Free to Choose

Image of Stephen Cave at IdeaFestival 2014, Geoff Oliver Bugbee

Image of Stephen Cave at IdeaFestival 2014, Geoff Oliver Bugbee

Can free will be measured?

In a piece for the popular online magazine Aeon, IdeaFestival 2014 speaker Stephen Cave has suggested that free will, like some measures of intelligence or creativity, might be measured, and offers one convenient proxy for this ability.

It is often thought that science has shown that there is no such thing as free will. If all things are bound by the same impersonal cosmic laws, then (the story goes) our paths are no freer than those of rocks tumbling down a hill. But this is wrong. Science is giving us a very powerful and clear way to understand freedom of the will. We have just been looking for it in the wrong place. Instead of using an electron microscope or a brain-scanner, we should go to the zoo....

Take, for example, the ability to delay gratification. For a hungry cat, this means being able to hold back from pouncing until it is sure the sparrow is within range and looking the other way. Experimenters measure this ability by testing how long an animal can resist a small treat in return for a larger reward after a delay. Chickens, for example, can do this for six seconds. They can choose whether to wait for the juicier titbit or not – but only if that titbit comes very soon. A chimpanzee, on the other hand, can wait for a cool two minutes – or even up to eight minutes in some experiments. I am guessing that you could manage a lot longer.

The chimpanzee therefore has more options....

Cave describes a naturalistic accounting of free will an "ability to generate options for oneself, to choose, and then to pursue one or more of those options." While pointing out that personal circumstance will limit the kinds of options that might be generated, he adds that a capacity for creativity and innovation are important. That connection between free will and its creative exercise interested me not solely because personal autonomy results, but because creativity and innovation are increasingly important to economic success, both personal and communal. On Cave's view, free will is an essential and creative faculty, not dissimilar to a psychometry that Scott Barry Kaufman has proposed that accounts for the transformative skills that enlarge creative possibility.

It's how we as human beings freely exercise our humanity.

Stay curious.™