Philosophical confusion about free will

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.


8 thoughts on “Philosophical confusion about free will

  1. Hi Carson,
    I really agree with your post til the last few sentences. If there is no free will, then whatever you do is a result of the interaction of your brain with the world, how your brain reacts to some external stimulations (with potential strong history-dependence).

    The mere fact to ask “what sort of societey is fair” or to say “we can modify them” somehow contradicts your main point.
    If there is no free will, there’s not even a way that we can do anything to change the way things go…



  2. Anyway, you are guilty of acting like you believe in free will!

    And that’s what really impressing. It’s like believing in one’s own free will may be a key to survival. The idea that I am a single individual (who has alter egos) may be necessary to survive. How come that a bunch of cells start acting together and create an idea of free-will that makes me look so important to myself and thus make me want to survive?

    If I could speculate, I would say that the recent increase in the concern about ecology and this whole “saving the planet” stuff may be necessary for humanity to survive and may be thought as a necessary step just as free will is for a bunch of cells… just instead of cells acting together, these are homo sapiens acting together.

    Wow, that is speculation… :)


  3. I took your advice and read through some posts. Not technical. Ha!
    Serves me right.
    I see the question as how the mind comes from the brain, and we clearly have a great deal to learn about physics. It surprises me to think that humans are stupid enough to believe we are really that clever. Medical science isn’t. It’s not even close if you are using statistics. How can we venture to quantify the mind from physics when we have yet to resolve the approximations we’ve made to come to our current understanding. It is a long road yet. On one hand we think we can modify the genetics of nature (food, seeds and fish), yet we are engendering a mess – or catastrophe – of biblical proportions (that from an atheist) while on the other we think we can understand the basis of sentience.
    Now i’m getting entirely carried away.


  4. Hi c,

    My point was simply that if you believe that mind comes from brain, which comes from physics then free will is not a problem of neuroscience or even biology. It is a problem of physics. That is not to say we’ll ever understand it, just that some philosophers are asking the wrong question.


  5. I think Romain’s followup is on to something. Whether or not there is free will or not, it certainly behooves one to act as though one has it.


  6. I agree that philosophers sometimes create problems that don’t exist (I’m sympathetic to Wittgenstein on this), but I don’t think that the debate about free-will is one of them. Philosophers, taken as a whole, answer your first question with “we aren’t sure” (since the second question is derivative, it becomes inconsequential). The fact that neuroscientists tend to answer “yes” to the first question may then only show that they are in the grips of a philosophical position without their being aware of it – namely, philosophical naturalism. The fact of consensus in their discipline would only then speak of a lack of awareness of the philosophical underpinnings of the current zeitgeist and other philosophical alternatives, not to a definitive answer to the question. Neuroscientists typically don’t have a robust philosophical education. This means that they aren’t unique authorities on the question of free-will (that is, unless one assumes the philosophy of philosophical naturalism, which many people, uncritically, do). In fact, philosophers have been asking the kinds of “post free will” questions you mention in at least modified and hypothetical forms for millennia. They have been asking, “how does ethics and moral responsibility make sense if there is no free will?” Their answer, in general (though I’m hesitant to make a generalization about philosophers as a whole), is: ethics and moral responsibility don’t make sense if there isn’t free-will. And, since they are pretty sure that ethics and moral responsibility are important, that in turn is what explains their answer to your first question as “we aren’t sure.” Neuroscientists aren’t concerned, as neuroscientists, with how the free-will debate relates to ethics, so they don’t wonder about such things. Philosophy’s job, on the other hand, is to synthesize all that we know together into a coherent worldview. They have to try to relate the findings of neuroscience to things that they already know about ethics. In other words, philosophy isn’t confused (in some silly sense) about the free-will debate, it just has a larger purview than one particular domain of scientific inquiry does.


  7. @Patrick Thanks for your response. In re-reading my post, I realize that I may have been too harsh in discounting the philosophical arguments about free will. I would also say that my 2017 ideas about the topic are more nuanced when I posted this in 2011. I agree that the debate is centered on question 1 and I have been slowly moving from near certainty to not so sure. To me the question is not really about free will as it is about agency. Where is agency in a person? Is a choice an emergent outcome of a collection of cellular and molecular events or is there something that is more than the sum of its component parts. If there is an agent that is independent of its parts then I am more than happy to grant free will to the agent even if an action is compelled by circumstance, history, or other agents.


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