Philip Ball argues that “free will” is not ruled out by physics – because it doesn’t stem from physics in the first place ...
If the claim that we never truly make choices is correct, then psychology, sociology and all studies of human behaviour are verging on pseudoscience. Efforts to understand our conduct would be null and void because the real reasons lie in the Big Bang. Neuropsychology would be nothing more than the enumeration of correlations: this action tends to happen at the same time as this pattern of brain activity, but there is no causal relation. Game theory is meaningless as no player is choosing their action because of particular rules, preferences or circumstances of the game. These “sciences” would be no better than studies of the paranormal: wild-goose chases after illusory phenomena. History becomes merely a matter of inventing irrelevant stories about why certain events happened.
I agree with this. If there is no free will, then even physics experiments are dubious because they usually assume from freedom to choose samples and draw statistical conclusions.
Denying free will is madness.
Evolutionist Jerry Coyne attacks Ball here and here, and claims that Physics has disproved free will.
If Physics had somehow disproved free will, then I ask, Where is the published paper with that demonstration? I want to see the assumptions, supporting data, and criticism from others.
There is no such paper, and no such demonstration.
Long-standing disputes about free will and physical law, with their philosophical jargon of compatibilism and libertarianism, have not really advanced our understanding of the problem of determinism since Pierre-Simon Laplace supposed in the early 19th century that he could predict the entire future from total microscopic knowledge of the present.
That's right. The issue is mostly philosophical.
Ball accepts the laws of physics as being the underlying basis of all phenomena, and so he is a naturalist (or a “physical determinist” if you will; I’ll simply use “determinism” to mean “naturalism”).
Philosophical arguments often play these games, where someone does some terminological substitutions, and pretends to have proved something.
Sure, I accept the laws of physics as underlying physical phenomena. That is a tautology. But from there Coyne leaps to naturalist, and then to determinist, and then to denier of free will.
Coyne's expertise is evolutionary biology:
Again I assert that, at bottom, the evolution of chimps was “dictated” by the laws of physics: the deterministic forces as well as the random ones, which could include mutations. (I’ve argued that the evolution of life could not have been predicted, even with perfect knowledge, after the Big Bang, given that some evolutionary phenomena, like mutations, may have a quantum component.)
But if Ball thinks biologists can figure out what “caused” the evolution of chimps, he’s on shaky ground. He has no idea, nor do we, what evolutionary forces gave rise to them, nor the specific mutations that had to arise for evolution to work. We don’t even know what “caused” the evolution of bipedal hominins, though we can make some guesses. We’re stuck here with plausibility arguments,
He is less confident about the physics, so he relies on "physicists like Sean Carroll and Brian Greene". They deny free will, and that is good enough for him.
Coyne makes it clear that he relies on Physics to deny free will:
Anthony Cashmore defines free will “as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature”. A simpler but roughly equivalent definition is this one: “If you could replay the tape of life, and go back to a moment of decision at which everything — every molecule — was in exactly the same position, you have free will if you could have decided differently — and that decision was up to you.”
If you pressed most people, you’d find that they agree with these definitions, though the second one is clearer to the layperson. These forms of “libertarian” free will are accepted by many, including of course, those religionists who believe that we are able to freely decide whether or not to accept Jesus or Mohamed as the correct prophet, and if you make the wrong choice, you’ll fry. Only a loony Christian would argue that God would still make you fry if a quantum movement in your neurons made you reject Jesus. No, your “decisions” have to be under your control.
At any rate, physics — naturalism — rules out this type of free will.
So where is the Physics in this argument? Yes, I do believe that I can freely choose Jesus or Mohammad, and that my flesh obeys the laws of nature. Those things seem self-evident. If Physics proves otherwise, I want to see the proof.
Update: Coyne posted a rant the next day on how scientists never rely on faith, as a religious believer would. I would like to agree, but there is no scientific evidence whatsoever for his free will opinions. He claims that they follow from the laws of physics, but he is really just acting on faith.