In a comment on my post about Sam Harris’s new book (Free Will) yesterday, reader coelsblog said the following:
This whole conversation would be much, much more straightforward if people managed to accept that compatibilists really, really do reject “strong free will”. They are then wanting to have the next stage of the conversation; but that requires that non-compatibilists accept that compatibilism is indeed a rejection of strong free will.
I gather from the discussion, and most of the comments on free will here I’ve read in the past, that nearly all of us reject dualism and the idea that we could, at the point of a decision, have made any choice other than the one we did. Most of us are determinists, accepting that—save for some quantum blips that, even if they exist, can’t factor into free will—our decisions are controlled entirely by the laws of physics, and (if we had perfect knowledge) would be predictable, at least in the short term.
Given that we all agree on these issues, what comes next?
When thinking about this yesterday, it struck me that the “next step” here involves neither theologians nor philosophers, but scientists and experiments. While philosophers have spent many pages trying to show that determinism is compatible with free will, there is no unanimity on how this “compatibilism” is supposed to go down (for an overview of all the different “solutions” that rescue free will from determinism, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s articles here and here).
I’m not sure where this philosophical lucubration has led, nor whether it constitutes “progress” in any meaningful sense. I don’t think it’s lead to any increased knowledge about the world, and the average person is going to go on believing in libertarian free will anyway, since that average person doesn’t read about compatibilism. (You could respond that the average person doesn’t read about neurospsychology experiments on volition, either, but at least those experiments increase our knowledge of the world.)
Philosophers will kill me for this, but I think it’s time that free will be considered the bailiwick of neuroscientists and psychologists rather than philosophers. (They’ll be angry, of course, because they protect their turf fiercely against amateurs like me who lack formal training in philosophy.) Our real understanding of how decisions are made is going to come not from philosophy but from science. Here’s where I think progress can be made:
- Find out how people really conceive of free will, and whether they’re dualists who believe one can actually choose freely among alternatives at any given moment. Yes, I know some studies seem to show that many aren’t dualists, but I’ve read those studies and haven’t found them very convincing.
- If people are dualists, we need to tell them that there is no free will in the contracausal sense. This is what I have been doing, and, to a large extent, what Sam’s book does. Many here seem loath to do that; indeed, some have said that we have to keep the precious knowledge of determinism to ourselves lest it discombobulate the “masses”. I find that condescending and invidious: above all, we must speak the truth. After all, rejecting contracausal free will does have practical implications, at least for the justice system, as well as for people’s scientific view of how their brains work.
- We need more psychological experiments like those described in Daniel Wegner’s book, The Illusion of Conscious Will (I like that book though it’s a bit overwritten), and like the Libet and Soon et al. experiments. These studies—criticize them as you will—tell us something about how “decisions” are formed in our minds, where the neurons for those decisions lie, and about the time course of how we act. Other studies like those Wegner describes tell us how people conceive of their agency when acting, and how notions of personal agency can be either increased or deceased by experimental manipulation.
- And finally, we need more studies of the brain. How do diseases, injuries, or manipulations affect our notion of agency? What parts are responsible for the idea that we can really make choices? And, most important, what actually goes into play, neurologically, when we are faced with alternative actions and “choose” one?
While I don’t think advances in our empirical understanding of personal agency will come from philosophy (they can’t, for most philosophy is not empirically based), that is not to say that philosophical rumination on the problem of free will is worthless. It isn’t. It’s helped clarify our thinking on the problem, particularly about the notion of determinism, though I don’t think highly of the many attempts philosophers have made to buttress compatibilism. Those haven’t resulted in a widely agreed-on solution, and so we have many conflicting “solutions” with no way to choose among them. That, of course, is reminiscent of theology, and I think that philosophical treatments of free will have indeed paralleled theology in several respects (trying to prop up cherished notions, the production of many conflicting and irreconcilable “solutions,” and so on).
The value of philosophy in this area is to keep our thinking from becoming muddy. But I think philosophy has, for the nonce, done all it can now on the free-will problem. It’s time for the scientists to butt in. And, maybe after science has made some advances, the philosophers can chew those over.
Oh, and one more suggestion.
5. Abandon the term “free will” and replace it with something like “the appearance of having made a decision.” That’s more value-free and less laden with the baggage of dualism. If we insist on using the term, then we should immediately say that “free will” is not contracausal and give our own definition of the term. But I’d prefer to deep-six those two fraught words. “Free” is just too misleading.
Of course I invite readers to either respond or give their suggestions for where the discussion about free will, and empirical studies of the idea, needs to go.