You Probably Are …

Jerry Coyne has made a new post replying to Massimo Pigliucci’s arguments against his notion of free will. The title is “Am I unsophisticated about free will?” and my answer, after reading his post, is that he probably is. Free will is only a minor interest of mine, but I have obviously encountered the topic and some of the issues relate to phenomenal experience as well, so let me go through Coyne’s explanations one-by-one and show how he, at least, might be missing a few things.

His first point is about Pigliucci’s claim that his notion of free will is not empirically testable, meaning that, one would think, it’s a bad definition of free will. Coyne’s defense is basically that he may not be able to get direct empirical evidence, but he can get it indirectly, in two ways. The first is about the laws of physics:

I grant that we can’t rewind the tape of life, but that indirect evidence of two sorts suggests that my argument against free will is correct. First—and to me this is the decisive one—our brains are made of molecules. Molecules (and the neurons they make up) must obey the laws of physics. Our “decisions” are made by brains. Therefore our brains must obey the laws of physics. Absent any quantum indeterminacy, then (and that cannot constitute any portion of free will), what our brains do is determined and predicted by the laws of physics. Ergo, in any situation we could not have chosen otherwise: we cannot decide freely which of several alternatives we choose.

Now, here’s the problem: what does he mean by “the laws of physics”? The ones we currently have? At some point, the laws of physics as they were currently understood ruled out relativity, and even quantum indeterminancy. That last one is, in fact, the most important, because at one point science said that everything was determined, and then the quantum came along. Science didn’t throw its hands in the air and run screaming, it simply said “Oh, oops, I guess there are some things that aren’t determined” and included those in the new laws of physics. If we have free will, then, that mechanism will be included in the laws of physics as well, and so there will be no problem. Unless, then, Coyne has specific evidence that our decisions really are determined, he can’t appeal to the laws of physics to say that this incredibly common part of our everyday lives is just an illusion.

Another important point here is that compatibilists, in fact, are saying that we can have a meaningful free will that does conform to the laws of physics, and essentially that it is the mechanisms of physics that gives us meaningful decisions. So appealing to the laws of physics does nothing against compatibilists, and makes it unclear if Coyne is a determinist or compatibilist himself. Ultimately, an argument from an appeal to the current laws of physics is pretty weak. It essentially says “Well, I don’t know how this would work, so it doesn’t work and we don’t have it”. The automatic reply to that — and one that he uses against religion often enough — is that we should go and look harder to see if we can make it work, or something like it.

I argue that the onus for proof is on those people who claim that our decisions are free and not completely subject to the laws of physics. For these are the people who implicitly claim that our brains are free from physical law in such a way that allows us, at any given time, to freely decide among alternatives. It is not my responsibility to show that we have this sort of free will; everything we know about physics militates that.

But as we’ve just seen, that implicit claim is not there. Compatibilists explicitly reject that you need such a claim, and the history of science has shown that if we discover something that not only breaks the laws of physics but that breaks this exact law of physics we will, in fact, change the laws of physics. So why, then, is the onus on those who are saying “The world works the way it appears to work”? If your scientific theories really do say that what seems to be obviously true is really false, isn’t that the extraordinary claim that needs extraordinary evidence? Or is it immune simply because it’s a conclusion of science, even if it is only by necessity a tentative one (since science has already had to exclude things from the “everything is determined” rule)?

His second argument references the Libet arguments, and he concludes with this:

…but if we can show that some decisions are made unconsciously, that militates against any conscious decisions, and to me conscious decision-making is essential for my form of free will to obtain (see below).

Except that no one claims that all “decisions” are made consciously, or that unconscious decisions necessarily are free. There’s a spectrum here. At the far end are deliberated decisions, decisions made where you sit down, ponder, work out all the consequences, list pros and cons, consider opinions, and so on. This is the end where we say that if these decisions aren’t free, then no decisions are free. At the other end, we have instinctive and habitual reactions, such as sprinting for second at the crack of a bat, or rinsing out your mouth with water after using a mouthwash. These are actions, at least, that we don’t take consciously, but that we don’t think involve free will either. So if these sorts of automatic or random decisions are determined or can be predicted from our brains, then that really doesn’t have any impact on free will, or at least the free will that people really want to have. What this means is that Coyne needs an argument to make the move from these sorts of unconscious actions or decisions to conscious ones, and I have not seen that argument.

