I came across a post the other day by an atheist who seems to be a public speaker, and who runs a blog on ChicagoNow. This post was about the “free will” topic and how he holds a belief in free will. To be fair I suspect that the blogger is unfamiliar with much of the nuance of the free will debate from our little chat we had in the comment section, and he seems like a swell guy. I thought it might be good to respond to his post as some of the things in it are those rudimentary mistakes that those new to the debate quite often make, such as the idea that if hard determinism is shown false, that opens the door for free will.
There is a common complaint that I’ve heard by more than one free will believer: when asked to think about “if all events are caused (deterministic) and if we could bring back time to some point before a decision was made, could the person have decided differently?”, some people complain that “well we can’t do this”. They note that it is impossible to rewind time or to travel in time to before the decision. They note that we “cannot test this”.
This response, however, is one that misses the point entirely. The point isn’t about whether we can have the ability to “rewind or reset time” or “physically test it”. The point isn’t a claim about time travel, or magical powers over time. Rather,
The word “possibility” can be used in two different ways: ways that are quite often confused and conflated, leading to some huge errors in thought. This is even done by very intelligent people.
One way has to do with our uncertainty about the future. Due to our limited prediction capabilities, we often look at and call future events in which we think at the time “could happen” as a “possibility”. This type of possibility I’ll call “epistemic possibility” as “epistemic” assesses our “knowledge or lack of knowledge” over the possibility.
It’s important to note that “possibility” in this epistemic sense does not necessarily align with whether something was a real possibility.
This post may seem a little strange, but it was prompted by a few conversations I had with some other free will skeptics. I bring this up almost as a way to say that just because two people agree on fundamental topics such as free will, doesn’t mean they make the same conclusions about other topics.
Once we understand that free will is an illusion and that things are not “ultimately up to us”, I know of a few free will skeptics who quite often ask this question:
“If things are not ultimately up to us, who or what then are they up to?”
This article is going to go over why such a question is a loaded question, and also how it suggest quite an incoherent idea – that being there can be something that things are up to in some ultimate way.
For this ‘just after’ Halloween post I’ll be moving outside of reality and talk about how souls, spirits, and ghosts cannot be free will mechanisms. I bring this up because someone who had read my book liked it very much, but felt that the section on “supernaturalism” was a little thin. They felt that the book made a strong case for the materialistic account of a lack of free will, but that someone’s “soul” could support some sort of “free will” mechanism.
The question that often comes up in the free will debate is whether the universe is deterministic or indeterministic. Regardless of which one, I argue, free will is entirely incompatible. In a deterministic universe we couldn’t have done otherwise, and in an indeterministic universe that would allow for a change in variables that lead to an otherwise, those indeterministic variables wouldn’t have been “of our own accord” or “up to us”. In other words, we couldn’t have, of our own accord, done otherwise.
But this isn’t enough for some people. Some want to insist that the universe is causally deterministic… period… no questions asked. Others insist on the opposite, that the universe is indeterministic (suggesting that determinism has been “disproven”). It seems being agnostic on these just isn’t good enough for a whole lot of people.
So which is it? Is the universe deterministic or is it indeterministic? And if we don’t know, are one of these options more likely than the other? Rather than give you a direct answer (as I am agnostic here), for this post I want to get into some key talking points that I feel are often missed.
Straw-man fallacies are interesting because they are almost always intentional, though sometimes they can be unintentional. I tend to think, when a compatibilist (a person who thinks free will is compatible with determinism) uses a straw-man fallacy, that most of the time they don’t do them intentionally – or at least I give the compatibilist the benefit of the doubt. Rather, I think it often comes from a profound misunderstanding or assumption of the free will skeptics position.
The free will debate is almost always classified/labeled as a debate between “free will vs. determinism”. This confuses many into thinking that if determinism is incompatible with free will (which it is), people just need to show that determinism isn’t necessarily the case and automatically the possibility for free will opens up. In other words, when someone argues against free will, so many people will revert to the idea that perhaps the universe isn’t deterministic, the negation of such becoming their free will savior. The idea that indeterminism can help grant free will is, in philosophical circles, called libertarian free will (not to be confused with the economic/politic position).