Biology Magazine

Tilting at Free-Will Mills

By Cris

I’ve never quite understood why some New Atheists think it so important to resolve the issue of free will, or why they think it so important to deny free will. It seems like they are tilting at metaphysical windmills, using physics and neuroscience as determinist jousts. Even if there is a definitional or material sense in which free will doesn’t exist, so what?

Tilting at Free-Will Mills

While Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne think the consequences are enormous, and the religionists who oppose them agree, it doesn’t really matter to those not locked into the polar and artificial world of their debates. When New Atheist scholars square off against Templeton Foundation scholars on free will, it amounts to a tempest in an uninteresting teapot. Neither side is very good at philosophy.

Despite these glum facts, their debate is getting lots of attention. When Coyne publishes an article denying free will in USA Today, you know the world is askew. For those who aren’t familiar with the issues and arguments, The Chronicle of Higher Ed is hosting a symposium — Is Free Will an Illusion? — with six posts by various scholars. The most sensible are from Owen Jones, who argues for a kind of Darwinian pragmatism, and Paul Bloom, who understands that nothing too serious flows from determinism.

From Jones:

The problem with free will is that we keep dwelling on it. Really, this has to stop. Free will is to human behavior what a perfect vacuum is to terrestrial physics—a largely abstract endpoint from which to begin thinking, before immediately moving on to consider and confront the practical frictions of daily existence.

I do get it. People don’t like to be caused. It conflicts with their preference to be fully self-actualized. So it is understandable that, at base, free-will discussions tend to center on whether people have the ability to make choices uncaused by anything other than themselves. But there’s a clear answer: They don’t. Will is as free as lunch. (If you doubt, just try willing yourself out of love, lust, anger, or jealousy.)

All animals are choice machines for two simple reasons. First, no organism can behave in all physically possible ways simultaneously. Second, alternative courses are not all equal. At any given moment, there are far more ways to behave disastrously than successfully (just as there are more ways to break a machine than to fix it). So persistence of existence consistently depends on one’s ability to choose nondisastrous courses of action.

Yet (indeed, fortunately) that choosing is channeled. Choices are initially constrained by the obvious—the time one has to decide, and the volume of brain tissue one can deploy to the task. Choices are also constrained by things we have long suspected but which science now increasingly clarifies.

From Bloom:

Common sense tells us that we exist outside of the material world—we are connected to our bodies and our brains, but we are not ourselves material beings, and so we can act in ways that are exempt from physical law. For every decision we make—from leaning over for a first kiss, to saying “no” when asked if we want fries with that—our actions are not determined and not random, but something else, something we describe as chosen.

This is what many call free will, and most scientists and philosophers agree that it is an illusion. Our actions are in fact literally predestined, determined by the laws of physics, the state of the universe, long before we were born, and, perhaps, by random events at the quantum level. We chose none of this, and so free will does not exist.

I agree with the consensus, but it’s not the big news that many of my colleagues seem to think it is. For one thing, it isn’t news at all. Determinism has been part of Philosophy 101 for quite a while now, and arguments against free will were around centuries before we knew anything about genes or neurons. It’s long been a concern in theology; Moses Maimonides, in the 1100s, phrased the problem in terms of divine omniscience: If God already knows what you will do, how could you be free to choose?

More important, it’s not clear what difference it makes. Many scholars do draw profound implications from the rejection of free will.

It doesn’t make much difference except to those who believe it makes a big difference. We know who they are.


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