Saturday, January 7, 2012

Do We Have Free Will?

One of the enduring philosophical questions is the nature of human volition or choice. Are our choices really free, as we feel them to be, or are they the inexorable product of our genetic dispositions or the environmental influences exerted on us throughout our lives? If our choices, or at least some of them, really are free what does that mean? What exactly is a free choice? Is it completely uncaused and spontaneous? If so, in what sense can we be responsible for it?

If, on the other hand, our choices are determined by factors over which we have no control it doesn't seem we could be responsible for them either. Moreover, if our choices are the inevitable result of extrinsic factors like our childhood upbringing, etc. then how can there be an obligation to behave one way rather than another? How can we have a duty to do anything unless we can make a meaningful decision to do it?

Biologist Jerry Coyne is an atheistic materialist who shares his thoughts on this matter in a column in USA Today. According to Coyne atheism entails determinism, and this has very important consequences. I think he's right. Here's part of his column:
You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your "will" had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year's resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they're finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.

But before I explain this, let me define what I mean by "free will." I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.

Now there's no way to rewind the tape of our lives to see if we can really make different choices in completely identical circumstances. But two lines of evidence suggest that such free will is an illusion.

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the "choosing." And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

And that's what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.
Coyne is correct, I believe, if his implied assumption that brains are all that are involved in the choices we make is correct, but why think it is? If, in addition to our brains, we are also possessed of an immaterial mind (or soul) then all this talk about physics determining our choices is so much flummery. In order for Coyne's argument to have any force one would have to accept his materialism, but in order to accept materialism Coyne would have to persuade us that there's no immaterial mind and this task he doesn't assay. He just assumes it as though it were a settled matter. It's not.

Parenthetically, it's odd that he suggests that our brains, like real computers, are programmed by blind forces like genes and experiences. Real computers are programmed by minds and would hardly function, let alone evolve, were they solely operated and designed by random, purely physical forces.

In any case, we have an overwhelming sensation of being free. That sensation - Coyne calls it an illusion - would seem improbable if materialism is true but not so unlikely if we, in fact, have an immaterial aspect to our selves, a mind or soul. A mind or soul, however, would seem to be less probable on atheism than on theism. Thus, our sense that we are free seems more likely to be correct if theism is true than if atheism is true. That's why atheists like Coyne are anxious to persuade us that we're not free.

In other words, if you believe you are able to make choices that are in some sense free, if you believe that at least at some moments in time there is more than one possible future, then you should be a theist of some sort. Your belief in free will is much less likely to be true if atheism is true. The sensation of being free counts as evidence for theism and against atheism, and the belief that one really is free comports more easily with theism than with atheism.

I'll have a bit more to say on Coyne's column on Monday.