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Jerry Coyne agrees with me that ‘free will’ is likely an illusion

March 18, 2013

Off topic post: I’ve been arguing (over drinks) for a few years now that there’s no evidence for free will, and I get a lot of push back from my scientist and non-scientist friends. I know there’s an extremely large philosophical literature on this topic, but I don’t have time to read it. So my ideas in this area are mostly based on intuition. Still, I was pleased today to see Jerry Coyne apparently agreeing with me:

I am confident, as is Dennett, that one day consciousness will be explained by reductive physical analysis. It’s a hard problem, but many problems once thought insuperable have yielded to scientific study. For many years everyone believed in dualistic free will, but now we’re beginning to understand that our sense of “agency” is bogus, and that in fact our “free” choices may be largely or completely predicted from our genes and our environments, i.e., physical phenomena. Our feeling of agency is, of course, one aspect of our consciousness. This doesn’t explain the source of that feeling, but it’s entirely possible that agency is a confabulation installed in us by evolution to help make sense post facto of what we do, or relate our experiences to others.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2013 3:50 pm

    Hey Steve,

    Going to have to agree and disagree with you here. I agree that free will doesn’t really exist, since we are limited in almost every aspect by environment and heredity. I have no control over a number of aspects of my personal life, such as the color of my skin, gender, birthplace, birth order, ability/disability etc. I can react to these aspects (e.g. sex reassignment surgery in the case of gender), but never really control the outcome from the onset. So yes, heredity and the envrionment will shape the context physiological, psychological, geographical, social etc.) in which I am.

    But I don’t feel that heredity and environment can completely predict our behaviour. For e.g. psychological research has shown that maternal twins (same DNA) raised in a similar environment (same set of parents) can be very similar in certain aspects but not others (e.g. both like to wear red, but one pursues career in science while other pursues career in art). I like to think that heredity and environment can dictate the range of possible choices available to me (e.g. upper class family means that post-secondary education without loans is a viable option, working poor family means that post-secondary education without loans is not possible). But I still have the ability to choose from among these options (in the case of the working poor family, either pursue post-secondary education using loans, or save enough funds (working) then attend or decide not to pursue post-secondary education).

  2. March 20, 2013 4:29 pm

    Hey Sarah,

    Good to hear from you. How are things in Kingston? Thanks for the comment! It gives me the motivation to elaborate on my thoughts on this topic.

    I have four reactions. First, the knit-picky one, which relates to this statement:

    “For e.g. psychological research has shown that maternal twins (same DNA) raised in a similar environment (same set of parents) can be very similar in certain aspects but not others (e.g. both like to wear red, but one pursues career in science while other pursues career in art).”

    Twins don’t have *exactly* the same DNA, and similar environment doesn’t mean the *same* environment. Twins can’t occupy the same space at the same time, so they’re different. This may sound a little weird, but no two different things are the same.

    Second, I never claimed that free will doesn’t exist, only that there is no evidence for it. And I don’t think we can ever actually do the required experiment, which would be to replicate one piece of reality and check for differences amongst those hypothesized to have a free will.

    Third, I’m no philosopher, so my thoughts on this topic are probably naive. But I’m just being honest, I don’t see any evidence for free will.

    Last, I’m actually more comforted by the idea that we don’t have free will. I like to think that people are literally the best they can possibly be, which is a glass is half-full take on no free will. I’m not saying that people don’t do bad things, or shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions — that would be chaos. But that without free will, there literally is no reason for anyone to feel superior to anyone else. Without free will, we are who we are, end of story. Its kind of like a liberal attitude taken to the extreme — like that baseball metaphor: “don’t act like you hit a triple, when you started out on third base.’

  3. April 6, 2013 2:58 pm

    I agree with you Steve. I will say however, that a useful discussion on the topic depends critically on a very exacting definition of just exactly what we mean by the phrase. Otherwise we’re quickly in a quagmire, misunderstanding and arguing past each other and so forth. If we believe in a deterministic world, and I think as scientists that we do, then well, things are determined, and what we think of as freedom is more determined than we recognize.

