The Ghost in the System: Where Free Will Lurks in Human Minds

Constraint and Freedom in the Free Will Debate

There is a certain irony to the dynamical perspective on free will. The dynamics of personal experience—people’s moment-to-moment thoughts, emotions, and behaviors—are constrained by attractors, yet these constraints are also responsible for people’s sense of personal freedom. Attractors provide a coherent and stable framework for disambiguating reality and deciding how one should act. In so doing, Attractors set the stage for a host of (deterministic) mechanisms that generate a rich and dynamic trajectory of mental experience. To the extent that an individual lives “in the moment,” however, the  attractor may be invisible, enabling him or her to feel in direct charge of decisions, thoughts, and actions despite the tacit constraints that direct the flow of behavior and the non-conscious mechanisms that service these constraints. Observers, too, are typically mindful of what a person does on a moment-to-moment basis, ascribing freedom (and responsibility) to him or her for what transpires. In effect, “behavior engulfs the field” (Heider, 1944), with inferences about a person’s character based on observers’ sense that the person could have done otherwise at each point in time. Without this sense of free will, prosecution of transgressors—like those involved in the Enron scandal—would make little logical sense as there would be no clear way to distinguish deliberate from unintentional wrong doing.



In sum, the tendency for moment-to-moment thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to coalesce into stable patterns that constrain mind and action co-exists with people’s sense of personal freedom. Free will is thus ultimately in the “I” of the beholder—whether people see freedom as real or as simply an illusion is up to them. We can be fairly certain, though, that the primary players in the free will debate will maintain and vigorously defend their stance on the free will issue, while demonstrating all manner of original and “free” thought.


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