January 2, 2007


Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t (DENNIS OVERBYE, 12/02/07, NY Times)

[P]hysicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.

“Is it an illusion? That’s the question,” said Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Maryland. Another question, he added, is whether talking about this in public will fan the culture wars.

“If people freak at evolution, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail message, “how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?”

Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has written extensively about free will, said that “when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.”

Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.

“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.

That is hardly a new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as Einstein paraphrased it, that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

Einstein, among others, found that a comforting idea. “This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals,” he said.

How comforted or depressed this makes you might depend on what you mean by free will. The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.

At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.

“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”

People who believe already that humans are magic will have no problem with that.

But whatever that power is — call it soul or the spirit — those people have to explain how it could stand independent of the physical universe and yet reach from the immaterial world and meddle in our own, jiggling brain cells that lead us to say the words “molten chocolate.”

A vote in favor of free will comes from some physicists, who say it is a prerequisite for inventing theories and planning experiments.

That is especially true when it comes to quantum mechanics, the strange paradoxical theory that ascribes a microscopic randomness to the foundation of reality. Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, said recently that quantum randomness was “not a proof, just a hint, telling us we have free will.”

What's amusing is that, while there are still folks who really do cling to a belief in Darwinism, there is no one who seriously denies free will. Walk up to Mr. Silberstein, hit him with a baseball bat, take his wallet, and leave him a note that you're blameless because your actions weren't a function of free will and guess what follows? Materialism, which started badly, has devolved into one of the silliest philosophies Man has ever come up with.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 2, 2007 8:36 AM

The funny thing about materialists is how little they care about the material.

Posted by: Twn at January 2, 2007 10:56 AM

Up to usual NYTimes standard. Can't get the primary source of quotes located in the right state (Elizabethtown College is in PA, not MD).

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) at January 2, 2007 11:06 AM

I remember years ago a lunch with coworkers, where one person we normally didn't dine with was pontificating about his newfound philosophical superiority. One of his statements was that, in effect, "bad things only happen to people if they let them happen to them." I was so tempted to get up and walk over behind him and smack him on the back of the head, then say, with a blank, stupid look, "well, you wanted me to do that." I regret I didn't, because the best part would have been that he would never have understood what had just happened.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 2, 2007 11:26 AM

Scott Adams is always advocating for hard-core determinism over at his blog. I suspect this is call and response for his enjoyment in the comments he gets, but I always wonder how you can laugh at people if you think they have no free will...

Posted by: Mike Beversluis at January 2, 2007 12:27 PM