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NY Times twists on horns of secular free will dilemma

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4 minutes to read A critical look at a New York Times article that discusses the tension between the idea that all the events in the universe are caused deterministically by physical laws, and our deep-seated intuitive belief that this cannot be so because we have free will.

Reposted from Thinking Matters

“Do you have free will?” a recent article in the New York Times asks. “Yes, it’s the only choice.” So begins a fitful confrontation with the dilemma of free will in a world comprised only of the physical universe.

Although it never says it directly, the article appears to assume that the universe is deterministic. Everything happens as an unavoidable consequence of the events before; our choices are not free; and we are not morally responsible.

At the same time, it notes that “there seems to be a fairly universal gut belief in [free will] starting at a young age. When children age 3 to 5 see a ball rolling into a box, they say that the ball couldn’t have done anything else. But when they see an experimenter put her hand in the box, they insist that she could have done something else. That belief seems to persist no matter where people grow up”.

The article concludes that, “At an abstract level, people seem to be what philosophers call incompatibilists: those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism. If everything that happens is determined by what happened before, it can seem only logical to conclude you can’t be morally responsible for your next action.” Yet in our hearts, it says, we’re compatibilists who consider free will compatible with determinism. We believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In fact, we must believe this to function properly, both at an individual level, and a societal one. Thus, “it’s the only choice”.

But this seems like a strange, even tendentious conclusion to draw. Did everyone surveyed actually believe the universe is deterministic? Or is that merely what the people in charge would like for these people to believe? The article speaks only of the subjects reasoning about a hypothetical universe. It doesn’t indicate that they conceded the universe really is deterministic. That belief is only clearly held by the philosophers who ran the tests, and the author of the article.

Do “average” people think the universe is deterministic in this way? That there is only physical matter/energy interacting according to invariable laws—and that, being part of it, we only act as these physical laws, and the prior states of the universe dictate?

I don’t think so. Most people do agree that in a deterministic universe no one would have free will. But they also, as the article points out, believe that we do have free will. The reasonable conclusion to draw is not that people are conflicted, believing both, but rather that they are consistent, rejecting determinism and affirming free will.

For example, people readily agree that we choose based on what we believe or what we feel. If you believe that buying a new car is like throwing money away, then you will buy a second hand car instead. Or if I feel that chocolate will be more delicious right now than cheese, then I will choose chocolate. I don’t take the chocolate simply because prior states of the universe acted according to physical laws, inexorably causing the atoms in my body to move in such a way that the part called my hand came into proximity with the object called chocolate and then moved again to bring it into proximity with the part of my body called my mouth, and so on. Yet this is what physical determinism says. I only ate the chocolate, and you only bought the second hand car, because of certain prior states of the universe and the operation of certain physical laws.

What this implies is not that physical determinism is true and yet we also have free will (because “there is no other choice”). On the contrary, what it implies to anyone who can think clearly is that physical determinism is false. The only obviously confused people are the philosophers who conducted the studies, and the journalist who penned the article.

The evident falsehood of physical determinism raises interesting questions. For example, when we say that we make choices based on beliefs and feelings, what exactly do we mean by “we”? Beliefs and feelings are not physical things. They certainly manifest physically in the brain, but a brain state is not a belief. A belief has properties like “aboutness” and “truth”, and is witnessed from the first person. A brain state has properties like “duration” and “location”, and is witnessed from the third person. This certainly seems to suggest that there’s more to us than just the physical. Usually we call it “soul” or “spirit”—but call it what you like, that is where the evidence leads. That’s where logic and common sense point us.

Oddly, it is scientists who are the least inclined to accept this. Some are notably acidic in their disgust, contempt, even hatred for such “delusional” views. But aren’t scientists, of all people, supposed to follow the evidence, regardless of personal belief?

This New York Times article demonstrates well how the Christian worldview makes more sense of the universe than the secular scientific one. If physical determinism is false, then we may indeed make choices based on beliefs and feelings. But if it is true, then even the scientific enterprise itself is just a sequence of inexorably caused physical events, with no correlation to “truth”. Similarly, if we are made in the image of God, then we should expect to be spiritual beings as well as physical ones, able to choose, and accountable to God for our choices. But if we are made by purely physical processes, then we are ultimately no more than complex arrangements of chemical reactions, reacting as the universe’s laws dictate.

 1 comment

Kerry Campbell

Hi Dominic,
I am fascinated with the whole argument of freewill, in the libertarian sense, the Christian take on it, determinism and all the associated problems. This is no doubt a little dated but still good re. physical determinism:

C.S. Lewis: An excerpt from: Religion Without Dogma (1946)

It would be impossible to accept naturalism itself if we really and consistently believed naturalism. For naturalism is a system of thought. But for naturalism all thoughts are mere events with irrational causes. It is, to me at any rate, impossible to regard the thoughts which make up naturalism in that way and, at the same time, to regard them as real insight into external reality. Bradley distinguished idea-event from idea-making, but naturalism seems to me committed to regarding ideas simply as events. For meaning is a relation of a wholly new kind, as remote, as mysterious, as opaque to empirical study, as soul itself.
Perhaps this may be even more simply put in another way. Every particular thought (whether it is a judgement of fact or a judgement of value) is always and by all men discounted the moment they believe that it can be explained, without remainder, as the result of irrational causes. Whenever you know what the other man is saying is wholly due to his complexes or to a bit of bone pressing on his brain, you cease to attach any importance to it. But if naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore, naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts its own throat.

“The validity of rational thought… is the necessary presupposition of all other theorizing.”
I remember once being shown a certain kind of knot which was such that if you added one extra complication to make assurance doubly sure you suddenly found that the whole thing had come undone in your hands and you had only a bit of string. It is like that with naturalism. It goes on claiming territory after territory: first the inorganic, then the lower organisms, then man’s body, then his emotions. But when it takes the final step and we attempt a naturalistic account of thought itself, suddenly the whole thing unravels. The last fatal step has invalidated all the preceding ones: for they were all reasoning and reason itself has been discredited. We must, therefore, either give up thinking altogether or else begin over again from the ground floor.
There is no reason, at this point, to bring in either Christianity or spiritualism. We do not need them to refute naturalism. It refutes itself. Whatever else we may come to believe about the universe, at least we cannot believe naturalism. The validity of rational thought, accepted in an utterly non-naturalistic, transcendental (if you will), supernatural sense, is the necessary presupposition of all other theorizing. There is simply no sense in beginning with a view of the universe and trying to fit the claims of thought in at a later stage. By thinking at all we have claimed that our thoughts are more than mere natural events. All other propositions must be fitted in as best they can round that primary claim.
Holding that science has not refuted the miraculous element in religion, much less that naturalism, rigorously taken, can refute anything except itself, I do not, of course, share Professor Price’s anxiety to find a religion which can do without what he calls the mythology.

On Kant’s philosophical justification of human autonomy:
“Kant’s philosophy explicitly presupposes human autonomy. It adopts human autonomy as the root idea to which every other idea must conform.”

On the idea of physical determinism some comment by Richard Tarnas and C.S. Lewis: