This is in response to a post at Good Math, Bad Math by Mark Chu-Carroll.
In it, he criticizes Phil Plait for what, to me, sounds almost boringly obvious. Phil sez:
You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey whatever laws of physics command us. And I cannot discount that, but I suspect we are richer than that. The laws of physics are not binary; they don’t say to us “Behave this way or that.” There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers of choices that lie before us. It’s not just a matter of cranking all our atomic states and field equations through a black box and determining what we must perforce do; there are probabilities involved, so that our actions may be predictable in a sense but are not fundamentally determined in advance
I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, but I agree with it.
This is what I call “sloppy dualism”… He’s claiming to argue in favor of a purely scientific universe, with no room for the supernatural. But he tries to sneak a little bit of space in to the fuzziness of how things work to make room for his own free will.
I think Mark is much too caught up in the philosophical and religious history of dualism here. I would rephrase Phil’s statement this way: that complex biological interactions (and thus physical interactions) give rise to the illusion of free will. And this illusion is of such persistence and seeming complexity that, to any being under its spell, it simply feels real. And objectively speaking the presence of this illusion clearly classifies objects in the universe. A nebula does not have this ‘free will’, because it doesn’t exhibit the requisite complexity. But a human being does.
Mark objects to classifying objects this way, calling it a kind of dualism. And I ask: why? Using the term ‘dualism’ for this kind of thinking offends the historical definition of that term. Phil’s description isn’t anything less than completely materialistic. There are no spirits involved. There’s simply a hierarchy of physical laws with a range of complexities. At the lowest hierarchy are ‘simple’ objects, such as electrons and muons and atoms that express relatively simple behavior. At the higher echelons are more and more complex objects and phenomena, like ‘free will’. But these higher echelons obviously depend on the lower ones and are determined in some way by them. Whereas the spirit and body are only connected via divine intervention in a classical dualism (and are completely detached otherwise), Phil’s ‘dualism’ is nothing of the sort. And so I would argue that it doesn’t make sense to even put it in those terms.
What Phil is doing is asserting that we are, somehow, different. He starts off OK; the way that physics appears to work, things are not completely deterministic. There’s a lot of fuzziness and probabilistic nondeterminism.
But moving from non-determinism to choice is a problem. If you’re consistent, and you reject non-physical entities and influences in the world, then you are no exception.
It’s not a problem at all if this choice only appears to be a choice to the one making it. If I were to further interpret Phil’s description of choice, I would appeal to a kind of complex if-then ‘rule’ schema. If A happens, I will choose B1. But there are mitigating factors C, D, E, and F. If C goes a certain way, but D doesn’t, I will choose B2 and not B1. But if C, D, and E are all go a certain way I’ll choose B3. One can imagine this schema extending into a very large ‘tree’ of if-thens, perhaps with some degree of probability in the decision-making. To a being controlled by such a schema it would appear that they had innumerable choices at every turn–the definition of free will. To that being’s biology, however, there would exist a very definite rule set.
Is this how free will works? Perhaps not. But this is what biology suggests. This is how all other kinds of organisms work. They have rules for responding to stimuli. If you imagine the simple rule set for a paramecium scaled up a billion, billion fold, it’s not hard (at least in my mind) to fathom how free will (or the illusion thereof) arises.
There’s no scientific reason to believe that we have free will. There’s no buffer zone that we’ve found in any of the physical laws of how the universe works to make room for free will. There’s non-determinism; but there’s not choice.
Yet. I suppose we should give up, though, in light of these destructive arguments.
Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it, supernatural: some influence that isn’t part of the physical interaction, which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they’ll collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality.
There’s definitely no scientific reason to believe that.
There’s nothing wrong with believing that there’s something more than the simple physical to the world; something that allows this thing we call consciousness. But it’s not a scientific belief. And for all his hedging, Phil is clearly saying that he believes that the math of physics isn’t, and can’t be all that describes how the universe works. And once you make room for that kind of supernatural, it’s hard to explain just why your kind of supernatural belief is perfectly rational, and someone else’s kind of supernatural belief is silly.
This is really a weaselly argument. Nothing is a scientific belief until it’s demonstrated in an experiment. That doesn’t mean that some arguments aren’t more scientific than others, that some arguments aren’t more presupposition and wish-thinking than others, and some arguments aren’t more based in facts than are others. I hate to trot out the cliche, but the belief that unicorns don’t exist is not a scientific belief nor a rational one. But my confidence in that belief, based upon everything I know and everything science and history tells me, sets it apart from a toddler’s belief that unicorns really do exist. To think otherwise is post-modernism at its core.