I’m getting tired of writing about free will, as what I’m really interested in is determinism of the physics sort, and, as far as we know, determinism is true except in the realm of quantum mechanics—where it may still be true, but probably not. So let me lump quantum mechanics and other physical laws together as “determinism,” recognizing that predictability may be nil on the quantum level. If you wish, call determinism “naturalism” instead. So we can say that “naturalism”, physical law, is true.
Further, as we know, admitting some uncertainty on the particle level does not mean that, even if our behavior is governed by the laws of physics, we could have chosen to do something other than what we did. For physical uncertainties have to do with particle movement, not with the amorphous “will”—the supposed ability of our mind to force our bodies to do different things—that’s essential to most people’s idea of free will.
Anthony Cashmore defines free will “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”. A simpler but roughly equivalent definition is this one: “If you could replay the tape of life, and go back to a moment of decision at which everything—every molecule—was in exactly the same position, you have free will if you could have decided differently—and that decision was up to you.”
If you pressed most people, you’d find that they agree with these definitions, though the second one is clearer to the layperson. These forms of “libertarian” free will are accepted by many, including of course, those religionists who believe that we are able to freely decide whether or not to accept Jesus or Mohamed as the correct prophet, and if you make the wrong choice, you’ll fry. Only a loony Christian would argue that God would still make you fry if a quantum movement in your neurons made you reject Jesus. No, your “decisions” have to be under your control.
At any rate, physics—naturalism—rules out this type of free will.
I’m pretty sure science writer Philip Ball would agree that the laws of physics are true. But he also argues, in a recent op-ed piece in PhysicsWorld (click on screenshot), that free will has nothing to do with physics. I was going to discuss his piece in one post, but it would be too long, and I hear that goldeneye ducks are disporting themselves in a pond over near Lake Michigan, and I must go see them. I’ll continue this analysis in a final post tomorrow.
Now Ball doesn’t really define “free will”, he says that it is “not a putative physical phenomenon on which microphysics can pronounce—it is a psychological and neurological phenomenon.”
There are two issues in that sentence. First, is free will a physical phenomenon or not? Yes, of course it is, in the sense that all human behaviors are physical phenomena that come from our evolved sensory system and neuronal wiring interacting with our environments, and all of this must ultimately be consistent with the laws of physics.
As far as “pronounce” goes, well, no, we can’t predict with complete accuracy what someone will do, for we lack that depth of knowledge. But we’re getting closer to the “pronouncement” part, as we can often predict with better than even accuracy, via physical interventions or brain monitoring, what someone will do or “choose”. And we can also affect one’s sense of volition by interventions (Ouija boards are a familiar example.)
But to say that psychological and neurological phenomena are different from physical phenomena is nonsense. The phenomena are viewed and analyzed in different ways and on different levels, of course. As Ball argues, we don’t use the laws of physics to help understand or predict human behavior—yet. But that doesn’t mean that determinism doesn’t operate, and that somehow one could have behaved, through one’s own “will”, otherwise than one did. If you could, then our will would truly be “free” of physical constraints.
Ball seems to think that although we can’t use physics to predict our behavior, determinism and “naturalism” are therefore irrelevant to our lives. But they aren’t, for, as many of us agree, including Sam Harris, Anthony Cashmore (read his paper), and many others, accepting determinism can have profound effects on how one sees and wants to structure society. I know many here will argue against that, but surveys of the public show that a). they don’t accept determinism, with most accepting libertarian free will, and b). they realize that accepting determinism affects one’s view of morality and responsibility. (Sadly, they usually think that in a deterministic world there can be neither morality nor responsibility; and they’re wrong.) But I’ll talk about that tomorrow.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click on the screenshot below. I’ll just reproduce a few of Ball’s assertions (indented) and comment on them (my words flush left).
To start, I have to agree with Brian Greene, whose take on free will, which I see as correct, is denigrated by Ball:
In his new book Until the End of Time, the US theoretical physicist Brian Greene says that our choices only seem free because “we do not witness nature’s laws acting in their most fundamental guise; our senses do not reveal the operation of nature’s laws in the world of particles”. In his view, we might feel that we could have done otherwise in a particular situation, but, short of some unknown psychic force that can intervene in particle motions, physics says otherwise.
Greene, like many others who take this view, is upbeat about it: free will is a perfectly valid fiction when we’re telling the “higher-level story” of human behaviour. You can’t change anything that will happen, but you should merrily go on thinking and doing “as if” you can with all the attendant moral implications. Maybe this picture works for you; maybe it doesn’t. But in this view, you have no say about that either.
But is free will really undermined by the determinism of physical law? I think such arguments are not even wrong; they are simply misconceived. They don’t recognize how cause and effect work, and by attempting to claim too much jurisdiction for fundamental physics they are not really scientific but metaphysical.
