Free will madness

by Neil Rickert

A few days ago, of his own free will Jerry Coyne blogged about why he thinks that we don’t have free will.  Apparently William Eggington, in yesterday’s New York Times, said “Yes we do.”  Today, apparently of his own free will, Coyne again says “No we don’t.”  And then he comments on how we can use our free will to deal with the problem of not having free will.

It’s a mess.  Discussions of free will always turn out to be messy, generating more heat than light.

The real story, is that people do not agree on what they even mean by “free will.”

Coyne is using Anthony Cashmore’s definition:

I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

That seems to suggest that free will implies an ability to circumvent physics or causation (or however we should describe it).  That is surely too strong a definition.  Usually, free will is associated with moral responsibility for one’s actions.  That does not seem to demand any violation of causation.

Science requires that the experimenter be able to vary conditions at will in his experiments.  Accordingly, I like to define free will as “the ability to make the kind of independent decisions that are required to do science.”  Fewer people will deny that kind of free will.

2 Comments to “Free will madness”

  1. “Discussions of free will always turn out to be messy, generating more heat than light.”

    Made me chuckle. Nice post.

    I like the precision of Coyne’s response: we don’t have Cashmore’s “free will” in a deterministic universe, but our actions are still unpredictable since we can’t know everything.

    I agree that Coyne’s mistaken about people’s intuitive notion of free will, which is probably a more general version of your own. But under that definition, “free will” (the ability to decide) is reduced to a function of our minds, still controlled and bound by the invisible but very real strings of determinism. Why call it “free”?


  2. “Why call it ‘free’?”
    We are stuck with the language we have. If we analyze concepts for what the words supposedly mean, then it mostly won’t makes.

    Personally, I treat “free will” as a single concept with a composite name. So I don’t try to resolve it into separate parts “free” and “will.”


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