Recent Read: “Science Hasn’t Refuted Free Will”

Don’t miss this thought-provoking piece on the nature of free will by Christian List (Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at the London School of Economics) in Boston Review.

Some highlights below.

According to the skeptics, human actions aren’t the result of conscious choices but are caused by physical processes in the brain and body over which people have no control. Human beings are just complex physical machines, determined by the laws of nature and prior physical conditions as much as steam engines and the solar system are so determined. The idea of free will, the skeptics say, is a holdover from a naïve worldview that has been refuted by science, just as ghosts and spirits have been refuted. You have as little control over whether to continue to read this article as you have over the date of the next total solar eclipse visible from New York. (It is due to take place on May 1, 2079.)

The skeptics will object that all this is at best a useful fiction, at worst a harmful one. At any rate, they will say, the free-will presupposition is not literally true. But consider how scientists settle questions about what is and is not real.

Why do scientists accept gravity and electromagnetism as real, but not ghosts and spirits? The answer is that science must refer to gravity and electromagnetism to explain physical phenomena, and these properties are indispensable ingredients of a coherent theory of the world, while postulating ghosts and spirits is not only useless but also prone to introducing all sorts of incoherencies. Generally, to figure out whether some entity or property is real, scientists ask two questions: first, is postulating the entity or property necessary for explaining the world, and second, is it coherent with the rest of our scientific worldview? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then the entity or property meets the reality check, and scientists feel ready to include it in their inventory of the world, at least provisionally.

To be sure, future science might vindicate a reductionistic approach and explain human behavior without representing people as choice-making agents. But science doesn’t seem to be heading that way. So far, psychology, broadly speaking, has resisted reduction and has been augmented but not replaced by neuroscience. Just as we wouldn’t deny the reality of ecosystems, institutions, and poverty merely because fundamental physics doesn’t refer to them, so there is no reason to deny the reality of agency, choice, and free will either. The skeptics’ mistake is to assume a reductionistic picture of humans that is neither mandated by science, nor adequate for understanding human behavior.

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