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Pop Philosophy Watch

June 19th, 2009 · 5 Comments

Quick Quiz: Can you determine what, precisely, is meant by “free will” in this dispatch from a panel at the World Science Festival featuring a psychologist, a neuroscientist, and a philosopher? Reading between the lines, it sounds like all three are compatibilists of some stripe,  report later seems to take for granted the traditional dichotomy, whereby an action can be a case of “free will or predetermined by the laws of nature” (emphasis mine). We learn that all three panelists agree that “free will is not a spiritual or magical experience endowed supernaturally within us, but rather, that the conscious decision-making ability is a result of organic brain activity.” (The reporter apparently expected the philosopher to espouse dualism!)  Bonus question: we learn that there “seemed lots of room for competing viewpoints” on the panel. What were they?

Tags: General Philosophy



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Justin // Jun 20, 2009 at 2:15 am

    Apparently, Mele is both a compatibilist and a libertarian about free will, though I’m basing this entirely on a NDPR review of one of his books.

  • 2 ali mali // Jun 20, 2009 at 6:17 am

    free will is a tricky question. On theone hand there is obviously some sway…such as lifting one leg. But no, it doesn’t allow you every goddamn right under the sun like lifting both legs and floating in space! (haha)

    All that will accomplish is your falling down on the ground!

  • 3 Andrew // Jun 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    I don’t know what a compatibilist is, but I definitely see how all three panelists can agree that decision-making capacity arises from neural activity, and yet disagree on whether or not there is such a thing as free will. The first comment posted on the NY Times website seems to summarize it nicely. If you buy Einstein’s (God does not play dice) vision of unified space-time, then you have a tough time believing in free will. If you you buy Schroedinger’s (and others’) vision of absolute space with separate time, then you have no trouble believing in free will. I’m still puzzled about everyone’s attempt to show how Einstein’s theories apply at the quantum mechanical level (by producing “grand unified theories”). To me, if you take Goedel seriously, you have to believe that such a theory is impossible. This is all sounding kind of nerdy now, but I really don’t think that as a society we’ve fully digested all the ramifications of incompleteness. Postmodernism seems like an attempt to do just that in a less cold and prickly way.

  • 4 RickRussellTX // Jun 21, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    “Schroedinger’s (and others’) vision of absolute space with separate time, then you have no trouble believing in free will.”

    The quantum analysis depends a great deal on whether the randomness that appears to be inherent in quantum physics is truly intrinsic, or simply “apparent randomness” explained by hidden variables.

    Problem is, *neither of these things implies free will*. “Random” and “predetermined” are both contrary to the idea that we can make meaningful choices based on some genuine “will”. What is “will”, anyway? It’s one of those catchwords like “soul”, “grace”, and “divine” — a word whose definition seems to change depending on who you talk to.

    For more on the randomness in quantum mechanics, see


    for a very concise list of the various interpretations, and their implications.

    I used to wonder if “free will” could lurk in the randomness inherent in the various interpretations of quantum mechanics. In time, I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter. The closest we will come to “free will” is the realization that (1) our macroscopic choices are dependent on a lot of minute random events that, as a statistical matter, will tend to follow macroscopic physical laws and (2) whether (1) is true or not, we can’t hope to measure the precise initial state from which the decision-making process occurs, and even if we could, the decision trees would rapidly diverge due to the uncontrollable elements of noise (which may be non-random, but by definition will be non-reproducible).

    Greg Egan addresses this issue in a short story, can’t find the precise story now, but I would swear it’s in _Axiomatic_. Anyway, it culminates with two people who decided to have their consciousnesses “synced” to the same memories and placed in robots that have been ensconced in sealed, identical quarters. Air currents, sound, temperature, interior surfaces are identical down to the best measurements that science can make.

    In that artificial case, the two robots behave and think identically over the course of the experiment, even though they “started” as two independent people.

    That’s a pure “gedanken” experiment, since no such reality could be created within the bounds of science as we know it.

    BTW, if you are a student of consciousness, I highly recommend Greg Egan.

    And my compliments to Mr. Sanchez for producing a blog that stimulates thought *every single time I visit*.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Jun 21, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    What Rick said re: relevance of quantum indeterminacy. And I strongly doubt Gödel is relevant here.