The Illusion of Free Will

Gotta love the internet.  I was trying to find the Wegman Report, a very interesting critique of how global warming advocacy too often masquerades as science, and stumbled into a recent discusson of Free Will with an expert in Neuroscience and philosphy featured in the  New York Times:

… the philosopher agreed with Dr. Haggard that free will has biological roots. In fact, that is something all the men seemed to agree on: that free will is not a spiritual or magical experience endowed supernaturally within us, but rather, that the conscious decision-making ability is a result of organic brain activity.

7 thoughts on “The Illusion of Free Will

  1. Assuming mental events, including apparent “free will,” are neurological brain events determined by bio-chemistry and nothing more, supposed moral autonomy and responsibility would seem to be superfluous. That’s the real issue. Even Mele’s “compatibilist” explanation does not really address that issue–except to suggest that humans act and make decisions without knowing all the causes which resulted in the act/decision, or to suggest they could have done differently–rather difficult to prove. (If they can’t do differently, why, say, the criminal justice system)

    Obviously some forms of biological determinism do matter–eating, need for hydration, housing–and one might say territory, finding a mate, and other Darwinian factors. I do not think that Darwin or his cynical ancestor Malthus account for all human behavior (nor did say the free-will denying behaviorists, though they did teach pigeons how to play ping pong). Given Darwinism, the endless moral debates (whether from religious folks, or the Sally Fields leftists) seem rather pointless–why argue over primates competing for mates, territory, food supply, etc. Either way some might question whether, say, Justice hinges on proper conditioning, or is just a “meme”.

  2. Which is to say, Mele’s compatibilist view appears a bit wishy washy, and he doesn’t really understand the implications of his own physicalism (which seems to preclude bio-chemical matter from having intention)–it’s not inconceivable, but I think the compatibilist actually suggests a rather strange mystic view by implication (pantheism in a sense–nature is conscious?? unlikely.).

    The two most likely alternatives in regards to intentionality issue would thus seem to be strict determinism, and no intentionality–the Darwinian meat-puppets–OR, metaphysics holds, intentionality, and Mind exist, and the Cartesian ghost puppets exist (with some meat appendages perhaps). Alas, I’m fairly convinced Team Darwin wins that chessmatch as well (though with some reservations).

  3. Tommo I wonder we could get as much agreement as you seem to be suggesting. I bet at least half the well educated (and overwhelming majority of the uneducated) folks in the world would invoke additional factors to explain “decisions”, such as “soul”, “mind”, “moral absolutes”, etc.

    supposed moral autonomy and responsibility would seem to be superfluous

    Yes, I think this is why so many people get *very* upset with deterministic or even just mechanistic explanations of behavior.

    But at some level I think this is a misinterpretation of the “no free will” argument, which is talking more about why we do what we do. A construct like “what should I do?” still exists for determinists, they just explain them differently…..

    Or so I was programme to write 10,000,000,000 years ago…

  4. Our decision making stems from what is conducive to our survival. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.

  5. Well, there’s a substantial difference between saying Hitler was just a poorly-conditioned monkey (or not to your taste, etc.) AND claiming Hitler was in fact evil, whatever that means. Read the usual hysteria on the political blogs, and it’s quite obvious the usual bloviator (links oder rechts) does rely on an objective sense of ethics (though he could unlikely prove it), not just “torture may be good for you, but not for me”.

    Even if free-will were an illusion (Im not sure illusion the right term) the rational person’s desire for justice of some sort was also determined–that’s why I am sort of a reluctant Darwinist. Atheism and reductionism tends to enable the wrong sorts of people.

  6. Atheism and reductionism tends to enable the wrong sorts of people.

    History suggests this is true, though it also makes a lot of fundamentalists look pretty bad, too.

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