As free as we can. Un lucido report

lunedì, maggio 9, 2011

Pubblico con molto piacere questo breve ma lucido report di una giovanissima promettente studiosa, Francesca Gaino, che si appresta all’ultimo anno del Liceo delle Scienze Umane dopo un soggiorno di studio di un anno negli Stati Uniti. As free as we can. Liberi sì ma quanto e come possiamo, mi sembra francamente una semplice fomula che coglie la complessa, a tratti aporetica, esperienza della libertà, ma anche la difficoltà di valutare scientificamente questo evidente carattere fenomenologico dell’esperienza umana. Proprio per questa ragione di fondo ho trovato molto stimolanti e necessari alcuni accostamenti fra prospettive teoriche diverse e anche lontane nel tempo come ad esempio quella francescana, di Duns Scoto con i recenti approcci neurobiologici. L’impossibilità sostanziale di sottrarre completamente la comprensione filosofica del libero arbitrio agli approcci causalistici, neurobiologici e in parte anche fisicalistici appare evidente dalle sempre profonde e così lucidissime considerazioni di Thomas Nagel che riconosce la necessità di postulare per la libertà un tipo di causalità particolare, psicologica, che alcuni hanno anche denominato causalità dell’agente. Le posizioni rigidamente deterministiche così come quelle indeterministiche ci impediscono di rappresentare positivamente l’esperienza della libertà umana come un gesto determinato da qualcuno e non da qualcosa. E dall’altro lato se nulla determina l’azione libera come potrei averla determinata io? Se il determinismo è vero sono responsabili solo le catene delle circostanze e stati antecedenti, se il determinismo è falso, nulla è responsabile, e questo è un vicolo cieco. L’ipotesi di un’azione libera non richiede dunque che non vi sia affatto alcuna causa determinante ma piuttosto implica più debolmente la ricerca di una via intermedia, di una soluzione di compromesso, di un’estensione, modificazione e ampliamento della causalità fisica, modificazione che rifletta la natura psicofisica dell’umano e dove la causa sia evidentemente di un tipo psicologico. In realtà, non sarebbe per nulla chiaro che cosa possa significare che io determino la scelta, se di fatto nulla di quello che mi riguarda ai vari livelli di complessità  neurobiologica del mio essere persona umana la determina.


by Francesca Gaino

Are we really free? Is freedom just an illusion? How can we be sure? Those are questions that philosophers have been asking themselves for a long time, but in recent years, scientists and neurobiologists started approaching the issue with new methods and instruments.

All experts agree that, in order to talk about freedom it is necessary to clarify the dilemma that lies inside all of us: determinism (the assumption that all events can in principle be accounted for by taking recourse to earlier events and appropriate laws of succession1) versus free will. According to John R. Searle, we all think that the explanation for all natural phenomena have to be deterministic, but, when explaining human actions, the fact that we are acting “voluntarily” makes us unable to use deterministic explanations. We all experience the sense of freedom, but we don’t know how to explain it, because we tend to think that every single event has a deterministic reason or cause behind it. It is really hard for us to give up the idea of determinism because all natural events can be referred to a sufficient cause, meaning that that cause was sufficient to make that event happen; but, at the same time, if we adopt a deterministic concept of disposition, the prospect for authentic freedom looks dark2. All modern studies on free will start considering this dilemma to try and formulate a satisfactory theory.

Stating that: “Empirical findings of contemporary neuroscience suggest that human behavior is caused entirely by neurobiological mechanisms,” Guus Labooy introduces us to the relatively old theory of compatibilism, which points out that freedom is compatible with the determinism of our system and that the meaning of freedom is related to the experience of success, or the absence of constraint. This theory leaves many gaps and question unanswered, and it is not satisfying because it doesn’t present us with a common sense understanding of freedom. In other words, for compatibilism we are free not when our actions seem not to be determined by sufficient causes, but when they are “socially successful acts” or “free from constraint”, independently from the fact that those actions can still be inevitably and deterministically determined by our nervous system.

