Monday, September 27, 2004

My Free Will Problem

I recently read Daniel Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves. In it, Dennett argues from his perspective of scientific naturalism that determinism is true. A large part of the book also offers a well-reasoned “compatibilist” argument that we shouldn’t think this conclusion compromises the effective existence of moral responsibility in our human social/cultural domain. I am comfortable with compatibilism, at least in the sense that I think human morality and responsibility can have a natural basis which doesn’t require believing we have some sort of absolute freedom. But I want to explore the argument for determinism itself here.

Here is a short caricature of Dennett’s argument for determinism:
1. Assume micro-physics doesn’t matter. Assume the fundamental units comprising humans and their environment are small but macroscopic and obey Newtonian classical physics. Of course rule out any supernatural influences.
2. Explain that determinism is true given these assumptions (it’s true pretty much by definition).
3. Put the burden of proof on anyone arguing for free will to explain why the features of quantum mechanics (QM) or some other non-classical aspect of nature can get you out from under the deterministic model.
4. Since nobody has done this convincingly, determinism is true.

Now I’ve made the point that a shortcoming of the worldview usually associated with science is its continued adoption of precisely this kind of outdated classical physical picture of the world. I’ve said we need to expand the naturalistic perspective beyond this picture.

But it still could be that even an expanded naturalism entails determinism. Specifically, I have argued that philosophical and scientific investigations (specifically QM) lead to a revised naturalistic worldview which includes a role for subjective experience at the most fundamental level of reality. But does this mean anything in terms of the free will debate?

Before going further, I should mention one method of using modern physics to argue for free will which I do not endorse. This idea, offered by Roger Penrose, Stuart Hameroff, and Henry Stapp, is that the human brain (uniquely in the macroscopic world) establishes and maintains quantum coherence (through a proposed feature of the structure of neurons), and this explains human consciousness and establishes free will. I don’t buy into this partly because many critics have made a persuasive case that the mechanisms won’t work. But also, I’m skeptical such a capability would have uniquely emerged in we humans (if neurons can “do it”, why not other cells or even single-celled organisms?). Rather, I am inclined to think that while human capabilities result from a special and complex mode of organization, they share a nature which is continuous with the rest of the world, grounded in the most fundamental level of reality. If we do have free will, it may be developed in us to a unique degree, but the kernel of what makes it work will exist in animals, plants, and so on, “all the way down.”

So, returning to the question: given what I believe we know about the nature of reality, including the fundamental role of subjective experience, is there true free will in the world?

Another way to frame the issue is this: if one accepts that there is are good reasons to believe all systems in the world have an element of subjective experience, do those experiences do any work?

I will take these questions up again shortly.


Geoff Arnold said...

I recommend that you go back to the interview between Robert Wright and Dan Dennett and watch the whole thing - not just the "higher purpose" kerfuffle. Dennett presents a view of free will which differs significantly from the "caricature" that you present here. It revolves around what we mean by "inevitable", which idea usually surfaces whenever free will and determinism are debated. What do we mean by "inevitable", and its opposite "evitable"? It has everything to do with context and subjectivity, and as Dennett lays out very nicely, from both a philosophical and an evolutionary perspective that's pretty much it. There's actually nothing more to explain. There's no burden of proof on anyone else, because for Dennett (and me) there's no question to be proved.

(Of course, in the interview Wright promptly counters with a mysterian perspective, Dennett politely demurs, Wright pushes on regardless, and Dennett elegantly and devastatingly destroys Wright's position. See my blog at and elsewhere in

Steve said...

Thanks. I will go over this stuff again and read your posts.
As a first thought, though, keep in mind that I don't disagree with Dennett's arguments in relation to avoidance, evitability/inevitablity, etc. I take these as part of his argument for compatibilism. He says we have all the kinds of free will worth wanting despite underlying determinism. In other words, those who feel we need some kind of absolute free will to give life meaning are wrong. I find these arguments compelling.

But I think these compatibilist arguments are incomplete because they assume a determinstic world of the "billiard-ball" Newtonian sort. This is a picture of the world we know to be wrong, and it is the implications of this that I am trying to explore.