Free Will Skepticism Doesn’t Need Science

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 5 min.

A few years ago, I attended a psychology lecture in which the instructor shared the results of a survey he’d sent us students to fill out several days earlier. One of the survey questions went something like this: Do you believe that neuroscience has disproved the existence of human free will? I answered no.

Within the survey results was a graph representing the survey respondents’ beliefs about free will. All of us who’d who answered no to the above survey question were counted under the category of “believes in free will.” The instructor even made a remark along the lines of, “Most of you in this class believe in free will.” But this is an obvious misinterpretation of the data. Answering no to that survey question should not be counted as an endorsement of free will.

In other words, I (along with many other folks these days) do not believe that neuroscience—or any other area of science, for that matter—has disproved free will. And yet I (along with a minority of folks these days) am skeptical* about free will.

(*Depending on the person, free will skepticism may range from strongly doubting free will’s existence to outright rejecting its existence. Today, I’m in the latter category. At the time of the above survey, I could have been a strong doubter or agnostic, or could have even believed in some version of free will. I can’t recall. But my belief at the time cannot be reasonably inferred from my answer to the survey question.)

I don’t want to get sidetracked here with a discussion of the deficiencies (as I and others see them) in the science-based arguments against free will, nor do I want to spend much time defending the anti-free-will arguments that move me. I will only say that my reasons for rejecting free will are philosophical, and so come down to things like the incoherence of the very idea of free will and, more straightforwardly, to the fact that you cannot choose what you desire, nor can you choose what you desire to desire (should you, for example, try to convince yourself to desire something other than what you currently most desire).

I (and others) have spent plenty of time discussing such arguments elsewhere. My central point here today—the key idea I’d like to leave you with—is that many folks who do not explicitly believe in free will find science-based arguments against free will unconvincing. This includes free will skeptics and agnostics who have faith that science will one day prove or disprove free will.

In slightly more detailed terms, what’s held in common among folks—the rejectors, doubters, agnostics, undecided—of the sort I’m describing here is that we cannot be said to explicitly believe in free will despite being unconvinced by anti-free-will (lower-order) talk about the laws of physics (Newtonian or otherwise) and colliding particles or by (higher-order) talk about biochemistry and brain science and researchers measuring delays between a brain’s decision to move a finger and the finger-mover’s awareness of deciding to move that finger. Personally, I tend to find myself particularly unmoved by those who make anti-free-will appeals to science while speaking in dogmatically reductionist terms about mind-brain identity and epiphenomena and suchlike. But to say any more about all this will violate my promise to not get sidetracked.

I readily admit, by the way, that many (or most) free will skeptics do rely on appeals to science. The point I’m pushing here is that we cannot tell whether someone is a skeptic of that sort from their beliefs about whether science has disproved free will.

Finally, I’d like to emphasize that a large group of randomly chosen, equally qualified scientists with the same data in front of them will likely partition into roughly three subgroups as they interpret those data: one that accepts free will, one that rejects free will, and one that is agnostic or otherwise undecided about free will. And these subgroups will likely be easily broken down into yet smaller sub-subgroups—for example, according to the particular reasons why given individuals accept or reject free will.

The takeaway from that observation is that scientists’ attitudes about free will arise from their intuitive evaluations of their evidence—of, that is, what they believe about the world—while science itself (whatever that is) has nothing whatsoever to say about free will. This constitutes a kind of secondary moral of today’s story that can be generalized, in ways both obvious and hidden, across our attempts to understand the world more broadly, well beyond the domain of free will.

This includes the next order of interpretation, in which scientists and non-scientists—philosophers, social scientists, journalists, lay persons (whatever that means)—interpret the interpretations of scientists as well as the data collected by those scientists. It’s worth pausing for a moment to note this distinction between registering a scientist’s interpretation of their data versus registering the data itself. I suppose I’m engaging in a mixture of these two things today, as I seem to be rejecting anti-free-will interpretations of research, while also concluding that the research itself is best interpreted as not working against free will. In other words, one can argue that existing research does in fact disprove free will, but that scientists have so far done a poor job of explaining why. Instead, I reject that any such explanation is warranted given current research results.

Notice also that I could instead have made an appeal to a prominent scientist’s authority that goes something like, “I’m persuaded by Benjamin Libet’s interpretation of his data as not providing sufficient evidence for rejecting free will,” while you (as a lay person, philosopher, neurophysiologist, etc.) might say, “Nope. Libet’s interpretation of his own data was wrong. Whatever Libet’s personal intuitions, his rigorously conducted research actually did disprove free will.” (These sorts of arguments are happening a lot today, in fact. For example, in how to interpret data related to implicit bias research.)

These and related distinctions are important to explore, but I again risk diverting us towards yet another long and involved off-topic discussion, so I’ll close here with the primary moral of today’s story. One I’m taking a moment to draw attention to because of having come across the strange fallacy committed by the above-mentioned psychology instructor with surprising frequency:

Rejecting science-based arguments against free will is not the same as believing in free will.

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