We’ve taken a break from the many discussions on this site about free will, but, cognizant of the risks, I want to bring it up again. I think nearly all of us agree that there’s no dualism involved in our decisions: they’re determined completely by the laws of physics. Even the pure indeterminism of quantum mechanics can’t give us free will, because that’s simple randomness, and not a result of our own “will.”
So although most of us are pure determinists about our behaviors, and reject the libertarian we-could-have-done-otherwise brand of free will embraced by most people and nearly all religionists, many of us are still compatibilists. By and large, compatibilists reject dualism and embrace determinism (and the randomness of quantum phenomena), but still say that humans have “free will”. (What is deemed “compatible” is determinism and some notion of free will.) To do that, they simply redefine the classical notion of dualistic free will so that it means something else: the lack of constraint by others, the evolved complexity of our brain that processes a variety of inputs before spitting out a “decision,” and so on.
Given that most people’s notion of free will is a dualistic ghost-in-the machine one, and that we know that’s false, it’s not clear why the classical definition of free will has been replaced by compatibilism rather than determinism. To those compatibilists who gladly embrace a new definition of “free will”, I ask these questions:
What is the point of redefining free will so that it’s compatible with determinism? And given that compatibilistic definitions are diverse and often conflicting, which one is right? Or does it even matter?
All too often, the point of compatibilism is not to create some philosophical advance, but merely an attempt to stave off the damage that rejecting dualistic free will is said to pose to society. Although compatibilists often cover that up, I think that many of their efforts are directed at keeping the Little People from seeing that determinism reigns. The motive is that people’s false belief that they really can make different decisions in exactly the same circumstances is essential to keep society running smoothly. In precisely the same way, religion-friendly atheists say that the Little People need their gods, because without them the fabric of society would unravel. (There are a lot of similarities between belief in free will and belief in God.)
Explicit statements that we need to retain some concept of free will for the good of society have been made by several people, including Dan Dennett, the most sophisticated purveyor of compatibilism (he has two books on it), philosopher Eddy Nahmias, and, in 2014, Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs, who warned of the dangers of rejecting free will in a Scientific American article (reference below, sadly not free). Vohs was co-author of a famous 2008 paper (reference below, pdf free) showing that reading a passage about determinism caused a short-term increase in students’ tendency to cheat in psychological tests. Their results, however, have not been replicated in two subsequent tests.
Nevertheless, in the Scientific American article Shariff and Vohs make an extended argument about the dangers of science telling us that we don’t have free will. Two snippets:
The less we believe in free will, it seems, the less strength we have to restrain ourselves from the urge to lie, cheat, steal and feed hot sauce to rude people.
Yes, in one of their studies people who read passages denying the existence of free will tended to put twice as much hot salsa on tortilla chips intended for someone else who’d acted like an ass. Can you imagine a society in which everyone tries to burn the palate of others? That would truly be a disaster!
After considering the potential effects that rejecting free will could have on society, Shariff and Vohs conclude this way:
In the 18th century Voltaire famously asserted that if God did not exist, we would need to invent him because the idea of God is so vital to keeping law and order in society. Given that a belief in free will restrains people from engaging in the kind of wrongdoing that could unravel an ordered society, the parallel is obvious. What will our society do if it finds itself without the concept of free will? It may well reinvent it.
And that’s precisely what they’ve done by inventing compatibilistic notions of free will!
Given the dubious claim that rejecting free will damages society, and the undoubted benefits to our judicial system of embracing determinism, I’m still baffled by why compatibilists continue to argue that we NEED some notion of free will. If you’re going to argue that in the comments, I’d appreciate your telling me why we have to have such a notion rather than just rejecting the idea and embracing determinism. And why is the notion you embrace better than the alternative forms of compatibilism? (As I said, compatibilism is a lot like religion.)
And if rejecting free will has bad effects on society, so what? Doesn’t the truth matter—the truth that neuroscience is telling us about the determinism of our actions? Those who are compatibilists for the good of society are no better than atheists who argue that while there’s probably no god, it’s crucial that the Little People still believe in one. My view is that we should simply find out what’s true, and then deal with it.
