This came to my attention through a linking attempt, and doesn’t merit a long response, but it’s an argument new to me. At a website called Theo-Sophical Ruminations, whose author describes him/herself someone whose “professional training is in theology, but I am an avid student of Christian apologetics,” there’s a post that seems quite critical of my views on free will. Called “Coyne on free-will: ‘we don’t have free will’ but ‘we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose“, the piece chastises me for saying that I behave as if I have real libertarian free will, even though intellectually I believe my choices are a determined product of my genes and my environment. That’s is supposed to be a real problem.
Here’s what the blogger says,
Scientists say the darndest things. Last January I blogged on an article Jerry Coyne wrote in USA Today regarding free will. At one point he said, “So if we don’t have free will, what can we do? One possibility is to give in to a despairing nihilism and just stop doing anything. But that’s impossible, for our feeling of personal agency is so overwhelming that we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose and get on with our lives.” Coyne is still spinning the same gobbledygook. Recently, on Coyne’s own blog, a commentator took Coyne to task for acting as though humans have freedom, while being adamant that they do not.
“Yes, I think that all human actions are predetermined and not under some kind of dualistic control. Nevertheless we all, including incompatibilists like myself, act as if we have choices, for our feeling of agency is strong. So please don’t say that I shouldn’t make “should” statements because of that. I will act as though I have free choices even though I don’t. And of course you have to admit that what I say, determined or not, can influence the future actions of others. . . .” [it goes on]
I’m not sure exactly why that’s gobbledygook, nor does the writer give a reason. We have a strong feeling of agency, and that may be a product of natural selection—I’m not sure. But regardless, that feeling of agency is there, and pervasive, even though it may be a confabulation. We know such confabulations exist, for we’re all aware of cases in which people pretend to themselves that they’re making a choice when they’re really not, either because we “know” them so well that we’re aware of their self-deception. More obvious cases come from neuroscience, whose practitioners can stimulate brains and cause automatic responses (like waving one’s hand) that the subject interprets as a free choice (“I was waving at a nurse”). Likewise, psychology experiments with Ouija-board type setups clearly show that subjects think they are moving a cursor or an object when they’re not influencing its movement at all. These things are indisputable. So what’s the problem?
In response, the unknown blogger simply levels a criticism of my remark made by David Heddle, a Calvinist physicist in Virginia who has something of an obsession with watching and criticizing my words.
. . . if all actions are predetermined then you cannot act as if you have choices. Acting is a volitional process of the very type you are denying. In your model there is no acting, there is only a differential equation of the universe cranking out its next time step. He is so close! He admits that in his world-view everything is predetermined, but in the next breath he obfuscates that unsavory factoid by claiming that he can “act” as though he has free choices. He can freely choose, he believes, to pretend that he can freely choose. And Jerry can’t, as he suggests, affect the behavior of others when he has already admitted that all human actions are predetermined.
To which the Theo-Sophical blogger responds:
Spot on! Determinists who deny free will always end up affirming it through the back door. They really do need to make philosophy courses part of the core curriculum in science programs!
What a mishmash of garbled thinking! Acting is not a volitional process of the type I’m denying; where is the evidence that it is “volitional,” presumably in the dualistic sense implied by Heddle and the Theo-Sophist. As for “freely choosing” to act as if I have free choices; that’s simply wrong. I don’t choose that feeling, freely or otherwise. My feeling of volition—that there is some “I” apart from my genes and environment that can make choices—is not freely chosen. It’s instilled in me—and almost certainly by my genes, since nearly all humans have it regardless of their experience.
Finally, of course I can affect the behavior of others if my actions are predetermined, for I am part of other people’s environments. Those effects are predetermined as well; they’re part of the whole physical regress (except for any pure indeterminacy produced by quantum effects).
Maybe I’m misunderstanding something, but this seems to be a misguided defense of libertarian free will. I’m used to compatibilists criticizing me for not happily embracing “the only kind of free will worth wanting,” but the idea that my feeling of volition somehow vindicates libertarian free will is simply dumb. Maybe they should start making critical thinking part of the theoogy curriculum.
Ten to one Heddle will get his knickers in a twist over this. I won’t be paying attention.