Another Mistake about Free WIll

Previously I commented on a neo-creationist mistake about free will; ‘dacook’ on Uncommon Descent was under the impression that the possible discovery of free will in flies was somehow proof that scientific materialism was false.

Here we have the same mistake, but from the other direction: Philip Ball claims that, even if we do discover the source of spontaneity (and presumably autonomy, although he doesn’t discuss it explicitly) we haven’t found free will per se, because ‘free will’ is simply a term without an existing referent:

The fact is that ‘free will’ is (like ‘life’ and ‘love’) one of those culturally useful notions that become meaningless when we try to make them ‘scientific’. That’s why it is unhelpful to imply that the brains of flies or humans might contain a ‘free will’ module simply because they have a capacity to scramble the link between cause and effect.

The argument in Uncommon Descent is, roughly, something like this:

1. Free will is required for responsibility.

(“Though many Darwinists shy away from the implications of their beliefs as they apply to ascribing responsibility for human behavior…”)

2. Free will is essentially non-material.


3. If free will is discovered, then it disproves materialism.

This is an obviously flawed argument. Premise (1) is perhaps true, but it doesn’t prove premise (2); (2) is often assumed to be true by religious apologists, but it requires some form of independent support. The conclusion (3) doesn’t follow from the premises unless one is seriously begging the question.

(EDIT: The question-begging assumption seems to be that since responsibility is immaterial, free will needs to be immaterial also.  But material features and properties can be necessary components of immaterial states; after all, the ability to act is itself both material/physical and necessary for responsibility.)

As far as I can tell, Ball argues similarly:

4. Free will is required for responsibility.

5. Responsibility is culturally constructed.

(‘As neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Megan Steven of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boson have pointed out, we act in a social context. “Responsibility is a social construct and exists in the rules of society,” they say. “It does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain.”’)


6. Free will is culturally constructed and therefore not real in the same sense as neuro-physiological structures in the brain.

This is a better argument, but still wrong. The conclusion (6) doesn’t follow from the two premises.

But free will, as discussed by philosophers, moralists and neuroscientists, need not be strictly defined, except in terms of its effects:

7. ‘Free Will’ is just whatever allows free action.

So what is free will? We don’t know. It just is whatever allows humans — and maybe flies — to act freely. Of course, we need a good definition of “free” — but it presumably includes spontaneity and autonomy. So if we do discover neuronal structures required for our spontaneity and autonomy, we’ve found free will. Even if responsibility itself is socially and culturally constructed.

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