Sabine Hossenfelder, over at her Backreaction blog, is arguing for hard determinism — that is, for the claim that we don’t have free will.
She’s making the mistake that many (but not all) scientists make when they confront this question: she’s assuming that the libertarian analysis of freedom is correct, she’s not recognizing the compatibilist’s account of free will, and she’s slipping into conflating determinism and fatalism.
To quickly recap, libertarians believe that we can be free only if our decisions are not fixed by pre-existing physical laws and facts (or any pre-existing laws and facts, for that matter). If we make a free choice, they say, then it is impossible that anyone — even a Laplacean Demon — would be able to predict the action I choose. Determinism is not compatible with freedom.
Compatibilists (also known as soft determinists) argue that it doesn’t matter if our actions are the result of physical laws and pre-existing facts. The only think that matters is whether we acted because we wanted to act in that way. As long as we weren’t coerced, as long as nothing forced us to do something against our will then we acted freely. Free will is compatible with determinism.
I’ve made the case for compatibilism before, so I won’t rehash it all here. But I do want to step through and highlight the specific point where Bee (I hope Dr. Hossenfelder won’t be offended if I use her nickname in the informal context of blogging, even though we aren’t acquaintances) goes astray.
The first problem is that Bee doesn’t seem to be familiar with the compatibilist position on free will. She lists three objections that she typically hears raised against her denial of freedom: (1) the practical impossibility of predicting future actions; (2) quantum randomness falsifying determinism; and (3) a denial of reductionism.
As she quite rightly argues, none of these objections hold up.
But I am a bit surprised that she hasn’t heard more about compatibilism. Most philosophers think compatibilism is the right way to go, and I would have thought that it had trickled out into society at large enough to at least make itself known. (Wikipedia does an OK job.)
Hard determinism is the view that free will requires the sort of freedom from laws that the libertarians insist on, but we don’t have that sort of freedom. So we don’t have free will. This is the position that Bee is arguing for.
It seems to me that most of the arguments for hard determinism grow out of a failure to distinguish between determinism and fatalism. “Fatalism” in this context means that there are some things that will happen no matter what.
So, if the Fates say that you’re going to kill your father and sleep with your mother, then it doesn’t matter whether you run off to another country to avoid that possibility, or remain home and ignore the prediction — it’s going to happen either way.
If an event is fated, then your decisions don’t matter. You choose to live a life of pacifism and celibacy: it doesn’t matter you still kill dad and sleep with mom. You choose to convince yourself that incest is fine: you kill dad and sleep with mom. You choose to have yourself locked away in prison to avoid your awful fate: well, you still kill dad and sleep with mom.
However, determinism is not fatalism. In a deterministic world, your choice matters. It makes a difference. Your choice to go to college causally affects the rest of your life. If you instead chose to skip college and jump straight into a job, then the events of your life would be different.
Choices causally matter — they make a difference — even though the world is (effectively) deterministic. And compatibilists claim that this is all the freedom we can make sense of, and all the freedom we could reasonably want.
Now, Bee comes closer than most hard determinists to recognizing these facts, but it doesn’t quite prevent her from denying free will.
She recognizes that determinism doesn’t imply fatalism when she counsels us on “how to live without free will” (as she titles her post):
Free will or not, you have a place in history . . . you still make decisions. You cannot not make decisions. You may as well be smart about it.
Here she’s got it right. We make decisions, and those decisions shape our future. This is just an obvious part of the deterministic account of the world.
But she doesn’t seem to realize that this undercuts her earlier claims that we don’t have free will. For example, she says
You have free will if your decisions select one of several possible futures. But there is no place for such a selection in the laws of nature that we know.
But on the determistic account, my decisions do “select one of several possible futures.” They don’t break the laws of physics to do so, obviously, but they are physical things that have a physical impact on future events. As she said earlier, we have a place in history. Our decisions have a place in history. They make one future come about rather than another by being a physical thing at a certain place at a certain time.
Just as an asteroid striking the Earth 65 million years ago made one future come about, and not some other possible future, so too my decisions make some events rather than others happen in my life. I do select one future over another — it’s just that that process is effectively deterministic. I don’t violate any physical laws when I do it. But why would I want to violate physical laws anyway?