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An interesting defense of free will in Scientific American

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From science writer John Horgan, here:

Scientists can make a patient’s arm shoot into the air, for example, by electrically stimulating a spot in the motor cortex. The patient often insists that she meant to lift her arm and even invents a reason why: She was waving to that handsome doctor! In his 2002 book The Illusion of Conscious Will, psychologist Daniel Wegner calls these delusional, after-the-fact explanations “confabulations.”

We all confabulate now and then. We passively do what we’re told to do—and believe what we’re told to believe—by parents, priests and political leaders, and we convince ourselves it’s our choice. We subvert our wills by deliberating insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, and by failing to act upon our resolutions. Sometimes we act out of compulsion—out of fear or rage—without thinking through the consequences of our actions. But just because our wills are weak doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

His easy accommodation of free will to eliminative materialism doesn’t really work. For example,

Freedom, [eliminative materialist philosopher] Dennett asserts, can be “studied objectively from a no-nonsense, scientific point of view.” The nonprofit organization Freedom House does just that by charting the ebb and flow of freedom around the world. Freedom House defines a nation as “free” if it meets two criteria. First, it must “elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate.” Second, the nation must allow “freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state.”

But what freedoms a government allows has nothing to do with the question of free will as it is usually discussed. People are free to disobey the government, if they are willing to accept the punishment. Some are:

In North Korea, citizens are forced to follow the state ideology known as “The Juche Idea.” Christians there “are the most persecuted believers on earth,” Foley told Fox. He estimates that there are around 100,000 Christians in the country. The network reports that 30,000 of those Christians “are believed to be locked inside concentration camps, where they are overworked, starved, tortured, and killed.”

In 2009, a 33-year-old woman was publicly executed in North Korea after being accused of distributing the Bible. Kenneth Bae, an American missionary, was arrested in North Korea and sentenced to 15 years of labor for “crimes against the state” in May.

Foley, who is in his late 40s, told Fox that believers in North Korea have a demand for Bibles nonetheless. He and his wife, a South Korean immigrant, first began sending balloons in 2006, from a location in South Korea near the North Korean border.

Free will is more often what happens when the government doesn’t allow freedom. Freedom is never given, it is assumed.

Maybe the only way a Scientific American writer could support free will is to somehow link it with materialism. Better that than embracing tyranny!

See also: “I will” means something after all in neuroscience? There has been a trend toward acceptance of free will lately. – O’Leary for News
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Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

6 Replies to “An interesting defense of free will in Scientific American

  1. 1

    An intellectually dishonest misrepresentation as the article title is for one text but the content merges two stories.

    The key part in the Scientific America article is that the author of that article said that,

    But in his 2003 book Freedom Evolves, Dennett lays out a sensible, down-to-earth view of free will. He notes, first, that free will is “not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world.” Free will is simply our ability to perceive, mull over and act upon choices; in fact, choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will.

    Without that paragraph the segue from free will to freedom is missed.

  2. 2
    News says:

    The arguments around free will are only tangential to the question of whether citizens have sustained their civil liberties against governments (generally called “freedom”). Horgan, like most decent people, thinks the work of Freedom House a good thing. And if that’s what turns the crank fine. Better he is arguing for it than against it. But free will is not something government gives people. Even Horgan has his reservations about Dennett here, advisedly one may say.

  3. 3
    nullasalus says:

    Free will is simply our ability to perceive, mull over and act upon choices; in fact, choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will.

    That obscures more than it clarifies.

    For one thing, “Sensible, down to earth”? Baloney. Which is given away right in the paragraph: ‘He’s got a sensible, down-to-earth view of free will. For one thing, he completely redefines it to mean something than what it has always meant, and he misrepresents what it always meant in the process.’

    For another, ‘our ability to perceive, mull over and act upon choices’ leaves out the crucial detail that Dennett is a materialist and a determinist. ‘Mulling over’ and ‘acting upon choices’ are unavoidable save for, on Dennett’s view, the possible blind chance alterations at the level of fundamental physics. He’s no fan of ‘perception’ either, as commonly discussed, and which Horgan seems to gloss over despite pointing out his BS on consciousness.

    Dennett grants the illusion of free will – and apparently for Horgan, illusions are good enough.

    Finally, there’s nothing dishonest about the OP. Both articles quoted from are clearly linked, and relevant.

  4. 4
    Mapou says:

    John Horgan:

    Scientists can make a patient’s arm shoot into the air, for example, by electrically stimulating a spot in the motor cortex. The patient often insists that she meant to lift her arm

    Actually, this rarely happens. If you read accounts of these kinds of experiments, the patient is almost invariably surprised to observe an involuntary limb movement and is more likely to exclaim, “I did not do that!” Horgan is dishonestly and erroneously using exceptions to arrive at a general conclusion.

    One never knows with these deceptive materialists. They are on a crusade to promote their lame religion. Nothing they say should be taken at face value.

  5. 5
    Barb says:

    Mankind differs from inanimate creation in that only man has a capacity for intelligence and a moral sense, a measure of love, justice, wisdom and power, but also gave man a measure of freedom and corresponding responsibilities. Freedom and responsibility, in fact, are correlatives, the one involves and implies the other. Freedom brings with it the responsibility to choose, and by making a choice one assumes further responsibilities.

    The bodies in the starry heavens move in assigned orbits at certain rates of speed according to God’s immutable laws. Likewise does man greatly differ from the brute creation who are subject to instincts and the vicissitudes of their environment. Neither the inanimate creation nor the brute creation is therefore morally accountable to the Creator.

    But man is. He was given the capacity for being reliable and so was entrusted with certain interests and made answerable for them. And yet the materialists will deny these simple facts repeatedly. We are much more than “machines made of meat” answering to the whims of “selfish genes”.

  6. 6
    KD says:

    “… choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will.” Well, maybe, but those words still don’t add any clarity to the discussion. In the discipline of philosophy, the technical definition of free will is the ability to make decisions that satisfy two criteria: 1) the decision was not determined by any antecedent conditions and, 2) the agent could have decided otherwise. Testing for this ability is difficult, to say the least. However, it is not at all surprising that we have the ability to make up an a posteriori explanation as to why our arm moved that is almost simultaneous with our arm being forced to move by electrical stimulation. The minds ability to do this says nothing about whether we actually have free will, however.

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