The annual “Edge question” has been published along with its answers. As you may know, Edge is the website run by John Brockman, the world’s premier agent for writers of popular science, who is a tough customer (beneath which lurks a softhearted Jewish grandfather) as well as someone with a remarkable feeling for the Zeitgeist about popular science. It was John, as I recall, who pushed Richard Dawkins to publish The God Delusion at just the time when it would hit the hardest.
Every year John poses to many of his authors a question that we’re supposed to answer in 1000 words or fewer, and these questions are ultimately collated and issued as a book. This year’s question is this one:
THE 2014 EDGE QUESTION
Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?
WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?
Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?
We were asked to title our mini-essays simply with the name of the idea that we thought should be retired.
You can see the list of 174 responses on the same page (those respondents include many famous scientists, philosophers, and public intellectuals) and you can read all the answers here. I noticed that Sam Harris published his answer on his website: what he wanted discareded was “Our narrow definition of science.” That is, Sam sees no hard-and-fast distinction between science and other forms of rational inquiry such as philosophy, and wants to jettison the narrow definition of science as “what scientists do”. I’ve been saying that for a long time (I use plumbing and car mechanics as examples of “science construed broadly), so of course I like his answer. And since Sam saw fit to publish his answer, I’ll publish mine. The concept I want to discard doesn’t seem like a scientific idea, but a scientific/philosophical idea, which by Sam’s lights, however, makes it scientific. And John had no problem with it.
Yes, folks, I don’t expect you’ll all agree with me, but I think it’s time to jettison the notion of. . .
Among virtually all scientists, dualism is dead. Our thoughts and actions are the outputs of a computer made of meat—our brain—a computer that must obey the laws of physics. Our choices, therefore, must also obey those laws. This puts paid to the traditional idea of dualistic or “libertarian” free will: that our lives comprise a series of decisions in which we could have chosen otherwise. We know now that we can never do otherwise, and we know it in two ways.
The first is from scientific experience, which shows no evidence for a mind separate from the physical brain. This means that “I”—whatever “I” means—may have the illusion of choosing, but my choices are in principle predictable by the laws of physics, excepting any quantum indeterminacy that acts in my neurons. In short, the traditional notion of free will—defined by Anthony Cashmore as “a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature”—is dead on arrival.
Second, recent experiments support the idea that our “decisions” often precede our consciousness of having made them. Increasingly sophisticated studies using brain scanning show that those scans can often predict the choices one will make several seconds before the subject is conscious of having chosen! Indeed, our feeling of “making a choice” may itself be a post hoc confabulation, perhaps an evolved one.
When pressed, nearly all scientists and most philosophers admit this. Determinism and materialism, they agree, win the day. But they’re remarkably quiet about it. Instead of spreading the important scientific message that our behaviors are the deterministic results of a physical process, they’d rather invent new “compatibilist” versions of free will: versions that comport with determinism. “Well, when we order strawberry ice cream we really couldn’t have ordered vanilla”, they say, “but we still have free will in another sense. And it’s the only sense that’s important.”
Unfortunately, what’s “important” differs among philosophers. Some say that what’s important is that our complex brain evolved to absorb many inputs and run them through complex programs (“ruminations”) before giving an output (“decision”). Others say that what’s important is that it’s our own brain and nobody else’s that makes our decisions, even if those decisions are predetermined. Some even argue that we have free will because most of us choose without duress: nobody holds a gun to our head and says “order the strawberry.” But of course that’s not true: the guns are the electrical signals in our brain.
In the end, there’s nothing “free” about compatibilist free will. It’s a semantic game in which choice becomes an illusion: something that isn’t what it seems. Whether or not we can “choose” is a matter for science, not philosophy, and science tells us that we’re complex marionettes dancing to the strings of our genes and environments. Philosophy, watching the show, says, “pay attention to me, for I’ve changed the game.”
