Sci-phi: Free will

Mathew Iredale

Mathew Iredale

There is no denying the central role that determinism has played in discussions of free will over the last four hundred years, and possibly far longer than that. Nor can one deny the significant role that it continues to play in these discussions. Whilst there are undoubtedly a number of different issues within the free will debate, determinism is still taken by the majority to be the peg upon which the others hang.

But not everyone shares this view. According to Nicholas Maxwell, rather than asking “Is free will compatible with determinism?” we should be asking “Is free will compatible with what modern science tells us about the universe?” Maxwell says that he finds it “quite extraordinary that the entire tradition of philosophical debate about free will tends to take it for granted … that the central issue is whether free will is, or is not, compatible with determinism.”

At first glance, this does seem to be a better question to ask. After all, who cares if free will is compatible with determinism when surely what really matters is whether free will is compatible with reality. And what is reality if not the world as modern science tells us it is? On the other hand, it may be that philosophers take it for granted that the question to be asking is whether free will is compatible with determinism because science is relevant to free will only because of what it has to say about our being determined. To take one recent example, the authors of Four Views on Free Will are unequivocal in their assertion that science is of interest to the debate only because of how it relates to determinism.

“If we accept that the universe isn’t deterministic there are still good reasons to think about the compatibility of free will and determinism,” they write. “First, it could turn out that future physicists conclude that the universe is deterministic, contrary to the contemporary consensus about at least quantum mechanics. It is notoriously difficult to predict how future science will turn out, and it might be useful to have an answer to the question in advance of the scientific issues getting sorted out. Second, even if the universe were not fully deterministic, determinism might hold locally (either as a matter of how local spacetime is constructed, or as a matter of how the physics for non-quantum physical objects operates). Third, we could be interested in whether free will is compatible with a broadly scientific picture of the universe. Since some aspects of the universe seem deterministic and others do not, we might ask if free will is compatible with determinism as a first step to answering the more general question of whether free will is compatible with a broadly scientific picture of the universe.”

Their conclusion is clear; science is of interest to discussions of free will because of how it relates to, or implies, determinism, and for no other reasons. But is this really the case? Are those sciences that have, or appear to have, an impact on whether we have free will of interest only because they support, or do not support, determinism?

There is no doubt that this is the case with discussions of quantum theory and the neurosciences, with much recent debate centring around the question of whether quantum phenomena play a role in neuronal activity. And when genetics is discussed, it is invariably to invoke the bogeyman of genetic determinism, even if those accused of expounding such a concept, such as the zoologist Richard Dawkins, do not actually do so in practise. As he puts it: “The belief that genes are somehow super-deterministic … is a myth of extraordinary tenacity.”

But what about those areas of science which are clearly relevant to free will, but which receive far less coverage in the literature, such as the special theory of relativity, evolution, and psychological research into rationality? Are they of interest to the debate only because of what they say about determinism?

The relevance of the special theory of relativity to free will can be summed up by the following passage from the physicist Paul Davies: “In the [special theory of relativity] there is no universal present, and the entire past and future of the universe are regarded as existing in an indivisible whole. The world is four dimensional (three of space, one of time), and all events are simply there: the future does not ‘happen’ or ‘unfold’.”

In other words, physically the future is as closed and unalterable as the past. Which, one cannot fail to note, is also a consequence of determinism. In which case, the theory of relativity does not appear to give the traditionalists any reason to abandon their formulation of the free will problem in terms of determinism. But what about evolution?

The aspect of evolution which is of interest to us here is that evolution is gradual, as Darwin himself explicitly stated: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

The brain must have evolved through numerous, successive, slight modifications. And if the brain evolved gradually, then so must have the faculties that are associated with the brain, such as consciousness and free will. And if free will evolved gradually then it must be something that can exist by degrees.

What can we learn from this about free will? For one thing, it means that we can reject any characterisation of free will that describes it as an all-or-nothing ability found only in humans and in no other species. If free will evolved then the ability to make decisions with a certain degree of free will must have been present in our recent ancestors, if not in our more distant ancestors. A further implication that can be drawn from the gradual evolution of free will is that we humans may not be as free as any individual can be. It may be the case that we just have a high degree of free will and that there are further degrees of free will that are possible. Clearly, evolution has a number of consequences for free will. But what does it say about determinism? Absolutely nothing.

Now consider psychological research into rationality. The ability to make decisions rationally is generally held to be an important part of free will, so if there are situations in which our rationality is impaired without our realising, it could have serious consequences for free will. But there clearly are such situations. According to one recent review of the rationality literature, psychological experiments going back thirty years fail to support the idea that human beings are intrinsically rational: “What these studies demonstrated is that even under quite ordinary circumstances where fatigue, drugs and strong emotions are not factors, people reason and make judgements in ways that systematically violate familiar canons of rationality on a wide array of problems.” And if their rationality is impaired in a variety of different situations without their realising it, then so too is their free will. And this is the case regardless of determinism.

What these examples show is that those philosophers who believe that science contributes to the free will debate only because of what it has to say about determinism are clearly mistaken. There are areas of science which have an impact upon free will without determinism being involved in any way. Given this, is it now time to put aside the traditional formulation “Is free will compatible with determinism?” in favour of Maxwell’s formulation “Is free will compatible with what modern science tells us about the universe?”?

Further Reading
The Human World in the Physical Universe, N Maxwell (Rowman & Littlefield)
Four Views on Free Will, J. M. Fisher, R Kane, D. Pereboom and M. Vargas (Blackwell)

Mathew Iredale‘s Sci-Phi column appears regularly in tpm.

  1. Permit me this tall claim. You are free to put it off to boastful madness or to decide to give it a hearing. In a longish article, “Free Will as Creativity”, that can be read on my weblog http://khashaba.blogspot.com/2006_01_01_archive.html and that is also included in my recently published collection of essay The Sphinx and the Phoenix, I have presented an original approach to the problem that should clear much of the muddled thinking surrounding it.

    D. R. Khashaba
    http://khashaba.blogspot.com

  2. Discussion of free will is just another illusion of philosophy and the human conception of ‘rationality. What is the value of any intellectual, scientific or spiritual conception, when whatever ‘free will’ humanity imagines is within its grasp, has failed to provide a defining system of values that can insure sustainability and the end of conflict?

  3. Sheesh, hasn’t anyone read Dennett’s two books on free will? Whether determinism is true or not, he makes clear, free will remains a bit of a puzzle. The interesting question is what features a mind needs to have the capacity for free will. I would say that the reason my cat lacks it has nothing to do with determinism, but a lot to do with his sad inability to consider counterfactual conditionals.

  4. Linkfest! « - pingback on July 20, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Leave a Reply

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: