This post isn’t going to make the case against free will. If you want that case in all of it’s glory, check out my book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind.
Rather, this post is going to be about where the case against free will resides, meaning where it sits and what’s being looked at when the case is being made.
First thing first, I want to address burden of proof. Though I do go over this quickly in the book as well, it’s important to point out when addressing “where the case against free will is” that any such case is in the form of “proving a negative”. In other words, the person making the claim of something “existing” always carries the burden of proof to show that such exists, and that it exists as something more than just a “feeling” or “intuition”. To put it another way, no one I know of is denying that people experience a “feeling” of free will or an “intuition” about it. Of course we do.
We, after all, never see the variables that output our thoughts, decisions, and actions. To us, it seems like all of those options presented before us are all viable options. The illusion of free will exists – as an illusion. As something we intuit (though incorrectly). There is little or no doubt about that. It’s when people say that free will is more than a feeling or illusion that they hold all of the burden of providing proof for their existence claim.
Regardless of this, because people do experience this illusion, and the belief in “actual” free will is pervasive, hard determinists or incompatibilists often feel they have some obligation to “prove a negative”. To shift that burden of proof. To show that free will doesn’t in fact exist, rather than to ask for the evidence for free will – which always seems to come up with something like “we experience it” and then builds on that.
When we look down a straight train track we often experience parallel train tracks converging at the horizon. As we watch a train go down those tracks we see it become smaller and smaller until it eventually vanishes. We know, however, that this is not the case. We know that if we get on a train and ride it toward the horizon that we will not get smaller and smaller until we vanish, or crash because what we thought were parallel train tracks actually converge. We understand the limitations of or perception as well as have an understanding of perspective. We don’t even have to think about it, we simply know that there is no convergence or that the train isn’t literally shrinking. We have no fear of these sorts when riding on that train.
Likewise, we can know that free will is incoherent, even if we seem to experience something like it. That’s because we can actually prove the negative. We don’t have to wait for someone to attempt to prove that free will exists. We don’t have to say “we shouldn’t believe it until it’s proven”, but rather we can say “we shouldn’t believe it because it has been disproven”. A much stronger, burden shifting, case.
The case against free will is within that “proving a negative” arena that most scientifically or logically minded people understand that there is still a burden for the person making the claim itself. Once that’s clear, we can actually move on to actually proving that negative. That’s done within the confines of logic, meaning the methodologies of deduction as well as induction (our best standards of knowledge). The scientific method uses both induction and deduction, and therefore is an example of a logical methodology. But even before the scientific method we can deductively understand that colorless pink square circles are self-contradictory – rendering them logically incoherent.
Likewise, this is where the case against free will is. We can understand that the universe (or beyond?) is either deterministic (meaning everything has a cause) or indeterministic (meaning that some acausal events can occur). Once we understand these two possibilities we can assess if free will makes sense within them. As it turns out, free will is entirely logically incompatible with those two states. Quantum mechanics can’t free it. Different conceptions of time can’t free it. Some non-physical view can’t free it. It’s simply as logically incoherent as those colorless pink square circles are.
And that’s more than sufficient. With just that alone it’s a closed case. The idea of free will has been found guilty of being complete nonsense. But the case against free will doesn’t stop there. When we get into science and in particular neuroscience, we come up with experiments that seem to align with the fact that this magical ability just doesn’t exist. For example, the fact that we can, for the most part, know if a person will press a button held by their left hand or one held by their right hand, 7 to 10 seconds before they are consciously aware of which button they have decided to press. It’s just more dirt on the coffin of free will – and there will be more of that to come.
So where is the case against free will? It’s in logic, reason, critical thinking, and the willingness to shift the burden to prove a negative. The case is within the logical incoherence of the free will position. Where it’s not located is within the realm of wishful thinking, dogma, fantasy, imagination, or illusion. Those areas are reserved for the cases supporting free will. 😉
Interested in reading the actual case? Well that’s much longer than a single post can handle:
The Kindle ebook version is now available!
Breaking the Free Will Illusion
for the Betterment of Humankind
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