Finally, free will is important because it’s one of those issues where philosophy and science can really make a difference in peoples’ lives. Science tells us that our behavior is not under our conscious control, and philosophy can tell us how to apply that to issues like reward and punishment. There are not that many areas of academic philosophy that can actually affect the lives of the average person, but this is one. Why on Earth do we waste our time arguing about compatibilist definitions of free will, definitions that are too arcane to affect society or the average person?
I’ve gone on too long, but I wanted to call your attention to a good new critique of free will—both the dualistic and compatibilist verisons—by Sabine Hossenfelder, a physicist at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics. It’s on the BackReAction website, and is called “Free will is dead, let’s bury it“. Hossenfelder doesn’t pull any punches, and she writes very well. I’ll give a couple of excerpts:
There are only two types of fundamental laws that appear in contemporary theories. One type is deterministic, which means that the past entirely predicts the future. There is no free will in such a fundamental law because there is no freedom. The other type of law we know appears in quantum mechanics and has an indeterministic component which is random. This randomness cannot be influenced by anything, and in particular it cannot be influenced by you, whatever you think “you” are. There is no free will in such a fundamental law because there is no “will” – there is just some randomness sprinkled over the determinism.
In neither case do you have free will in any meaningful way.
These are the only two options, and all other elaborations on the matter are just verbose distractions. It doesn’t matter if you start talking about chaos (which is deterministic), top-down causation (which doesn’t exist), or insist that we don’t know how consciousness really works (true but irrelevant). It doesn’t change a thing about this very basic observation: there isn’t any known law of nature that lets you meaningfully speak of “free will”.
I consider compatibilism one of those “verbose distractions.” She then goes after the Chicken Little Compatibilists and cites the Shariff and Vohs article (that’s how I found it):
This conclusion that free will doesn’t exist is so obvious that I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t widely accepted. The reason, I am afraid, is not scientific but political. Denying free will is considered politically incorrect because of a wide-spread myth that free will skepticism erodes the foundation of human civilization.
For example, a 2014 article in Scientific American addressed the question “What Happens To A Society That Does not Believe in Free Will?” The piece is written by Azim F. Shariff, a Professor for Psychology, and Kathleen D. Vohs, a Professor of Excellence in Marketing (whatever that might mean).
In their essay, the authors argue that free will skepticism is dangerous: “[W]e see signs that a lack of belief in free will may end up tearing social organization apart,” they write. “[S]kepticism about free will erodes ethical behavior,” and “diminished belief in free will also seems to release urges to harm others.” And if that wasn’t scary enough already, they conclude that only the “belief in free will restrains people from engaging in the kind of wrongdoing that could unravel an ordered society.”
To begin with I find it highly problematic to suggest that the answers to some scientific questions should be taboo because they might be upsetting. They don’t explicitly say this, but the message the article send is pretty clear: If you do as much as suggest that free will doesn’t exist you are encouraging people to harm others. So please read on before you grab the axe.
Hossenfelder then goes on to criticize the Vohs and Schooler study for not showing what it claims to, and then dispels the canard that rejecting free will also denies people responsibility for what they do.
At the end she draws a connection between quantum mechanics and free will—a connection that eludes me. I know of the so-called “observer effect,” but didn’t realize that it, or Bell’s Theorem rejecting the existence of local hidden variables, had any connection to dualistic free will. So I invite readers to read what’s below and then enlighten me. And of course you are still welcome to defend compatibilism if you want, but do tell me why you think we have to retain a notion of free will. (All of us, of course, feel that we have free will, but that’s irrelevant.) At any rate, tell me what this means, especially the part I’ve bolded.
The reason I am hitting on the free will issue is not that I want to collapse civilization, but that I am afraid the politically correct belief in free will hinders progress on the foundations of physics. Free will of the experimentalist is a relevant ingredient in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Without free will, Bell’s theorem doesn’t hold, and all we have learned from it goes out the window.
This option of giving up free will in quantum mechanics goes under the name “superdeterminism” and is exceedingly unpopular. There seem to be but three people on the planet who work on this, ‘t Hooft, me, and a third person of whom I only learned from George Musser’s recent book (and whose name I’ve since forgotten).
Vohs, K. D. and J. W. Schooler. 2008. The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychol. Sci. 19:49-54.
Shariff, A. F. and K. D. Vohs. 2014. The world without free will. Scientific American. Scientific American 310:76-79.