UPDATE: Apologies to Victor for suggesting that he himself was trying to save the words “free will,” which he wasn’t; he suggested replacing them with the word autonomy” (I’ve modified the text to that effect). As I read his piece yesterday and wrote mine this morening, I somehow forgot that Victor also called for a change in the retributive justice system, so I’ve crossed in the text the part that implies that he thinks otherwise. On that, as on most issues, we’re in agreement. However, I still disagree with his attempt to find some virtue in compatibilism by saying that our decisions are “ours.” His statement that “[compatibilists] 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” doesn’t seem like a very good point to me. It’s bloody obvious, and has little bearing on the issues. I don’t think we need to trawl our philosophy to try to save some idea of “responsibility” beyond “that person did it.”
Victor Stenger is still derailing the accommodationist juggernaut 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 all of us (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, he thinks we can salvage our notion of free will by 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,” how does that confer freedom? How does our unconscious make our decisions more “free”, especially because “free will” is classically connected with conscious decisions? Further, most of the decisions of other species are probably largely unconscious: programmed, hard-wired behaviors.
And so what if nobody else has access to our data, or that another brain 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.
And what does Stenger mean by the fact that we are “responsible” for our decisions? That’s another deepity, for all it means is that my “decisions” appear to emanate from the cranium of a person known as Jerry. But what about real responsibility: given determinism and the effect of our environment on our brains, how does that affect our notion of moral responsibility? As you know, I think it does, and should have an effect on how we treat criminals. Those who claim otherwise are, I think, ducking the scientific facts in favor of adhering to a comfortable status quo. Determinism should promote compassion.
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 are people trying to save the notion of free will by confecting other definitions? Why aren’t they, instead, telling the faithful that they can’t really choose whether to be saved or make Jesus their personal saviour? The faithful are dualists, and religion is our enemy. Much of religion is based on true dualism, and on the existence of a “soul.” Shouldn’t we be dispelling that dualism instead of engaging in arcane philosophical arguments about what “free will” really means?
What galls me most is when philosophers make a virtue of necessity by telling us that despite determinism and the illusion of dualism, what we do have is actually the kind of free will we want, and the only kind worth wanting. That’s not the kind of free will I want! I want the ability to choose freely among alternatives, just as I want to live forever. But we’re so constituted that neither of these is true. Still, I, like all of us, pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, it’s better to live with the truth: our brains are computers made of meat, and some day that meat will spoil.
Let’s just get rid of the words “we have free will,” and say instead that “our behavior is controlled by factors we don’t understand.” Isn’t that more accurate? (Stenger suggests using “autonomy”, which to me is less appealing because it means “free from external control and influence,” which still smacks of dualism).
Janna Levin, a polymath physicist at Columbia University (she does science, writes popular books as well as novels, and produces essays on art) was interviewed yesterday by Krista Tippett on the NPR show “Mathematics, purpose, and truth.” Have a listen: Levin is fiercely smart and articulate and has absorbed her science into her everyday life. She also agrees with Stenger and me about the lack of free will. Her discussion of God’s nonexistence is from 13:35 to 15:00 in the interview. Levin’s denial of free will goes from 17:45 to about 19:57, but do listen on to at least 21:30, as she connects the non-intuitiveness of modern physics with the peculiar way we evolved.
Although the odious Tippett tries to turn Levin into some type of quasi-religious or spiritual person (that’s Tippett’s schtick), Levin won’t be moved. She’s a hidebound atheist and a determinist. I have to say that listening to Tippett is like listening to fingernails on a blackboard. I can account for her popularity only by assuming that a large section of the educated, well-off, and liberal public that listens to NPR has a soft spot for spirituality.