A more interesting theory comes to us from the Franciscan tradition. According to this theory, reviewed and further elaborated by Duns Scotus later in time, there are two types of freedom: a “formal” one and a “material” one. In the Franciscan tradition freedom is seen as an important characteristic of human species; formal freedom is the freedom of willing and not willing, and it doesn’t matter if we are able to realize our will or not, in fact only with material freedom the question arises of whether we are also able to effectuate the volition3. Formal freedom is necessary and has no limits; we cannot lose it, while material freedom is limited by neurobiologically prompted mental limitations, but what, I think, is the most important point of this theory is that the limitations of the material freedom don’t affect the formal one. Limitations to our actions are not limitations to our will: not everything that we want can be effectuated, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t at least desire it. Mental and neurobiological constraints are not constraints of the will; so our mind cannot limit our formal freedom, but can make us experience a lack of material freedom in particular situations, for we are conscious that we are not able to get anything we want at any time. The determinism of our minds and neural processes (material freedom) goes along with our nondeterministic volition, or formal freedom, made of dispositions and desires. Scotus states that: “A state of affairs is possible if it could also, synchronically not have obtained.” Talking about “synchronism”, G. Labooy tells us his opinion about the inexistence of determinism, for every event (also natural ones) is contingent: there is a cause (a reason) for that event to happen, but the relation between the two (an event and its cause) could have been different (synchronical). In other words, there are causes that are sufficient for events to happened, but those causes could have been equally sufficient to produce another event. This theory is interesting and has potential but should be developed more and proved empirically.

When Stanley Klein is asked how we can have a deterministic system that obeys laws and still has freedom, he explains how quantum mechanics, being a dualistic theory, allows it. Quantum mechanics is always split between observer and observed; so, for the problem of free will, you have to appoint an observer first: anyone could be the observer; if you are the observer, then I am part of the rest of the world, you have free will but I have not. You are free because you are the observer, so you make the rules, and your experience of freedom is not just an illusion, but is becomes real. I am not free because you can’t tell if I am experiencing freedom or not. It is just a matter of perspective: in quantum mechanics the observer stands outside of the system, so he can be free, while in the normal physics, where everyone is a machine and there is no point of view, this is not possible. This theory is extremely egoistical, but it helps us solve the problem of free will in a sense, and it satisfies our need of coherence. Another theory that explains the problem of free will using the first person point of view is phenomenology, which tries to describe the experience of a subject through his own eyes.

There are two ways in which we experience freedom: one is experience and the other is language4; because of this we are convinced of the existence of freedom, we think it is our right to be free. Even biologists that don’t believe in free will think that this “illusion” is useful for the survival of the human species and that it has been a sort of protection for us. Carlo Conni points out that, as it is true that we cannot escape our experience of freedom, saying that freedom is just an illusion is wrong because we cannot demonstrate (using our experience) that freedom is actually an illusion. Free will is based on our experiences: if we didn’t experience freedom, then it wouldn’t be a problem at all and no one would talk about it, even if someone could argue that the fact that we don’t experience freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t exist. But how would we study something like that? It’s hard to believe in something we don’t see and experience, as well as it hard not to believe in what we experience. I think that the most crucial point on the issue of free will is the fact that we all experience it, but we can’t find a way to explain it in a satisfying way. Freedom played an important role  in human evolution too; responsibility, in fact, one of the most unique characteristics of the human species, comes from freedom: the freedom to take actions and not to take actions in order for an event to happen or not happen. Even if we think that our experience of freedom is valid because we feel free inside ourselves, nowadays, with all the influence coming from mass medias and the outside world, we may think that, after all, we are not so free, but the truth is that if we can be influenced, that means we are free, that there is something in our minds that allows us to be free, that there is something else, beside our neurobiological processes that conditions or helps us make decisions and gives us a way to be free and to experience it. All scientists, even the ones that don’t believe in free will, agree that the experience of freedom is important to us. Kant takes this concept even further, and explains how, without freedom, our actions wouldn’t make sense.

In “Freedom and Neurobiology” John R. Searle states that there is a “gap” between reasons and decision and between decisions and actions. Without a conscious experience of this gap, free will couldn’t be taken into consideration. Searle reminds us how we think that everything could be explained in a deterministic way, but when it comes to freedom we don’t understand the causes before an action to be sufficient to cause that action and no others; we think that the reasons on which we base our decisions are not enough to make us do a certain action, we believe that we could have chosen to something different in that very situation, independently from what we think we should or we shouldn’t do. In other words, free will exists only if we assume that some actions are not caused in a deterministic way. When we explain the process of making a decision in a sentence, we refer to the reason that we used to make that decision, and we all assume, or at least we believe, that that reason wasn’t sufficient to make us take that decision. It is not “A has caused B”, but, as Searle explains, it is “S (a subject) performs A (an action) due to or basing on R (a reason)”: this is the linguistical access to freedom; but to understand this statement, we need to assume that a person –an ego: a conscious and subjective, and therefore irreducible, entity- is making the decision. If freedom exists, Searle believes that it should also exists at a neurobiological level, so, in this case, that means that we should be able to find a “gap” also at a neural level.

Dirk Hartmann in his “Neurophysiology and Freedom of the Will” presents us a few experiments. In Benjamin Libet’s experiment, a series of subjects were instructed to make a “spontaneous, willful decision” to bend a finger or wrist at any time they wanted; they could also decide not to act at all. After the experiment, it turned out that the reported time by the subjects for their decision always comes after (about 150ms) the time when the readiness potential kicked in. Libet emphasizes how the subjects still have time to stop the carrying out of the action at the time they experience the intention to do that action. Does that mean we are free? Are those 150ms the “gap” that Searle was talking about? Interpretations of this experiment are controversial.

In an experiment that could be described as an improved version of Libet’s, William Grey Walter implanted electrodes in the subjects’ motor cortex and connected them to a carrousel slide projection, so that a readiness potential would trigger the next slide, but the subjects didn’t know that, and were asked to push a button to see the next picture whenever they were ready. What happened was that the picture would change before the subject pushed the button, because the motor cortex activated the projector. The interesting thing is that this happened also when the subjects decided not to press the button at last, because the slide would be advanced before the actual and conscious decision. This experiment shows how the “readiness potential” is not a cause for our actions, but just a necessary condition for the action it precedes.

Are we really free? Is freedom just an illusion? Not all scientists and experts are sure about that, but now we know how the experience of freedom is necessary to all of us and how it is really hard to believe in free will when we are surrounded by a deterministic world. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to prove that freedom is just an illusion, or at least we cannot prove it yet, because a superdetermined world is going to look exactly like ours. There is no way to tell a free world apart from a superdetermined world5. The only thing that we know is we cannot escape our experience of freedom. As Spinoza said, “We think we are free because we know our desires, but we don’t know what caused them.” In a sense, we are free to choose but at the same time we are not free from the choice. So how can we know that our choice is a free one?

I believe in the experience of freedom, and I believe this experience is real, and not just an illusion. Free will is what makes us men and women; “people and free will always go together,” as S. Agostino said. Without freedom, all actions and efforts won’t make sense. We need freedom, and we need to believe we are free, to be who we are. Therefore, even if a few scientists think our will is completely determined by our minds, and not free at all, and some others believe in our experience of freedom, but don’t really know how to explain it; we keep on trying to be as free as we can.


1 Dirk Hartmann Neurophysiology and Freedom of the Will, February 5, 2004, (April 14, 2011).

2 Guus Labooy Freedom and Neurobiology: A Scotistic Account, December 2004, (April 14, 2011).

3 Ibid., p. 2

4 John R. Searle Freedom and Neurobiology (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)

5 Jolsee The Problem of Free Will, November 11, 2000, (April 19, 2011).

Conni, Carlo. “Freedom in Phenomenology and Neurosciences.” Pontenure Lectures, April 2010.

Hartmann, Dirk. “Neurophysiology and Freedom of the Will.” February 5, 2004. (accessed April 14, 2011).

Jolsee. “The Problem of Free Will.” November 11, 2000. (accessed April 19, 2011).

Klein, Stanley, interview by Jill Niemark. Free Will and God in the Quantum World (September 1, 2003).

Labooy, Guus. “Freedom and Neurobiology: A Scotistic Account.” December 2004. (accessed April 14, 2011).

Searle, John R. Freedom and Neurobiology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

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