Libertarianism and the Evidence

So, in chapter 3 of Derk Pereboom’s “Living Without Free Will”, he talks about how agent-causal libertarian views on free will face challenges aligning with the empirical evidence.  And as per usual I’m not going to go into those arguments in detail — they’ve been done before — but instead am going to focus on the overarching attitude that tries to justify that, which is a very common one in all of the debates over consciousness:  the ignoring of the only real evidence anyone really has in favour of the supposed objective scientific and empirical evidence that supposedly works against it.

At one point, Pereboom concludes that while he can’t actually use the empirical evidence to rule out agent-causal libertarianism, the onus is on the advocates of that position to provide evidence that that position is correct.  Otherwise, if compatibilism fails then hard determinisms are the only options for explaining our free will (or, in that case, the lack of it). But what he has focused on in the chapter is discussions of neurons and the brain and things like that, to force the libertarian into positing some kind of non-physical entity that does that.  What he has been mostly ignoring is the actual experience that makes us think that there’s anything that needs to be explained, which is our inner thoughts and deliberations and how they all seem to align perfectly with the choices we make and actions we ultimately take.  Yes, there may be influences from things outside of us, but every day we make choices about what we do and want to do and every day our actions align with that, and when they don’t align we can pretty much always find some kind of external interference that caused us to switch actions at the last minute.  We forgot about some of our wants.  We were reminded of something.  We unconsciously followed an old habit instead of doing the new thing we wanted to try to do.   And so on.  Our mental life and physical actions in the world seem in perfect step, and our mental life suggests that we are really making choices that determine that physical action.  How is it it, then, that the actual experiences that we are using to define and talk about free will don’t count as strong evidence in favour of our position?  Shouldn’t it be the case that the hard determinists have to provide really, really strong evidence to show that those defining experiences are indeed misleading?

And it turns out that despite their assurances, they don’t have strong evidence.  When everything else that we encountered in the world seemed deterministic, they could make a case that since that was the case for everything else and our minds not only had to interact with a physical brain that worked that way but could even be claimed to be nothing more than a physical brain that worked that way then we had good reason to think that the mind had to work that way, too.  Sure, that was shaky, but it at least raised the interesting conundrum of either having to argue that mind was not-physical and yet somehow interacted with the physical world or else being able to explain how the mind and the “physical” world interacted while having to give up any non-deterministic elements that we thought we had.  But as noted last time, when quantum interactions were discovered this completely killed that argument (although physicalists don’t seem to understand that).  The reason isn’t that we can use probabilistic models to preserve free will — as they are right that randomness doesn’t help either — but that we’ve shown that we can indeed have different models in the physical world, or the world we consider physical.  Free will, then, could easily be built out of some kind of intensional model, and lots of the issues that non-physical minds are posited to solve are indeed ones where intensionality is required.  That some things, then, like minds might have to use this model in the same way as quantum things need to use the probabilistic model instead of the deterministic one is certainly a live option, and determinists haven’t found a credible deterministic explanation for why we have the experiences we have if they don’t actually do what they look like they’re doing.  As I noted in posts here talking about Jerry Coyne’s objections to free will — that I’m not going to look up at the moment — how in the world did we evolve these sorts of elaborate internal decision-making models if they don’t actually do anything?  Evolution can only select for things if they themselves provide value or else get dragged along with something else that has value.  Unless these experiences are just inherently part of a brain like ours doing that sort of thing, those experiences need to have a purpose, and determinists can’t find a purpose for them if they are causally inert.  And we have no reason to think that these experiences are just inherently part of brain like ours doing that sort of thing.

So physicalists and materialists are making a mistake by assuming that all the evidence we have and the important evidence we have aligns with their idea.  Yes, we know that our experiences can indeed be illusory or mistaken.  When we stick the stick in water, it doesn’t really bend even though it looks like it bends.  But we have lots of good evidence to show us that it doesn’t really bend in water.  Determinists have not provided that evidence for free will, and seem to be retreating to the outdated idea that the world itself refutes the idea rather than providing that solid evidence.  At a minimum, libertarians have good evidence for some sort of meaningful free will, and so it’s a clash of evidence/interpretation or an issue over what someone wants explained or considers the more important evidence, not a case where determinists have all the evidence on their side and the libertarians then need to find some evidence to oppose them.

And this is reflected in the rather popular position of compatibilism.  Why is this position so popular?  Because it still takes our experiences of choices seriously and insists that, yes, they still have meaning and roughly mean what we think they mean.  The challenge for those positions is finding a way to reconcile those experiences with a deterministic physical world in a way that doesn’t leave them as libertarians or determinists that have actually solved their dilemmas, but they don’t challenge the physicalist notions like the libertarians do but also don’t dismiss our experiences like the hard determinists do.  If the position works, it’s the one with the least challenges.  However, it’s hampered by, well, having to actually solve those challenges first before it can come up with a credible theory.


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