Most of you have heard of John Horgan, a distinguished and widely published science writer (formerly at Scientific American), author of The End of Science and Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality (I haven’t read the latter; weigh in if you have). He’s also famous in atheist circles for having criticized the John Templeton Foundation for trying to slant his writings toward accommodationism when he was a journalism fellow.
While trawling around the internet on the topic of free will, I came across a short piece that Horgan wrote for Religion Dispatches (!) six months ago, a defense of free will called “Dear scientists: please stop bashing free will!” Because it bears a family resemblance to some recent remarks by Eric MacDonald, who also defended free will (I’ll address those tomorrow), I want to briefly reprise and answer Horgan’s arguments.
It’s one of the better defenses of free will I’ve seen by a scientist or science writer, but still fails completely, I think. Horgan’s defense is tripartite:
1. “Science had discovered nothing that contradicts free will,” and our deliberations appear to yield choices.
Science has discovered nothing that contradicts free will. To deny free will’s existence is to deny that our conscious, psychological deliberations—Should I ask my girlfriend to marry me? Should I major in engineering or art?—influence our actions. Such a conclusion flies in the face of common sense. Of course, sometimes we deliberate insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, or we fail to act upon our resolution. But not always. Sometimes we consciously choose to do something and we do it. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it often does.
First of all, Horgan has just spent the first half of his short article showing evidence that does contradict free will, including research demonstrating that our decisions appear to be made before we’re conscious of having made them. There’s also this interesting tidbit, of which I was unaware:
Neurosurgeons preparing the brain of an epileptic before surgery can make the patient’s arm pop up like an eager student’s by electrically stimulating the motor cortex. The patient often insists that she meant to move the arm and even invents a reason why: She was waving to that nurse walking by the door! Neurologists call these erroneous, post-hoc explanations confabulations. Some scientists argue that whenever we explain our acts as the outcome of our conscious choice, we are engaging in a kind of confabulation, because our actions actually stem from countless physiological causes of which we are completely unaware.
There is, of course, the reams of knowledge about how brain lesions, diseases, stimulation and the like can make someone behave in abnormal ways, yet in ways that the actor and outside observers would consider as results of “choice”.
But to appear to make choices after deliberation does not really mean that those choices were “free”, at least in the sense that one could equally well have chosen otherwise. Just as those neurosurgery patients fully believe that they chose to do something that was actually physically determined, so we feel (and, indeed, may have evolved to feel) that our choices are free.
Yes, we do take in information from the environment and process it both consciously and unconsciously (see below), but that does not mean that, after processing, we are still free to decide what to do. And yes, perhaps there are “random” or quasi-random events that affect those deliberations (quantum fluctuations in molecules and the like, which are a). unlikely to influence decisions and b.) can’t be considered part of “free will” anyway), but in the end we are simply federations of molecules, tissues, and neurons whose morphology, physiology, and behavior are determined by interactions between genes and environments. Where, exactly, does the conscious interposition that goes by “choice” reside? If there is one, it involves not only a rejection of physical determinism, but one that is incoherent. If our thoughts can influence our choices, then that still involves molecules affecting molecules, and these interactions must still obey the laws of physics and chemistry.
Horgan summarizes this argument by saying, “Sometimes we consciously choose to do something and we do it.” This assumes what he’s trying to prove.
The onus for those who believe in “free will”—as in “I could have done otherwise had I chosen”—is to specify on a physical level how it would work. Horgan, at the end of the article, simply punts on this:
Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a “God of the gaps,” who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.
Yes, but there is no God (Horgan says he’s a “Catholic turned agnostic”), so all is molecules. Even those big gaps in our understanding consciousness will be plugged by things that must obey physical laws.
2. “Free will must exist if some creatures have more of it than others.” This is a common argument: Eric MacDonald has made it, and in a sense it’s the backbone of Dennett’s argument in Freedom Evolves (granted, Dennett’s thesis is far more complex and sophisticated).
My teenage daughter and son have more free will—more choices to consider and select from—than they did when they were infants. They also have more than our dog Merlin does. I have (on my good days) more free will than adults my age suffering from schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Yes, we have more responses to stimuli than do dogs or squirrels, but to say that some species have more complex behaviors than others says nothing at all about free will. It simply conflates the concept of “free choice” with that of “more complex relations between inputs and outputs.” A bacterium can either move toward or away from food or light. When we move toward food, we can go to McDonald’s, to Chez Panisse, or to the grocery store. Does that show we have free will? No, it shows only that we have more varied tastes, as well as the evolved ability to process our environment in ways that cater to those tastes. The more complex the species, the more choices it will appear to have. But that doesn’t mean that those choices are free. It means only that evolution has favored the acquisition and weighting of more and different kinds of environmental information that feed into behaviors.
3. We need the concept of free will to promote good individual behavior and well-oiled societies.
We also need the concept of free will, much more than we need the concept of God. Our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consign our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society. Choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful.
There are other justifications for morality, ethics, and moral responsibility besides free will. And what makes life meaningful is not the existence of free choice, but the idea of free choice. Who can live thinking that they’re a pure automaton—a puppet on the strings of DNA and environments? I know that I have no free will, but behave as if I do. I also know that I’m going to die, but if I dwelt constantly on that my life would be miserable (as it is, I do this far too often!). In this sense we do operate on “belief in belief,” but the difference between religious ideas and that of free will is that I am nearly 100% certain that there isn’t free will, and my life isn’t predicated on thinking that it’s real.
Horgan cites some research:
When people doubt free will, they are more likely to behave badly. After reading a passage from a book that challenged the validity of free will, students were more likely to cheat on a mathematics exam. Others were less likely to let a classmate use their cell phone.
Maybe this is so, but to say free will really exists because that notion makes people behave better is no different from saying that God exists because that idea also makes people behave better. (I know of no evidence God-belief promotes better behavior. But even if it did, it wouldn’t demonstrate the existence of a God.)
I’m starting to see realize there are striking parallels between belief in God and belief in free will. There is no evidence for the existence of either, and plenty of evidence against both. Belief in both makes people feel better. And people argue that belief in both God and free will is salutary—indeed, essential—for society to operate properly. This hypothesis of parallelism, which is mine and belongs to me, is buttressed by Horgan’s last sentence:
I don’t believe in God—at least, not a God described in any text I know of—but I do believe in free will.