What is free will, really? Steven Pinker explains.

The processes behind our ability to make decisions are complex, but they're not miracles.

STEVEN PINKER: I do believe that there is such a thing as free will but by that I do not mean that there is some process that defies the laws of physical cause and effect. As my colleague Joshua Greene once put it, it is not the case that every time you make a decision a miracle occurs. So I don't believe that. I believe that decisions are made by neurophysiological processes in the brain that respect all the laws of physics. On the other hand it is true that when I decide what to say next when I pick an item from a menu for dinner it's not the same as when the doctor hits my kneecap with a hammer and my knee jerks. It's just a different physiological process and one of them we use the word free will to characterize the more deliberative, slower, more complex process by which behavior is selected in the brain.

That process involves the aggregation of many diverse kinds of information – our memory, our goals, our current environment, our expectation of how other people will judge that action. Those are all information streams that affect that process. It's not completely predictable in that there may be random or chaotic or nonlinear effects that mean that even if you put the same person in the same circumstance multiple times they won't make the same choice every time. Identical twins who have almost identical upbringings, put them in the same chair, face them with the same choices. They may choose differently. Again, that's not a miracle. That doesn't mean that there is some ghost in the machine that is somehow pushing the neural impulses around. But it just means that the brain like other complex systems is subject to some degree of unpredictability. At the same time free will wouldn't be worth having and certainly wouldn't' be worth extolling in world discussions if it didn't respond to expectations of reward, punishment, praise, blame.

When we say that someone – we're punishing or rewarding someone based on what they chose to do we do that in the hope that that person and other people who hear about what happens will factor in how their choices will be treated by others and therefore there'll be more likely to do good things and less likely to do bad things in the expectation that if they choose beneficial actions better things will happen to them. So paradoxically one of the reasons that we want free will to exist is that it be determined by the consequences of those choices. And on average it does. People do obey the laws more often than not. They do things that curry favor more often than they bring proprium on their heads but not with 100 percent predictability. So that process is what we call free will. It's different from many of the more reflexive and predictable behaviors that we can admit but it does not involve a miracle.

  • Free will exists, but by no means is it a miracle.
  • We use "free will" to describe the more complex processes by which behavior is selected in the brain. These neurological steps taken to make decisions respect all laws of physics.
  • "Free will wouldn't be worth having or extolling, in moral discussions, if it didn't respond to expectations of reward, punishment, praise, blame," Pinker says.

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Matthew Yglesias and moderator Charles Duhigg explore the idea on Big Think Live.

Big Think LIVE

Is immigration key to bolstering the American economy? Could having one billion Americans secure the US's position as the global superpower?

Keep reading Show less

Think everyone died young in ancient societies? Think again

In fact, the maximum human lifespan has barely changed since we arrived.

Photo by Juliet Furst on Unsplash
Surprising Science

You might have seen the cartoon: two cavemen sitting outside their cave knapping stone tools. One says to the other: 'Something's just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past 30.'

Keep reading Show less

Why social media has changed the world — and how to fix it

MIT Professor Sinan Aral's new book, "The Hype Machine," explores the perils and promise of social media in a time of discord.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for Somerset House
Technology & Innovation

Are you on social media a lot? When is the last time you checked Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram? Last night? Before breakfast? Five minutes ago?

Keep reading Show less

Mystery anomaly weakens Earth's magnetic field, report scientists

A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.

ESA
Surprising Science
  • "The South Atlantic Anomaly" in the Earth's magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
  • The information was gathered by the ESA's Swarm Constellation mission satellites.
  • The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
Keep reading Show less

Mars pole may be hiding salty lakes and life, find researchers

Researchers detect a large lake and several ponds deep under the ice of the Martian South Pole.

Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Italian scientists release findings of a large underground lake and three ponds below the South Pole of Mars.
  • The lake might contain water, with salt preventing them from freezing.
  • The presence of water may indicate the existence of microbial and other life forms on the planet.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast