The fact that articles keep coming out assuring us that we do have free will, yet each assurance is based on a different premise, tells us that the philosophical debate will never end. Yet I consider it already ended by science: we do not have libertarian free will because our thoughts and our actions are decided by the laws of physics and not by some numinous “will” that interacts with matter in ways that physicist Sean Carroll has said are impossible. Ergo the appearance of compatibilists, who admit that yes, determinism rules, and at any one moment we can behave only one way—a way determined by physical law—but nevertheless we have other kinds of free will compatible with determinism.
That, of course, won’t satisfy the majority of people who do believe in libertarian you-can-do-otherwise free will, among these the many religionists whose faith absolutely depends on our being able to choose our path of life and our savior, and your salvation depends on making the right choice (Calvinists and their analogues are an exception). Compatibilists, when they tell us that nobody really believes in libertarian free will, are simply wrong: surveys show otherwise, and there are all those believers . . .
At any rate, Oliver Waters, writing at Medium, assures us that we do have a form of libertarian free will—or so it seems. I say “seems” because he presents an argument based on “critical rationalism” that makes no sense to me. I’ll criticize it a bit, but I can sense some flak coming of this type: “You need to read many volumes about critical rationalism before you can criticize my argument.” Sorry, but I won’t, for if an author can’t give a sensible argument in a reasonably long piece, it’s hopeless.
I can’t find out much about Oliver Waters save his Medium biography, which says this: “Philosophy, psychology, economics and politics. Tweets at @olliewaters.” But that doesn’t matter, for it’s his arguments for free will that are at issue.
Right off the bat Waters defines free will in a wonky way—one I disagree with. It implies—and this is fleshed out in the rest of the article—that he believe that determinism is not mandating our decisions: that there are “real choices” independent of the laws of physics, and not just the fundamentally indeterminate bits like quantum mechanics, either. No, we can really make choices, choices constrained by physics, but not determined by them. But I digress. Here’s how Waters defines “free will”:
Roughly speaking, ‘free will’ denotes our capacity to think in ways that no other known creature can. We alone are capable of considering reasons (as you are doing right now) rather than merely reacting to the world via genetically fixed mechanisms. As philosopher J.T Ismael phrases it, we humans enjoy ‘metacognitive awareness’ and an ‘extended autobiographical self’. We are therefore able to consciously imagine future possibilities and play a role in causing which become our reality.
No, what he means is that humans are the only species that can say and articulate that they have reasons. In fact, our “reasons” are simply the weights that our neural computer programs give to various environmental and endogenous inputs before they spit out a decision. Animals do the same thing: they take in inputs, run them through the brains, and decide whether to flee, to pursue a prey, to mate with a member of the opposite sex, and so on. They have reasons, though they can’t articulate them. When a crow caching food sees other crows watching, and then digs up the food and reburies it elsewhere, does it not have a “reason”: other crows could steal their food. Does it realize that? Well, we don’t know, but it looks exactly like the reasons we humans adduce for our actions.
Or a mallard hen might take a male as a mate because he has particularly bright feathers. Is that not a “reason” she chose? Maybe she can’t ponder it, but so what? Our ponderings are merely post facto rationales for adaptive brain programs instilled in us by millions of years of natural selection. It’s the program that decides, and we can pretend that we decided independent of our determined outputs. No, “considering reasons” is, to me, a ludicrous definition of free will, and certainly not one necessarily limited to humans. (Do we really know what goes through the mind of an ape or a fox when it does something?)
In addition, just because we say we have reasons does not mean that those reasons are the real impetus behind what we do, or are reasons that could, at the time, be contradicted by different reasons. We can consider alternatives (or rather, our brains can “weigh” them by letting the dominant pathway “win”), but the one we wind up doing or thinking is not “free” in the sense that one could at the time use different reasons to arrive at a different output.
Enough. Waters then defines “critical rationalism” in a way that comports with his definition of free will, but also in a way that doesn’t at all distinguish it from the weights that an evolved and plastic system of neurons gives to different inputs before spitting out an output: a “decision”, a behavior, a thought, or a statement:
The core of critical rationalism is that all knowledge progresses via a process of ‘conjecture and refutation’. Thinking agents face problems, which are conflicts among their existing ideas, and seek to resolve these problems by detecting and eliminating cognitive errors. Overcoming these errors requires creatively generating new, better ideas.
As such, critical rationalism rejects ‘empiricism’, the notion that we derive our knowledge from sensory information. Empiricism depends on induction, the notion that learning about reality is akin to ‘curve fitting’ from given data points, which we can then extrapolate to predict the future or postdict the past. Popper rejected the principle of induction as logically invalid. We cannot assume the future will be like the past: instead we must conjecture testable explanatory theories about how reality works.
The second paragraph is arrant nonsense, because of course the brain takes in all kinds of sensory information before it executes its programs. When you see a lion coming, you run. When you see it’s raining, you put up an umbrella. Much of evolution, in fact, like bird migration, is based on the assumption that the future will be like the past. But lt us forget the nonsense about not getting information from the environment and concentrate on the first paragraph.
