On Free Will

In his Friday philosophizing today, my friend Barry Ritholtz offers the famous B.F. Skinner claim that free will is an illusion and suggests that Skinner is mostly right.  Indeed, much of the academic world asserts that Skinner is entirely right either by granting his determinism whole hog (because cause and effect are relentless via biological or genetic determinism) or by calling determinism “freedom” — so-called compatibilism. To the compatibilist, “freedom” doesn’t mean we could do otherwise, it merely means we weren’t coerced.  It’s odd to consider, but this view is pretty much just like Calvin’s view of election and predestination: we’re free to choose God but will never do so if left to our own devices.


If determinism is true, of course, most of our societal structures are incoherent.  Our theories of justice are predicated upon personal responsibility yet someone doing what s/he is hard-wired to do can hardly be deemed responsible in any meaningful way.  Similarly, the idea that we can earn anything or that we should be rewarded for special skills and accomplishments doesn’t make any sense. Moreover, the whole concept of creativity is meaningless if determinism is true.

Determinism is supported by the pioneering research of the late Benjamin Libet and those following him who showed that “our” brains make decisions for “us” before “we” are aware of them (the quotes reflect the perception we all share of our minds being separate from our brains, a perception that most scientists reject). Libet’s research showed that the brain region involved in coordinating motor activity fired a fraction of a second before test subjects “chose” to push a button. Later studies supported Libet’s theory that subconscious activity precedes and seems to determine conscious choice.  In other words, the idea suggests, we’re merely meat machines — albeit highly sophisticated meat machines — simply doing what we’re programmed to do.  Nothing more. Nothing less. Whatever we do, we could not have done otherwise.  We aren’t free.

I disagree and have an alternate interpretation of the facts.

I would suggest that Libet’s research and the research following it is consistent with Dan Kahneman’s view of two different “systems” operating in our brains, both of which are susceptible to behavioral and cognitive biases. Much of our thinking is fast and intuitive.  We don’t have to think about flinching when somebody takes a swing at us, for example.  This type of thinking Kahneman labels as “System 1.”  But we also use slow “System 2” thinking, thinking that involves deliberation and the monitoring of System 1. This thinking requires much more effort and practice.

System 1 incorporates our personalities, training, experience and inclinations. Some of it is entirely instinctual.  But we can also make difficult tasks “natural” with sufficient practice.  My driving is now largely intuitive, for example. Much of what we perceive as decision-making is actually a consequence of System 1 and hardly deliberative at all. I grew up loving baseball with my Dad.  That I now “choose” to go to Padres games is at least as much a function of that history as it is a specific decision to go to Petco Park on a Tuesday evening in July. “Who we are” says an enormous amount about what we do. But I don’t think it has everything to say all the time.

In my view, “free will” is rooted in System 2 and operates to check and even override System 1 thinking. For example, through practice and gaining understanding of myself, I have a chance to overcome my inclinations to panic or to get greedy and trade at the wrong times. Through conscious effort, I can check my tendency to offer an inappropriate snide riposte to a stupid remark, seek to eliminate my human prejudices or improve my strongly held values. Interestingly, this view also seems consistent with the theological view that much of what matters requires that we check our “natural” selves, reactions and inclinations to do the right thing and that we can even train these “natural” selves.

I suspect that this is what Barry is getting at (minus the theology) when he suggests that free will is something to be earned, that it involves “self-enlightenment through study and thought.” But of course precious few of us exercise truly independent thought very often and none of us does so nearly often enough.  As Kahneman himself acknowledges, making consistently good choices based upon good reasoning is really hard. Training ourselves to do so more intuitively is even harder. The academic research is crystal clear on that point.  That’s partly because it takes lots of practice and we’re lazy and partly because it isn’t just a skill to be learned.  Productive critical thinking — exercising our free will — requires adequate domain knowledge to go along with lots of practice.  Most personal and far too many professional investors have neither. Critical thinking can’t be effectively undertaken in investing or anywhere else if and when there isn’t sufficient knowledge of the subject matter.  One’s knowledge base provides the foundation of and context for engaging in critical thinking.

To pick a prominent example of effective critical thinking in literature, Holmes deduced that Watson had been in Afghanistan prior to their first meeting in part because he was very practiced and accomplished in the art of observation (critical thinking) but also because he had a broad and deep knowledge of the British military, geography, how injuries heal, and current events. Without that practice and that knowledge, Holmes would have remained entirely in the dark about Watson’s path to their meeting.

I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, “Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.” The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished. (A Study in Scarlet).

For more on Holmes and critical thinking, I recommend Maria Konnikova’s engaging Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

With sufficient education and proper training, we have the opportunity freely to exercise critical thinking skills and thus our wills for profit, fun and even for the good of society.  As these skills and the knowledge base to use them effectively are in extremely short supply generally, if you have them and exercise them, you will have a tremendous advantage.  I hope you will make every effort to acquire, retain and sharpen those skills together with adequate (and more) domain knowledge. It takes a lot of work, work that is never completed. I especially hope that you will use those powers — the most powerful at our disposal — for good and not for ill.  As Barry makes clear, that’s what self-enlightenment is all about.


3 thoughts on “On Free Will

  1. Pingback: What you’re vacillatin’ between | Above the Market

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