Another attempt to rescue free will

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.

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Compatibilism versus biologicalism on the free will question

The question of what constitutes free will and how to describe the various arguments for and against its existence is tricky and requires careful articulation. I have been thinking about how to more carefully elucidate the issue since the interesting discussion the comments on my recent post on a debate by two philosophers on this issue, so here goes.

Let’s start with how we define free will. What I mean by having free will is that I could have decided to do something different from what I just did, which was to take a sip from a cup of coffee. This can be called contracausal free will. There are those who believe in such a contracausal free will because they think that our decisions are driven by a soul or by a ‘ghost in the machine’, (a term coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle to connote some kind of homunculus that exists inside our head and controls our actions) that is somehow either disconnected from our body or can act independently of it and can control it. I am going to dismiss such ideas without further discussion, because those seem to invoke religious or spiritual elements that do not have any empirical basis and seem to deny the reality that we are biological machines whose behavior is driven by the way our bodies have been shaped by evolution and personal experience, and that our behavior is driven by physiological processes obeying natural laws.
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Arguments for and against free will

I came across this interesting debate between two professors of philosophy Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennett on the endlessly fascinating and controversial question of whether we have free will or not. The topic is fascinating because what exactly we mean by the term ‘free will’ is difficult to pin down and controversial because many people find it hard to give up the idea that they have free will and respond very strongly against arguments that deny it exists. (For those who want to go into it in some detail, back in 2010 I wrote a multipart series of blog posts on this very topic. It is better to read them in sequence but do not follow the links at the top of each post to ‘previous posts’ because that link takes you to when the posts were published on a site before I moved to FtB and that site no longer exists.)
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The Libet free will experiment revisited

I have long been interested in the question of free will and back in 2010 even wrote a 16-part series (!) looking into what was known about it. Many people are Cartesian dualists where they view the brain and mind as distinct, the former being a physical organ while the latter is an immaterial entity, dubbed the ‘Ghost in the Machine’ by Gilbert Ryle, that controls the cognitive processes of the former, though how that actually happens has not been made clear.
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The coming death of the idea of free will

The idea of human beings having free will is so powerful that it would seem to be impossible to dislodge. Having free will seems to be so essential to the way that we view ourselves that denying its existence seems like denying our very humanity, transforming ourselves into mindless automatons, and thus we are loathe to relinquish it. Isaac Beshevis Singer captured this struggle well when he said, “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.” [Read more…]

Update on free will

Readers may recall my multi-part series on free will in which, among other things, I reported on the pioneering 1983 experiments of Benjamin Libet. Peter Hankins reviews a recent paper that uses latest developments that have been made possible by more recent sophisticated technology that can look at the activity of individual neurons in the brain. The researchers get results that essentially validate Libet’s conclusions and provide further insights. Hankins explains what it might all mean.

On free will-16: A sense of self in the absence of free will

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

According to the writer Isaac Beshevis Singer, “We must believe in free will, we have no choice.” It is a funny line because of its paradoxical nature and yet also profound because of its multiple layers of meaning. On the one hand, it could be interpreted as saying that belief in free will is likely hardwired in our brains and we are thus compelled to believe in it, whether it is true or not. On the other, it implies that the idea of free will is so important to our sense of self as autonomous agents and to the way that our society is organized that even if we realize it is a fiction, it is a fiction that we must adopt because to abandon it might lead to cognitive confusion and social disarray. This series of posts has tried to show that this fear is unwarranted and in this, the last post, I want to address the issue of what it all means for our sense of self.
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On free will-15: Acting as if there is free will

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Let’s consider two scenarios. In one case, John carefully plans and executes a murder. In the other case, Susan kills an assailant who attacks her. With a belief in free will, we assume that John freely made a willful and conscious decision to commit that act and is thus more culpable than Susan who reacted on the spur of the moment out of the instinct for self-preservation and thus did not use her free will. We thus feel justified in punishing John more harshly than Susan.

If there is no free will, that means that both John’s and Susan’s actions were the result of unconscious neural activity, the only difference being that John’s neural activity had sufficient lead time to create conscious thoughts. Shouldn’t the planned murder be treated in the same way as the self-defense? Doesn’t that imply that they should be punished the same? Is this fair? [Read more…]

On free will-14: Misuse of the insanity defense

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Many people are suspicious of the insanity defense, suspecting that it is abused by unscrupulous criminals and their lawyers. The fact that psychiatrists and other experts can be found to argue both sides of the case adds weight to the suspicion that there is no objective basis to many of the claims of insanity.

This problem arose when the grounds for the insanity defense was loosened from the strict M’Naghten rule. In a 1954 court decision Durham vs. United States, a US Appeals Court extended the reach of the insanity defense beyond cognitive incapacity and said that “The rule we now hold is simply that the accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect.” (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, p. 184) As a result of the Durham precedent, there was a proliferation of expert testimony on both sides to argue the question of whether the accused did in fact have a mental disease or defect and whether the act that was committed was the product of that defective mental state, and thus not truly ‘free’.
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