11 February 2012

Free Will

The admirable philosophical blog "Rationally Speaking" has taken on the issue of free will.

Jerry Coyne's recent op-ed piece for USA Today was the catalyst. Coyne said that although there is "no way to rewind the tape of our lives to see if we can really make different choices in completely identical circumstances," he considers the claim that we can, very dubious. Further, there is "not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will."

Massimo Pigliucci argues, in "Rationally Speaking," that Coyne is confused. He is working fromn a definition of free will (the possibility of inconsistent choices given identical circumstances) that by his own admission -- see the quote above -- can never be tested. Since (Pigliucci tells us) science is "about empirically testable hypotheses," science can not be about free will in the sense Coyne is discussing. So Coyne isn't entitled to draw upon arguments from neurobiology to try to make his case. That case is metaphysical, not neurological.

Pigliucci's column on the subject has in turn draw abundant comment from readers. One reader, Tom, cites a paper called, "The Pointsman: Maxwell's Demon, Victorian Free Will, and the Boundaries of Science" from the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Pigliucci's reply to his readers is largely concerned with those readers who have accused him of being a "crypto-dualist." The impression amongst much of the consuming public for philosophical arguments is that free will only makes sense if we first believe in a sort of Cartesian ghost in the machine.

To this Pigliucci replies, "that line of argument is somewhat question-begging: we are trying to find out how chunks of matter can behave in such drastically different ways from other chunks of matter, so to point out the obvious (that they are all chunks of matter) hardly helps move the debate forward."

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.