More on Free Will

New post on Why Evolution Is True

Victor Stenger and Janna Levin on (our lack of) free will

by whyevolutionistrue

Victor Stenger is still fighting the accommodationist juggernaght at PuffHo with his latest contribution, “Free will is an illusion.”  I think it’s drawn from his new book, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, in which he covers the topic.

If you know my stand on free will (we don’t have it, at least in the dualistic or “we could have chosen otherwise” sense), you’ll know Victor’s.  He argues that quantum indeterminacy can’t operate at the level of the brain, and I’ll take his word for that, but even if it did it wouldn’t give us the kind of freedom that everyone (especially the faithful) want.

Where Victor and I part company is that, like nearly all New Atheists who write on this topic (Alex Rosenberg is an exception), Stenger appears to be a compatibilist: that is, we can still save our notion of free will be using a different definition:

But here’s some consolation. Even though at the quantum level there is no rigid determinism, the compatibilists are correct in viewing the operations of the brain as causal processes. They also make another good point when they argue that even if our thoughts and actions are the product of unconscious processes, they are still our thoughts and actions. In other words, “we” are not just our conscious minds, but rather the sum of both conscious and unconscious processes. While others can influence us, no one has access to all the data that went into the calculation except our unique selves. Another brain operating according to the same decision algorithms as ours would not necessarily come up with the same final decision since the lifetime experiences leading up to that point would be different.

So, although we don’t have libertarian free will, if a decision is not controlled by forces outside ourselves, natural or supernatural, but by forces internal to our bodies, then that decision is ours. If you and I are not just some immaterial consciousness (or soul) but rather our physical brains and bodies, then it is still “we” who make our decisions. And after all, that’s what the brain evolved to do, whatever role consciousness might play. And, therefore, it is “we” who are responsible for those decisions.

To me that’s not free will in any meaningful sense: all he’s saying here, really, is that individuals appear to make decisions and perform actions.  That’s true of every animal that’s even remotely sentient.  So if our decisions are “ours,” so are those of rotifers, snakes, and squirrels.  When he says “‘we’ are not just our conscious minds, but rather the sum of both conscious and unconscious processes,” what does that add to our freedom? How does our unconscious make our decisions more “free”, especially because “free will” is classically connected with conscious decisions? And so what if nobody else has access to our data, or that another brain that is wired differently would make different choices? Two computers that are wired or programmed differently would also make different decisions, but that doesn’t give them free will.

Our decisions are ours, a rotifer’s decisions are its, and Fluffy the Cat’s decisions are hers.  These are just words—almost deepities in the Dennett-ian sense.  What is important to me is whether our decisions are predetermined (with perhaps a dollop of quantum indeterminacy), and therefore we lose our freedom to really make different choices when given alternatives.  The old notion of true freedom—the ability to do otherwise—has been killed dead by science.  Why aren’t people emphasizing that rather than trying to save free will by using other definitions, or, worse, telling us that determinism and the illusion of dualistic really is really the kind of free will we want. That’s not the kind of free will I want! I want the ability to choose freely among alternatives, but I don’t have it.  But I, like all of us, pretend otherwise.

Let’s just get rid of the words “I have free will” and say instead that “my behavior is controlled by factors I don’t understand.” Isn’t that more accurate?

About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence. Artificial Intelligence Foundation Latvia, http://www.artificialintelligence.lv Editor.
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One Response to More on Free Will

  1. Stephen Lawrence says:

    We don’t have free will in the sense people believe and that’s a good thing. It’s harmful to believe in it and that is the practical reason to discuss it.

    We need to make judgements about different courses of actions we could have taken or could take and so we need to make sense of could have done otherwise. If I don’t make dinner tonight my wife will be understandably upset if I could do but choose not to. This doesn’t mean could with precisley the same past, however. We can’t do away with this completely because it would be impossible to judge behaviour and have rules about what to do about it for consequential reasons.

    “Why aren’t people emphasizing that rather than trying to save free will by using other definitions, or, worse, telling us that determinism and the illusion of dualistic really is really the kind of free will we want. ”

    Because they don’t get that belief in Libertarian free will is harmful. It’s odd that this is the case amongst skeptics, usually they are wary of erroneous beliefs and the harm they do but in this case it goes over peoples heads time and time again. There are notable exceptions. Einstein was one and recently another is Sam Harris who argues against Libertarian free will because of the benefits of not believing in it. Tom Clark has made a significant contribution and continues to do so.

    “That’s not the kind of free will I want! I want the ability to choose freely among alternatives, but I don’t have it. But I, like all of us, pretend otherwise.”

    Big mistake here. This suggest it’s possible to choose any more freely than compatibilism allows. But how?

    Like

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