Science does not disprove free will

Someone contacted me through Quora recently because they were having an existential crisis — it was stimulated by the ostensibly scientific notion that humans do not have free well.

Any theory that insists that we do not actually make choices is going to causes distress among many people who valorize academic thinking. Many hard-nosed metaphysicians simply don’t care about the mental well-being of the general public. I find this attitude simultaneously patronizing and irresponsible.

The frequently heard suggestion that humans beings could be better off not believing in free will seems to miss a crucial aspect of the topic. If free will doesn’t exist in some form, then conscious experience is a kind of elaborate prank: a scripted show designed to fool you into thinking audience participation is involved. Everything we do is then a brute consequence of events outside ourselves, which in turn are traced back to the big bang and/or random fluctuations. Despite all evidence to the contrary, in a universe without free will humans seem to cause nothing.

You can of course argue that the unpleasantness of an idea is not evidence against it. This is true, but it still strikes me that there is something inaccurate about a metaphysical view that does not distinguish between the lack of freedom of a slave and the lack of freedom of a slavemaster.

Let the missionaries of scientism predict the motion of an amoeba from first principles before pontificating about human agency.

In any case, rational thought is not a monolith — plenty of physicists, neuroscientists, philosophers and other thinkers see room for free will in their theories and experiments. Given that no one can decide among the various competing theories of agency yet, I see nothing unscientific about drawing attention to the pro free will camp. As far as I am concerned, nothing short of an app that successfully predicts what I am going to do — even when I see the prediction and have time to react — would count as proof that free will doesn’t exist. This would be a constructive proof (despite being destructive of sanity, perhaps).

As a bonus, investigating the possibility of a coherent theory of free will can enrich your intellectual life, regardless of what you believe right now. You will encounter some of the most baffling questions from the frontiers of science and philosophy, such as the nature of causality (not as obvious as you might think), the emergence of life and selfhood (not obvious to anyone), and the question of what exactly the word ‘exist’ really means (barely even asked, even by scientists).

So I freely admit that I may be wrong, but my choice is to believe in free will.


6 thoughts on “Science does not disprove free will

  1. I believe in will, but I sure as hell do not believe in free will. There is freedom of action, but one either has to decide according to one’s will or against one’s will. Free will isn’t even logically consistent. Will has to be determined, otherwise it isn’t will (you cannot want something unspecific; even if you think you want something unspecific, it is only temporary until you realise that what you want is a beer or a walk or food or something else which is equally specific). Given that what you want must be specific, and given that the mean by which you want is will, will must be equally determined as the want, and thus not free.

    The only thing I could see is the multitude of wills. Think of it like the Freudian psyche. People want to fulfill desires, but they also want to be moral and they don’t want to go against their upbringing, their conscience or be seen as deranged or evil. This clash of wills might bring about freedom of action. But each will one has must be determined in order to be will in the first place.

    • I recognize that a lot of people think that free will is logically inconsistent. But I think it helps to lay out exactly what your logical premises/axioms are, because it is possible that the definitions (of “freedom”, “will”, “determined” etc) being used by people who believe in free will are distinct from yours. Compatibilism is a perfectly respectable and widespread position, and it is not obviously illogical given its own axioms. So could you state your definitions/axioms, just so I’m clear about where you think the logical error is?

      • Sure, I can try.
        Will is, for lack of a better term, a collection of wants. Wants are urges. Freedom is defined as both, lack of coercion, and more than one option to pick from. What is determinism? Determinism here merely means a lack of positive freedom. Why do I consider wants to be determined? When one wants something, one wants something which is specific to some extent. One, as I’d argue by defintion, cannot want something which is entirely unspecific. When I’m thirsty, I will want something to drink.
        I cannot choose between “wanting to drink” and “not wanting do drink” or “instead of wanting to drink, now I want to read a book”. How then is will supposed to be free if there is no positive freedom in wants? I mean, I cannot divert from the “drink” constituent of my want.

