity (influence of independent events happening around us).

What all does this have to do with free will?

Given who we are is solely determined by our genetic predispositions and our historic interaction with the environment we happened to find ourselves in, we must admit that free will as we know it does not exist. Sam Harris has written an excellent book justifying my stance (it is just 96 pages, so go read it!), but allow me to put forward a simple scenario showing why I agree with him.

Let’s imagine you are given a very simple choice:

There are two pills that taste the same but differ in color. One is red colored, and the other one is blue colored. You can only pick one candy, which one would you pick?

Not exactly candies, but whatever!

OK, so my question is just another way of asking what’s your favorite color but it is nevertheless an important question on the subject of free will. Imagine you pick the red candy and I ask you why did you pick the red candy. Here are all possible responses you could give:

  • I just picked a color at random, and it happened to be red
  • I like red color (or alternatively, I hate blue color)

There are two levels of apparent free will here. First you decided whether you will choose to prefer one color over the other. If so, you decided which color you prefer. The first choice between picking at random v/s picking preferred color really depends on whether you have a preferred color or not.

If you never cared about colors, that could be due to several reasons:

  • You are blind, or
  • You are red-blue color blind, or
  • You genuinely don’t care about colors or your preferences of them

The first two cases are easily explained and it is obvious how physical conditions limit the exercise of free will. But the third case of indifference is interesting. Why would anyone be indifferent towards colors? The same question is actually applicable to choice of a particular color: What is the basis of choosing any color at random v/s choosing red v/s choosing blue?

xkcd-pill

There could be several answers to this question:

  • I like blue color because it soothes and pleases me. This effect is not something you have chosen, the blue color just happens to create a calming effect for you, and that’s that. If you can calm yourself by free will, why do you need blue color? There may be a genetic predisposition for you to like blue color.
  • I like red color because I like sunsets or my whole neighborhood is full of red buildings and I have caught fancy of the color. . Again, this effect is not something you have chosen by free will, rather you happen to live in an environment which led to you to like red color. (There is definitely a genetic predisposition here too)
  • I just don’t care about the color because I’m depressed and this trivial exercise interests me the least. The mental state of mind is not something you choose. If you are depressed, you are depressed because of factors outside your control (genetic and environmental). Again no free will here.

If the only difficult answer to tackle seems to be I chose XYZ because I like it and I’m free to exercise my free will. If you think carefully, this answer is superficial. When asked to justify the choice, the buck stops at irrational preferences. No matter how vacuous, I-just-like-this answer does seem to hint at presence of free will. But science disagrees with this viewpoint. Assuming the I here is the I you feel conscious about, research shows that our brain makes a decision hundreds of milliseconds before we become conscious of it. Our brain then plays a neat trick of convincing us that it was a decision made out of free will. (Why it creates that illusion is probably due to evolutionary survival reasons, or it is a result of evolution of consciousness).

The famous Libet experiment

scumbag-brain

Benjamin Libet did the pioneering experiment in this field (neuroscience of free will) where “he asked each subject to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he measured the associated activity in their brain”. And what Libet found was that “the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his or her wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that she had decided to move.” What this means is simple: even though we feel we have made a decision out of free will, it has already been made on our behalf by our brain.

Important conclusion: free will is nothing but an illusion.

But does this mean our lives are pre-determined?

No. Even though free will does not exist, people, ideas and thoughts do exist and change our lives in a very real sense. Due to involvement of seemingly infinite variables in our environment, our future is largely un deterministic. (At atomic level, I don’t know if universe is deterministic or not, but at human level it definitely is not). I have previously blogged about this in my post titled Luck, Randomness and Success. However , recently I have realized there’s a nice metaphor about how I think about our lives and choices we make. Here is how it goes:

I like to see everyone’s life as a unique trajectory in the space-time. When a person is born, he or she is put on a unique trajectory (because of his or her unique genetic, economic, societal and cultural conditions). Unknown to the person, every passing second, his or her trajectory is changed every time s/he encounters a new person or an idea. He or she changes other people’s trajectories by his/her thoughts and actions, and other people change his/her trajectories by their actions. It’s a complex interaction that makes lives non-deterministic, but without involvement of any sort of free will. Some trajectories are pleasing (an individual is happy, moral, etc.), some trajectories are not pleasing (unhappy, poor, criminal) but since nobody chooses a particular trajectory, nobody should be appreciated or blamed for having a particular trajectory in life.

calvin-fatalism

This very post is trying to change your trajectory in life and I cannot claim to have written the post out of free will. I happened to have read books on science, then neuroscience, then philosophy and I happened to have a father who is interested in all this and probably passed his “rationalism-preference” genes and has definitely passed his books to me. One thing led to the other and I happened to hold these particular set of beliefs on free will. Most importantly, I happened to find a block of time on a very fine Sunday evening to write about it and was not in a mood to watch a movie or TV. It just happened, but that’s not to say the idea of free will not existing is not potent. The idea has real power to change your views and ideas. That’s how potent it is, and that’s why I’m writing about it.

