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.
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.
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.
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).
Some people point to indeterminism or non-caused (acausal) events as their free will savior. Point ’em to this infographic to help explain why such events do not allow for free will:
PLEASE SHARE THIS INFOGRAPHIC WITH OTHERS!
A common occurrence that happens in the free will debate is the conflation between what “is” or what “exists” with what we can or cannot “know”. In philosophical terms such is the conflation between an ontic understanding and an epistemic understanding. In case the philosophical terms arise in a discussion, all you really need to know is that ontology is the study of what exists, is real, or the nature and properties of “being”, while epistemology is the study of what we can know and how we can know things. In philosophy these words are very broad fields of study. For example, ones epistemological standard (standard of knowledge) might play into their ontological understandings (what they think exists or doesn’t exist).
If you are unfamiliar with the philosophical jargon, don’t be too concerned. For the free will debate, just know that one addresses existence claims and the other addresses knowledge claims. And the distinction between these two things are of great importance.
The words “determinism” and “indeterminism” tend to cause a lots o’ confusion when they are used. That’s because, as with many words/terms, they can often be used with ambiguous meanings. This post is going to point to some of these usages and also to the common usage that’s of importance for the debate on free will.
Let’s start with determinism and look at the possible ways this has been used by others.
For many such as myself, determinism is interlinked entirely with causality. It says something about the universe and all events that ever happen within it. If every event that happens in the universe has a cause, the universe, per this definition, is said to be “deterministic”.