As someone with a site specifically honed on this topic of free will, I look at it as my job to address or debunk various misinformed articles (and other media) by people who have the ability to get a lot of views (For example, remember this Michio Kaku video?).
Roy Baumeister, an eminent social psychologist and author of the book “Willpower“, has written an article in Slate magazine in support of “free will” a little while back. This is a response to that article. If you haven’t read it, it can be found here.
There are some things he gets right, but a whole lot he gets wrong. This post, of course, is about those wrong things. So let’s jump right to some quotes from the article, shall we?
There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall.
It’s obvious that Roy, at least here, takes a sort of “compatibilist” position of what free will means. For this I’d like to point to this article:
In it, I point out that the (free will) ability that most people believe they and others possess is the very free will that Baumeister’s usage does not cover. His definition is just another example of trying to bypass the actual intuitive feeling of free will that the majority think they have.
Can Baumeister and other compatibilists define free will any way they like? For sure, just as I can redefine the hot ball of fire that warms the Earth as the word “moon”. I just shouldn’t be surprised when people are confused when I tell them I got severe case of moon-burn the other day. But let’s move on as Baumeister’s article gets even more convoluted.
Free will cannot violate the laws of physics or even neuroscience, but it invokes causes that go beyond them.
Even if such was the case (which is arguable), it doesn’t matter as long as such events are caused. Regardless, he goes on to talk about how we have evolved to be able to accomplish more and more tasks, and how culture allows us to create very complex social systems, communicate, and so on. None of this is anything new, nor would it be anything that the person who says we lack free will would deny. But this is where the leap to free will is (somehow) made by Baumeister:
If culture is so successful, why don’t other species use it? They can’t—because they lack the psychological innate capabilities it requires. Our ancestors evolved the ability to act in the ways necessary for culture to succeed. Free will likely will be found right there—it’s what enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.
Perhaps he’s never seen the complex social systems and hierarchies of bees and ants? But yes, such insect behavior isn’t “cultural”, which for some reason he makes this word the one of “free will” importance. The fact that we communicate, build iPhones, and so on – somehow means we have free will. The fact that our “inner deciding process” is one of lots of complexity.
The use of abstract ideas such as moral principles to guide action takes us far beyond anything that you will find in a physics or chemistry textbook, and so we are free in the sense of emergence, of going beyond simpler forms of causality. Again, we cannot break the laws of physics, but we can act in ways that add new causes that go far beyond physical causation.
Notice he gives a sort of specialness to causality that isn’t “simpler”, as if complexity makes a difference regarding free will. Yes, we get it. People have language, think thoughts, have ideas, and conceptualize. And though these are probably not “beyond physical causation” as Baumeister suggests (but rather part of it), consciousness is a subject with various difficulties and complexities.
All of this causal complexity just doesn’t help grant the free will intuitions and beliefs that are thriving in the world today. But like most compatibilists, Baumeister’s definition of free will is one that avoids the important definition and questions.
What does it mean that we couldn’t have, of our own accord, done otherwise? It means a whole lot! This free will definition, in fact, is the one with all of the philosophical significance for so many other topics. If you don’t know why, I go over such to a great extent in my book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind.
So what happens when compatibilists like Baumeister run around shouting “free will exists” with their own specialized definition of free will? People use such to re-enforce their own intuitions and ideas surrounding free will. And the worst part is, it allows them to push a load of other important topics off the table of discourse.