‘Free Will’ and Common Misconceptions of Some Scientists

By | February 9, 2011

Some scientists conclude that the sciences of the human nervous system and psychology have nullified the old, traditional belief that humans can act freely; i.e., that ‘free will’ is a myth that must be discarded by any scientifically informed person. This is a philosophical inference from the work of science, and like many such inferences from the data of sciences it should be subject to critical scrutiny. A good example of the nullification view (of free will) is given by James Miles (a British evolutionary theorist) in an article that appeared in Reports, the magazine for the National Center for Scientific Education (vol. 25, no. 3-4, 2005).

Miles writes:

“The subject of free will “is another area where selfish-gene theorists refuse to challenge evolutionary psychologists, maybe because at least one influential selfish-gene theorist wants to believe in this particular self-serving delusion. In Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, (Daniel) Dennett tells us that the implications of rejecting the idea of free will are, for him, “almost too grim to contemplate”. . . . Not to be rude, but in what sense is Dennett’s special pleading for free will in any material sense different from the creationists’ apologias for a 6000–year-old Earth?”

Miles continues:

“Why is free will so germane to this investigation into EP [Evolutionary Psychology]? Because it cuts to the chase. It asks just how far we are willing to go for science. Darwin called free will a “delusion”. George Williams, founding father of modern evolutionary biology, described free will to me as “a stupid idea” (see Miles 2004: 155). Darwin, who tried to place humans in nature, had no time for free will. Evolutionary psychology, which seems to try in all ways to separate humans from nature, crows about our free will. Evolutionary theorizing does not need EP [Evolutionary Psychology] and its blind faith in free will, nor does it need Dennett’s bland rationalization that free will is “worth wanting.”

The statements by Miles and Williams are good examples of the practice of drawing philosophical inferences from the work of the sciences and then advancing these ‘philosophical statements’ as if they trumped all other philosophical views on the subject at issue, in this case, free will. Many philosophers and writers have argued that the work of the relevant sciences (genetics, neurology, psychology, etc.) do not show that all our actions are determined or constrained in ways that deny freedom. I could spend time summarizing these arguments, but presently I will say a few things in defense of Daniel Dennett’s arguments in defense of freedom, which Miles apparently completely misunderstood.

Daniel Dennett’s work in Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting would be not much worth reading if all he did was “special pleading for free will,” as Miles puts it. Miles would have us conclude that Dennett is talking about a traditionally defined “free will” which science clearly rejects but which he (Dennett) cannot give up. Anyone who reads Dennett’s Elbow Room knows that this is not so. First, in this book Dennett is primarily interested in dealing with a number of misguided fears and misconceptions that arise in connnection with the issue of free will and determinism, arguing that even when one accepts a form of ‘determinism’ and accepts the sciences’ rejection of ‘metaphysical freedom’ (aka ‘free will’), one is not beset with alleged consequences that people are somehow lacking freedom in their action.

Apparently the ‘free will’ which scientists reject as an illusion and as a stupid idea is the traditional notion of free will as a form of metaphysical freedom which posits forms of human conduct not conditioned by our biological and psychological nature. Sometimes this traditional concept includes the notion of free will as a special mental faculty which allegedly allows for free, creative acts, not analyzable in physiological terms.

However, when Dennett talks about ‘free will’ he is not talking about free will in this sense at all. He is not trying to rescue that ‘free will’ which Darwin called an illusion and Williams called a “stupid idea.” What Dennett does (along with a number of other critical philosophers) is to distinguish between that outmoded sense of ‘free will’ (a mysterious faculty, metaphysical freedom) and a concept of freedom of action consistent with scientific findings about our biological and physiological nature. This is what he refers to when he mentions a “free will that is worth wanting.” This is the notion of freedom which we have in mind in our ordinary talk that distinguishes between those things we do because we desire to do them or because we think they’re in our best interest and those things on which our hand is forced; or the ‘freedom’ that people lacking it (e.g. slaves, victims of an oppressive, totalitarian state) are talking about when they struggle to gain their freedom. Nothing that evolutionary biology, neurology, and psychology have done nullifies such freedom. The alleged ‘nullification’ only arises when certain scientists, philosophers, and writers fall into the trap of advancing an undeveloped, uninformed philosophy —- one which a little effort in critical thought easily exposes.

In his later book on the free will issue: Freedom Evolves, Dennett argues that free action is consistent with an evolutionary account of human nature and human behavior.

(Note to Miles and Williams: Please give Dennett some credit for having a modicum of scientific ‘savvy’ and not holding onto “stupid ideas.”)

In brief, my reply to Miles, Williams or anyone who ridicules any attempt to show that free action is compatible with (scientific) determinism is to ask how exactly they propose to define “free will.” As a philosophical issue which has run for a good one hundred years or more, “free will” has been defined in different ways. Philosophers and writers who deal with the free will-determinism issue often spend much time trying to clarify exactly what they mean by the human freedom. Surely, my (and your) ability to choose between alternative actions and act on the basis of that choice does not imply that somehow our decisions and actions cannot be scientifically analyzed as evolutionary scientists would analyze them. Nor does it imply that we possess some form mysterious faculty of free will.

One thought on “‘Free Will’ and Common Misconceptions of Some Scientists

  1. Firooz

    No 'free will' means no responsibility. Then we should close all justice system, police stations and live like animals. How stupid this idea sounds! Free Will and Determinism has been discussed in philosophy for thousands of years! Both are true for human life proportionately to the maturity of the person. More mature a person is, more control he/she has over his/her animal instincts.


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