Science Has No Role To Play In An Analysis Of Free Will

by Laurence Houlgate
(Emeritus professor of philosophy at California Polytechnic State University)

Regarding your excellent review of the free will problem, I have two questions. First, when you say that the ability of the neurons to deliberate emerges from the water and chemicals that make up our bodies (along with our evolved consciousness), you are making an empirical judgment. As such, it requires proof/evidence. Are there any experiments that have been performed to show that this claim is true? If so, are the experiments similar to what happens when I make pancakes? I begin with flour, water, milk, egg, etc. and I end up with a mixture suitable for pouring on the griddle. The mixture is an observable simple chemical change. But even if there is evidence that the ability to deliberate emerges as a complex chemical soup, how does the determinist use it to prove that we have no free will when we walk, talk, eat, and do anything else that moves the body?

Second, in the section where you say that “I live as if I make free choices,” my question is why don’t you come right out and say, “I make free choices.” I don’t like the “as if” part. It implies that you are pretending to live making free choices. For example, compare “I made a free choice when I bought my new car,” with “I pretended to make a free choice when I bought my new car,” or “I believe I made a free choice when I bought my new car, but I’m not sure that it was a free choice.”

Finally, what I don’t like about determinist arguments to prove that we do not have free will is that they are using empirical observations and experiments to solve a philosophical problem. Philosophical problems are about concepts and their relationship to other concepts. As such, philosophy is not informative about the world (Gilbert Ryle). When we ask the question “Do we have free will” we are asking a question about the concept Free Will and that question can only be answered by an analysis of the concept as it is used by us in ordinary language, e.g. “Did you hand over your wallet to that man of your own free will, or did he force you to hand over your wallet?” Science has no role to play in this analysis.

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11 thoughts on “Science Has No Role To Play In An Analysis Of Free Will

  1. Hmm… I agree with Dr. Houlgate, but for reasons that he might not agree with. I agree with his point that science provides nothing determinative on the question of free will versus determinism. But I also believe that science attempts to explain the entirety of objective reality, and since there is no reason to believe that science will ever resolve the question, I conclude that the question falls outside the pale of objective reality. In other words, I see nothing here to argue about, because the notion of free will strikes me as yet another human vanity. Homo Sapiens are no different from any other animal. We have bigger brains, but that doesn’t give us souls or free will or anything special.

  2. Bravo, Professor!!
    It does not matter to me that science may think it has a role here. I have not thought that, insofar as science cannot get a grip on consciousness either. To wit, matters of mind are NOT matters of mathematics. Or, Physics. Or, AI. I knew there was a reason I liked John Messerly. There are several…

  3. The burden of evidence is on people claiming there’s something supernatural about humans. I also note the delicious irony (or is it obliviousness) of using car buying decisions as an example of free choice.

    But fundamentally saying there’s no place for science in the discussion of phenomena in the world is shorthand for saying there’s no place for rational argument. So let’s not waste more time. Might as well play chess with pigeons where at least one gets fresh air.

  4. Interesting points. I have commented on cross, trans, and multi-disciplinarian approaches to problems that seem mathematically and/or scientifically unsolvable. I have been chastised for the comments and labelled in various ways. I like fresh air, when I can find it and would not mind playing chess with pigeons, if I could know they were as interested in winning as I might be. Thinker friends consider my points of view counterintuitive, shallow or downright irrelevant. But, I think Dr. Houlgate is correct in his assessment. For the moment, anyway. The French mathematician said: cogito ergo sum. If he, as a great mathematician, ever reduced that proposition to some formula or equation, I have not seen it. I suppose it possible for AI to eventually answer such questions. I just don’t know whether such answers will be intentional. Or, accidental.

  5. Chris Crawford says; Homo sapiens are no different from ant other animal. We have bigger brains, but that doesn’t give us souls or free will or anything special, this is probably true but it isn’t necessarily the answer we want!

    Paul van Pelt says; Matters of mind are NOT matters of mathematics. Or, Physics. Or, AI. surely this is also True, but again not necessarily the answers we want!

    Austin Stiller says; Saying there’s no place for science in the discussion of phenomena in the world is shorthand for saying there’s no place for rational argument. Well yes Mr. Stiller, but, rational argument isn’t always as rational as it is presented to be!

    “That man is the noblest creature may be inferred from the fact that no other creature has contested this claim.” G. C. Lichtenberg

    People want to be important, we are the only creature with a sense of self, we want our lives to have meaning and importance so we must keep looking until we find it! What other purpose does life have?

  6. Rather than concluding that science has “ no role” to play in this analysis, I’d say it has only a limited role along with other perspectives. For instance, from what I understand of what’s been dubbed “quantum consciousness” — where on a subatomic level, quantum indeterminacy leaves room for phenomena like free will— that school of particle physics sheds interesting light on the analysis. Similarly, as I understand it, the Copenhagen school of quantum mechanics suggests that whatever it is, human consciousness is a force that affects physical reality by the sheer fact of observation.

    To say these perspectives play “no role” strikes me as overly harsh and conclusive, especially on questions that humanity has yet to fully understand. By definition, since we haven’t yet solved the “hard problem” of consciousness, who can definitely claim which fields of thought may help us understand it?

  7. You’re really on some of the main issues discussed. I will say however that almost no philosophers think quantum indeterminism helps us defend free will because saying your thoughts or actions result from randomness is not what we mean by free will. In other words, indeterminism is no better for free will than determinism. What you want to say to defend FW is that there was a cause for your actions but that cause is you.

  8. ”Second, in the section where you say that “I live as if I make free choices,” my question is why….”.

    I completely agree. Schopenhauer explained that these kind of answers are the answer of common people, what he called ‘the philosophically untrained’. (And he didn’t write it patronizingly, for he added: ‘and this is not to blame the common man, for the question is very serious.’.

    As for the claim that science has no role in this debate, he already wrote this in the same essay: empiricism here is of limited value and it is of no use to answer the question ‘do we have free will’, and therefore one must turn to metaphysics.

    However, all I write here should be taken with a fifth of a grain of salt: I am still reading these writings.

  9. ”As for the claim that science has no role in this debate, he already wrote…”.

    Actually, I must retract what I wrote regarding Schopenhauer maintaining that empiricism is of little or no value…..I think he was addressing morality, not freedom of will. Since I have both his essays in one book, I think I confused the leaves for the trees, so to speak.

    Therefore, I suspend my judgement in regard to the claim mentioned above: as I am still reading his essay on the freedom of will, and I don’t know how good science is, or will be, at demonstrating whether or not we have free will.

    However, it seems strange to me that a philosopher would dismiss scientific explanations a priori, simply because it’s science. Likewise, I would find it strange that science would do the same in regard to philosophy, for it would mean that one would know and understand the full limitations of the other, which seems to me unlikely, since neither knows much about the other. Only someone who is both an experienced scientist AND a philosopher, would be in the best position to make the fairest judgment.

    Point being, I should not dismiss anything out of hand. And who’s to say that science won’t be able to prove the point in the future? It’s not as this has never happened before.

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