Consequences of (lack of) free will and facticity

If we accept lack of free will, we must stop (serious) attribution of consequences of actions to individual people. Yes, that is a radical statement but that is what it is if we accept the obvious conclusions. While doing a certain act, if the person couldn’t have done any different, why would you attribute any consequences of that act to him or her? I’m all game for spreading happiness and pleasure in the world, but when it comes to punishing, berating, or generally bad-mouthing particular people or particular types of people, we must remember that the physical or emotional pain is felt by an individual who happens to be like that and there’s nothing they could have done about it. Pain is felt for real, and it hurts.

dilbert-free-will

The lack of free will also brings about other interesting consequences:

  • The word pride or achievement is vacuous, and should perhaps not be used. If you happen to be an investment banker earning a million dollars annually and you feel you deserve it because you were born in a poor family and even then you paid yourself throughout college by waiting tables, you must remember that it is because of the unique trajectory you happened to find yourself on. Maybe you decided to enter the university because your neighborhood kid made it to a good college despite similar economic background? And then maybe your rational decision to mimic that neighborhood kid is due to your previous experiences of mimicking the right things and achieving rewards? I can go on and on and on ad infinitum but the key point is that you shouldn’t feel proud. In hindsight, you couldn’t have done otherwise.
  • Attack ideas not individuals. A common mistake that atheists make is that they criticize religious people. Remember that there’s no point attributing choice of religion or adoption of God to a person. Rather, our aim should be to expose religious people to rational ideas that prove there is no God. Why criticize religious fundamentalists? Attack their ideas instead.
  • Capital punishment, really? As I hinted above, any sort of punishment to an individual is wrong. The pain felt by that individual is real and it’s terrible especially when the individual couldn’t have committed a crime out of free will (because it does not exist). If a murderer does it due to lack of morals or due to economic pressures, it is not his or her fault. And if an individual does crime for pleasure or if his/her brain is wired that way, again that is not something he has chosen. I do see the point of punishment as an idea that deflects people from trajectories of crime, but the pain accompanied with punishment of any sort by society or state to an individual is simply cruel. There must be better ideas of fixing crime. Maybe create a moral society, cure mental disorders or just have a better economy?

Summary

calvin-free-will

Free will does not exist and if there’s a summary to the whole post, it is this: do not attribute consequences of actions to an individual, but by all means attribute them to ideas and thoughts because they influence individuals.

Edit: corrected the spelling of facticity. Thanks Hacker News.

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18 Responses to “Free will, facticity and their (not-so) surprising consequences”

  1. Nihar Sawant
    15. October 2012 at 22:07

    Parasji Aap Dude hai!

    After long time I have seen your post which does not involve VWO.

    I like the way you have connected lack of free will to events, actions and beliefs take place in life. I used to think that there is an invisible network of subconscious minds of all living things which is responsible for people we met, events which take around us. Routing in that network is done by purely our actions and thoughts. But I always felt skeptical about it. Concept of unique trajectory which you have recommended here is exact answer I was seeking.

    It would be nice if you put a separate section in this post about references (which usually Paul Graham does on his essays) I would love to go through them.

    Really nice post, made my day. I’m not fan of Nihilism (nor I have read much about it) but I’m looking forward at your book.

  2. Abhimanyu
    15. October 2012 at 22:23

    Great post.

    What really clarified the lack of free will for me was Dawkins’ concept of humans as survival machines for genes (in The Selfish Gene).

    I hadn’t given much thought to faciticity till now. Thanks for writing about that. One quote that partly relates to faciticity:

    “I have encountered many branches in the maze of life’s path, where I have followed now the left fork, now the right… In describing my life as mazelike, I do not mean that I have a large number of deliberate, wrenching decisions to go off in one direction or another. On the contrary, I have made very few. Obvious responses to opportunities and circumstances, rather than studied decisions, have put me on the particular roads I have followed.” – Herb Simon

  3. Paras Chopra
    15. October 2012 at 23:36

    @Nihar: excellent suggestion about having references. I will make sure I compile them next time onwards. I have lot to write about!

