Oy gewalt, and this defense of free will appears in Harvard Magazine, the vehicle of my alma mater. In a short piece called “Two steps to free will,” Craig Lambert presents the pro-free-will views of Robert Doyle, of the university’s department of astronomy. Note that at the outset Lambert states the problem as one of dualism, a view that many compatibilists claim, nobody really holds. I disagree, of course, for it’s the view of millions of religious folks. (The “will of God” bit below is unfortunate).:
For five years, Doyle has worked on a problem he has pondered since college: the ancient conundrum of free will versus determinism. Do humans choose their actions freely, exercising their own power of will, or do external and prior causes (even the will of God) determine our acts?
Now I haven’t read Doyle’s writings on this topic, but the “two-stage model” as presented in the article seems specious. There aren’t really even two stages:
Doyle limns a two-stage model in which chance presents a variety of alternative possibilities to the human actor, who selects one of these options and enacts it. “Free will isn’t one monolithic thing,” he says. “It’s a combination of the free element with selection.”
This is reminiscent of natural selection, in which mutation presents a variety of genetic variation which is then winnowed by natural selection. But Doyle’s model seems wrong in both its steps. The “alternative possibilities” are, in my mind, illusory: they are the possibilities that the actor thinks she has, or that an outside observer thinks are available. In reality, there’s only one real option, and even compatibilists believe that. Further, nobody thinks that the alternative possibilities arise by chance: the things that appear possible arise as a combination of one’s genes and one’s environments. Nobody, for example, would say that I even have the possibility of choosing to play the piano. But leave that aside for the moment.
What is more important is that we don’t “select” a possibility—if by “selection” Doyle means that we could just as easily have chosen another possibility. To the naive reader, at least, this is pure dualism. That impression is reinforced by something Doyle says later in the piece:
But [Doyle] identifies James as the first philosopher to clearly articulate such a model of free will, and (in a 2010 paper published in the journal William James Studies and presented at a conference honoring James; see “William James: Summers and Semesters”) he honors that seminal work by naming such a model—“first chance, then choice”—“Jamesian” free will.
In 1870, James famously declared himself for free will. In a diary entry for April 30, he wrote, “I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s [French philosopher Charles Renouvier, 1815-1903] second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
The key phrase here is “when I might have other thoughts“, i.e., one can at a given moment make a free decision about which thought to entertain. We can’t do that, for which thoughts we entertain are the products of our physical brains, which themselves come from our genes and the environmental influences that have molded our brains. We are constrained to think the next thought we think. Further, having read the new Schurger et al. paper (reference below) that has been widely touted in the press as giving neurophysiological evidence for free will, don’t find that implication convincing (I’ll post more on this complex paper later).
I’m willing to grant that the Harvard piece might present an incomplete, compressed, or even distorted portrait of Doyle’s views, but I’m going on the article as written.
I know most readers will disagree, but I still think that compatibilist attempts to resuscitate free will are rearguard actions designed to make a virtue of the determinism that most scientifically-minded people agree on. (Victor Stenger, in his book Quantum Gods, makes some calculations implying that the action of quantum indeterminacy on brain function seems unlikely.)
Schurger, A., J. D. Sitt, and S. Dehaene. 2012. An accumulator model for spontaenous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, online http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1210467109