Tilting at Free-Will Mills

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?

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.

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4 thoughts on “Tilting at Free-Will Mills

  1. Jack Laughlin

    Just a class or two ago, I evoked this new media interest (not surprising my students were unaware). In any case, I was explaining the full conception of karma and rebirth (with respect to Buddhism in this case) including the element of samskara (disposition or intention) which entails the idea of restraints on the will. All of which is to say or ask, where does this pseudo-problem of the will and its freedom exist? That these ‘scientists’ riff off the idea is suspect.

  2. Jayarava

    I have a similar take on free will. We only talk about it at all because of theodicy and early Christian fathers rather desperate attempts to account for evil in the presence of an omnipotent loving god. Militant Atheists only talk about it because they are ideologically opposed to anything Christians talk about. So we get this inflation of the importance and relevance of the problem; and a consequent polarisation.

    What is the problem of free will in the absence of the Doctrine of Original Sin? If not for original sin would we even think in terms of free will?

    Like Jack (above) I’m interested in Buddhism where free will is not an issue: we have will and it is constrained in various ways (e.g. physical, genetic, psychological and social). The important thing seems to be that we can learn . In moral terms (since free will is ultimately a moral problem) we can become more able to take responsibility for our actions; we can consciously cause less harm, and do more good in our relations with other people.

    The free will story is the symptomatic of the unhealthy polarisation between fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism – both sides becoming increasingly politicised. The first part of this blog: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2012/03/who_would_god_vote_for.html (down to the first video clip) shows how the religious right got politicised in the USA. Since the 1970s there’s been a kind of arms race in the USA between conservative religieux and conservative scientists. And the media loves nothing more than a conflict!

    Everyone quotes Darwin (for or against) but no one bothers to look at how he approached the theological implications of his discoveries – which was to quietly allow the facts speak for themselves.

    It is quite amusing to watch scholars weighing the facts and choosing to reject the notion that they are free to reject free will. And then claim that no choice was involved in the decision making process. But I choose not to believe them.

  3. Cris Post author

    Jayarava — very nicely put, and I especially enjoyed the conundrum you so aptly posed at the end: I too find it amusing to watch these guys choose but not choose to reject free will. They aren’t much for paradox, so I doubt they’d appreciate it.

    Jack — I think the pseudo-problem of free will is especially important only to small opposing groups of vociferous people; in other words, New Atheists on the one hand and their opponents on the other. Not very exciting.

  4. Sabio Lantz

    Massimo Pigliucci is another atheist that is interested in this issue but takes a different spin than Coyne. I have never gotten into the details, but more than understanding the philosophy, I think that understanding WHY it is important to these people is interesting.

    For me, it is like Opera. Lots of people I respect love Opera but I totally don’t get it. Maybe if I keep trying …. but I won’t. :-)

    On a side note, I find the expression “militant atheist” tells me more about the person who uses it than about the people they think they are describing.

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