The second point is replying to an argument that the unknowns of physics create room for free will. He replies:

I’m just going by the currently known laws of physics, which appear to hold throughout the universe.

But, as we’ve seen, the current laws of physics already take into account things that are not determined, making any insistence that everything is determined unsupported. Additionally, we don’t have enough data on how decisions are made for the scientific evidence to encompass it. Thus, there is indeed plenty of room to reject the idea that the current laws of physics really ought to say anything about intentional states right now, let alone make such a dramatic statement that they’re all determined.

The next point is about pretty much what was said above, that experiments like Libet’s don’t address conscious decisions but only unconscious ones. Coyne talks a bit around it, but never really argues why we should take those unconscious results as indicative of the conscious decisions. Or, to put it better, why should actions that don’t demonstrate intentionality reflect on actions that do? I still don’t see an argument for this.

The fourth point is about Coyne’s suggestion that the illusion of free will might have evolutionary benefit. Pigliucci suggests that Coyne has no evidence for this. Coyne seems to agree, and replies:

But it doesn’t matter. I have no idea about why we have the illusion of free agency, nor am I deeply invested in an evolutionary, much less an adaptive, answer.

Well, except that I do think he has to care, and I think that’s why he suggested one in the first place. The reason is that deliberation, it seems, takes up a lot of energy. Spend a lot of time, say, trying to decide something important, which are the paradigm cases of choices we care about. As likely as not, it’ll tire you out. Pretty much any intellectual exercise that requires choosing will if intense enough. Even everyday thinking and choosing takes up a lot of energy; see anyone who works in business or computing or academics and see if it doesn’t make them tired at the end of the day. If a lot of that energy comes from generating the illusion of making decisions, why would creatures evolve that have this illusion? Sure, it could be just another screw-up of evolution, but that’s a bit odd for something that’s so prevalent and that, it seems, takes up so much time and energy.

The real issue here is this: if Coyne doesn’t think it can be selected for, then he’d have to conclude that it has no impact on our actual behaviour, at which point we have to wonder why we’d have it in the first place. But it will be difficult, I think, to find a way for it to impact our external behaviour without building in “Because it lets us behave in ways we wouldn’t if we didn’t have that illusion”, and that starts to approach a compatibilist position by suggesting that these internal choice mechanisms are mechanisms that impact what we do, and so are mechanisms that choose, even if it isn’t some odd kind of contra-causal choice that Coyne thinks free will requires.

The next one is about other philosophers, and about philosophy. Coyne says this:

I’ve read about the many ways philosophers have defined free will differently from me. And yes, if you change what you mean by “free will,” then you can find a way that we do have it. But I am addressing what I think is most people’s notion of free will, which I think is to some extent dualistic. Philosophers may have given up dualism, but my experience discussing this issue with others, including my biology colleagues, shows that almost without exception they have an unconscious dualism: that somehow we have some capacity to step inside our minds and influence their workings. To me, the only free will that matters is the ability at a single moment to choose freely between alternatives—that we could have done otherwise.

So … why does Coyne think that the views of people like biology colleagues and the man on the street are definitive views on what the concept of free will really is? Philosophers like Dennett and others are arguing that the view of free will that the average person has is just plain wrong, and that all of the problems we’re having are the result of seeing free will in that light. Dennett, explicitly, argues that the form of free will that matters, the one worth having is not the common, everyday, or even common philosophical definition. For Coyne to simply toss those aside, then, commits two grave errors. The first is that he ends up not actually addressing the arguments of his supposed opponents; he ignores that their disagreement with him is over the definition of free will and what it means, not just over the supposed consequences or scientific data. The second is that he is essentially arguing that we should trust folk definitions and conclusions over those of the relevant academic field of study. The only field that has, in fact, done full, in-depth work on what free will means, what the concept is, what its consequences are, how it ties to moral responsibility, and so on is philosophy. Philosophy has, in fact, been talking about this for quite a long time. Why does Coyne think that he can ignore what it’s concluded to rely on simple folk wisdom? Would we trust folk physics over physics? Would we trust a layman’s position on evolution over that of biologists? Of course not. So why is it acceptable here?

Coyne is, in fact, making a philosophical argument, and is in fact referencing philosophical positions. As such, he has an obligation to deal with the positions of his opponents and take into account the best data of philosophy. That he seems unwilling to do so would be charitably called “unsophisticated”.

