26 September, 2020

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Professor Carlo & The Freedom Of Will

By H.D. Goonetilleke

Dr. H.D. Goonetilleke

Today marks the first death anniversary of Prof. Carlo Fonseka, a great intellect and a well-known physician who is also fondly remembered by members of the Rationalist Association of Sri Lanka as one of its founding members. He wrote regularly to this newspaper, trying to promote rational thinking among all his fellow citizens. Here, in memory of Carlo’s lifelong commitment to seek rationality and reason in every aspect of his life, I wish to relate an instance of him trying to stimulate one’s own thinking and reasoning to counter one of the most convincing illusions we harbor – the illusion of ‘Free Will’.

Prof. Carlo Fonseka

Although I did not know him personally when I went to see his exploits in fire-walking at Attidiya in the early 70’s, I came to know him closely many years later, having the occasion to talk to him at length on various matters. In one such conversation I had at his home, a few years before his death, he said to me that modern science was enabling us to link and associate human cognitive functions directly with different regions of the brain. However, he said that of the five main attributes of thinking, feeling, perceiving, memorizing and willing of human conduct, only the first four can be correlated precisely with any kind of neuronal activity of the brain. There seems to be no part of the brain engaged in the apparent act of ‘willing’, or actual decision making carried out by humans at any time.

Carlo was convinced that there is no ‘free will’ or freedom of choice in any decision we make, and he encouraged me to explore it further. He elaborated his position further by quoting 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer;

“A man can do what he wills, but he cannot ‘will’ what he wills.”

Here, Schopenhauer was commenting on the illusory nature of free will. 

As human beings capable of rational thought and self-reflection, we imagine ourselves to have ‘free will’ which makes us distinct from inanimate objects and animals. We believe that ‘we can do what we want’ and be the masters of our own destinies. But sadly for us, the humans, this is just a mental illusion. An illusion so powerful that we are compelled to believe that we have the ability to choose our own actions and be the sole creators of our own behavior. 

For example, you might believe that the reason why you are reading this article now is a free and conscious decision made by you, or your brain, sometime before you started reading it. Sure enough, you are clearly conscious of your initial resolve or the will to read this, but that desire or will was not free from all precursor conditions and circumstances which caused you to read this in the first place. Your ability to act with a conscious desire to read this, or to act with a will should not be confused with your ability to act out of free will, a will that arises ‘uncaused’ in your mind.

Similarly, in a simple choice task of (say) picking an item for dessert you may either quite promptly, or after some careful consideration, choose to eat a fruit rather than an ice-cream. What made you choose the fruit, you might ask. The answer is that as biological beings you and your brain – the organ that does the ‘choosing’- are all made of cells and neurons which are the products of both the genes you have inherited and your environment. All the atoms and molecules that make up your genes and the environment, which also includes everybody and everything else, must obey the laws of physics and behave according to such laws. The behavior of these atoms and molecules down to the fundamental particles of quarks, leptons and bosons whose interactions are also subject to quantum unpredictability and chance, eventually makes it necessary that you choose a fruit, and not an ice-cream. You really had no role in the choice you made when you picked a fruit for dessert. And, it is so with everything else you say or do during any of the waking hours.

It appears that there are countless number of causal chains and events that influence all our decisions and actions leaving no room for us to make any choice independently. As social psychologist Joachim Krueger of Brown University puts it the totality of the natural causal forces in play generating ‘necessity’, along with random variations not reducible to causes adding an element of ‘chance’, dictate everything in the universe including human behavior. If the notion of free will exists, it claims a special place for human conduct that is not governed by either necessity or chance, but by an ‘uncaused will’ that fundamentally violates the principle of cause and effect. 

Neuroscientists studying how the brain works with latest imaging technologies such as EEG, fMRI and PET Scans also support the idea that free will is a complete illusion. Using computer aided mapping of brain activity, they have been able to predict the decisions made by their subjects a few seconds before actual choices are made by them, indicating the presence of unconscious processes prior to reaching their decisions. The unambiguous conclusion of these experimental observations is that if a choice is made well before the moment you think you made it, you cannot claim to have free will in any meaningful way. 

However, many people find the illusion of free will an alarming prospect as it brings to question the individual moral responsibility. If there is no free will how can we judge people as moral or immoral? Why punish criminals for their crimes if their actions are not freely chosen? Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne at University of Chicago suggests that although the will is not free it must be perceived as such, in order to maintain social order and harmony. Even in the absence of free will punishment and reward can be used to deter bad behavior and promote good behavior by causally influencing the minds of people.

