Some comments on the article ‘De vrije wil’ posted on this website on 20 April 2012

Does free will exist?

In 2007 I wrote a paperback (in Dutch) on free will vs. determinism bearing the same title as the article in question.  As long as I can remember, I have been intrigued by that age-old question: does free will exist or is it an illusion? When I recently learned that my publisher was planning to reissue that paperback as an e-book, it occurred to me that I could use my newly-launched website to write a brief update in case I found my views on the question to have evolved over the past five years.

At first glance, there seemed to be no need for an update. My conclusion remains that, scientifically speaking, determinism has the stronger case, but that I cannot envisage human life without free will. This is the essence of my opinion. If I were pressed to identify at least some evolution in my thoughts since 2007, I might perhaps conclude that regarding some points my conviction has strengthened, regarding my core argument it has not budged, and as for the current authority of Laplace’s definition of determinism, I misjudged the situation in 2007 and have now come to a different conclusion.

Neuroscience is irrelevant to the question.

I am even more convinced now than I was in 2007 that neuroscience and Laplacean determinism have nothing to do with each other. In my book I had described the experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet and others in the 1980s, which had revealed surprising delays in the active and passive functioning of our consciousness, but I had cautioned that no serious researcher thought that experiments in the field of neuroscience had actually demonstrated the non-existence of free will. Since 2007, the Netherlands has been gripped by an impassioned debate on the relation between brain and consciousness with obvious consequences for the question of determinism vs. free will, and it is conceivable that today more people assume that the non-existence of free will can be proven. To my mind, however, scientific proof that in some of our decisions free will does not play a role has no bearing on the hypothesis that free will does not exist at all. That hypothesis is the essence of ‘hard’ determinism, which was the theme of my book: everything is determined, what happens could not have happened otherwise, free will is an illusion.

Compatibilism is pseudoscience.

My objection to compatibilism, the theory that determinism and free will do not exclude one another, has also grown. In my book I had discussed David Hume’s attempts to prove that freedom and moral responsibility could be reconciled with determinism, but I had found his arguments so unconvincing that I had come to the conclusion that what they actually proved was that free will could not in any case be saved by science. Over the past five years, however, I have discovered that there are, or have been, all sorts of (avowed, covert or inadvertent) compatibilists, both before and after Hume, and in the article I mention Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking as examples of the respective categories.

Compatibilist reasoning tends to follow a set pattern: first, determinism is accepted as scientifically correct, but then a solution is pulled out of a hat that grants free will a legitimate place in science as well. An example of this is the flippant manner in which Stephen Hawking, in his book The Grand Design, New answers to the ultimate questions of life{1}, succeeds in sidestepping the choice between determinism and free will. Hawking begins by paraphrasing Laplace’s renowned definition{2}, which he calls ‘the basis of all modern science.’ Since people live in the universe it is clear that this scientific determinism must hold for them as well, but many would make an exception for human behaviour ‘because they believe we have free will.’

Hawking volunteers an easy solution to this problem. Human behaviour is indeed determined by the laws of nature, but ‘it also seems reasonable to conclude’ that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. ‘For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations. That would take a few billion years.’

‘Because it is so impractical  to use the underlying physical laws to predict human behaviour,’ Hawking continues, ‘we adopt what is called an effective theory.’ And after explaining what an effective theory is, he concludes that ‘we use the effective theory that people have free will.’

It could not be easier. No attempt is made to make the effective theory sound at all convincing. It clearly is a sop meant to silence the champions of free will, who are permitted to adhere to their belief only because it ‘would take a few billion years’  to disprove it.

This beats Hume. If this is not pseudoscience, what is?

Laplace is not out of date after all.

When I wrote my book in 2007, I was under the impression that Laplacean determinism was an outdated theory because in the 1920s quantum mechanics had knocked the bottom out of it. As early as in the 1960s, I had assumed that after decades of triumphant quantum theory nobody was concerned about determinism’s threat to free will any longer, and if Laplace was still remembered, it was because his hypothetical boundless intellect (‘Laplace’s Demon’) had become a bit of a joke.  I now know that I was wrong on two counts. In 2010 I read that Stephen Hawking in his newly published book called Laplace’s definition of scientific determinism ‘the basis of all modern science,’ and two years later I stumbled on a book published in 1963, in which the English moral philosopher Bernard A. O. Williams expressed not only concern but downright indignation at Laplace’s irresponsible formulation of determinism: “In the eighteenth century the astronomer Laplace could perhaps talk glibly in these terms; in the twentieth we certainly cannot.”

This shows at least that in 1963 Laplacean determinism was still considered a threat by some, and in 2010 it was deemed the basis of all modern science by others. My earlier assumption was wrong: Laplace’s Demon is alive and kicking.

Dit stuk is ook te vinden onder de categorie ENGLISH.