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Yet Another Disproof of Free Will?

I realize that philosophical debates seem somewhat esoteric to most of us, especially on a subject as obtuse as “free will.” But we can learn something from such debate, even if it is nothing more than how not to form a coherent argument. Here’s the article I’m discussing. As always, when I link to an article, I really want it to be read. If nothing else, this is a sure-fire way to make sure I don’t misquote or misrepresent anything said in the article. (I assume, though I could be wrong, that readers are not the least reticent to call my attention to any errors.)

The article starts out poorly. There is a definition, of sorts, of “free will.”

“Free” will, understood as a will that is independent of causality, does not exist.

If you accept the definition that free will is “independent of causality,” then the debate is over — game, set, match.

In philosophical circles, defining your terms so that it is impossible for your thesis to be incorrect is known as “cheating.”

Consider two possibilities: either we live in a deterministic cosmos where cause and effect are universal, or randomness (of the quantum type) is fundamental…

I have no problem considering those two possibilities. I also have no problem considering other possibilities. I can easily consider a universe where cause and effect are universal yet unpredictability and randomness plays some part in events. So setting up a false dichotomy doesn’t make the argument better. (“Yes, you have presented some convincing evidence that A cannot be true. But if A is false then that means B must be true and we all know that B is an impossibility. Thus, all your evidence must be wrong. Ipso facto, ergo and all that!”)

The author makes no effort to hide the fallacy but rather declares it in no uncertain terms. Having started out by defining free will so that it is clearly impossible, the author, after having discussed some evidence that tends to support free will states, “But since free will is incoherent, as I’ve argued before, we need no experiment to establish that it doesn’t exist.”

But he had not argued against free will at all; he had merely defined it out of existence. Once defined as an impossibility, no further argument is possible.

The other question, regarding free will, is a non-issue because free will cannot possibly exist in a universe with laws of nature and no miracles. It follows that there is nothing at all that neuroscience can say about it.

Of course. Experiments may produce interesting results, but we can reject any interpretation of those results that supports free will. Those interpretations must be wrong because we have already defined free will as impossible. The results of further experimentation, while possibly interesting, is not really necessary.

However, if we start out with a different definition of free will, then perhaps we could, if nothing else, engage in more meaningful discussions.

How about this? Free will is self-directed action. And by “self-directed,” I just mean actions that are the result of a decision or set of decisions.

That may not be a perfect definition, but not only is it simple, unambiguous and descriptive of the phenomenon under discussion but it also doesn’t start out by disqualifying any argumentation. That is, one cannot use this definition to support or attack any argument made for or against the concept.

Consider the experiments mentioned in the article. The task for the subjects was to act (flick their wrist) at random times. If there is no free will, as the author speculates, then this would seem to be the simplest of tasks. Just act normally. Without free will, random behavior is all we can expect.

But, if, as I contend, every act we make is the result of a decision, then acting randomly would be difficult. Oh, the first flick would be easy enough, as would the second. The third, however…

“Do I flick it now? No, the time since the last flick would be too close to the first interval to be really random...How about now? Now might be a good time, but I’ll wait just a second or two longer just to play it safe…Now? Yeah, this is good. [Flick]”

Each new flick would be more difficult than the last. The problem is that a human, who has never really acted in a truly random manner in his entire memory, is asked to act randomly. Not being able to act truly at random, he is forced to simulate what he thinks would be random. Truly random behavior (remember that the timing is random, not the actual act) would mean that the timing between flicks would vary from less than a second to many months or years between flicks. After all, there was no constraint put on the time. But the subjects would know there was a modest time frame involved so they would space out the frequency so there would be what they considered an appropriate number of wrist flicks.

There were a lot of decisions involved in appearing random. Put another way, there was a whole lot of free will being exercised trying to synthesize a non-free will condition.

(One set of data that is not presented, but which would be very revealing, is the distribution of the flicks. Was the timing really random or are there obvious groupings or patterns formed?)

That some of this decision-making seemed to originate in the subconscious is not evidence that free will is not involved. I have seen no definition of “free will” that expressly forbade any subconscious part. In fact, it would make sense that some, of even most, of our decisions are performed subconsciously.

In everything we do (walk, talk, drive a car, play a musical instrument, etc.), we don’t do it very well until we reach the point where most of the processing is done subconsciously. If you’ve ever tried to consciously control every muscle involved with just standing up, you will find it nigh on impossible.

Having free will means that we are making decisions every waking moment of every day — most of them at the subconscious level. We decide when the itch has lasted long enough or has gotten intense enough for us to make the effort to scratch it. But we probably only consciously became aware of it when we noticed our hand scratching. When we read, it is as if the pages turn themselves, yet every page turn is the result of our (probably subconscious) decision to turn it.

A statement of the author I found particularly odd: “We don’t have free will, but we do have free won’t, so to speak.” How is that meaningful? A decision to do something or a decision to not do something are both decisions. Ironically, the author unknowingly (unconsciously?) accepts the existence of free will in the middle of arguing it can’t exist.

A classic non-sequitur is to claim free will can’t exist because brain activity is just bio-electrical activity. That’s like claiming ICE engines can’t propel automobiles down the street because the combustion is just a chemical reaction. Yes, it is true that combustion is “merely” a chemical reaction. But so what? The phenomenon of free will in no way negates cause and effect…unless you’ve defined it that way. The principle difference between the chemical reaction of a forest fire and the chemical reaction of a rocket exhaust is that one is random and one is directed. The process is the same but the results of each one are worlds apart. So, if free will is seen as directed bio-chemical processes, there is no issue.

The laws of nature are just the foundation upon which everything else rests. There is nothing that prevents nature…or us…from building up from that foundation.



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