I’ll skip the point on religion, actually, and so move on to the seventh point about discussions of what we should do if it is all determined:

In my piece I end by talking about the implications of realizing that we don’t have free will in the sense I define it. One is to give up the idea of punishment as retribution, another is to have more understanding for criminals, and not blame them for “making the wrong choice.” (I add here that perhaps we should not have so many regrets about our past, since we couldn’t have chosen otherwise.) Why would I make such prescriptions if I believe that all our actions are predetermined?

…such arguments do affect people, and can influence their decisions. It’s a common misconception of those who argue against my views that those views ineluctably promote a kind of nihilism, in which we should do nothing. Well, we don’t have the choice to do nothing: we’re humans and we must act as though we have free will, even if we don’t. It is an all-powerful illusion—perhaps an evolved one—which conditions all our behavior.

So, here we start to ask the question: what difference does having this illusion have in our lives? And this will lead into the radical skeptic point, which is next, but first I have a book recommendation: If Coyne has not already done so, he should read “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” by B.F. Skinner, to see if some of the behaviourist ideas are what he means when he suggests that some things might change. At least then he’d have a starting point for an overall view of how the world might be different if his view was adopted.

But let’s talk about radical skepticism. Coyne argues that we may well have to act as if we have free will. In some sense, this may well mean that we even have to believe it. If nothing he can do, then, will get us to drop this illusion of free will, then why should we consider it? If we knew that we didn’t have free will but were compelled to forget that we don’t by circumstances, there’d be a point, but I think it quite obvious that that isn’t the case. We simply don’t know enough to say. So what Coyne is doing, then, is saying that science is giving us reason to doubt that we have free will, and arguing then that we should therefore well and truly doubt it.

This is, in fact, quite similar to Bertrand Russell’s argument about the external world (so my recent page might be of interest). But Russell reacts against radical skepticism by saying that while there may be reason to doubt that there is an external world and so a problem that needs to be addressed, we shouldn’t drop the belief that there is an external world, mostly because we simply can’t do it and function in the world. The belief is too ingrained and too useful to drop. So the underlying philosophical work is to justify that belief, but philosophy can in no way overturn it that easily. And Russell even starts from the same starting point, arguing that science itself is what gives us reason to doubt.

So if Coyne can prove that we don’t have free will, then we have something that the radical skeptic does not. But if all he has is a reason to doubt, then he’s taking a radically skeptical position, and as Russell says (paraphrasing) no one can refute radical skepticism but you need another belief to overturn an existing one, not just a reason to doubt. Coyne’s other belief, it seems, would be that the world is deterministic, but that one has already been proven wrong, and so it may well be wrong here, too. We have reason, then, to doubt the belief he uses to introduce doubt, which makes things less certain that Coyne, I think, would like.

However, presumably Coyne believes that we don’t have free will. In order to argue that believing as he does will impact our lives, he needs to give some specific examples. So, how has it affected his everyday life? Does he treat his students, say, any differently believing that they don’t have free will and so don’t have moral responsibility? What specific measures is he proposing for society? In general, he talks about not treating punishment as retribution, but all sorts of people who believe in free will have argued for the same thing. What, then, will changing our beliefs buy us? What behaviour will it change? If it will change no behaviour and we are compelled to act as if we have free will anyway, why care? Why is his skeptical challenge to free will, then, any more important or meaningful than the Matrix challenge to the external world? Sure, this may be a Matrix world, but if there’s no difference between acting in a Matrix-world or real-world, then there’s no reason to care about that skeptical challenge, and by that if there’s no difference between acting in a world with free will than acting in a world without free will then, again, there’s no reason to care about Coyne’s skeptical challenge.

Coyne, presumably, will reply that science can come to know whether we really have free will or not, a point I am not unwilling to concede. However, my reply will be that until it does get that knowledge, I have no reason to treat it as anything other than a radical skeptic challenge, as something that we technically can doubt but that which it is, in fact, pointless to doubt. Until science or philosophy knows whether or not we have free will, I see no reason to not act freely.

So, why did I title this post “You Probably Are …”? Mostly for Coyne not understanding the compatibilist position and relying on the definitions of laypeople over those of philosophers. There are, of course, a lot of other issues, but a lot of those are really in-depth and can easily be missed, but that part is the bare minimum required to be saying anything useful or interesting philosophically. Fortunately, it’s easily correctable.



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