Natural Autonomy: Beyond the Illusion of Will

Nietzsche said that free will is like the commander who takes responsibility, after the fact, for the actions of his troops.

Modern brain science has proved him remarkably on-target: Gazzaniga's split-brain experiments, Benjamin Libet's work and a lot of other data shows that when we feel like we're making a free spontaneous decision, very often there's an unconscious brain process that has already made the decision beforehand.

So Are We All Just Automata?

So what does this mean? That we're all just automata, deterministically doing what the physics of our brains tells us, while deluding ourselves it's the result of some kind of mystical spontaneous conscious willing?

Not exactly.

Science's capability to model the universe is wonderful yet limited. Contemporary science's models of the universe in terms of deterministic and stochastic systems are not the universe itself, they're just the best models we have right now. (And these days they're not even a complete, consistent model of our current set of observations, since general relativity and quantum theory aren't unified!)

The evidence clearly shows that, when we feel our "willed decisions" are distinct, separate and detached from our unconscious dynamics, we're often at variance with neurophysiological reality.

But this does not imply that we're deterministic automata....

It does imply that we're more enmeshed in the universe than we generally realize -- specifically: that our deliberative, reflective consciousness is more enmeshed with our unconscious dynamics than we generally realize.

Intentionality Beyond the Illusion of Will

Might there be some meaningful sense of intentional action that doesn't equate with naive "free will"?

Yes, certainly.

But this meaningful sense of "intentional action" must encompass the enmeshed, complexly nonlinearly coupled nature of the mind and world.

I.e., it's not intentional action on the part of the deliberative, reflective consciousness as a detached system.

It's "intentional" action on the part of the cosmos, or a large hunk thereof, manifested in a way that focuses on one mind's deliberative, reflective consciousness (perhaps among other focii).

The "intentionality" involved then boils down to particular kinds of patternment in a sequence of actions.

For example -- among other aspects -- "choice-like" action-sequences tend to involve reductions of uncertainty -- reductions of "entropy" one might say ... collapses of wide ranges of options into narrower ranges.

When our deliberatively, reflectively conscious components play a focal role in an appropriately-patterned entropy-reducing dynamic in our local hunk of the cosmos, we feel like we're enacting "free will."

Natural Autonomy

Henrik Walter, in his book The Neurophilosophy of Free Will, develops some related ideas in a wonderfully clear way.

He decomposes the intuitive notion of free will into three aspects:

  1. Freedom: being able to do otherwise
  2. Intelligibility: being able to understand the reasons for one's actions
  3. Agency: being the originator of one's actions

He argues, as many others have done, that there is no way to salvage the three of these in their obvious forms, that is consistent with known physics and neuroscience. And he then argues for a notion of "natural autonomy," which replaces the first and third of these aspects with weaker things, but has the advantage of being compatible with known science.

He argues that "we possess natural autonomy when

  1. under very similar circumstances we could also do other than what we do (because of the chaotic nature of the brain)
  2. this choice is understandable (intelligible -- it is determined by past events, by immediate adaptation processes in the brain, and partially by our linguistically formed environment)
  3. it is authentic (when through reflection loops with emotional adjustments we can identify with that action)"

The way I think about this is that, in natural autonomy as opposed to free will,

  • Freedom is replaced with: being able to do otherwise in very similar circumstances
  • Agency is replaced with: emotionally identifying one's phenomenal self as closely dynamically coupled with the action

Another way to phrase this is: if an action is something that

  • depends sensitively on our internals, in the sense that slight variations in the environment or our internals could cause us to do something significantly different
  • we can at least roughly model and comprehend in a rational way, as a dynamical unfolding from precursors and environment into action was closely coupled with our holistic structure and dynamics, as modeled by our phenomenal self

then there is a sense in which "we own the action." And this sense of "ownership of an action" or "natural autonomy" is compatible with both classical and quantum physics, and with the known facts of neurobiology.

Perhaps "owning an action" can take the place of "willing an action" in the internal folk psychology of people who are not comfortable with the degree to which the classical notion of free will is illusory.

Another twist that Walter doesn't emphasize is that even actions which we do own, often

  • depend with some statistical predictability upon our internals, in the sense that agents with very similar internals and environments to us, have a distinct but not necessarily overwhelming probabilistic bias to take similar actions to us

This is important for reasoning rationally about our own past and future actions -- it means we can predict ourselves statistically even though we are naturally autonomous agents who own our own actions.

Free will is often closely tied with morality, and natural autonomy retains this. People who don't "take responsibility for their actions" in essence aren't accepting a close dynamical coupling between their phenomenal self and their actions. They aren't owning their actions, in the sense of natural autonomy -- they are modeling themselves as not being naturally autonomous systems, but rather as systems whose actions are relatively uncoupled with their phenomenal self, and perhaps coupled with other external forces instead.

None of this is terribly shocking or revolutionary-sounding -- but I think it's important nonetheless. What's important is that there are rational, sensible ways of thinking about ourselves and our decisions that don't require the illusion of free will, and also don't necessarily make us feel like meaningless, choiceless deterministic or stochastic automata.


  1. You ask, in the last paragraph, "why not focus ...." I immediately ask, "Why focus as Ben suggests?"

    I think this section is a bit too abstruse; it could profit from some concrete examples of the form, "This way of thinking leads one into (practical) error with these adverse consequences; this other way of thinking allows one to avoid that error."


  2. I also think of the brain as an amplifier - a process starts on the microscale in a few neurons and its consequences in our actions and their results become much wider and larger scale. I am still hung on whether Penrose's quantum brain ideas are correct, although, to my instincts, quantum indeterminacy may be connected to the indeterminacy of freewill.