Thursday, February 10, 2022

Philosopher says Free Will cannot be Random

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist-turned-philosopher who pretends to be an expert on what is scientific. He writes:
“Free” will, understood as a will that is independent of causality, does not exist. And it does not exist, contra popular misperception, not because we live in a deterministic universe. Indeed, my understanding is that physicists still haven’t definitively settled whether we do or not. Free will doesn’t exist because it is an incoherent concept, at least in a universe governed by natural law and where there is no room for miracles. ...

Philosophically naive anti-free will enthusiasts like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, among others, eventually started using the Libet experiments as scientific proof that free will is an illusion. But since free will is incoherent, as I’ve argued before, we need no experiment to establish that it doesn’t exist. What Libet’s findings seemed to indicate, rather, is the surprising fact that volition doesn’t require consciousness.

Coyne takes offense at this, as Pigliucci provides no link to the supposedly naive opinion, and has retracted the word "naive".

Pigliucci is the naive one here, and he somehow gets to neuroscience conclusions by saying no experiment is needed. He also has a history of blocking comments that disagree with him, on the grounds that they are rude. So it is amusing to see him make much ruder comments about Coyne and Harris.

Libet-style experiments have been criticized by both philosophers and neuroscientists on a variety of conceptual and methodological grounds, but until recently nobody had empirically addressed the obvious flaw with the whole approach
Actually, the obvious flaws have been noticed in published papers in 2009, 2012, and 2013, as noted on my blog. Pigliucci discusses a 2019 paper, but that paper cites those earlier papers.

Thus it has been established for ten years that Libet experiments tell us nothing about free will.

The real problem with Pigliucci's essay is his pseudoscientific argument that free will can rejected from first principles. It is pseudoscience because he pretends to rely on scientific knowledge, but rejects any experiment that might prove him right or wrong.

Astrology is likewise a pseudoscience because it uses science to track the stars and planets, but never uses experiments to test the accuracy of its predictions.

Coyne argues:

Free will is not a non-issue, and we know that because many people accept it. For them it is an issue! They accept it because they don’t understand physics, because they embrace duality, or because they believe in God and miracles. You can’t dismiss all those people, for they are the ones who make and enforce laws and punishments based on their misunderstanding that we have libertarian free will. They are the ones who put people to death because, they think, those criminals could have chosen not to pull the trigger.
Not just those believe in free will. Pretty much everyone who has accomplished anything in the last 500 years has believed in free will.

Pigliucci's argument against free will is to follow the philosophical fallacy of dividing into two straw man cases:

Consider two possibilities: either we live in a deterministic cosmos where cause and effect are universal, or randomness (of the quantum type) is fundamental and the appearance of macroscopic causality results from some sort of (not at all well understood) emergent phenomena. If we live in a deterministic universe then every action that we initiate is the result of a combination of external (i.e., environmental) and internal (i.e., neurobiological) causes. No “free” will available.

If we live in a fundamentally random universe then at some level our actions are indeterminate, but still not “free,” because that indetermination itself is still the result of the laws of physics. At most, such actions are random.

Either way, no free will.

Either way, he is just asserting that the laws of physics prohibit free will, and he ignores any empirical science as irrelevant.

This is no better than the Pope announcing some theological belief based on meditating about the Bible. His flaw is that he misunderstands the concept of "random".

I explained in 2014:

A stochastic process is just one that is parameterized by some measure space whose time evolution is not being modeled.

Unless you are modeling my urges for cheeseburgers, then my appetite is a stochastic process. By definition. Saying that it is stochastic does not rule out the idea that I am intentionally choosing that burger.

Certain quantum mechanical experiments, like radioactive decay or Stern–Gerlach experiment, are stochastic processes according to state-of-the-art quantum mechanics. That just means that we can predict certain statistical outcomes, but not every event. Whether these systems are truly deterministic, we do not know, and it is not clear that such determinism is really a scientific question.

Pigliucci is an example of what a disaster modern philosophy is. About 60 years ago, philosophers abandoned the idea that science can tell us about reality. The scientific method depends on the free will to choose experiments, and if that does not exist, then all of science is bogus.

Free will is the one thing conscious being can be most sure about. Not having free will is a symptom of schizophrenia.

Denying free will is just one modern idea that is contrary to science. Others I have discussed here are Kuhnian paradigm shift theory, superdeterminism, many-worlds theory, and the simulation hypothesis. Belief in any of these things negates all of science as we know it.

I should note this comment:

Massimo’s argument ... seems to be stating a tautology: Libertarian free will is defined by independence from natural law, therefore it can’t apply in a universe where everything happens in accord with natural law. Absolutely true, and absolutely not news!
In a sense, this is right, Pigliucci used another stupid philosopher fallacy. He finds that free will does not exist by giving a nonsensical definition of it. Just to be clear, I believe in free will, and I believe it is consistent with natural law. Truth does not contradict truth.

This is not unusual either. Most people believe in free will and natural law.

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait until the first murderer lays claim to the 'settled science' that they literally had no choice not to kill someone. They could legitimately claim that since the day they first drew breath that they were already meant to murder their victim, and because they were unable to do otherwise (why your honor, how could they??), why should they be prosecuted? They simply were simply playing the part determinism had meant them to play since the Big Kablooey billions of years ago.

    On the other side of this equation, it could be argued that the courts should all be shut down, since they aren't actually making a decision based on reasoned facts at all, they were already preprogrammed by the universe itself to come to their very expensive predetermined conclusions.

    I'm willing to bet money that the moment the legal professions become threatened of losing their lucrative rackets, they suddenly see the light and find compelling evidence to believe in their free will again.

    I'm also willing to bet even more money that the entire physics community will suddenly regain their enlightened belief in free will if they are told that there will be no more Nobel Prizes or grants, since not a single scientist ever actually discovered anything, they were just preprogrammed to think that they did. In the name of dark sarcasm and the long overdue popping of egos larger than the universe itself, I'd see this as a win-win scenario.