Yesterday I discussed a recent article from PhysicsToday by Philip Ball, which you can access by clicking on the screenshot below. I argued, and will continue to argue, that Ball’s attacks on free will are misguided for several reasons. He fails to define free will; does not seem able to distinguish between predictability and determinism; does not appreciate that naturalism (determinism + quantum uncertainty) absolutely destroys the libertarian notion of free will held by most people (and nearly all Abrahamic religionists); and has confused notions of “causation”. Today I’ll briefly discuss the last point, as well as Ball’s misguided claim that accepting naturalism has no implications for our behavior or ways of thinking.
First, let’s review. Ball accepts the laws of physics as being the underlying basis of all phenomena, and so he is a naturalist (or a “physical determinist” if you will; I’ll simply use “determinism” to mean “naturalism”). But he then argues that this kind of reduction of everything to physics renders behavioral science a straw man. I find that claim bizarre, for even we “hard determinists” recognize that we can’t say much meaningful about social behavior from the laws of physics alone. But our recognition of that doesn’t mean, as Ball asserts it does, that disciplines like history, game theory, and sociology become “pseudosciences”.
First, none of us think that: we recognize that meaningful analysis, understanding, and even predictions can be made by analyzing macro phenomena on their own levels. So this paragraph is arrant nonsense, attacking a position that almost nobody holds:
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.
Ball is correct in saying that meaningful analyses in these areas can be conducted without devolving to the level of particles. But that’s nothing new! Further, he seems to misunderstand the meaning of “pseudoscience”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pseudoscience this way:
“A spurious or pretended science; a branch of knowledge or a system of beliefs mistakenly regarded as based on scientific method or having the status of scientific truth.”
But in fact, all those areas above, from sociology to neuropsychology, often use the scientific method: the empirical toolkit also used by biology, chemistry, and so on. If they find “truth” by observation, testability, attempts at falsification, and consensus, then they are “science in the broad sense” and not pseudoscience. They are using methods continuous with the methods used by “hard” scientists to find truth.
Second, by his very admission of physical determinism, Ball already settles the issue of free will: we don’t have it, at least in the libertarian sense. His statement below gives away the game:
Classical chaos makes prediction of the future practically impossible, but it is still deterministic. And while quantum events are not deterministic – as far as we can currently tell – their apparently fundamental randomness can’t deliver willed action.
In other words, physics, which Ball admits has to comport with everything at a “higher level”, can’t deliver willed action. Thus, if you construe free will in the libertarian, you-could-have-done-otherwise sense, then Ball’s arguments show that we don’t have it.
And that’s pretty much all I care about. I don’t care whether, given you’ve accepted determinism, you go on to play the semantic game of compatibilism (Ball doesn’t). For it’s determinism itself that, when accepted, has profound consequences for how we view life and society. Many disagree, but so be it. One of those who disagrees, though, is Ball (see below).
Ball makes three more points that I’ll discuss here. The first involves “causation”. Because we can’t understand social behavior, or, in this case, the evolution of chimpanzees, from principles of physics, one can’t say that physics “caused” the evolution of chimpanzees. We need another level of analysis:
What “caused” the existence of chimpanzees? If we truly believe causes are reducible, we must ultimately say: conditions in the Big Bang. But it’s not just that a “cause” worthy of the name would be hard to discern there; it is fundamentally absent.
To account for chimps, we need to consider the historical specifics of how the environment plus random genetic mutations steered the course of evolution. In a chimp, matter has been shaped by evolutionary principles – we might justifiably call them “forces” – that are causally autonomous, even though they arise from more fine-grained phenomena. To complain that such “forces” cannot magically direct the blind interactions between particles is to fundamentally misconstrue what causation means. The evolutionary explanation for chimps is not a higher-level explanation of an underlying “chimpogenic” physics – it is the proper explanation.
Again I assert that, at bottom, the evolution of chimps was “dictated” by the laws of physics: the deterministic forces as well as the random ones, which could include mutations. (I’ve argued that the evolution of life could not have been predicted, even with perfect knowledge, after the Big Bang, given that some evolutionary phenomena, like mutations, may have a quantum component.)
But if Ball thinks biologists can figure out what “caused” the evolution of chimps, he’s on shaky ground. He has no idea, nor do we, what evolutionary forces gave rise to them, nor the specific mutations that had to arise for evolution to work. We don’t even know what “caused” the evolution of bipedal hominins, though we can make some guesses. We’re stuck here with plausibility arguments, though some assertions about evolution can be tested (i.e., chimps and hominins had a common ancestor; amphibians evolved from fish, and so on). And yes, that kind of testing doesn’t involve evoking the laws of physics, but so what? My work on speciation, Haldane’s rule, and so on, is perfectly compatible with my hard determinism. I would never admit that my career in evolutionary genetics, in view of my determinism, was an exercise in “pseudoscience.”
At any rate, Ball and I do agree that evolutionary scenarios like this require a level of analysis removed from that of particle physics, and also a language (“mutations”, “selection”, “environmental change”, and so on) that differs from the language used by physicists. Again, so what? We already knew that.
Second, Ball floats the idea of “top down” causation, something I don’t fully understand but, as far as I do understand it, it doesn’t show that macro phenomena result from the laws of physics, both deterministic and indeterministic, acting at lower levels. To me the concept is almost numinous:
There is good reason to believe that causation can flow from the top down in complex systems – work by Erik Hoel of Tufts University in Massachusetts and others has shown as much. The condensed-matter physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Anderson anticipated such notions in his 1972 essay “More is different” (Science 177 393). “The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe,” he wrote.
I’ll let readers argue this out, but if physicists like Sean Carroll and Brian Greene are not on board with this—and as far as I know, they aren’t—then I have reason to be skeptical.
Finally, Ball appears to think that understanding and dispelling the idea of free will has absolutely no implications for anything:
Those who say that free will, and attendant moral responsibility, don’t exist but we should go on acting as if they do rather prove that their position is empty because it neither illuminates nor changes anything about how we do and should behave.
This is not at all an empty position, not just because it shows that our feeling of agency isn’t what it seems to be (in that sense it’s an “illusion”), but also because the absence of libertarian free will changes a lot about how we view the world. As I’ve argued, it changes our view of how we see punishment and reward, how we regard those people who are seen as “failures in life,” and how we see our own tendency to regret our past behaviors, and wish we’d done otherwise. If you see that people aren’t really in control of their lives, at least in the sense of exercising a “will” that can affect how you decide at a given moment, then it makes you less retributive, more forgiving, and less hard on yourself.
Now I know some readers will say that to them it doesn’t matter. Whether or not we have libertarian free will, or compatibilist free will, they argue, doesn’t matter: the drive to reform prisons will be the same. I don’t agree. And the claim that how one sees libertarian free will affects one’s view of life is supported by statistics showing that if people thought they really lived in a world ruled by the laws of physics, with no libertarian free will, they would believe that moral responsibility goes out the window. (I sort of agree: I still think people are “responsible” for their actions, but the idea of “moral” responsibility is connected with “you-could-have-chosen-to-do-otherwise.”) At any rate, people know instinctively that the common notion of free will has important consequences for themselves and society.
And thus, brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, I endeth my sermon on the lucubrations of Brother Ball.