NY Times twists on horns of secular free will dilemma

“Do you have free will?” a recent article in the New York Times asks. “Yes, it’s the only choice.” So begins a fitful confrontation with the dilemma of free will in a world comprised only of the physical universe.

Although it never says it directly, the article appears to assume that the universe is deterministic. Everything happens as an unavoidable consequence of the events before; our choices are not free; and we are not morally responsible.

At the same time, it notes that “there seems to be a fairly universal gut belief in [free will] starting at a young age. When children age 3 to 5 see a ball rolling into a box, they say that the ball couldn’t have done anything else. But when they see an experimenter put her hand in the box, they insist that she could have done something else. That belief seems to persist no matter where people grow up”.

The article concludes that, “At an abstract level, people seem to be what philosophers call incompatibilists: those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism. If everything that happens is determined by what happened before, it can seem only logical to conclude you can’t be morally responsible for your next action.” Yet in our hearts, it says, we’re compatibilists who consider free will compatible with determinism. We believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In fact, we must believe this to function properly, both at an individual level, and a societal one. Thus, “it’s the only choice”.

But this seems like a strange, even tendentious conclusion to draw. Did everyone surveyed actually believe the universe is deterministic? Or is that merely what the people in charge would like for these people to believe? The article speaks only of the subjects reasoning about a hypothetical universe. It doesn’t indicate that they conceded the universe really is deterministic. That belief is only clearly held by the philosophers who ran the tests, and the author of the article.

Do “average” people think the universe is deterministic in this way? That there is only physical matter/energy interacting according to invariable laws—and that, being part of it, we only act as these physical laws, and the prior states of the universe dictate?

I don’t think so. Most people do agree that in a deterministic universe no one would have free will. But they also, as the article points out, believe that we do have free will. The reasonable conclusion to draw is not that people are conflicted, believing both, but rather that they are consistent, rejecting determinism and affirming free will.

For example, people readily agree that we choose based on what we believe or what we feel. If you believe that buying a new car is like throwing money away, then you will buy a second hand car instead. Or if I feel that chocolate will be more delicious right now than cheese, then I will choose chocolate. I don’t take the chocolate simply because prior states of the universe acted according to physical laws, inexorably causing the atoms in my body to move in such a way that the part called my hand came into proximity with the object called chocolate and then moved again to bring it into proximity with the part of my body called my mouth, and so on. Yet this is what physical determinism says. I only ate the chocolate, and you only bought the second hand car, because of certain prior states of the universe and the operation of certain physical laws.

What this implies is not that physical determinism is true and yet we also have free will (because “there is no other choice”). On the contrary, what it implies to anyone who can think clearly is that physical determinism is false. The only obviously confused people are the philosophers who conducted the studies, and the journalist who penned the article.

The evident falsehood of physical determinism raises interesting questions. For example, when we say that we make choices based on beliefs and feelings, what exactly do we mean by “we”? Beliefs and feelings are not physical things. They certainly manifest physically in the brain, but a brain state is not a belief. A belief has properties like “aboutness” and “truth”, and is witnessed from the first person. A brain state has properties like “duration” and “location”, and is witnessed from the third person. This certainly seems to suggest that there’s more to us than just the physical. Usually we call it “soul” or “spirit”—but call it what you like, that is where the evidence leads. That’s where logic and common sense point us.

Oddly, it is scientists who are the least inclined to accept this. Some are notably acidic in their disgust, contempt, even hatred for such “delusional” views. But aren’t scientists, of all people, supposed to follow the evidence, regardless of personal belief?

This New York Times article demonstrates well how the Christian worldview makes more sense of the universe than the secular scientific one. If physical determinism is false, then we may indeed make choices based on beliefs and feelings. But if it is true, then even the scientific enterprise itself is just a sequence of inexorably caused physical events, with no correlation to “truth”. Similarly, if we are made in the image of God, then we should expect to be spiritual beings as well as physical ones, able to choose, and accountable to God for our choices. But if we are made by purely physical processes, then we are ultimately no more than complex arrangements of chemical reactions, reacting as the universe’s laws dictate.

5 replies
  1. Jason
    Jason says:

    I think the Jewish concept of man as a "living soul" makes more sense of non-deterministic choices in a deterministic universe, than the belief that determinism applies throughout, or that human beings are an inexplicable aberration.

  2. Quiescer
    Quiescer says:

    "For example, people readily agree that we choose based on what we believe or what we feel. If you believe that buying a new car is like throwing money away, then you will buy a second hand car instead. Or if I feel that chocolate will be more delicious right now than cheese, then I will choose chocolate. I don’t take the chocolate simply because prior states of the universe acted according to physical laws, inexorably causing the atoms in my body to move in such a way that the part called my hand came into proximity with the object called chocolate and then moved again to bring it into proximity with the part of my body called my mouth, and so on. Yet this is what physical determinism says."

    Er, no it doesn't. You seem to be confusing agency with free will here.

    If that's how you understand 'no free will' then you'll find you're arguing at cross-purposes with the researchers, and any others who believe in determinism. Nobody disagrees that we feel impulses, feelings, desires and act on them. The proposition is simply that the mind is subject to cause and effect, just like everything else in the universe would appear to be.

  3. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    Quiescer, thanks for your comment. There are a couple of problems with that kind of analysis though.

    Firstly, if physical determinism is true, then people are just part of the larger deterministic universe. Though we may feel that we're acting because we have impulses, feelings, desires etc, in fact we are acting because prior states of the universe operated on the various atoms of our bodies according to naturalistic laws. In the final analysis, the movement of our bodies (including the functioning of our brains) is governed purely by physical laws. In that case, we no more have agency than a planet would, were it to feel that it was orbiting the sun because of its impulses, feelings or desires. Even if it were to feel that way, it would still be orbiting the sun purely because of the operation of physical laws.

    Secondly, and as an extension of this, trying to reduce us to purely physical beings runs aground on issues like first-person perception, and all the elements and properties associated with that: beliefs, truth, intentionality and so on. It's a brute fact that these can't be explained in physical terms. A physical object can't be about another physical object; it can't be true or false; etc. When you try to concoct these sorts of explanations, you may ultimately reduce our beliefs and so on to physical explanations…but when you do this, you discover that you've actually discarded them altogether. By reducing them to physical terms, you have eliminated what it is that makes them what they are in the first place. So trying to explain a belief in terms of a brain state, for instance, is ultimately to say that a belief is nothing more than a brain state—in which case it cannot really be about anything, or have truth or falsehood. So, we may act because we have brain states, but we don't act because something is true, or because we are thinking about it.

    The difficulty here, which I guess is obvious, is that this is self-referentially absurd. How can we make an argument that physicalism is true, if the conclusion of physicalism is that we don't believe things because of arguments, and so on? That beliefs are really just physical states (of the brain) governed by physical laws; rather than mental states (of the mind) governed by mental or logical laws?

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