George Ellis is professor of complex systems in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and he has written an essay in defense of the idea of free will. It is a long essay but his argument is really against classical determinism of the Laplacian kind, as can be seen by this statement.
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose I’m wrong. Let’s ignore all these issues and take the deterministic view seriously. It implies that the words of every book ever written – the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Das Kapital, the Harry Potter series – were encoded into the initial state of the Universe, whatever that was. No logical thinking by a human played a causal role in the specific words of these books: they were determined by physics alone.
He then turns to the issues of morality and the horrible consequences of denying free will.
If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings. We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way for our reactions to global climate change, child trafficking or viral pandemics. The underlying physics would in reality be governing our behaviour, and responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture.
That’s a devastating conclusion. We can be grateful it’s not true.
But classical mechanics has of course been superseded by quantum mechanics with its associated indeterminancy and is no longer seen as viable. I doubt that any serious student of the topic of free will takes classical determinism and the above consequences seriously. The people making the case against free will have long gone past that stage, as can be seen in the debate between Greg Caruso (who denies the existence of free will) and Daniel Dennett (who thinks it exists), neither of whom bother to consider it even perfunctorily.
So where does Ellis find the source of free will?
So what determines which messages are conveyed to your synapses by signalling molecules? They are signals determined by thinking processes that can’t be described at any lower level because they involve concepts, cognition and emotions in an essential way. Psychological experiences drive what happens. Your thoughts and feelings reach ‘down’ to shape lower-level processes in the brain by altering the constraints on ion and electron flows in a way that changes with time.
For example, suppose you’re walking down the street, and just in front of you a terrible accident happens – smashed-up cars, people injured, blood everywhere. You react with horror: sympathy for those who’ve been hurt, fear that they will die, a guilty sense of relief that it didn’t happen to you. These are all mental events that take place because of the way your brain functions at the psychological level, based on some combination of past experience and innate responses. None of those qualities – sympathy, fear, guilt – occur at the ion or synapse level. These high-level mental operations act down to alter the shape of ion channels, and so change the motions of billions of ions and electrons in your brain. In an intricate causal dance between levels in your brain, those thoughts are able to occur because of the underlying spike chains, but it’s their essentially psychological nature – what it means to recognise an accident, which thoughts flow through your mind as you decide what to do, what it feels like to experience the shock of seeing the event – that causes what happens. Physics enabled what took place in your head and body, but didn’t determine it; your mental interpretation of the event did.
But he does not address where these thinking processes, these psychological processes, come from, what the material basis is from which they arise. He seems to assume that they are just there and somehow emerge independently of the brain but can influence the workings of the brain.
Arguments for free will like Ellis’s usually boil down to saying that there is a one-way street from higher-level cognitive processes (such as thoughts) to the low-level material substrate that makes up the brain and drives our motor functions and thus our actions, without dealing with the flow in the other direction, of how that substrate creates the higher-level cognitive processes.
By doing so, they are essentially begging the question.