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Friday, May 15, 2009

Humans and animals: "Free will", or not?

An intriguing statement appeared in the journal Science a few days ago. Writing about the way humans experience the decision to move and act, Patrick Haggard said the following: "Every day we make actions that seem to depend on our 'free will' rather than on any obvious external stimulus. This capacity not only differentiates humans from other animals, but also gives us the clear sense of controlling our bodies and our lives" (p. 731).

It is difficult to know whether this remarkable statement was or was not intended to be provocative, but it raises many questions.

Certainly human beings have a sense of free will, and many of them will fight fiercely to maintain that they have not only the sense of free will, but free will itself. The achievement of a feeling of autonomy is one of the great motivating forces of several stages of human development, and the feeling of being controlled is one that is often associated with anxiety and shame at an existential level, as if loss of control is equivalent to loss of being. In addition, some religious traditions stress the role of free will for human beings, who in order to achieve salvation must make conscious decisions to love God, obey commandments, submit to authority, and so on. For persons committed to such traditions, the absence of free will implies a universe without meaning or pattern, in which salvation is granted in an arbitrary way like that proposed by Calvin.

When free will is perceived as related to religious belief and to the ultimate fate of souls, animals are generally seen as lacking in both souls and free will-- even in all conscious experience, as the Jansenist system claimed. Thinkers with this perspective equate a soul (the part of personality they consider to survive the death of the body) to be the same as a mind, and therefore to be necessary for experiencing any events, internal or external to the person. If a dog had conscious experience or free will, they argue, it would have a soul, and its soul would have the same potential fates of salvation or damnation as a human being, which would not be an acceptable idea.

It is not clear whether Haggard wants to say that humans are different from animals in that they feel they have free will-- their actions "seem to depend on our 'free will'-- or are different because they actually do have free will. The latter question goes far beyond what scientific evidence can answer and involves the differences between natural and supernatural events. The former question is not as profound, but is not answerable by any methods we presently have. How could we know whether a cat or dog or camel thinks it has free will? Given that human beings who have not given the issue much thought generally believe that they have free will, it seems likely that animals, insofar as they are even capable of posing the question, would also believe this.

Until we can teach an animal to communicate in symbols we can understand, we won't know the answer to the question of animal beliefs or experiences. But if an animal did learn complex communication-- would what they told us also be true of the experiences of non-talking animals? No wonder we tend to pay more attention to brain functions than to the really difficult topics!

Haggard, P. (2009). The sources of human volition. Science, 324, 731-733.

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