Free Will or Not?
Tibor R. Machan
Sure enough, some topics resurface quite naturally in the wake of certain types of events. The Virginia Tech massacre has brought out the gun control champions, as well as those who anticipate their histrionics and warn that banning guns can do more harm than good in just such circumstances. Also, the issue of whether perpetrators of such heinous acts are helpless or in fact possess free will and are therefore responsible for their actions has come up (notably in a recent missive by New York Times columnist David Brooks).
As to the free will issue, one of the many points worth noting, especially in response to Mr. Brooks’ input, is that the dispute has been around for ages. The ancient Greeks put on record some rather sophisticated arguments on both sides, so Mr. Brooks’ claim that free will is now in retreat, in light of various brain-scientific theorizing, is way off.
In fact, ever since the 15th century, when the natural sciences gained a strong momentum—having been legitimatized by Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical writings, which party embraced the naturalism of Aristotle—free will has been challenged based on the idea that everything in nature behaves deterministically, as billiard balls do on a pool table. Thomas Hobbes, in England, and Baruch Spinoza, on the continent, laid out somewhat different but very impressive cases against free will.
There have not been too many free will champions ever since then, other than Immanuel Kant in the 17th century and a few others. In our day the only well known naturalist thinker who defended free will was Ayn Rand, although in academic philosophy quite few have advanced the view that people themselves can be causes of their actions, so there need be no conflict between scientific causality and free will.
What makes this a recurring popular topic is that without free will there would seem to be no basis for morality and criminal law. If one should do some things and not other things, one would have to have the capacity for free choice. Otherwise personal responsibility is a myth. And nearly all those who have argued against free will agree. For example, the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow argued that such clients of his as Leopold and Loeb had no choice and couldn’t help themselves when they brutally murdered a young woman. The late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner also argued that freedom and dignity—our moral capacity—are both mythical notions, without scientific foundation.
So, pace Mr. Brooks, the dispute between those championing free will and those who deny it predates by many decades, even centuries, the current arguments between some neuroscientists and their detractors. (As a side note, there are brain scientists, such as the late Roger W. Sperry, who defended free will on scientific grounds, saying that the human brain contains features that enable one to govern one’s impulses, resist one’s habits, control one’s emotions—if one will only apply oneself.)
I am a partisan in this dispute, having written two books, one on Skinner himself and another on the free will issue directly, in which I have argued that free will and science are not in conflict. What makes it appear that they are is that too many believe that science assumes a materialist view of the world, one according to which everything is just simple matter, kind of like everything made of sand at the beach is just sand, even though it may look like a castle, a car, or a bridge at first inspection. But this isn’t really part of any of the sciences but rather a part of a certain philosophy that admittedly many scientists accept.
There is one major argument against determinism that’s very tough to overcome, especially by scientists. This is that unless human beings are free to do independent thinking, including scientific research, the results of inquiry are always infected with bias, prejudice, and other causes they cannot resist. This is the same problem most of us associate with prejudice in other areas, such as racism, sexism, ethnic bias, and so forth. We tend to take it that such prejudice is avoidable—indeed much public policy in the last several decades rests on the idea of its avoidability. Similarly, most of us take it the jurors can be objective, if they work at it.
But if free will is a myth, no such objectivity is possible, including about the issue of free will versus determinism. And that is a very difficult idea to reject because even to reject it, one would need to be able to be objective and, thus, to have free will.