Free will discussion often miss a crucial point

…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. Although we can’t really rerun that tape, this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.  Jerry Coyne, Professor of Biology, University of Chicago

Of course, if the free will debate were as simply resolved as Coyne suggests, it would never have persisted long enough for a high-status scientist to be asked for his views.  The error in Coyne’s argument is one, however, shared by many.  The point (at least as I see it) is not whether or not our decisions and actions are determined by the past and current conditions (a question of the way the world is), but whether there is a way we can find out about the world well enough to show what determined the choice (a question of ways to know the world).  That is, suppose I say there are three choices—A, B, C—I could make at some time t (or retrospectively say that there were three choices I could have made), but I make (made) choice A.  Could someone else point to conditions 1,2,3,… (e.g., biochemical or neurological or unconscious) at or before time t that imply that B and C were not actual choices I could have made, that is, that I was mistaken in saying they were?  What method of finding out about the world would show this inadmissibility of choices I had pointed to?  Coyne’s thought experiment of rerunning a tape, which indeed he admits is an impossibility, gets us nowhere in answering these last questions.

Actually, the point is probably deeper: Could someone with this knowledge of the inadmissibility of choices B and C convey the knowledge to me in a way that would influence my (mis)understanding of the choices I faced?  And, if they could, is this a way of engaging with each other that we want to foster?

I do not claim that my points resolves, say, legal debates about culpability and I haven’t studied the philosophical literature on free will.  My lack of interest in doing so is probably a mix of a sense that the points I made above have been missed with a sense that debates about culpability are distractions from the serious issues of defining and reducing crime and treating criminals.


2 thoughts on “Free will discussion often miss a crucial point

  1. wordenlee

    But also what is Coyne talking about? The laws of physics aren’t deterministic, unless I missed something big. Nobody can predict how a quantum wave function will collapse, and nobody knows whether it would collapse differently “if the tape were run again”.

  2. Pingback: Page not found « Intersecting Processes

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