That, too, seems absolutely the same as “running a brain program evolved to increase your fitness” (brain programs can of course be fooled, as with optical illusions, plastic surgery, and so on). The “resolution” is not something that your “will” does independently of the laws of physics; it’s something that your brain does according to the laws of physics and the natural selection—also operating according to the laws of physics—that has molded our brain programs to buttress our survival and reproduction. While “creatively generating new, better ideas” sounds like we are free to generate those ideas, we’re not. It’s your brain working things out according to the laws of physics. So far I haven’t seen anything about Waters’s will that is free. What I see is a post facto description of brain programs treated as if they instantiated libertarian free will.
Waters then makes the common mistake of saying that the laws of physics can’t explain everything because it’s not the level of description we use when giving reasons. We say, “The U.S. and U.K. won World War II because they had bigger populations and better factories—and developed the atomic bomb.” And yes, that’s true, but those underlying reasons themselves are the result of the laws of physics, and must be compatible with the laws of physics. Only a moron would try to explain why we won the war on the basis of molecules. But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether it was inevitable that we won the war because the laws of physics interacted to make that result happen.
Here’s Waters’s example in which the “wrong level of explanation” is used to support libertarian free will and refute determinism:
Notice that this conception of explanation is ‘scale-invariant’ in that it doesn’t arbitrarily privilege low-level explanations over high-level ones, or concrete phenomena over abstractions. For instance, explaining Brexit via the movement of atoms according to the physical laws of motion is clearly a bad idea. This is because the best explanations for Brexit must invoke ‘emergent’ phenomena like ‘nationalism’ and ‘democracy’ , which are consistent with many different atomic arrangements.
One way to think about this is to ask whether Brexit would have occurred differently if God went back and messed with the atoms in Nigel Farage’s tea every morning. It turns out that the precise locations and momentums of these atoms didn’t matter at all in influencing the outcome. Indeed, you can say the same thing about the atoms in his brain. After all, our brains only work as they do because the chaotic motion of their constituent atoms are locked into groups of molecules, cells, and circuits. These processes allow for coherent thoughts about the future of Britain to persist long enough to communicate with other brains.
In short, micro-physical fluctuations didn’t cause Brexit. Ideas did. ‘Physical reductionists’ rule out such higher-level causes by fiat, and so must deny this reality, but critical rationalists need not. They can be perfectly comfortable with the notion that many of our actions are truly caused by our consciously held ideas, not by neuronal firings to which we’re completely oblivious.
But what are “ideas” except the output of neurons, which themselves are chemical and physical entities that emit electrical signals. You can say the “cause” is those signals, which gave rise to the ideas, or the “cause” is a misguided campaign by Brexiteers, but the latter comes down to the former. The last sentence about “critical rationalists” is just a flat assertion without evidence. Ideas are patterns of neuronal firings that come to consciousness, and any idea corresponds to one or more patterns of neuronal firings.
This is where Waters goes astray when asserting that determinism isn’t so great because there are many different underlying molecular events that could give rise to the same large-scale outcome—like Brexit. It may indeed be true that changing the molecules in Nigel Farage’s tea doesn’t affect his views on Brexit, but that’s because many different molecular configurations and physical events might map onto the same macro result. I may drive to the grocery store via Cottage Grove, or perhaps via 59th Street, but the groceries I buy will be the same.
Waters’s closing is completely confusing to me, for he seems to accept determinism and libertarian free will at the same time:
We need not think about the fundamental laws of physics as rails directing reality along a rigid trajectory. Rather, we can think of them as constraints on what kinds of physical transformations are possible and impossible. This richer notion of physical explanation is currently being developed by Deutsch and Chiara Marletto in the project of ‘Constructor Theory’.
Famous ‘free will sceptics’ like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are rightly worried about ditching the concept of physical determinism. In their view, the only alternative is a mysticism allowing for all kinds of silly miracles and supernatural beings. But such concerns are not warranted under the ‘constructor theoretic’ conception. According to this, we still live in a universe governed by timeless, fixed laws — it’s just that these laws do not dictate by themselves how exactly the future will unfold.
The physical laws that make it possible for us to be conscious and creative human beings, making real choices about what will happen next, are the very same laws that rule out Jesus spontaneously converting water into wine, or rising from the dead.
Given this alternative way of thinking about fundamental physics, we don’t need to accept the notion that the universe evolves according to some predetermined plan, set in stone from the beginning of time. Our best theories of physics don’t require it, and our best ethical, psychological, and political theories must reject it.
So if the laws of physics are merely constraints, and decisions can stray outside them, what makes those decisions jump the rails of physics? Waters gives us no clue, but it must be something mystical or non-physical, regardless of his claim that he doesn’t think that. If “the laws of physics do not dictate by themselves how exactly the future will unfold,” then what must we add to them to understand how the future will unfold? What is the sweating professor trying to say?
Waters doesn’t clarify. And I’m not sure if even he understands. All I know is that I don’t, and that’s not my fault.