Righting a Wrong Question

When you are faced with an unan­swer­able ques­tion—a ques­tion to which it seems im­pos­si­ble to even imag­ine an an­swer—there is a sim­ple trick which can turn the ques­tion solv­able.


  • “Why do I have free will?”

  • “Why do I think I have free will?”

The nice thing about the sec­ond ques­tion is that it is guaran­teed to have a real an­swer, whether or not there is any such thing as free will. Ask­ing “Why do I have free will?” or “Do I have free will?” sends you off think­ing about tiny de­tails of the laws of physics, so dis­tant from the macro­scopic level that you couldn’t be­gin to see them with the naked eye. And you’re ask­ing “Why is X the case?” where X may not be co­her­ent, let alone the case.

“Why do I think I have free will?”, in con­trast, is guaran­teed an­swer­able. You do, in fact, be­lieve you have free will. This be­lief seems far more solid and gras­pable than the ephemer­al­ity of free will. And there is, in fact, some nice solid chain of cog­ni­tive cause and effect lead­ing up to this be­lief.

If you’ve already out­grown free will, choose one of these sub­sti­tutes:

  • “Why does time move for­ward in­stead of back­ward?” ver­sus “Why do I think time moves for­ward in­stead of back­ward?”

  • “Why was I born as my­self rather than some­one else?” ver­sus “Why do I think I was born as my­self rather than some­one else?”

  • “Why am I con­scious?” ver­sus “Why do I think I’m con­scious?”

  • “Why does re­al­ity ex­ist?” ver­sus “Why do I think re­al­ity ex­ists?”

The beauty of this method is that it works whether or not the ques­tion is con­fused. As I type this, I am wear­ing socks. I could ask “Why am I wear­ing socks?” or “Why do I be­lieve I’m wear­ing socks?” Let’s say I ask the sec­ond ques­tion. Trac­ing back the chain of causal­ity, I find:

  • I be­lieve I’m wear­ing socks, be­cause I can see socks on my feet.

  • I see socks on my feet, be­cause my retina is send­ing sock sig­nals to my vi­sual cor­tex.

  • My retina is send­ing sock sig­nals, be­cause sock-shaped light is im­p­ing­ing on my retina.

  • Sock-shaped light im­p­inges on my retina, be­cause it re­flects from the socks I’m wear­ing.

  • It re­flects from the socks I’m wear­ing, be­cause I’m wear­ing socks.

  • I’m wear­ing socks be­cause I put them on.

  • I put socks on be­cause I be­lieved that oth­er­wise my feet would get cold.

  • &c.

Trac­ing back the chain of causal­ity, step by step, I dis­cover that my be­lief that I’m wear­ing socks is fully ex­plained by the fact that I’m wear­ing socks. This is right and proper, as you can­not gain in­for­ma­tion about some­thing with­out in­ter­act­ing with it.

On the other hand, if I see a mirage of a lake in a desert, the cor­rect causal ex­pla­na­tion of my vi­sion does not in­volve the fact of any ac­tual lake in the desert. In this case, my be­lief in the lake is not just ex­plained, but ex­plained away.

But ei­ther way, the be­lief it­self is a real phe­nomenon tak­ing place in the real uni­verse—psy­cholog­i­cal events are events—and its causal his­tory can be traced back.

“Why is there a lake in the mid­dle of the desert?” may fail if there is no lake to be ex­plained. But “Why do I per­ceive a lake in the mid­dle of the desert?” always has a causal ex­pla­na­tion, one way or the other.

Per­haps some­one will see an op­por­tu­nity to be clever, and say: “Okay. I be­lieve in free will be­cause I have free will. There, I’m done.” Of course it’s not that easy.

My per­cep­tion of socks on my feet, is an event in the vi­sual cor­tex. The work­ings of the vi­sual cor­tex can be in­ves­ti­gated by cog­ni­tive sci­ence, should they be con­fus­ing.

My retina re­ceiv­ing light is not a mys­ti­cal sens­ing pro­ce­dure, a mag­i­cal sock de­tec­tor that lights in the pres­ence of socks for no ex­pli­ca­ble rea­son; there are mechanisms that can be un­der­stood in terms of biol­ogy. The pho­tons en­ter­ing the retina can be un­der­stood in terms of op­tics. The shoe’s sur­face re­flec­tance can be un­der­stood in terms of elec­tro­mag­netism and chem­istry. My feet get­ting cold can be un­der­stood in terms of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics.

So it’s not as easy as say­ing, “I be­lieve I have free will be­cause I have it—there, I’m done!” You have to be able to break the causal chain into smaller steps, and ex­plain the steps in terms of el­e­ments not them­selves con­fus­ing.

The me­chan­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion of my retina with my socks is quite clear, and can be de­scribed in terms of non-con­fus­ing com­po­nents like pho­tons and elec­trons. Where’s the free-will-sen­sor in your brain, and how does it de­tect the pres­ence or ab­sence of free will? How does the sen­sor in­ter­act with the sensed event, and what are the me­chan­i­cal de­tails of the in­ter­ac­tion?

If your be­lief does de­rive from valid ob­ser­va­tion of a real phe­nomenon, we will even­tu­ally reach that fact, if we start trac­ing the causal chain back­ward from your be­lief.

If what you are re­ally see­ing is your own con­fu­sion, trac­ing back the chain of causal­ity will find an al­gorithm that runs skew to re­al­ity.

Either way, the ques­tion is guaran­teed to have an an­swer. You even have a nice, con­crete place to be­gin trac­ing—your be­lief, sit­ting there solidly in your mind.

Cog­ni­tive sci­ence may not seem so lofty and glo­ri­ous as meta­physics. But at least ques­tions of cog­ni­tive sci­ence are solv­able. Find­ing an an­swer may not be easy, but at least an an­swer ex­ists.

Oh, and also: the idea that cog­ni­tive sci­ence is not so lofty and glo­ri­ous as meta­physics is sim­ply wrong. Some read­ers are be­gin­ning to no­tice this, I hope.