Since Jerry Coyne has been up to his old tricks, and dismissing free will as an illusion, I simply feel compelled to answer. Whether this is done freely or not I cannot say, but it seems like a decision that I made myself, and then carried out. Whether it will issue in a published post or not is anyone’s guess, since some of my prospective posts can still be found littering the Drafts bin. I haven’t yet decided whether to keep them or to incinerate them, but whether or not doing so will be done freely or by compulsion is still, it seems, disputable. For at least Massimo Pigliucci disputes it over at Rationally Speaking, where he takes Jerry to task for (i) misunderstanding the philosophical arguments about free will, and (ii) misrepresenting the scientific findings of Libet and others. Jerry responds to Pigliucci in the post linked above. Pigliucci’s post is a response to an earlier op-ed piece that Jerry did for USA Today, published, significantly or ominously, on New Years Day 2012.
It’s hard to know where to start, but since I have to choose to start somewhere let it be right here where I am asking myself where to start. Should I start with Jerry’s original USA Today essay? Or should I start with Pigliucci’s response? Let’s see now! No, I think I’ll start with Jerry’s response to Pigliucci’s response to Jerry! And in particular to this:
But I am addressing what I think is most people’s notion of free will, which I think is to some extent dualistic.
Massimo had said something to the effect that Jerry ignores what philosophers have to say about free will, and that the issue is far more complex than Jerry allows. In response Jerry says that he is using “most people’s notion of free will.” I guess I have to ask how often this move can be allowed? When atheists address religious faith they say, perhaps appropriately, that they are not particularly interested in what theologians have to say, but how the average religious person understands religious faith. I am sympathetic to this response. However, I wonder whether there is anything that could be called “most people’s notion of free will,” and whether it would be helpful if there were.
I do not think, to be candid, that it is possible to cash this notion of free will in the terms that Jerry used in his USA Today article. There he says this:
… let me define what I mean by “free will.” I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it’s your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.
Now, I don’t think the ordinary notion of free will can be unpacked with this level of detail. I think that ordinarily people just think that when they choose to do something they choose to do something, and while they’re doing it they can say something like, “Yeah, I know that I would ordinarily have chosen chocolate, but today I choose this.” In other words, the options are there, and they make a choice. Rewinding the tape to the exact moment when you made a decision is not the issue. The issue is that I could choose either chocolate or orange pineapple right now, and I choose plain chocolate.
Now, I think Massimo is correct when he says that Jerry is making a metaphysical assumption. Jerry says that the denial of free will follows logically from the laws of physics. The brain is made up of particles, and those particles obey the laws of physics, so the possibility of choice is ruled out. Everything is determined by the laws of physics. Now this seems to me a completely unwarranted assumption. Why cannot the laws of physics still operate with deterministic predictability, and yet decisions not be the outcome of those laws? I suspect that what is happening here is that categories are being confused. Indeed, at one point this seems obvious. In his response to Massimo, Jerry says this:
Philosophers may have given up dualism, but my experience discussing this issue with others, including my biology colleagues, shows that almost without exception they have an unconscious dualism: that somehow we have some capacity to step inside our minds and influence their workings. [my italics]
Now, dualism is normally the assumption that there are two kinds of entity in reality, minds and brains, consciousness and body. And the assumption is that minds are the kinds of thing that we are inside and whose workings we do influence. No one, to my knowledge, has yet provided an adequate explanation for consciousness (or mind). I think it is reasonable to suppose that consciousness is an emergent property of brains, but it is not altogether clear to me that it follows that everything that happens in consciousness is causally determined by the motion of particles in the brain, or can simply be reduced to the motion of those particles. Indeed, it seems to me (at least in some moods) that it doesn’t strictly make sense to suppose that this is true.
As Massimo Pigliucci says, Jerry’s denial of free will depends upon some unargued assumptions,
… including the following: causal closure (i.e., that the currently known laws of physics encompass the totality of causal relationships in the universe); a working concept of causality (one of the most thorny philosophical concepts ever); physical determinism (which appears to be contradicted by physics itself, particularly quantum mechanics); and the non-existence of true emergent properties (i.e., of emergent behavior that actually is qualitatively novel, and doesn’t simply appear to be so because of our epistemic limitations). I have opinions about all four of these points, but I don’t have a knockdown argument concerning any of them. The point is, neither does Jerry.
