Denis Noble: Free will is not an illusion

How our bodies give us freedom

“My genes made me do it” encapsulates how many geneticists, following the footsteps of Richard Dawkins, think of our genome’s relationship to us: complete control over our mind and body. That seemingly leaves no room for free will, relegating it to a mere illusion. At the HowTheLightGetsIn festival in London last month, distinguished biologist Denis Noble sought to dismantle this picture. Our bodies, argued Noble, exhibit agency, an ability to choose between alternatives, even at the cell level, dispelling the idea that we’re mere automata, programmed by our genome.


You do what you do because of who you are, and you are who you are because of your genes and your environment. That’s how a contemporary argument against the existence of free will usually goes. The first claim, about the way our genes determine our fate, has come out of an interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution often associated with Richard Dawkins. According to this picture humans are just vehicles for the propagation of genes, and it is them, not us, who are running the show. This seems to leave little room for human agency: for our judgements and actions to be genuinely shaped by reflection and deliberation. Free will is therefore a myth, and the remaining puzzle for geneticists like Jerry A. Coyne seems to be “why evolution bequeathed us such a powerful illusion.”

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Denis Noble doesn’t buy it. In a talk he gave at HowTheLightGetsIn festival in London last month, the distinguished Oxford physiologist, musician, and philosopher of biology, argued that a closer look at what our bodies are made of and an understanding of how they work reveals that free will is no illusion. We all know that water is essential to living organisms – it’s what astrophysicists look for on other planets when speculating about the existence of extra-terrestrial life. According to Noble, water and the controlled stochasticity that it allows of molecules that are suspended in it, is also what makes us free. That’s the key difference between living organisms and computers made of silicon: they are determinate machines, we are creatures of stochasticity, of chance. This still leaves open the question of why stochastic processes entail freedom, as well as whether our social environment still determines us in ways that undermine our agency. But for Denis Noble a rejection of the idea of genetic determinacy is genuinely liberating, allowing us “the only form of free will worth having”.


“There is no program of life or a blueprint for life in a genome, we’ve been looking for one for over 20 years.”


There is a deep chasm that separates Noble’s approach to biology from that of Neo-Darwinians like Richard Dawkins who have described the genome as “the book of life”, “creating us body and mind”. For Noble, the genome is the wrong place to look if we want to understand life, and what has led some biologists astray in thinking that our genes determine our behaviour. “There is no program of life or a blueprint for life in a genome, we’ve been looking for one for over 20 years.”


Choice, for Noble, is key to understanding intelligent life “the ability to distinguish, and choose, between different behavioural options”.  And looking at our genome we find nothing that resembles a kind of conditional logic -- a set of “if X, then Y, else Z” type of instructions – a structure of switches that would allow organisms to make choices between different outcomes, argued Noble.


Where we can find such a structure of switches, and where various control processes take place are our membranes. Without these membrane processes there could be no such thing as a choice between different behavioural options, and choice is of course central not only to our idea of intelligence, but to our idea of free will.


“The possibility of systems that can make choices arose when the first cells emerged with their membranes during an evolutionary process. That is where intelligence became possible in living systems.”


To really understand how our membranes work and the various processes they enable, according to Noble, we need to understand where we find them: suspended in water inside our bodies. Nearly all of the molecules in our bodies can be dissolved in it, except fats. The fats in our bodies are like soap bubbles that go on to form vast structures of membranes in our cells that eventually become our organs. It’s the fact that these membranes are suspended in water that gives them the special properties that can be found only in living organisms, and not, for example, in a sophisticated computer. If you recall, the recent debate over whether Google’s AI was genuinely conscious focussed on the nature of its software. Again, that’s the wrong place to look, according to Noble.  What makes humans and other living organisms different from our most advanced machinery isn’t that we run on a more advanced code, but that we are built of different materials. In particular, the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water seems to have almost magical properties: retaining its liquid form in much higher temperatures than most elements and freezing in an unusual way, making ice lighter than liquid water (the opposite of what happens when other solvents freeze).


Whereas Neo-Darwinian biologists accept that living organisms are subject to stochasticity, they see this chance as blind, completely unregulated by the organisms themselves.


But the key property water has is related to something known as Brownian Motion. The physicist Robert Brown was the first to observe, under a microscope, dust particles suspended in water jiggling around in every possible direction. Albert Einstein in one of his four 1905 annus mirabilis papers described the random motion of these particles using a stochastic model. This is what makes living organisms so different from determinate computers, according to Noble. “The atoms in silicon are not freely engaging in a stochasticity like we observe in water-based environment.” Whereas the suspended particles in water travel great distances, much greater than their diameter, no such thing is observed in solids. What we’re made of matters.

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Of course, chance and randomness are no strangers to Neo-Darwinians, in fact they are an important part of their theory of life, and Noble is aware of that. That’s not where their dispute lies. But whereas Neo-Darwinian biologists accept that living organisms are subject to stochasticity, they see this chance as blind, completely unregulated by the organisms themselves. According to that approach, a few random changes in our DNA over a long period of time accumulate and propel evolution. Noble doesn’t believe it’s possible for the chance involved to be blind. The details of why that is are rather technical and have to do with how we understand the process by which our DNA replicates. The Neo-Darwinian paradigm claims that DNA self-replicates like a crystal. Noble argues that this isn’t possible. Organisms must be capable of regulating the stochasticity involved in DNA’s replication. If they weren’t, the errors that would accumulate from a completely random self-replication process – like in the case of crystals – would be so large that the results would be catastrophic for the organism.


