The New York Times has a blog series called the Stone on philosophy. Unlike some of my colleagues, I actually like philosophy and spend time studying and thinking about it. However, in some instances I think that philosophers just like to create problems that don’t exist. This week’s Stone post is by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting on free will. It’s in reference to a recent Nature news article on neuroscience versus philosophy on the same topic. The Nature article tells of some recent research that shows that fMRI scans can predict what people will do before they “know” it themselves. This is not new knowledge. We’ve known for decades that neurons in the brain “know” what an animal will do before the animal does. Gutting’s post is about how these “new” results don’t settle the question of free will and that a joint effort between philosophers and neuroscientists could get us closer to the truth.
I think this kind of thinking is completely misguided. When it comes to free will there are only two questions one needs to answer. The first is do you think mind comes from brain and the second is do you think brain comes from physics. (There is a third implicit question which is do you believe that physics is complete, meaning that it is only defined by a given set of physical laws.) Because, if you answer yes to these questions then there cannot be free will. All of our actions are determined by processes in your brain, which are governed by a set of prescribed physical laws. There is no need for any more philosophical or biological inquiry, as Gutting suggests. I would venture that almost all neuroscientists think that brain is responsible for mind. You could argue that physics is not completely understood and there is some mysterious connection between quantum mechanics and consciousness but this doesn’t involve neuroscience and probably not philosophy either. It is a question of physics.
There are many unsolved problems in biology and neuroscience. We really have little idea of how the brain really works and particularly how genes affect behaviour and cognition. However, whether or not we have free will is no longer a question of neuroscience or biology. That is not to say that philosophers and neuroscientists should not stop thinking about free will. They should simply stop worrying about whether it exists and start thinking about what we should do in a post free will world (see previous blog post). How does this impact how we think about ethics and crime? What sort of society is fair given that people have no free will? Although, we may not have free will we certainly have the perception of free will and we also experience real joy and pain. There are consequences to our actions and there could be ways that we can modify them so that they cause less suffering in the world.