Metaphysical? It’s metaphysical to say that underlying our behavior are unalterable laws of physics? (Screw “cause and effect” for the moment, as they nebulous, philosophical, and irrelevant to determinism.) If you are a determinist, then there’s no way you can accept libertarian free will. My goal is not to engage in semantic arguments about what free will can be in a deterministic workd, but to ask a scientific question: is there anything we know about science that tells us that we can “will” ourselves to behave differently from how we did? The answer is no. We know of nothing about physics that would lead to that conclusion.
Ball then proceeds to construct what I see as a strawman:
If the claim that we never truly make choices is correct, then psychology, sociology and all studies of human behaviour are verging on pseudoscience. Efforts to understand our conduct would be null and void because the real reasons lie in the Big Bang. Neuropsychology would be nothing more than the enumeration of correlations: this action tends to happen at the same time as this pattern of brain activity, but there is no causal relation. Game theory is meaningless as no player is choosing their action because of particular rules, preferences or circumstances of the game. These “sciences” would be no better than studies of the paranormal: wild-goose chases after illusory phenomena. History becomes merely a matter of inventing irrelevant stories about why certain events happened.
Perhaps that is the bitter truth. Why should we sacrifice physics just to save the face of other disciplines? But let’s consider the alternatives. Understanding decisions and behaviour through psychology allows us to form hypotheses and test them empirically. Some of these look as though they’re right: we can reliably predict what might make people change their behaviour, say. If, however, physics demolishes free will, this is just a peculiar coincidence. Forget all the “as if” gloss: reducing all behaviour to deterministic physics unfolding from the Big Bang offers us no genuine behavioural science at all, as it denies choice and puts nothing in its place that can help us understand and anticipate what we see in the world.
. . . It is not because of the sheer overwhelming complexity of the calculations that we don’t attempt to use quantum chromodynamics to analyse the works of Dickens. It is because this would apply a theory beyond its applicable domain, so the attempt would fail. Greene presents the matter as a hierarchy of “nested stories”, each level supplying the underlying explanation of the next. But that’s the wrong image. To regard every form of human enquiry, from evolutionary theory to literary criticism, as a kind of renormalized physics is as hubristic as it is absurd.
This is a strawman because none of us deny that there can be behavioral science, and that one can study many aspects of human biology, including history, using the empirical tools of science: observation, testing, falsification, and a search for regularities. It’s also a strawman because the issue is one of physics underlying human behavior, whether or not we can use it to predict that behavior.
Although the “laws” of human behavior, whether collective or instantiated in an individual, may not be obeyed as strictly as the laws of physics, all of us determinists admit that it is fruitful to look for such regularities on the macro level—at the same time we admit that they must comport with and ultimately derive from the laws of physics.
But behavioral science isn’t necessarily “pseudoscience”. Regularities can be tested, confirmed, or refuted—as Ball admits. For example, I would predict that if a madman approaches a playground with a gun, a parent would first rush to save their own child rather than somebody else’s. That’s derived from kin selection theory. Or you can predict that if someone accumulates more desirable things in a lab experiment, like donuts, the value of an additional donut—its marginal utility—will diminish. That’s economics, but comes from selfish human behavior. And we can predict that if we show someone that their wife is having sex with another man, that person will get angry and jealous. That is NOT a “peculiar coincidence”, but also derives from evolution, as does much of human behavior that we see in our striving for repute, power, wealth, and status.
And history is surely not a “matter of inventing stories” about why certain events happened. True, we often don’t know for sure, as we can’t easily determine historical causation, but I’m sure historians wouldn’t see themselves as “making up stories”. If, for example, you think famous person A did X because he knew that Y was true, and you find out that that person A didn’t really know that Y was true but thought that Z was true instead, you’ve falsified a historical argument. Historical records exist to check assertions of fact. That’s why we know that the “Bethlehem census” of the Bible is wrong, and why the claim that the Holocaust was just prisoners dying of disease and not deliberate extermination is equally wrong.
To say that any behavioral regularities we see are mere “peculiar coincidences” is a claim that evolution itself has nothing to do with physics. For it’s evolution that’s at the base of so much of behaviorial science. And evolution results from the differential replication of different genes, which become different via mutations, which are of course physical phenomena.
It’s “not even wrong” to say that determinists who reject the idea that our “will” can interact with our bodies are at the same time claiming that history, game theory, economics, and other forms of “social science” are all pseudosciences. If you know what a pseudoscience really is: a belief system that rejects testing and falsification by the methods of “real science” and is buttressed by confirmation bias, then you wouldn’t make the statements that Ball does. He’s arguing against a view that nobody holds.
And now I must go see my goldeneye ducks. More tomorrow. Read Ball’s article.