Friday, October 25, 2013

In defense of compatibilism

I criticized leftist-atheist-evolutionust professor Jerry Coyne, and now he adds to his attack on free will:
the rise of “compatibilism.” That is the notion that although the universe may be deterministic in a physical way—so that our actions and thoughts are not only determined by the laws of physics, but also predictable if we had enough foreknowledge—we nevertheless have “free will.”  What philosophers did was redefine the meaning of “free will” away from its historical and religious sense, so that “free”, instead of meaning “independent of the strictures of your bodily makeup and environmental influences”, now meant a variety of other things, like, “your decision isn’t being made with a gun to your head.”

There is no one form of compatibilism: various philosophers have suggested various tweaks that allow us to say we have “free will.”

To me, the important aspect of this debate came not from philosophy but from science: we realized that our brains, like all physical objects, are subject to the laws of physics, and there was no way that some nonmaterial spook in one’s head could make “free decisions”. That was something new.
No one has redefined free will. A typical dictionary definition is "The power of making free choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances or by an agency such as fate or divine will."
So determinism, and its view that the mind is what the brain does, was a tremendous advance in science. And it completely dispelled the notion of dualistic free will. Here are the questions, then, that I have for compatibilists.

What kind of comparable advance was achieved by redefining “free will” so that the only thing “free” about it was its freedom to accept determinism?
If determinism were such an advance, why don't the textbooks mention it? Why hasn't anyone credited determinism when making a Nobel prize winning discovery?

Free will means freedom to make choices, and compatibilism does not require a belief in determinism.
Has compatibilism had an important (or might have a potentially important) influence on humanity or its behavior?
Nearly all of western civilization has arisen in a culture of belief in scientific causality and Christian free will. The compatibility of these views has been the dominant thinking of most of the great intellectuals of the last 500 years.
Is compatibilism anything more than a semantic gesture?

How has compatibilism helped us understand the human brain or human behavior?

I see compatibilism as a branch of philosophy, and determinism as something that is largely scientific but has philosophical implications. And — I won’t pull any punches here — I don’t think compatibilism is of any importance to humanity.
Yes, compatibilism is essential to making sense out of the world.
determinism itself has a long and distinguished history. Here are two examples:

Spinoza (in Ethics): ?the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight; the drunkard believes that by a free command of his mind he speaks the things which when sober he wishes he had left unsaid. … All believe that they speak by a free command of the mind, whilst, in truth, they have no power to restrain the impulse which they have to speak.?

Laplace: “We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. The perfection that the human mind has been able to give to astronomy affords but a feeble outline of such an intelligence.”
Einstein also had a religious belief in determinism, like Spinoza. That is what led him to reject quantum mechanics, and to waste the last 30 years of his life.

The vast majority of scientists have not been determinists in Coyne's sense. For the last century, the leading theory of physics has been quantum mechanics, and the most popular textbook explanation of it is that it is not deterministic. There are a few physicists, like 't Hooft, who believe that there ought to be a way to make it deterministic, but most do not.

Laplace refers to an "intelligence knowing all the forces", but a premise of quantum mechanics, the no cloning theorem, says that no such knowledge is ever possible, even for small systems.
I still want to know why compatibilism is considered a serious achievement in philosophy. Contrary to determinism, which does have serious implications for how we live our lives and run our socieites, compatibilism is an arcane backwater of philosophy. It is not a philosophical achievement on the order of, say, Singer’s arguments for animal rights, which have real practical consequences, or Rawls’s musings on justice, which makes us rethink how we conceive of fairness and people’s rights. I see no practical consequences of compatibilism save soothing the distress of people who, upon finally grasping determinism, get distressed that they are puppets on the strings of physical laws.

Which is pretty much how it is.
Singer is the professor who says that a healthy mouse should have more rights than a disabled human. Rawls was just a naive egalitarian.

Coyne portrays himself as someone defending science against attacks by religious folks. He is doing a lousy job, because he is promoting his own religious beliefs that have no scientific backing. His concept of determinism is unscientific.

One of Coyne's reader's comments:
“unless we have perfect knowledge.”
According to Heisenberg we can’t have perfect knowledge. Your entire argument is based on a wrong assumption.

“we realized that our brains, like all physical objects, are subject to the laws of physics.”
As if this is something new. Just look up Carvaka on Wikipedia: 600 BCE.

“it completely dispelled the notion of dualistic free will.”
Quite obvious if you are a materialist. I really don’t get why you spend gazillions of words to something that can be summarized as “I’m a materialist so I reject dualistic free will”.

“So determinism …. was a tremendous advance in science.”
It was. And throwing determinism out of the window was another tremendous advance. The key word is probabilism.
In the previous article you gave examples like flying a plane, cutting your finger. What you omitted is that these are also perfectly described by probabilistic Quantum Mechanics. ...

In case anyone jumps to a premature conclusion: I’m a materialist myself. It’s just that materialism hence determinism hence no free will is a non-sequitur. ...

Reading a quote of Laplace on a website of a reputed scientist to back up an argument related to science is very weird. Laplace since many decades has become irrelevant for physics.

“our brains, like all physical objects, are subject to the laws of physics”
Our 21st Century laws of physics, the ones that recently gave us the higgs-boson, are completely contradicting Laplace. I refer to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, chapter 4.
Another says:
You note that determinism also has a long history and mention Laplace (1749-) and Spinoza (1632-). But in point of fact there were compatibilists who lived before these individuals. Aristotle (343BC-) and Hobbes (1588-) are considered to be compatibilists. What are we to say about Aristotle’s views in this context? That he was responding to developments during the scientific revolution? That doesn’t seem very plausible I take it. This also suggests that the language of “the rise of compatibilism” is misleading. Compatibilism is not some newfangled theory that philosophers just concocted to give themselves jobs. Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Ayer, Stace, Dennett, etc. have been defending compatibilism for years.

1 comment:

  1. Philosophy sometimes begins where physics ends. At the end of Penrose's 'Road to Reality' he writes more or less about research programs, and how which way (of several beckoning) you decide to pursue a line of theory or experiment depends upon your philosophy.