One of the things I had pointed out is that there seems to be a clear inconsistency in the writings of several people who deny free will, since they also regularly add that it is good that we realize how things really are, because this is going to improve our lives, behaviors etc. Some readers thought there was no contradiction. For instance, here is what pin pin said:
> “Haves” and “oughts” and “shoulds” are exhortations that can change the desires of the people you are exhorting. If you think a certain set of people have bad desires (i.e. desires that would make the world a worse place), you can try to use moral language to mold those desires into better desires. <
As a matter of empirical psychology this is certainly the case, but I think there is an equivocation about the word “change” here. Does this mean that people have a choice of some sort, or simply that we are all Pavlovian automata that can be conditioned to do whatever the environment (including our fellow human beings) sets us up to do? The latter — I wager — is what Coyne, Rosenberg et al. really mean, and yet their language simply doesn’t seem to be able to avoid volitional connotations.
Several readers of course brought up dualism, even accusing me of being a crypto-dualist. Here is Gadfly:
> If there's no Cartesian meaner, there's no Cartesian free willer. <
True enough, but this assumes that the only way to meaningfully talk about volition (again, my and others’ preferred term instead of the metaphysically loaded “free will”) is in dualistic terms, a position that has been rejected pretty much by all compatibilist philosophers, from Dennett down.
The twin “isms” of reductionism and determinism have, of course, played a major role throughout the discussion. as Matthew Putman wrote:
> Certainly science, not just neurobiology, deals with causation all of the time, and that can be carried over to notions of freewill. ... I see no reason why a physical structure such as the brain should be any different than the filled polymer system. ... When we study the brain experimentally, either with animal models, or postmortem, we find very predicable behavior of neurons, and glia cells. <
He then goes on to invoke the specter of Descartes, again. But there are several issues lurking within the above quotes. To begin with, there is a free use of the concept of causality which, as I pointed out in my original post, is far from being clear at all, and of course is most definitely extra-scientific, meaning that science can only help itself to it, not investigate it empirically. Second, it is interesting to see that Matthew cannot conceive of a significant difference between filled polymers and brains, despite the obvious fact that brains, and not filled polymers, are alive, thinking, feeling, etc. Please do not take this as an argument for vitalism, it most definitely isn’t what I mean. But I find that that line of argument is somewhat question-begging: we are trying to figure out how chunks of matter can behave in such drastically different ways from other chunks of matter, so to point out the obvious (that they are all chunks of matter) hardly helps moving the debate forward. And of course, as someone commented in response to Matthew, it is no surprise that postmortem brains are just as inert as polymers. What interests us is what happens before they become postmortem.
Gadfly also highlighted something that I took for granted, but evidently I shouldn’t have:
> Belief in free will is ALSO arguably not a scientific proposition. It certainly is no more provable right now than is the denial of free will. <
Indeed. But my beef with Coyne is that he is the one making the strong claim that free will denial is a scientific proposition. I am not at all making the symmetrical claim that affirmation of free will is demonstrated by science, only the neutral one that science has precious little (okay, pretty much nothing) to say about free will.
Which brings me to comments questioning my view of science itself. For instance, elik says:
> If I interpret correctly, you have placed counterfactual language into the realm of unscientific metaphysical speculation. I doubt you would consider statements e.g. “were it below 20 degrees yesterday, the surface of this pond would have frozen over” to be unscientific. <
No, I do not think that all counterfactual language is non scientific (to use the term “unscientific” is pejorative, and I don’t think that only science is in the business of knowledge and understanding). But I think it uncontroversial that some counterfactual reasoning has nothing to do with science (think of purely logical or mathematical questions). To consider elik’s specific example, the reason that particular counterfactual is convincing is because established science already tells us a lot about the state transitional properties of water in relation to temperature. No such knowledge is available in the case of determinism, reductionism and their implications for free will.
Along similar lines, Matthew Clark opined:
> Of course we can’t actually perform this experiment, but the deterministic claim rests on the rather robust intuition that similar causes produce similar effects. <
The crucial part here is “we can’t actually perform the experiment,” which means that we are doing philosophy, not science. And there are very decent philosophical arguments against determinism (and reductionism, which is also implied by this sort of claim). Moreover, what is at issue here is precisely whether “the same causes” are at work. Physics would have to have established causal closure in order to argue that, and it most definitely hasn’t. (Another way to put this is that everything in the universe behaves in a way that has to be compatible with the known laws of physics. This says nothing about whether those laws as we understand them comprise all there is to know about how the universe works.)
elik, along with several other readers, also asks the recurring question:
> How does quantum indeterminacy help free will, for example? <
Well, one way it may help is through two-stage models, which have been mentioned during this and a previous discussion thread. But I am not staking my agnosticism on these or any other explanation for volition, I am simply pointing out that, contra popular (in some quarters) opinion, there are options out there. (Interestingly, very few readers took me up on another possibility: that of truly emergent properties, which is yet another question that at the moment — and perhaps permanently — cannot be resolved by science. We know that there are emergent properties, but we don’t know if they appear to be so because of our epistemic limitations or because they truly do represent novel behaviors of matter when certain complexity and organizational conditions are met.)
elik (not picking on him/her, I assure you!) also used a thought experiment to argue against free will, bringing up the possibility of The Device, a machine capable of predicting the content of an essay several minutes in advance of the essay being written. Intriguing, but besides the obvious fact that such experimental demonstration hasn’t been done by anyone (again, undermining Jerry’s claim that it is science that refutes free will), this conflates predictability with free will. As my CUNY colleague Jesse Prinz pointed out during a recent roundtable on this topic, we can already predict a lot of things about how people will behave under certain circumstances using standard psychology and certainly without having to settle the question of free will.
Why, in the end, do I think there is a problem that Jerry et al. are missing or ignoring? Again, Matthew Clark:
> What we seem not to observe, given our ever increasing ability to control for causal factors in experimental situations, are inexplicable departures from these regularities. <
Of course we do observe departures from regularities, it’s called human behavior! Yes, as I mentioned above, it is predictable to a point, but it is nothing like the movement of planets or the behavior of polymers. And there is, of course, the first person experience of making decisions after deliberation. That experience constitutes data (albeit not of the controlled fashion that would make them amenable to straightforward scientific investigation), and that data that needs to be explained, not explained away. My problem with Jerry’s position is that it is a form of eliminativism, a position in philosophy (not science!) of mind made popular by Paul and Patricia Churchland. When the Churchlands provocatively say that pain “just is” the firing of neuronal C-fibers they only begin to explain the subjective experience of pain. Yes, without the C-fibers we wouldn’t feel pain, but there is a huge difference between saying that the C-fibers are necessary for feeling pain (which we could express as: other conditions ... > C-fibers > pain) and saying that firing C-fibers are the same thing as pain (C-fibers = pain). So too with eliminativism about free will: yes, we need the laws of physics to be able to make decisions, nor can we make decisions that violate said laws. But this is not at all the same as saying that therefore decision making is an illusion brought about by physics, no more than pain is an illusion courtesy of C-fiber firing.