    However, I think humans are +/- unique in their capacity to make decisions based on other than just impulse or instinct,i.e. on rational thought processes that can lead to decisions that are opposite to what biological/physical impulse would lead to. Some people are capable of starving themselves to death for example, to take an extreme example. More generally, humans are capable of recognizing alternative choices that arise in the consciousness from different origins, and then choosing one of them. But just where that concept fits into that of “free will” will be determined by one’s choice of definitions it seems to me.

    • April 6, 2013 4:43 pm

      Agreed Jim. Getting the definitions right makes for better discussions. Here’s my amateur off-the-cuff philosophy. My admittedly philosophically naive definition is that free will is whatever would make it possible for the past to have been different from what it was. That is, for me, the ‘free will hypothesis’ predicts that if we could live the same period of time over again, we could make it turn out differently. Because this is an impossible prediction to test, I consider the hypothesis to have very little meaning and I am therefore agnostic on whether or not we have free will, just as I am agnostic on whether or not there is a divine creator. And while we’re on that topic, for me, atheism is what often happens when agnostics consider the plausibility of a particular creator. Its like that thing in probability theory where the probability of a continuous range of values can be non-zero, even though the probability of any particular value in the range is exactly zero. I’m not ruling out the idea of a creator, just the idea of a particular one (e.g. the flying spaghetti monster). And this is really my problem with free will. I put probability zero on any particular notion of free, unless that notion is scientifically testable, but am agnostic on whether or not any scientifically untestable free will hypothesis is correct. However, in my philosophically naive experience, the scientifically testable notions of free will aren’t the ones that most people are passionate about defending. People want to believe that they could have willed things to have turned out differently, but I don’t see how this belief could be testable.

      • April 8, 2013 4:09 pm

        Thanks Steve, nice response.

        In your opinion, could there be another valid definition of free will that does not require going back and re-living particular situations over again? Because most of us would all agree I think, that the laws of physics as we understand them preclude this option.

        How about this example. Suppose I try to fast for a week but I can’t do it, for any of several possible reasons. Several months later I try again and I succeed. Is this a fair test of free will, and has my freedom of will changed with time? Is free will then simply +/- synonymous with “will power”, which I might define as the ability to make definite, conscious choices that lead to equal or greater, not lesser, pain/discomfort/difficulty. If not, how are they different?

      • April 8, 2013 4:41 pm

        Your example doesn’t count for me. In the months that pass between your two attempts, you and your environment have changed. I thought you were going to do the quantum uncertainty thing, which may make sense but I don’t really understand it. You might find Daniel Dennett interesting here. I say ‘might’ because I can’t really remember the details of his arguments, but as I remember he has a concept of free will that hinges on the fact that we don’t know what the future will hold and therefore that it feels so much like we have free will that we essentially do have it? Yikes…I really don’t remember this stuff so please don’t take what I’m saying about Dennett seriously at all, just that he has something more nuanced besides my preferred view that physics are deterministic and therefore there can be no evidence for or against free will.

        What is different between free will and will power? Quite a bit in my opinion.

        Let me put a few more of my cards on the table. I take comfort in the idea that we don’t have free will. The idea of free will is what makes it reasonable for people to conclude that one person is superior to another, and I don’t like that. Don’t get me wrong, people should be held accountable for their actions — e.g. killers should go to jail. But even though I’m agnostic on the existence of free will, I would like very much to believe that people are just ‘being who they are’. I really like the idea that everyone really is literally the best they can be.

        So my position is: (1) there’s no evidence for or against free will (as you seem to concede, at least at a basic physical level) and (2) I’m more comforted by a lack of free will than I am by the presence of free will.

        Thanks for the probing.

      • April 8, 2013 5:42 pm

        It’s a very difficult topic to discuss without talking past one another (almost inherent in discussions of philosophy I’d say) but I think I understand your views pretty well.

        To me the entire concept of free will necessarily involves the issue of choice among >1 options, so I cannot see how it can be divorced from issues of perceived costs and benefits of same, nor from issues of physical impossibility (e.g. I’m not free to fly to jump across Lake Erie, regardless of what I’d like to do). In this respect I’m also very interested in the issue of free will in non-humans.

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