Avoiding free will discussion

by Neil Rickert

Jerry Coyne has posted a question on his blog site:

I’ll comment here, because I think I am banned from posting comments to Coyne’s site.

People avoid these discussions because they know, perhaps from experience, that such discussions produce a lot of heat but very little light.

Here’s the problem:

  • There cannot be any credible evidence against free will.  For any such evidence would already demonstrate that the evidence was not freely obtained.  And if the evidence was not freely obtained, then it cannot make a credible case against free will.
  • There cannot be any credible evidence for free will.  For we cannot rule out the possibility of hidden variables, so that what looks free is really determined.

And that leaves arguments at an impasse.

In my experience, arguments about free will are pretty much disagreements over the meaning of “free will”.


11 Comments to “Avoiding free will discussion”

  1. Libertarian free Will is logically impossible, so no amount of evidence could ever rescue it from said logical impossibility. The reason it is impossible is because it is incompatible with determimism and indeterminism (randomness) and that means that either option in the dichotomy negates libertarian free will and is therefore logicallu impossible. People can talk about other forms of free will being logically or physically possible but that’s irrelevant to the libertarian brand of free will that Coyne and others are typically referring to.


  2. If we look at the simulation hypothesis of reality, the imposed reality both internal and external are governed by constraints, and spontaneous processes.
    Physical constraints ensure that no two macro objects can occupy the same place at the same time, and other general conditions. Processes all behave spontaneously, the sun shines, your heart beats, and planets orbit the sun.
    The operation of the human brain is not identical to a rock. Seventeenth century Newtonian physics only applies for a certain magnitude of time and space. At the ultra large and ultra small, Newton approaches irrelevancy.
    I think that the ability to learn gives us the ability to chose and act on that choice….freedom! Thinking and learning are both processes, but the learning is voluntary and can be suppressed or enhanced by choice.


    • I think you are saying that this does not seem to be the kind of world you would expect if it were deterministic. I agree. However, we cannot rule out that it is determined in a very subtle way that is not apparent to us.

      Other folk, including Jerry Coyne, look at the world and concluded that it is determined. They seem to get that from the fact that laws of physics are deterministic. I don’t find that kind of thinking persuasive.

      I agree with what I take to be your view. My working hypothesis is that the cosmos is not fully deterministic, and that we have some sort of free will. But I also acknowledge that we there are people who disagree. There may never be evidence that could settle that disagreement. And it might always be unclear what “some sort of free will” could mean.


      • The quantum double split experiments lend support to the free will conclusion. Tom Campbell has done a lot of work regarding the philosophical implications. Also Amit Goswami, a renounced Quantum physicist concludes with his belief in free will and has inspired the experiments to support it!


  3. It just seems unlikely to me that a free mind is not necessary in order to overcome the constraints imposed by reality. Otherwise we would be following the paths of lower organisms that learn over time by trial and error alone, and pay the cost for this in a long and difficult process.


  4. There is no such thing as “freedom from reliable causation”. The concept is an oxymoron, because without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and thus would have no freedom to do anything at all.

    Therefore, a reasonable person must conclude that “free will”, or any other use of the words “free” or “freedom”, cannot possibly be taken to mean “freedom from reliable causation”.

    Since it cannot, it does not.

    When people speak of “free will”, they are referring to those cases where a person decides for themselves what they “will” do, when “free” of coercion or undue influence. EVERYONE understands and correctly applies this definition in most practical scenarios. It requires nothing supernatural. It makes no assertion of “uncaused” choices (just ask anyone why they chose A rather than B and they’ll happily give you the reasons why A was the better choice!).

    And yet this simple definition is quite sufficient for both moral and legal responsibility.

    As for determinism, it simply asserts that every event is reliably caused by someone or something. So it poses no problem for determinism if the cause happens to be a person who has deliberately made a choice and now acts upon it. There is no break in the causal chain. There is perfectly reliable causation up to the point where the person encounters the problem or issue that must be decided. There is perfectly reliable causation within the deterministic process by which the person chooses the option that best suits their own purpose and their own reasons. And there is perfectly reliable causation following the person’s actions to implement that option.

    There is no conflict.


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