    @Abhimanyu: great quote!

  4. Dan
    16. October 2012 at 00:33

    The root cause of all events regresses infinitely. Life seems impossible… yet here we are. Good post!

  5. Alex | Perfecting Dad
    16. October 2012 at 02:44

    Very well written, and interesting. I too find it less and less easy to judge others as I get older and realize that much of our circumstances arise from chance and that precious little is actually controlled by us. The religions seem to have this figured out, either putting humans into a place where they as individuals don’t matter much, or are totally the products of another.

    I do have one interesting observation that comes from a loosey paradox called the surprise test. Teacher says there is a test next week, but he won’t reveal the day to make it a surprise. Students have to decide when to study so they pass. Student figures it can’t be on Friday because by Thursday, if the test hadn’t happened, they would know to study Thursday night for the forced test on Friday. But by the same logic, it can’t be on Thursday either, but then it can’t be on Wednesday, nor Tuesday, and therefore not Monday either. The student is confident that a surprise test is impossible until Tuesday comes along and he’s surprised to be faced with a test he’ll fail.

    To me, that type of paradox sounds like the “no free will” concept. We prove a bunch of things solidly, yet somehow in the end I think something in the proof must be leaky because, much like the exam impossibly surprises, I think I have free will even though I shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s the definition of free will. Perhaps when we think about free will, we get it.

    I know we have a lot less free will than many believe, proved by marketers and scammers who can manipulate people’s minds quite easily to generate “needs”. We can also understand that we can create people, by controlling their environment from birth. Hard to know why I think we have free will yet it seems like we don’t. Definitely worth thinking about.

  6. Alec
    16. October 2012 at 06:59

    I definitely agree with you that “free will” does not exist. However, I’m not sure how you come to the conclusion that life is not deterministic. Perhaps from a certain perspective life is not deterministic (namely as we’re living it), but the fact that we can see causes for actions and causes for someone following a certain path reveals that life is indeed deterministic. This may just be a semantics argument though.

    I also disagree that the concept of “free will” is dispensable as you suggest. At the end of the day, the fact that it is an illusion has little bearing on how we will act because it is way too good of an illusion. I think about “free will” the same way I think about our concept of the “self” which I believe is also an illusion (but perhaps a discussion for another day).

    All divergent beliefs aside, great post! I love to see stuff like this being featured on HN!

  7. Paras Chopra
    16. October 2012 at 12:35

    @Alex: the surprise test is a fantastic analogy. I’m usually saddened when people attribute malice to other people who may not have a free choice of not acting malicious. But the acquisition of malice to a particular individual affects his self that wasn’t even consulted during his or her malicious planning.

    @Alec: if you accept that free will is an illusion (which I do), on a macro level it directly follows that our lives seem to be non-deterministic. On atomic level, we may say X -> Y but given the number of variables we have on a human level, we (including our brain) does seem to be non-deterministic. For example, the same case of choosing between red or blue pill. Even if it is your brain that makes the decision, still it appears that it can make the decision either way and practically it may be incredibly hard to compute what it is going to decide. All I am saying is that non-determinism of life is real on a very practical, macro level even if on atomic level we may be behaving deterministically. I guess I need to read more, but that’s what my initial thoughts are.

  8. Alex | Perfecting Dad
    16. October 2012 at 19:23

    @Paras, @Alec: Perhaps what Paras means is that lives are chaotic, that is they are deterministic but unpredictable because we lack the means to capture enough information.

  9. Alec
    16. October 2012 at 22:43

    @Paras, @Alex: I think we’re all agreeing here. I’m saying that life is truly deterministic, however, free will is such an incredible illusion that no matter how hard we try, we are unable to see it that way.

  10. Alex | Perfecting Dad
    16. October 2012 at 23:08

    I’m not sure that a deterministic life means no free will. Just because you can choose multiple outcomes does not mean that you should or will choose any of them. Ultimately there is only one that is chosen. I can imagine lots of situations under free will where a situation would evolve the same. For example, why, under both a free will and no free will assumption, would I not turn a door knob to get into a room? What exactly is free will? The ability to head-butt the door in that situation?

    As well, if the future can be predicted, then actions today should be rewarded or punished if that helps people predict and take better actions tomorrow. Pride, achievement, and punishment may therefore be useful in creating a future world that is better in some way. Even under a no-free-will assumption, these concepts are not necessarily useless.

