And I’m Free … Free-Willin’ …

Jerry Coyne has once again decided to make a foray into the philosophical, continuing his off and on discussions of free will. I’ve commented before how science doesn’t support his determinisitic view as well as he’d like, and also gone over how what it means to make a choice is really important, so I’m not sure if there’s much more to say, but I will take on, again, Coyne’s understanding of philosophy … or lack thereof.

Note that someone else has taken Coyne to task over that in the comments, and Coyne replies:

And, contra what you said, I’ve read a great deal of literature on free will. You can say that I’m wrong, but not that I’m unacquainted with the problem and the proposed solutions.

To which my reply is that that sort of answer didn’t stop Coyne from accusing Fodor of basically the same thing in what Darwin got wrong. Mere acquaintance is not knowledge (and for those of you familiar with some epistemic theories, yes, the double meaning is intentional [grin]).

Anyway, onto the text. Coyne starts from here:

Now that materialism is the dominant paradigm in all the sciences, what on earth do we do about free will? If all of our “free” decisions are really predetermined—perhaps long in advance—by a combination of our biology and our environment, and our brain is simply a concatenation of cells that must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, how can any of our decisions be “free”? And if what we do for the rest of our lives has already been determined by the laws of physics—absent, perhaps a tad of quantum indeterminacy—how can we be held responsible for our actions?

1) Since materialism is a philosophical paradigm and as Coyne admits has been adopted by the sciences, why should philosophers care? If the acceptance is methodological, then philosophy can happily ignore that commitment and go on their merry way. If it is metaphysical, then philosophers don’t need to care that the sciences think it’s true if it has absurd or contradictory philosophical implications, such as insisting that we don’t really have free will.

2) Why is Coyne so certain that materialism means that everything is determined? What is his definition of the philosophy of materialism that insists that everything must be determined or else it isn’t material? As I stated when pointing out that science doesn’t support Coyne as well as he thinks it does, quantum events are not, in fact, determined. These things, however, are still considered material, last time I checked (and must be, or else Coyne’s statement is just plain wrong) now we have things that are material and not determined. Sure, you can say that they’re just random … but then on what grounds does Coyne insist that there cannot be any other possible material thing that fills in the intermediary position between determined and random? Not past history, experience or investigation, surely.

He does raise the issue, correctly, that responsibility is a problem here, which is good. But we need to see how that shakes out …

How do people conceive of free will, though? My own definition, which I think corresponds to most people’s take, is that if you could rerun the tape of life back to the moment a decision is made, with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment, and the circumstances leading up to it, remaining the same, you could have chosen differently. If you couldn’t, then determinism reigns and we’re not free agents, at least as most people think of them.

Philosophers don’t like that notion—the idea that we’re all puppets on the strings of physics. So they do what theologians do when a Biblical claim is disproven: they simply redefine free will in a way that allows us to retain it. Like the story of Adam and Eve, it becomes a metaphor, with a meaning very different from how it was once used.

Well, the first problem here is that Coyne’s take on the conception is a massively oversimplified one. The idea is that you could have, indeed, chosen differently, but that depends strongly on what is meant by choice. Does the concept of free will really insist on this specific example? Because it is so oversimplified, it is not, in fact, clear that most people do think of it that way, or at least in the way that Coyne thinks of it, especially since the “with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment” is almost certainly not part of it. And right here is where things start to unravel, since compatibilist philosophers can argue that if free will — whatever it is — is nothing more than something implemented in the brain and is material, then it would be nothing more than the actions of the concatenations of molecules, and so Coyne’s statement that we could not choose otherwise because of the state of our molecules would be true and yet would not in any way impact free will. This whole argument depends on his move from materialism to determinism in the first place, but that’s not a safe assumption.

Additionally, even if that is what people think free will is — Nahmias denies this and gives some evidence, and there are more studies of this than just the one he cites — that doesn’t mean that that is, indeed, how free will should be conceived. The majority of people could be wrong. Philosophers are not, as Coyne puts it, redefining the term, but trying to clarify what it, in fact, really means. Why is he so certain that they — who have spent years and with access to all the debates over thousands of years — are wrong and Coyne and the person on the street are right?

The line about it turning into a metaphor is, in fact, just plain wrong. It remains no such thing. It may well change meanings from how that’s being used, but since philosophy is about conceptial analysis this is like saying that electricity change from how it was originally thought to be, or gravity. We thought it was something and turned out to be wrong about that. Oh, well; update and move on. If Coyne is unwilling to allow philosophy and theology to update their concepts then let’s hold science to the same standard and see how well it does (likely, not well at all).

