Steven Pinker on Free Will

Question: What is free will?

Steven Pinker: I don’t believe there’s such a thing as free will in the sense of a ghost and a machine, a spirit or a soul that somehow reads the TV screen of the senses and pushes buttons and pulls the levers of behavior. There’s no sense that we can make of that. I think we are . . . Our behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain. On the other hand, when you have a brain that consists of one hundred billion neurons connected by one hundred trillion synopses, there is a vast amount of complexity. That means that human choices will not be predictable in any simple way from the stimuli that I’ve hinged on beforehand. We also know that that brain is set up so that there are at least two kinds of behavior. There’s what happens when I shine a light in your eye and your iris contracts, or I hit your knee with a hammer and your leg jerks upward. We also know that there’s a part of the brain that does things like choose what to have for dinner; whether to order chocolate or vanilla ice cream; how to move the next chess people; whether to pick up the paper or put it down. That is very different from your iris closing when I shine a light in your eye. It’s that second kind of behavior – one that engages vast amounts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes, that incorporates an enormous amount of information in the causation of the behavior that has some mental model of the world that can predict the consequences of possible behavior and select them on the basis of those consequences. All of those things carve out the realm of behavior that we call free will, which is useful to distinguish from brute involuntary reflexes, but which doesn’t necessarily have to involve some mysterious soul.

There's no such thing as free will in the sense of a ghost in the machine; our behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain rather than some mysterious soul, says Pinker.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Is it "perverseness," the "death drive," or something else?

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

Keep reading Show less

Physicists puzzled by strange numbers that could explain reality

Eight-dimensional octonions may hold the clues to solve fundamental mysteries.

Surprising Science
  • Physicists discover complex numbers called octonions that work in 8 dimensions.
  • The numbers have been found linked to fundamental forces of reality.
  • Understanding octonions can lead to a new model of physics.
Keep reading Show less

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.

Think Again Podcasts
  • It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
Keep reading Show less