That free will thingie

by Neil Rickert

I’m not sure what it is about the concept of “free will”, but discussions of it always seem to bring out more heat than light.  Recently, Jerry Coyne, over at the Why Evolution Is True site (he doesn’t like it being called a blog), has made several posts on the topic of free will.  Then he promised no more, at least for a month.  His post today, Why your concept of “free will” is important is the second one that breaks the promise (as Jerry admits).

I remember reading a book, several years ago, on the question of free will and determinism.  The author was a determinist and incompatibilist, meaning that he held the view that we live in a deterministic world in which there is no free will.  After presenting his thesis that denies free will, the author had a chapter which amounted a discussion of what you could do about the fact that you now know that you do not have free will.  Or, as I like to describe it, that was a chapter about how you can use the free will that you do not have so as to make changes in your life that accommodate you to the fact that you do not have free will.

Well, that makes no sense at all.

Looking at Jerry Coyne’s latest post, I note that he says:

But that doesn’t end the discussion of determinism versus nondeterminism of human behavior, because one’s view on that question has profound implications for whether and how we punish people.

In effect, Jerry is saying that now that you know that the criminals did not have the free will to avoid committing the crime, you must use the free will that you do not have, in order to change how society deals with criminals.

Sorry, but that does not make sense either.

6 Responses to “That free will thingie”

  1. I think the free will argument is being argued at the wrong scope.

    While on a global scale you can claim determinism, at a local scale you can’t.

    As an example, a General orders an assault on the enemy, and the soldiers under his command have no freedom to do otherwise. At a local level however, a Sargeant has the free will to decide how his squad will carry out that global order from the General.

    The same thing applies to programming when a junior coder creates a function required by the system architect.

    So while the universe can be considered deterministic, at the local level our human consciousness occupies, we have and should exercise, what we perceive as free will.


    • I think the free will argument is being argued at the wrong scope.

      But perhaps there is no “right scope”.

      I’m inclined to think that the whole concept is muddled, and that the debates are much talking past one another.


  2. Neil, ou have just dismissed compatibilism without an argument. You don’t have to argue against it, but obviously it makes perfect sense to a compatibilist. Jerry’s not so dumb as you make him out to be.


    • A compatibilist says that we have free will. Jerry says that we don’t have free will. I don’t see him as a compatibilist. So, no, I don’t think I have dismissed compatibilism.


  3. Neil Rickert: “But perhaps there is no “right scope”.”

    Let me replace my “right scope” term with “appropriate scope”.

    Just like an “absolute moral code” appears to be unbounded by context, simply saying “free will” implies that there is only one reality where the term applies.

    We are like actors in a play, constrained by our roles to respond in a manner dictated by the writer and director, but on a different level, the characters themselves appear to have free will as they make decisions and react to them until the final curtain.

    Which is the “real” reality?



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