I’ve had lots and lots of online debates on the free will topic. I can often tell how new someone is to the topic when I see their initial defense of free will. If they take a compatibilist view with a nuanced semantic, I know that these people are not new to the topic and that we will probably just be debating semantics.
There are a few give-aways, however, of someone being a newbie. I’d like to point them out because it is helpful if you are a free will skeptic who is talking or debating with people who still believe in free will to know where you might need to start.
The first “newbie defense of free will” I’d like to address is an argument from “unpredictability”. A “red flag” goes up as soon as I see someone make the claim that “we cannot predict the future” when they are arguing for “free will”. This is a red flag because, for anyone who has spent any real time learning about the topic, most recognize that “unpredictability” has little to do about anything for this topic.
It is also often driven by the most simplistic of “no free will” points which explain that if everything is 100% predictable, there is no room to do differently that what is absolutely certain to occur. Anyone, however, who has spent just a little bit of time in the free will debate arena would know that this point is not to say that “if things are not predictable, there is free will”. The point is only to show a fact about a predictable type of causality, in hopes that people will extrapolate on that fact even if we were unable to predict the outcome of the same causality in reality.
Often, this type of argument comes along with words such as “random” being addressed in the most ambiguous way that could imply pseudo-randomness or, on the other end, non-causal. Sometimes the “uncertainty principle” or “quantum mechanics” will be invoked without assigning it to a specific quantum interpretation.
Needless to say, when I see the words “but things are unpredictable”, it is obvious that the person has spent very little time looking into the subject matter. That, however, is fine. It presents an opportunity to supply information in hopes that the information will prompt the person to look deeper into the issue than they have. It must be noted that, if you are a free will skeptic like me, and you run across someone using the “unpredictability” idea, there is a good chance that your discussion with them will not lead to a concession.
This is the nature of these types of discussions, they hardly ever lead to someone saying they have been mistaken. This is okay, because if informed properly in the discussion, internally there is a good chance that the person will recognize they need to do more research, and cognitive dissonance will eventually take hold which leads them to do so.
Here are some posts that will serve as a good starting point to get others to recognize that the “unpredictability” point does not help the case for free will:
- Unpredictable Future ≠ Freely Willed Future
- Existence Conflated with Knowledge and the Free Will Debate
- “Realist” Quantum Probability Cannot Grant Free Will
- Ontic Probability Doesn’t Exist: Assessing “Probability” for the Free Will Debate
- It’s “Possible” to be Confused About “Possibility”
Also, be sure to point out that both determinism and indeterminism are incompatible with free will:
- Why I’m a Hard Incompatibilist, Not a Hard Determinist
- Non-caused Events and Free Will – Infographic
- “Free Will vs. Determinism” – Do We Need a Better Label?
- Is the Universe Causally Deterministic? Maybe!
Also, reassure people that it is not just they who initially make these newbie mistakes, but well-respected authorities as well. For example, take a look at my criticism of physicist Michio Kaku in his older “big think” video on “free will”:
Even he makes this newbie mistake when he says:
“Every-time we look at an electron it moves, there’s uncertainty with regards to the position of the electron. So what does that mean for free will? It means in some sense we do have some kind of free will. No one can determine your future events given your past history. There’s always the wildcard. There’s always the possibility of uncertainty in whatever we do.”
The fact of the matter is if someone says or suggests that unpredictability is their free will savior, make sure they understand that unpredictability truly does not make free will coherent. There are a number of words or terms that people will use along with the “unpredictability” word.
Let them know that free will is not compatible with any type of unpredictability. This includes unpredictability from:
- Chaos (which is deterministic btw)
- Non-caused (or acausal) events
- Uncertainty principle
- Lack of knowing “everything”
- Stochastic processes
- Quantum mechanics
- Many worlds or universes
- Hidden variables
- Measurement problems
- Entanglement or non-local events
- Predictive fallibility of humans
- Fuzzy logic
…and so on. I’m sure there are plenty of words I could add to this list, but keep an eye out for these.