What he doesn’t seem to realize is that we haven’t defined it out of existence, but rather science has shown that earlier “dualistic” views of free will, in which a spirit overrules matter, are simply wrong. If free will as most people understand it rests on a misconception, then correcting that misconception eliminates the common notion of free will. Our brains are our minds, our minds are what “appear” to make decisions, our brains are subject to the laws of physics, and there is no way to override those laws with some nebulous “will”. Q.E.D.

Congratulations, he’s refuted — he thinks — the common notion of free will. Wonderful. But who thought that that was the only or even the best conception of free will in the first place? The “dualistic” notion was never more than just an hypothesis about how it work, and hypothesis derived and supported, mostly, by the idea that matter was deterministic. When faced with accepting that everything was materialistic and therefore that meant that we can’t have free will, many people rejected materialism because it led to something that was absurd. What was absurd? The idea that none of our choices matter or do anything, that we are all doing nothing more than going through the motions. And it is this that philosophers are concerned about, and this that philosophers are trying to preserve with their “redefinition”.

Now, I’m sure that Coyne is familiar with the idea that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The idea that all of our mental deliberations are nothing more than going through the motions is certainly extraordinary; it undercuts all of our common experience and would make everything doubtful if it didn’t lead to the absurd conclusion that being convinced by the argument is something that is also pre-determined and that we are going through the motions on. So where is Coyne’s extraordinary evidence? He continually cites one study that doesn’t in fact test the most relevant behaviour and choices, and he’s also got a presumption that works well for situations that are not the really interesting ones. Hardly extraordinary. And without that, he has no cause whatsoever to chide philosophers for simply redefining something they don’t like; they have very good reasons not to like it and he doesn’t have strong enough evidence to address those reasons yet.

In commenting on Nahmias’ “redefinition”, Coyne says:

But all it does is describe the workings of our complex brains, which take in many different inputs before producing an output—a “decision.” We aren’t really free to “imagine future courses of action”: the fact that we do this is purely a result of our evolution, our personal history, and the structure of our brain.

Yes, most compatibilists will probably agree with that. Nahmias certainly seems to. But what they’re doing is identifying that the important thing about free will is choice, and so saying “Free will is choice, but we now know that choosing is a brain function, therefore free will is realized in acting on that specific brain function of choosing“. What it means to have free will is to be able to choose, and brains have a function called choosing, and so as long as you are exercising that, you’re choosing and have free will. And, in having free will you have moral responsibility. Choosing, then, is not an illusion, but an actual material process just like digesting, and you can say that “we” are responsible for our choices in the same way that you can say that the stomach is (mostly) responsible for digestion. It’s just a natural process, like any other. Not an issue.

Coyne presumes that it being part of the brain means that it is determined and not choosing in the right sort of way to impact free will, but he doesn’t argue it. But he needs to argue it. Why can’t they make the move? His big scientific push is to reduce, as we’ve seen, choosing to a brain operation, but that in and of itself does not mean that we don’t have an interesting notion of choice that can get us what we want out of free will and can maintain moral responsibility. And we certainly won’t be able to say that the term “free will” should be dropped until we know how this new data impacts that concept and what we meant by it. At that point, Coyne is quibbling over terminology in a field that is not his.

Note that I reject the compatibilist position for reasons similar to Coyne’s. I think that biological determination does mean that we don’t have any interesting form of choice, because since the brain events proceed one after the other they could do that without any actual phenomenal choice being made at all, or with completely different factors (so, you decide to get married because your consciousness says that you like cheeseburgers). It’s hard to imagine that there’s any real choice going on here at all. But I’m not insisting they’re wrong about this; I’m skeptical and think that without better arguments and evidence this isn’t the best solution. Coyne rejects it flat-out and insists it’s wrong to reconcile free will/choosing and determinism that way. Also, his rejection means that he turns choosing into an illusion, while mine says that the common experience is right and so the presumptions of science must be at least inadequate to deal with this case. How does Coyne expect to deal with someone like me who accepts his premises but then demands that he actually prove it and not presume it?

Ultimately, Coyne’s arguments are based primarily on presumptions and not on actual evidence, fact, or argumentation. I see no need to accept something that so radically contradicts our common knowledge until he knows far more than he does right now, and don’t see why that would be a problem. Nor do I see there being anything wrong with people trying to see how maybe if determinism is true we could still preserve free will and meaningful choice, even if I think it won’t work. That’s what’s going on here philosophically, and Coyne does not quite seem to get that.


One Response to “And I’m Free … Free-Willin’ …”

  1. Apropost Says:

    “Ultimately, Coyne’s arguments are based primarily on presumptions and not on actual evidence, fact, or argumentation.”

    And he’s completely blind to how he betrays his own “principles” of logic and evidence.

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