The realization that free will is a mental illusion like an optical illusion could bring about profound psychological and emotional implications for many, deeply affecting the way we think about ourselves – as autonomous or automatons. However, one can take consolation by the fact that we are no more special or different from any other object in the universe. By recognizing that there is no ‘I’ which can say “I could have done otherwise” we realize that in the end all of us are victims of circumstances. As Carlo put it, by losing free will and gaining empathy towards others who too cannot act on their own free will, we can go about building a kinder world.

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Latest comments

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    “. As Carlo put it, by losing free will and gaining empathy towards others who too cannot act on their own free will, we can go about building a kinder world.”
    Can we go about building a kinder world if we don’t have free will?
    Just asking, Dr.Goonatillaka.

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      Prof. Carlo Fonseka was my teacher soon after he returned with PhD and I had respected him. But when he believed the lies written by retired DIG Edward Gunawardena that Jaffna public library was burnt by LTTE and proclaimed that Gamini Dissanayake is absolved of the crime, I lost all respects to him. Tamil HQI of Jaffna has written about the incident and says that Army personnel were burning the library and his officers were not permitted to enter the premises. He further says had he led his police force to prevent security forces personnel burning the library, he would not be alive now to tell the truth.

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      Thank you for your query allowing me to elucidate further on illusion of free will. Losing free will is acknowledging that everything is causal. For instance, today you happen to come across this article, and let’s say, that somehow it convinced you to lose the idea of free will. If for whatever causal reasons many others also begin to acknowledge the illusion of free will – and causality of actions of everybody else – empathy towards those who may be doing wrong will become a widespread phenomenon. Now, are we not motivating some more to act kindly towards wrong doers creating a kinder world? You will be acting ‘with’ a will to create this kinder world, but not ‘out of’ a free will that arose independently.

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    If there is no free will, there is no choice and then everything is predetermined and not even God can change the world?

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    This comment is from one you knew Carlo well and greatly admired him.
    QUOTE
    “(A)s biological beings (we) and (our) brains – the organ that does the ‘choosing’- are all made of cells and neurons which are the products of both the genes (we) have inherited and (our) environment . .(We) really had no role in the choices (we make). This is the gist of Prof. HEG’s thesis – or rather the thesis he attributes to Carlo.

    In that case our free will is JUST THAT; the cumulative functioning of the concomitant concourse of atoms that make up our material being. Otherwise one is positing a SEPARATE free will, but that is mystical; a notion that Carlo would have rejected as metaphysical.

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    I was FORTUNATE enough to meet Sir Calo once and that was with a person from a remote “Mining Village” in Kurunegala District. I took this “Patient” “Discarded” as Tuberculosis infected and “distanced” him and his family by the rest of the community. The patient was a “Graphite” miner and it was then common “understanding” that at least 25% of those mining employees are sure to contract TB. Sir Carlo on the initial examination referred to another specialist who had devoted on the subject of TB among mining personnel, who declared, it is NOT TB, but suffering from am ailment called “Graphite Phenumoconosis” i.e. a situation where particles of “Graphite” dust get clogged in the lungs and forms into a patch making breathing difficult and coughing becomes normal and severe. This finding led to give quite a lot of “RELEF” (both financially and socially) to such affected persons and their families. After this, Sir Carlo visited many times to that industrial place and got involved in providing relief to that community. That was how I was fortunate to FIND this “GODLY HUMAN BEING” and REMEBERS him even today.

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    The debate over free will is not something that can be resolved with reference to brain physiology, which I understand is Prof. Carlo Fonseka’s field; it belongs to the realm of philosophy, more particularly to that branch of epistemology called Common Sense :>). A commonsensical definition of free will would be “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action without an external force impeding or constraining.” In the example mentioned in this article, it is entirely up to you whether you eat the ice cream or the fruits. You will opt for the fruits if prefer the healthier option but may go for the ice cream if you prioritize titillating your taste buds over health. Either way, you reap as you sow and you are responsible for your choice. Even if someone holds a gun to your head and demands that you eat the ice cream, you still have the option of eating the fruits and then being shot. Your free will is taken away only if your hands and feet are bound and force fed whatever was not your choice.

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      ” Even if someone holds a gun to your head and demands that you eat the ice cream, you still have the option of eating the fruits and then being shot. Your free will is taken away only if your hands and feet are bound and force fed whatever was not your choice.”
      -Sorry to say that under above conditions you are hard-wired to act in a way that depends only on your inborn character; a weak or strong personality caused by nature/nurture. Your act of will is not free from the motivation that results in your action.

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