In response Jerry says, regarding emergent properties:
As for emergent properties, those too must obey the laws of physics, unless you hypothesize an “emergent property of free will” that is somehow physically unconnected with lower-level processes. Yes, there are emergent properties that cannot be predicted from knowing about their constituents (the wetness of water may be one), but that wetness still must conform to the laws of physics obeyed by its constituent molecules. The properties of water do not thereby become free from the laws of physics.
But Massimo spoke of “emergent behavior that actually is qualitatively novel, and doesn’t simply appear to be so because of our epistemic limitations.” Has Jerry shown that such emergent behaviour is impossible? No, not clearly. (Notice that I did not say “clearly not”.) Indeed, as he acknowledges, there does, in fact, seem to be qualitatively novel emergent properties of brains, since we all have what he calls the “illusion” of free will, but simply supposing that it is only an illusion that we have the ability to choose is really to beg the question that Pigliucci is asking. The same kind of imponderable questions seem to arise when we talk about consciousness as well. Is it inconceivable that natural selection should have hit upon an entirely novel kind of causation which made us the supremely successful species that we are? Jerry has not shown that it has not, nor that it could not.
The problem, though, is deeper. We can now identify people who clearly had no choice, but were compelled to act as they did because of organic problems with their brains, say, such as the Texas shooter who had a brain tumour, and we can understand, and in some measure, we can sympathise with someone who felt compelled to do something that he knew to be very wrong. The problem is that we are using the language of freedom and choice in the wrong register. We are supposing that our moral language, or our language of choice, depends upon some answer to the questions which Pigliucci asks and Jerry Coyne begs. Jerry thinks the philosopher’s response to the problem, by, as he says, redefining free will, is a misrepresentation of the idea of free will of ordinary people. We addressed this briefly above. but this is really irrelevant. What Jerry seems to be saying is that it is vital that we show that we do not have free will in this ordinary sense — which I do not think is ordinary at all, but a highly developed sense of what free will must be to really be free will — if we are to live fully human lives. Indeed, knowing that we do not have free will in this sense will lead, Jerry thinks, to a kinder world. I do not think this is true, and I wonder why Jerry thinks it is.
Here is a clear expression of the concerns that Jerry thinks arise if we do not understand that we do not choose what we choose:
The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.
I simply cannot understand this, and cannot understand why it poses such a problem. Our moral language is designed to deal with situations in which what is thought of as freedom and autonomy is diminished by various factors, running from age to dementia. Our moral language is, in fact, an expression of our understanding of ourselves as the beings that we are, whether we are metaphysically free or physically determined. To say that we do not choose what we choose, as Sam Harris expresses it, is simply a confusion. We do choose what we choose, whether or not that choice is determined, and it is a misuse of language to suggest otherwise. It is simply a conceptual confusion.
We think about freedom in the context that is already established by the kinds of animals we are, and by the kinds of cultural software we use, in terms of constraint or freedom. We understand that some people act under constraints of various sorts, whether from brain tumours or the threat of death. To that extent they are not free. But, on the other hand, we have fairly well-developed concepts of freedom and autonomy in relation to the choices that we make. Informed consent is an important concept in medicine, for example, whether or not we are metaphysically free or determined in some undemonstrable metaphysical sense, and to suppose that we are not is to damage our ability to interact effectively with each other in community. To suppose that, in addition to these concepts, we also must have the assurance — or even that it would help to have the assurance — of some other, completely different level of freedom, is simply unintelligible, unless and until some evidence can be provided that we are or are not free in these respects. Such concepts, it seems to me, are entirely irrelevant to the social project or to the ethical project. It may even make it difficult to know what is meant by the idea of acting for reasons, or accepting that an argument is true because the premises are true and imply the conclusion. I am not an expert in this field, but it seems to me that toying with it in ways that suggest that we are not free in ways that count may in fact be destructive of what it means to be human. I cannot see how the outcome of this particular train of argument can lead to a kinder world.