Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why we have free will

I attacked Jerry Coyne for his unscientific views about free will. I would not bother with him, except that he is a famous and distinguished U. Chicago professor, and he posts daily about the superiority of evolutionary science to religion. He now writes:
Now most of us think that the notion of “free choice,” as in the sense of “could have chosen otherwise at a given moment,” is wrong. Excepting quantum mechanics — whose effects on behavior are unknown, and whose pure indeterminacy doesn’t fit most people’s idea of ‘ “free will” — our behaviors are determined by physical laws, and can’t be overridden by some spirit in the brain. Ergo, as Jeff said, libertarian free will is dead. I think that nearly all of us agree.
The laws of quantum mechanics are the most basic physical laws we know, and are essential to much of what we know about DNA and other microscopic aspects of life. It is crazy to say that "Excepting quantum mechanics ... our behaviors are determined by physical laws". He is saying that there is no free will (and hence no need for religion) because physical laws are deterministic except where they are not deterministic.

He then challenges:
For compatibilists:

1. What is your definition of free will?

2. What is “free” about it? Is someone who kills because of a brain tumor less free than someone who kills because, having been brought up in a terrible environment, he values drugs more than other people’s lives?

3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?
A reader answers:
Definition of “free”, from OED:
“able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another”

Definition of “will”, from OED:
“the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action”

Combine the two ultra-standard definitions of the two words and you have a pretty good approximation of my definition of free will.
Free will is how conscious beings describe the choices they make in their everyday lives. Maybe dogs are conscious and maybe computers will be someday. Consciousness is harder to define.

The concepts of free will and causality are central to how we understand the world, how we organize a civilized society, and how we have purpose to our lives. I cannot disprove superdeterminism, so you are free to believe that if you wish, but it is about as silly as believing in solipsism or that we are just simulations in the Matrix.

Coyne goes on to argue that criminals are not morally responsible for their crimes, that religion is invalid, that we should have same-sex marriage, and other political views. All from a misunderstanding of quantum mechanics!

Scott Aaronson writes:
As it happens, I’ve been working on and off for the past two years on a huge essay setting out my thoughts about free will and predictability — and the essay will be online in just a week or two!
I will reserve judgment until I see his essay.

Update: A Wikipedia article on Two-stage model of free will explains how free will can be compatible with physical law.


  1. Sometimes I'm struck by the sheer binary aspect to this classic schoolboy's question. :-)

    What if human decisions are pseudorandom. And/or sometimes constraint-free within the definable confines of problem context, while at other times demonstrably due to compulsion? Underpinning the whole enchilada is an assumption that any given decision must be one or the other. And Rog, I was impelled to offer that insight, not compelled.

  2. I know you think Many-Worlds is a crackpot idea, but I think it's actually the key to making true free will and uncontrollable physics compatible (deterministic/indeterministic is sort of beside the issue, as Coyne correctly alludes).

    Before you try to break down free will, I think it's necessary to examine what you mean by the "person" or self who is exercising it, and what, in a Many-Worlds view, that would even refer to.

  3. Every single word he used to say there is no freewill was a choice. When speaking we choose the inflection, melody, loudness, and tone. We choose whether to smile when we talk, look serious etc. Thinking freewill is about picking the color red or blue for your tie is a 3rd graders idea of freewill.

    In fact, we could simply not communicate in any way if we did not have freewill. We are making choices in millions of different ways during a day.

    His opinion could not possibly be just random collisions because particles dont have opinions nor can they group together, in concert, to form them.

    This is one of the most fundamental ways of determining if someone is out of their minds or not. When anyone, especially someone who thinks they are brilliant, claims we have no freewill--I know I have just encountered an idiot who cannot reason like a normal human being.

    Think it strange someone educated cant reason correctly? Its not strange at all. Many of these people have horrible bias and deficiencies that render them inert.

    The only one I find as bad as this are these guys who think TIME is an illusion and then go on to deconstruct the events emanating from the Big Bang--never realizing if Time was an illusion then these events could not be causally connected.

    Such is the denial of the self--all the while basking in their supposed superiority.