    I think this is an awesome subject, but not so easy to conclude about.

  11. Paras Chopra
    16. October 2012 at 23:40

    @Alec, @Alex: there’s a fantastic Youtube video where philosopher Daniel Dennet speaks about evitability and free will. Very relevant to this discussion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utai74HjPJE

  12. Arslan Farooq
    18. October 2012 at 18:38

    You talked a lot about the brain and came to a conclusion.

    I think your conclusion is flawed. It’s flawed because you forgot to take into account one piece of the puzzle – the heart.

    You are familiar with the quote: “The heart has reasons that reason does not understand.”?

    Maybe someday you will be able to change your views about God and religion and free will. Because I think you cannot understand free will without understanding the heart.

  13. Sandeep
    28. October 2012 at 16:45

    Good post Paras! You’ve explained the concept of free will (or the lack of it) quite well, along with the examples and citations. Keep writing.

    I’d like you to consider a hypothetical situation. Suppose in the “Red pill-Blue pill” experiment, a person likes blue color and wants to pick up the Blue pill, but instead, he picks up the red one. That is, he went against his own natural inclination. Why did he took such a decision? Or a more generic case, what prompts people (like saints, hermits) to renunciate particular thoughts, feelings or material possessions. If it’s not their free will, then what it is? I’d like you to throw some light here.

  14. Paras Chopra
    28. October 2012 at 23:46

    Sandeep, thanks for commenting. You make a good point, but it’s actually two different points. The first point is about acting randomly, choosing any pill. As I explained in the post, even the decision to act randomly is like any other decision (of choosing a particular pill). The same is the case with renunciation of worldly deeds. The monks and saints get exposed to this idea somehow and somewhere and given their inclinations, they happen to choose the particular path. I’m sure there would be many others who are exposed to same ideas, but because their trajectory has been different, they don’t choose to renunciate. Again, I use the word “choose” liberally, but it isn’t a choice in strictest sense.

  15. Samhan
    4. November 2012 at 19:09

    I am very happy that I found this blog . Your interests seem so similar to mine . Poetry , Philosophy , Programming . Looking forward to better posts from you .

    I have only one grouse with you . You didnt touch upon the fact that the very definition of free will is controversial . Ie. there are two versions of free will . The compatibilist approach says that determinism and free will are not mutually exclusive . The incompatibilists refuse to accept this . Immanuel Kant had this to say :
    Kant’s argument turns on the view that, while all empirical phenomena must result from determining causes, human thought introduces something seemingly not found elsewhere in nature – the ability to conceive of the world in terms of how it ought to be, or how it might otherwise be. For Kant, subjective reasoning is necessarily distinct to how the world is empirically. Because of its capacity to distinguish is from ought, reasoning can ‘spontaneously’ originate new events without being itself determined by what already exists.[8] It is on this basis that Kant argues against a version of compatibilism whereby, e.g., the actions of the criminal should be comprehended as a blend of determining forces and choice thereby misusing the word ‘free’.

    Eventually free will and determinism end up being intertwined in complex arguments where the whole thing becomes circular .
    I do believe that this is one of the questions that can never be settled once and for all.
    Maybe you should do a post on consciousness :-) ….

  16. Paras Chopra
    5. November 2012 at 00:04

    @Samhan: Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I’m glad you liked the blog. If I were to follow a logical conclusion from my stand on free will, I’d think incompatibilism is the school of thought I find myself leaning towards. But as I clarified earlier, on a macro, human-level our universe doesn’t _seem_ to be deterministic and that is what sustains the illusion of free will. Why do you think it cannot be settled? Consciousness is a big, hairy topic but that’s what makes it so exciting!

  17. Samhan
    5. November 2012 at 22:47

    Right now the science is stacked against free will . I dont think you believe in dualism then you will have to accept that the brain is governed by Physical laws . Quantum mechanics can at best give you “random will” which is even worse so lets forget about that . It’ll take a lot to explain how single neurons having no free will can all somehow act together to produce this mysterious free will . All this philosophical mess is because of being unsatisfied with this prognosis so trying to have the metaphysical cake and eating it at the same time .

  18. Samhan
    5. November 2012 at 22:53

    Heres a brilliant computer sciency explanation I know you ‘ll love :

    http://www.scottaaronson.com/democritus/lec18.html

    The thing I like is the pragmatism here .

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