So why does the term “free will” still hang around when science has destroyed its conventional meaning? Some compatibilists, perhaps, are impressed by their feeling that they can choose, and must comport this with science. Others have said explicitly that characterizing “free will” as an illusion will hurt society. If people believe they’re puppets, well, then maybe they’ll be crippled by nihilism, lacking the will to leave their beds. This attitude reminds me of the (probably apocryphal) statement of the Bishop of Worcester’s wife when she heard about Darwin’s theory: “My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known.”
What puzzles me is why compatibilists spend so much time trying to harmonize determinism with a historically non-deterministic concept instead of tackling the harder but more important task of selling the public on the scientific notions of materialism, naturalism, and their consequence: the mind is produced by the brain.
These consequences of “incompatibilism” mean a complete rethinking of how we punish and reward people. When we realize that the person who kills because of a mental disorder had precisely as much “choice” as someone who murders from childhood abuse or a bad environment, we’ll see that everyone deserves the mitigation now given only to those deemed unable to choose between right and wrong. For if our actions are predetermined, none of us can make that choice. Punishment for crimes will still be needed, of course, to deter others, rehabilitate offenders, and remove criminals from society. But now this can be put on a more scientific footing: what interventions can best help both society and the offender? And we lose the useless idea of justice as retribution.
Accepting incompatibilism also dissolves the notion of moral responsibility. Yes, we are responsible for our actions, but only in the sense that they are committed by an identifiable individual. But if you can’t really choose to be good or bad—to punch someone or save a drowning child—what do we mean by moralresponsibility? Some may argue that getting rid of that idea also jettisons an important social good. I claim the opposite: by rejecting moral responsibility, we are free to judge actions not by some dictate, divine or otherwise, but by their consequences: what is good or bad for society.
Finally, rejecting free will means rejecting the fundamental tenets of the many religions that depend on freely choosing a god or a savior.
The fears motivating some compatibilists—that a version of free will must be maintained lest society collapse—won’t be realized. The illusion of agency is so powerful that even strong incompatibilists like myself will always act as if we had choices, even though we know that we don’t. We have no choice in this matter. But we can at least ponder why evolution might have bequeathed us such a powerful illusion.
Let me add one thing here, which is a point also made by the philosopher Bruce Waller in his remarkable book Against Moral Responsibility. (The book’s thesis is that because we are the products of our genes and environments, and cannot “choose” how to behave, we must discard the notion of moral responsibility, which depend on the notion that we can choose between the “good” and “bad”. But before you start raising objections about how society would fall apart without this, or about how some philosophers have comported determinism with moral responsibility and free will, read how Waller answers those objections.)
Waller points out that while philosophers have thought of diverse ways to rescue our notion of moral responsibility even in the face of determinism, those ways are orthogonal and often incompatible. The same holds for free will, which is closely connected with moral responsibility (Waller happens to be a compatibilist, but his notion of “free will” seems pretty lame to me—the one weak link in an otherwise wonderful book.) There is only one kind of incompatibilism: we don’t have free will in any sense because we are beings whose molecules obey the law of science. But there are gazillions of different forms of compatibilism: ways to rescue the notion of free will. That diversity shows you right off the bat that there is no easy way to claim that humans have moral responsibility. As Waller says of those who try to rescue that responsibility, “These are wonderfully creative theories, but their sheer number indicates their problems.”
I am convinced that philosophers want to save the notions of free will and moral responsibility because our sense of having these facilities is so strong that we are forced to believe in them (and rationalize them, which philosophers seem to do with the same facility that theolgoians rescue the notion of God) despite the evidence that our “choices” are the inevitable products of our genes and our experiences. An added factor is that philosophers like Dennett and van Inwagen (I don’t mean to imply that they share the same ideas!) have said explicitly that if the public truly thought that they couldn’t make real, free choices, or had a moral responsibility stemming from the idea of free will (Dennett’s a compatibilist; van Inwagen a libertarian), society would fall apart. I don’t believe that, for I don’t see hard determinists acting immorally.