Free Will

Wednesday 6 December: a very exciting discussion about free will put on by the Erasmus Center. Sincere thanks to Jim Holden and to Erasmus for inviting me to respond to Peter Tse, author of The Neural Basis of Free Will (MIT Press, 2013).

My main point during the debate was that standards of proof and acceptable methods of testing are not yet available to neuro-scientists to establish a physiological basis of free will. Study of the neuron is the province of bio-chemistry, which has its own standards of proof and acceptable methods of testing. These standards have been developed over decades, through argument and counter-argument, and through experimentation. They are not optional—not if you seek accurate results. Freedom is a concept discussed for centuries by philosophers, theologians, political scientists, and historians. Each of those fields has its own standards of proof and acceptable methods of argumentation. Those standards are important to ensuring logical results. Will or volition is chiefly the province of psychology, with its own standards of proof and acceptable methods of testing. So bringing bio-chemical evidence to a philosophical debate about a psychological topic seems to me to be like, as Laurie Anderson said, trying to dance architecture.

A secondary point I made was that any logical investigation proceeds from the question that you set. So, setting the question correctly is essential. We would not have had a debate had Dr. Tse written a book entitled, The Neural Basis of Unconstrained Choice. The phrase “free will” connotes something in English that the phrases “unconstrained choice” or “unfettered desire” do not. So, I tried to show how desire is different from will in English, how French and Latin are different again, and how investigating free will in English entails different logical assumptions than investigating it in French or Latin. In English, will connotes desire, want, action. In French, arbitre connotes sight, judgment, observation. Different semantic fields with little overlap. Another example: the greatest virtue according to Christians is love. That’s English. In the Latin Bible, the word is caritas. You can also translate caritas as charity (faith, hope, and charity). You can give charity without being in love, such as for tax purposes. So which one is the virtue? Faith in the Latin Bible is fides, which can also be translated as loyalty. Which is it? There’s a big difference between obeying someone that you don’t believe in and believing someone whom you don’t obey. Same for freedom. The French prize Liberté, or liberty. Would Dr. Tse have found the same things if he looked for liberty of desire? I don’t think so.

I also made the case that, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “there’s no there there.” “Free will” is a concept that English speakers use to talk about a whole host of connected ideas and psychological processes. Free will is not a thing. It doesn’t exist the way Plymouth Rock or the Boston Marathon exist. Where do you find free will? I say, in a dictionary.

The public discussion among the guests afterwards was terrific. No one in the room doubted that the brain is essential to thinking. But there seemed a general consensus that thought is not reducible to bio-chemistry. Some people made the point that our morality and personal values depend upon a non-reductive view, on a non-physicalist view, of will. Others said that there are psychological responses that we think are free, but are actually conditioned or instinctive. So we have to distinguish the choices that are free from those that are not. Others asked whether or not free will introduces randomness into science, and if so, to what degree. (I tend to think that decisions are not made randomly, but on the basis of stochastic algorithms that measure optimality by accounting for values, external conditions, imagined results, and so forth.) What was most apparent to me is that neuro-science is not going to trump dozens of disciplines, centuries of carefully thought-out positions, and carefully considered, methodical experimentation. It reaffirmed my faith in the multiplicity of a university, of a fundamental need for diversity of viewpoints, all speaking with each other, with each one grounded in a distinct intellectual tradition.