I promised not to post about free will for at least a month, but here it is only a few days later and I’m about to take it up again. So sue me. My only excuse is that, at his site Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has posted his response to my earlier discussion of his views on free will, and, like Maru and his boxes, I cannot help but enter.
Eric’s piece is called “Free Will: A first, very tentative defense”. I want to respond briefly (although I’m not yet sure how briefly), but it’s not without trepidation that I debate philosophy with someone as learned as Eric.
As I understand it, Eric’s concept of “free will,” which he indeed thinks we have, rests on both our own feeling that we have choice and, more important, on his idea that if we mull things over, we may come to different (and presumably better) “choices.” Ergo we are making choices.
First, though, Eric’s take on why the problem of free will seems intractable:
The main reason for this intractability lies, it seems to me, in its unverifiability, a problem that Jerry Coyne himself, even with the aid of Ceiling Cat, has failed to shake. You might say that, as a scientist, determinism is a “properly basic” principle (in Alvin Plantinga’s sense), and neither needs defence, nor can find any. This, it seems to me, should worry Jerry a lot more than it apparently does. As an article of scientific faith, you might almost say that Jerry is here fudging off by degrees into the realm of theology — Ceiling Cat help us! – a space normally occupied by religious believers.
I don’t think that the principle of determinism “can find no defense.” Nor is it “an article of scientific faith.” Its defense is twofold: it works and, except for actions on the quantum scale, we know of nothing that isn’t predictable in principle. All the progress science has made on the macro scale rests on the idea that given absolutely identical physical conditions acting on an object, its response will always be the same. If this principle didn’t work, we couldn’t get rockets to the Moon. I accept the fact that quantum events, like the location and momentum of electrons or the moment when an atom of a radioactive element decays, can be absolutely unpredictable. But I doubt that this unpredictability has observable results on the scale of human behavior. Physical determinism at the macro level is simply something that works and makes accurate predictions about the universe, and therefore is not an article of faith. My “faith” in determinism of human behavior rests on the same “faith” I have that the origin of life occurred by naturalistic means and not via God. (I put “faith” in quotations marks lest creationists think I mean “unsupported beliefs” that are identical in kind to religious beliefs. I don’t mean that: my “scientific faith” really means “confidence based on experience”.)
Eric uses the examples of me writing my book—and posts on this website—as things that pose severe problems for behavioral determinism:
Indeed, Jerry Coyne cannot himself help thinking that some people make the wrong choices, seriously wrong. That’s why he writes a blog entitled, eponymously, ”Why Evolution is True,” after the book of the same name, written to convince people that they are wrong. And he didn’t make the book into a series of stimulus patterns, but actually included in it sentences with meanings which, he believed, and I think believed rightly, should convince those who read it that the theory of evolution is not just a working hypothesis, but actually reflects the truth about the way that the world of life works.
Yes, that’s true, but this says absolutely nothing about whether, given the same conditions of my life and environment, I would always write the book and think that creationists are wrong. And yes, I’m a human with a brain that enables me to write sentences that convey my ideas to others, but that says nothing to me about whether or not I had a choice. (This issue of “meaning” always confuses me, because it seems to me simply an epiphenomenon of a sufficiently complex brain operating in a social species. “Meaning” seems irrelevant to the issue of whether behavior is completely determined by genes, environment, and their interaction.) And my book can convince (and has convinced, thank Ceiling Cat) some people, for it’s part of the environment that impinges on peoples’ brains.
I believe Eric’s error in his essay comes from a failure to recognize that one person’s thoughts can not only influence her own behaviors, but also the thoughts and behavior of other people. That is not a problem for a deterministic view of human nature, for thoughts are simply the chemical actions of neurons, which can be influenced by the neuronal input to our brains coming from our senses. Books and words are neuronal inputs that affect brain chemistry and hence actions.
Eric draws a distinction between human behavior and the “stimulus-response” pattern of some other animals:
But what happens when animals become, not simple input-response mechanisms like Deep Blue or Ichnumonidae, but intentional systems with a narrative history? Whereas we may quite properly see Ichnumonidae as quite simple input-response systems which are hardwired to lay their eggs, as they do, in the living, paralysed bodies of caterpillars, it is much harder to see human beings in these terms.
