The Chronicle of Higher Education is holding an essay symposium on Free Will and I have so many problems with Jerry Coyne’s contribution: “You Don’t Have Free Will.” To begin with, I have a general suspicion that the debate over free will is terrible at least in part because the definition of free will is incoherent. (Yudkowsky has a good essay on recognizing and defusing definitional debates).
What we are fumbling after is the reason we are morally culpable for our own actions. Why do we talk about having ownership of them and responsibility for them? If both the normal function of the hand and Strangelove syndrome are both just the result of induced chemical reactions, why do we treat one as aberrant and in need of cure?
The definition of ‘Free Will’ that Coyne offers doesn’t solve this problem and isn’t worth attacking or defending:
I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.
We’re not hoping simply to end up in equipoise, where our choices could go either way arbitrarily. An identity that persists through time does limit how our choices come out. That’s the point.
But the bit that most confused me came later in the essay. Coyne wrote:
So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely? Well, nihilism is not an option: We humans are so constituted, through evolution or otherwise, to believe that we can choose. What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others. That realization shouldn’t seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.
Is the only reason nihilism is off the table because we’re not free to come to our senses? (And, come to think of it, what’s the point of writing a persuasive essay against free will in the first place? Coyne must be acting from necessity, not hoping we’ll choose to change our mind).
I don’t understand why, in Coyne’s framework, the false notion he’s trying to root out is that “people can choose to do wrong” when it already looks like ‘wrong’ has no place in his world. Wrong compared to what? Is there a difference between humans hurting other humans and a parasitic wasp laying eggs inside a still-living caterpillar?
My half-fleshed out answer is that we’ve got access to something different in our environment than the wasps do. As the animal that thinks, we have access to abstractions, specifically the Moral Law. Knowledge of the moral law, even imperfect knowledge, is a new constraint on our thought and actions, and it’s one we should welcome.
Does this get me back into the morass of weird neo-Platonism that makes both sides angry at me? Well, yeah. But I’d rather get caught in contradictions in my proposed solution than in my denial that something here needs explanation in the first place. My position doesn’t let me brush off the problem, so there’s more pressure on me to fix my philosophy.