Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


I’m Free

I read two articles this morning.

The first was about the nature of the activity that we call science. The author uses the example of Anaximander’s realization that the Earth is not flat to illustrate what he believes to be the fundamental principle that drives scientific progress.

Until him, all the civilizations of the planet, everybody around the world, thought that the structure of the world was: the sky over our heads and the earth under our feet. There’s an up and a down, heavy things fall from the up to the down, and that’s reality. Reality is oriented up and down, heaven’s up and earth is down. Then comes Anaximander and says: no, is something else. ‘The earth is a finite body that floats in space, without falling, and the sky is not just over our head; it is all around.’

Science is not about the invention of theories that explain our observations. It’s not about answering questions that our current theories can’t answer. It’s about questioning the assumptions that lead to faulty questions.

He understands something about reality, essentially by changing something in the conceptual structure that we have in grasping reality. In doing so, he is not doing a theory; he understands something which in some precise sense is forever. It’s some uncovered truth, which to a large extent is a negative truth. He frees ourselves from prejudice, a prejudice that was ingrained in the conceptual structure we had for thinking about space.

I like the Anaximander example but my favourite example of questioning the question is about the hunt for phlogisten (the attempts to detect the ether were similar, but phlogisten has a cooler name). Phlogisten was assumed to be the hidden element that was released during combustion and it wasn’t until Priestley’s and Lavoisier’s work on oxygen that the people looking for phlogisten learned that they were trying to answer the wrong question.

The hunt for free will always strikes me as a similar problem to the hunt for phlogisten. The mainstream view of scientists (and some philosophers) is that, if the universe follows deterministic (or probabilistic) laws, there is no room for our thoughts to influence our actions and therefore no such thing as free will.

My second article of the day was an interview about, among other things, how the determinists choose definitions of determinism and free will that make their argument a fait accompli.

Whether they are justified depends on three things: whether their target conception of free will is a reasonable one to use, whether their target conception matches what people think free will is, and which, if any, of these conceptions of free will the scientific evidence plausibly challenges. Most of them use unreasonable definitions of free will, ones that require supernatural or magical powers. For instance, willusionist Jerry Coyne says, “Free will is, I believe, an illusion that we have that we can somehow affect the workings of our brain and free them from the laws of physics.” If that’s how you define free will, then we don’t need science to show us that it’s implausible.

The interview served to reinforce my intuition that we will only make progress on this topic when we find the right questions to ask and when we have better definitions for words like determinism and free will and consciousness and self.  It drives me mad when people use studies like this one,

these studies were able to detect activity related to a decision to move, and the activity appears to be occurring briefly before people become conscious of it. Other studies try to predict a human action several seconds early (with greater than chance accuracy). Taken together, these various findings seem to confirm that at least some actions – like moving a finger – are initiated and processed unconsciously at first, and only after enter consciousness

to justify their claim that free will is an illusion. There are so many places for free will to hide outside the gap between conscious intention and activity that I sometimes wonder if the determinists choose their narrow definitions deliberately to make their conclusions easier to justify.

I don’t know the answer to the question of how free will can be compatible with a universe that follows the laws of physics but I have a deep sense that the deterministic explanations are wrong because of the paradoxes that arise from this point:

Free will matters. Our views about free will influence our self-conception and our moral and legal practices.

This is only true if we have free will. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter at all. If we don’t have free will, it doesn’t matter one jot what we think about justice or responsibility or morality. In fact, we don’t even have a choice about what we think so we’d be better off not even worrying about the question (as if we could).

This was not the post that I had intended to write today. I had meant to write about how I am mystified by an argument made by Ross Douthat; that without revelation from on high, morality is just an expression of our preferences (therefore god exists?). It’s obviously wrong, but the explanation will have to wait for another day.