Perhaps it is harder for Eric to see that, but it’s not so hard for me—perhaps because I’m a geneticist and an evolutionary biologist. Our input-response systems are immensely more complicated than those of other animals, a truth that Dennett points out in Freedom Evolves. And indeed, I think that natural selection has favored this complexity, for we are social beings who evolved in small groups. For such a species, selection has favored us taking on board a lot of different inputs, and “weighing them” (by this I simply mean that our neurology is wired to give some inputs more influence than others on our subsequent action) before we do anything. When a gazelle hears a rustle in the bushes, it instantly flees. When we hear a rustle in the bushes, we have a more sophisticated response, thinking “Could that be my friend Zog, whom I know is nearby? Or is it the wind? I don’t think it’s a lion because I haven’t seen any lions in a while.” We “weigh” the possibilities before acting simply because our onboard computer is more complicated, and it’s adaptive for us to take in a lot of inputs before we give an output. Gazelles don’t have the cerebral equipment to weigh all these factors: if they don’t flee at the slightest noise, they might be dead.
The crux of Eric’s notion of free will seems to reside in this paragraph:
The question of determinism, as I see it, does not have so much to do with contra-causal possibilities, since once something has been done, it scarcely makes a lot of sense to ask whether the agent could have done something quite different. Presumably, all the causes and influences that came to bear on the person at that time are such as to have produced exactly that result and none other. The question is whether the agent might have acted differently had he or she considered more thoroughly the possible alternatives that were open to choice at that time, and all their many ramifications and consequences. Redoing the same situation with the very same parameters, including the person’s limited survey of the alternatives, and inadequate consideration of the consequences of his action, will almost certainly produce the same action, not because that action was determined — though it certainly was determined by the influences then in play upon the person’s decisions — but because that action was only one of a range of possible actions he or she might have done, depending upon the thoroughness with which he or she had considered the alternatives to what he or she in the end decided to do.
I think the mistake here is that he sees the action of “considering something more thoroughly” as a choice—a real contracausal choice. (He seems to realize this issue at one point, but still implies that the degree to which we ponder something is under some kind of dualistic control. I may be wrong about this, though.) I would argue that yes, reflection does affect what we do, but how long and how thoroughly we reflect on something are things that are also determined.
Eric goes on to recount the circumstances that led him to create his website (and I’m really glad he did); he seems to see them as a series of “choices” that he made after pondering his alternatives. In contrast, I would call them “actions Eric took after pondering”. And I would also claim that Eric never had any contracausal choice about how long he pondered the alternatives.
As for our thoughts affecting our actions, I fully agree, as I think any determinist would. Humans are animals that have multiple inputs and a complex processing system. Of course thought influences action. If you get evidence that your son is stealing money from your wallet, you will treat him differently from how you would without that knowledge. And of course if you reflect about an issue longer, you may change your behavior concerning that issue. If someone yells at me during a faculty meeting, I might yell back, but if I had time to ponder the situation before responding, I might refrain on the grounds of civility and comity. But so what? Whether or not I ponder the situation is itself something that depends on my brain, genes, and environment.
But thought itself is action: the actions of polarized neurons and chemicals moving between them. And that thought-action is influenced by physical conditions. How deeply we consider a problem before acting is also thought-action, and (with the exception of quantum events, which can’t be considered a component of free will) is also determined. Ergo,the fact that one’s intensity of rumination affections one’s actions says nothing about whether you’re making a real “choice.” And are those “choices” really “free” if they’re ultimately determined? Just because they look like choices doesn’t mean they’re not determined.
At the end, Eric seems to conclude (and I may be mistaken here) that he has made “real” choices in his life simply because he thinks he has.
The truth to me seems to be that, even if it could be explained by taking all the factors into account, including the reasons I just gave, I did choose to do this [create his website] — that is, it was my choice — and that what I did was inexplicable apart from the reasons given, and what it means to give them. And that seems to me a freedom worth having. But, as I say, this is only a very tentative first step.
If you want to call the appearance of choice “free will,” then you are free to do so. But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they think they have free will. And in what sense are those choices really “free” if, given perfect knowledge, you could predict them—or even the amount of thought devoted to them before they’re made?