        Will determines itself, it is said, thus it is free from coercion. I would say that whatever constitutes wants, constitues will. But even if I admitted that will was free in the sense that will determines itself, a free will makes me unfree. If I was free, my will wouldn’t be, because I would determine my will, not the other way around. (For instance, I could determine that I don’t want to crave sugary softdrinks and instead want water, for health reasons.)

        Who can’t tell of at least one want which makes one more unfree than one could be? Doesn’t an intense want for fast food free me from the possibilty to become an athlete? Doesn’t a constant want for drugs free me from a sober, clear-headed life? Isn’t it the case that with a rising amount of wants, my freedom to choose freely is more and more impaired, or at least biased by the “soft coercion of wants”?

        There is some relative freedom in will. At least it isn’t a force as coercing as natural law or physiological reflex. (If a doctor triggers my knee reflex, my will hasn’t even a say in the game.) However, I would like to understand how freedom of will is understood generally, or by you.

      • “Determinism here merely means a lack of positive freedom.”

        This is fine, but it basically rules out free will by definition, so it’s amounts to a tautology.

        But one can, for example, accept that the self is a product of determinism, and that it’s will being free consists in acting in a way that it feels relatively unconstrained. This is why a slave is less free than a slave-owner. Any notion of freedom that doesn’t acknowledge this strikes me as somewhat frivolous and amoral.

        “If I was free, my will wouldn’t be, because I would determine my will, not the other way around.”

        Here I think there is an unnecessary proliferation of self-related entities. Why am “I” distinct from “my will”? I would simplify/generalized and say that “I” am the entire spatiotemporal pattern of which my will and consciousness are attributes.

        As I see it, the key here is to invent a version of freedom that isn’t ruled out tautologically. My post touches on this, so there’s no need to repeat those points.

        If acknowledging that the self/will is a center of causal power (as is done by theorists who speak of “downward causality”) doesn’t convince you, then another strategy is to refine our notions of what determinism entails. A philosopher named Jenann Ishmael has done this in a recent book. You can read about her argument here in detail:

        As I see it, determinism as commonly understood does not accurately capture the relationship between theories and the universe. Determinism properly understood is a feature of models. A theory goes on to state that features of models hold for the things being modeled (i.e., the world). There is very little practical evidence that our deterministic models are true, so people usually claim that the universe is deterministic by fiat (perhaps invoking Occam’s Razor).

        Nevertheless, even when we accept determinism, the pro-free-will crowd still have room to maneuver. One somewhat speculative and playful (yet radical) approach is to *identify* with the past and the laws of science. If I say that what defines my Self includes the laws of the universe and its history, then I am a participant in the process by which my will comes to be.

        Anyway, the key point I want to make is that all the terms of the debate — freedom, determinism, and most importantly, self/will — can be refined in ways that render the debate more interesting and less tautological.

  2. You say your “choice is to believe in free will.” I have come to learn that belief is not a choice. If we have the “freedom to choose,” or make decisions one way or another, what ultimately forces us to make that particular final choice or decision? Doesn’t that seem to rule out freedom of choice?

    • I think there is an underlying binary assumption here: that a choice is *either* fully determined (by something other than the self), or is completely free of the laws of science. But the truth here is that there is a continuum of constraint on the will. I am not saying that free will implies violation of the laws of science. The self, which arises in the first place because of the laws of science, has causal powers. It is free in the sense that it is not *fully* constrained by external circumstances such as physical coercion by someone else. Multiple courses of action are consistent with the laws of science. The self, when it is (relatively) unconstrained, picks among courses of action that are consistent with the laws of science, because it is a source of causal power, just as much as a neuron or an atom is.

      It’s worth noting another aspect of my notion of freedom: it is captured by difference between a slave and a slave-master. The slave’s possibilities for choice have been violently constrained by the slave-master. The slave-master’s actions are not violently constrained in the same way — he can, for example, choose to take the day off without getting whipped. This is the only sober and morally responsible way to think about freedom, in my opinion.

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