Noble doesn’t seem to think that consciousness is a prerequisite for the ability to make choices.


So where does all this leave the question of free will? Noble acknowledged that while the answer to the question requires empirical investigation by the sciences, it also requires a conceptual framework, to be provided by philosophy.


The first problem that Noble’s account seems to face is that randomness doesn’t equal freedom. Philosophers have long argued that even if the universe as a whole is shown not to be deterministic, that doesn’t by itself rescue free will. A non-deterministic universe in which things happen at random is equally a threat to free will. If the reason I chose to write this article rather than another is blind chance, that doesn’t render me any freer than if my decision was preordained the moment the universe was created.


Of course, Noble wants to deny that the chance involved here is blind. What he’s arguing is that there is a “harnessing of stochasticity” by the organism that “enables a form of creativity and behaviour” which in turn allows things like values and judgements to influence what our bodies do. This response, however, brings up another question: who’s doing the “harnessing” of chance, who is regulating what would otherwise have been random processes. It seems that Noble wants to attribute this kind of agency not just to the organism as a whole, but even at the level of individual cells. But that seems like a very strange place to ground free will in. How exactly are some of the myriads of unconscious processes taking place in my body - including digestion, blood circulation, breathing, etc - supposed to grant me free will? Does it even make sense to describe anything other than a fully-fledged agent as “making choices”, as acting with intention? Noble doesn’t seem to think that consciousness is a prerequisite for the ability to make choices. After all when playing a musical instrument, or driving, many of the movements we make come to us “automatically”, we don’t form conscious intentions on which we then act.


But even if we somehow granted that there are genuine decisions happening at a microlevel inside every organism, do myriad of small unconscious choices add up to the free conscious choices of the organism as a whole?


“I’m not particularly worried by the fact that my upbringing and social interactions greatly influenced my values and actions. Why would I want it to be otherwise?”


Ultimately, Noble wants to dispel what he sees as the myth of genetic determinism. The thought that “my genes made me do it” sits very uncomfortable with him. It doesn’t seem to allow for the influence of the social world on our decisions, what most of us take to have shaped who we are: our experiences. Noble want to make room for that and is very comfortable with acknowledging the impact of social forces upon who we turn out to be: “I’m not particularly worried by the fact that my upbringing and social interactions greatly influenced my values and actions. Why would I want it to be otherwise?” But that’s not the appropriate contrast with genetic determinism. The social equivalent of “my genes made me do it” would be “my upbringing made me do it”, and surely that kind of social determinism is just as uncomfortable.

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One way to think of free will is to understand it as our ability to act on the basis of reasons that enable us to justify our decisions and actions, rather than just offer a causal story, whether based on social or biological forces acting on us. But because of the kinds of embodied, social beings we are, there is no escaping the fact that our biology and our social environment shape who we are. They inform the kinds of reasons we might appeal to when explaining our actions to others. Since we have no say on our biological makeup and our environment, some argue that’s no free will at all. For Noble, being able to show that our actions are indeed based on our values and judgements, not blind chance or rigid determinism, is the only free will worth having.

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Frank Smith 1 22 October 2022

Free will cannot be derived from a biological basis or social conditioning, though the emergence of free will partly depends on those conditions. One cannot possess perfect free will, though one can increasingly approach perfect freedom, as a hyperbola approaches its asymptote. But insofar as we already possess some degree of freedom in the real sense of the word, that freedom can only be a characteristic of mind, mind considered as irreducible to matter. A pure materialism cannot coherently account for freedom. To deny the existence of freedom is a self-canceling denial, since belief in the validity of the denial assumes that one's consciousness has access to truth and that one spoke the denial not because of causes hidden from one's consciousness but because one was convinced the denial was true and that one's consciousness can determine itself freely through conscious consideration of truth. Denial of the existence of freedom is based on trust in reason as a potential purveyor of truth. If we have an awareness, however imperfect, of truth, then our choices need not always be caused by things outside our own consciousness. Our consciousness has some access to truth, and to that extent our choices can be truly free, based on a conscious and accurate knowledge of what we value and why we value it. Genes, cell membranes, the human body, and conducive social circumstances are necessary but not sufficient conditions for freedom. If the floor beneath me gives way, I may disappear from view, but that doesn't mean the floor caused my existence. The body is an essential "instrument" of consciousness, or rather an expression and coagulate of consciousness, not the cause of consciousness. That the body is a coagulate of mind is manifested by the relatively free passage of the mind throughout the body. Few would agree these days that matter, over strange eons, came into being as coagulations of mind or spirit. But that seems to me the best way to understand the "dualism" of mind and matter: it is not a mere dualism. More like a differentiation of two aspects by the sedimentation of the one out of the other. The course of evolution is mind or minds continually working over and developing the "sediment" from simple to increasingly advanced life forms capable of evere more fully expressing mind.

Richard Oerton 21 October 2022

Free will, in the non-compatibilist sense, is a meaningless idea, but belief in it entails the consequential belief that we really might behave out of character in ways in which we don't want to behave. Why does anyone hanker for it? Partly because something that is labelled "free" sounds like a good thing. Partly because it seems to justify the judgmental moralistic cruelty which we like to direct at others.