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The Free Will Debate Really Heated Up This Year

Many commentators are weighing in; surprisingly, perhaps, well-known materialists are disputing the claim that there is no free will

The two big books of the season on free will are primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s Determined (Penguin 2023), which maintains that there is no free will, and neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell’s Free Agents (Princeton University Press, 2023), which maintains that evolution gave us free will.

Prominent cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argues that Sapolsky is wrong to say there is no free will because

1. Levels of analysis. The fact that individual neurons are deterministic doesn’t mean that an intricate assembly of billions of neurons is deterministic. Matter is mostly empty space, but that doesn’t mean we can walk through walls….

2. Determinism in the technical math sense (input perfectly predicting output) is false when applied to human behavior. Identical twins reared together (same genes, same environment) correlate only ~.5. …

Steven Pinker at X, November 10, 2023

Meanwhile, well-known science writer John Horgan also disputes Sapolsky’s claim:

If Sapolsky rejects free will because of rational deliberation, then he demonstrates that he possesses free will. If he rejects free will because he is prone to depression, then we can reject his stance as subjective and unscientific. Again, free will wins either way.

I’ve overstated the case for free will a bit. Science, I’m guessing, will never prove or disprove free will once and for all. Scientists have no idea how physical processes engender consciousness, which is a prerequisite for free will.

John Horgan, “Free Will and the Sapolsky Paradox,” Cross-Check, November 5, 2023

Here Horgan almost sounds like Michael Egnor on free will. But let’s not overstate the case; he is an emphatic materialist but he recognizes that science does not always provide answers. Here’s his interview with Sapolsky.

Given that both Pinker and Horgan are Darwinian materialists, their coldness toward the idea that there is no free will is worth keeping an eye on.

Is delusion the solution?

Freelance science writer Diana Gitig offers a possible solution at Ars Technica:

It is not hard to follow or understand or even agree with Sapolsky’s arguments. But they run so very counter to our lived experience that it’s extremely difficult to feel them, to grok them, to actually believe them. Sapolsky knows this, since he experiences it, too, and he has a solution: pretend. Live as if we had free will, even though we don’t. (Except, of course, when condemning a wrong-doer; see previous paragraphs.) It is hardly the only delusion we need in order to get through this life.

Diana Gitig, “Does science tell us anything about free will, Ars Technica, 11/12/2023

So delusion is okay in the service of materialism? She isn’t so lenient with Mitchell:

Despite continuously maintaining that he is not a dualist, Kevin Mitchell seems to fall into this category. In his newest book, Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will, Mitchell explains that our free will comes from the holistic organization of our brains and bodies, driven by evolution, as agents with purpose. In some yet-to-be-determined way, our whole is more than the sum of our parts.

Diana Gitig, ArsTechnica, 11/12/2023

We can’t have that, can we? It’s the wrong sort of delusion. There are 404 comments under her story as of today, so there’s no question it’s a hot topic.

Health journalist Clare Wilson doesn’t see the new books and their arguments as leading to any kind of agreement on the facts that would advance the debate:

Whether any of this will allow free will sceptics and believers to reach an accord is far from clear. The opposing sides can’t even agree on what it would take to provide clinching evidence either way. Sapolsky will believe in free will only if some aspect of human behaviour can be shown to be completely devoid of prior influences. “Here are the neurons that caused it to happen – show me that they would have done the exact same thing if all the surrounding neurons sculpted by the previous history of your life had been different,” he says.

Mitchell says that is setting the bar impossibly high. “What kind of a being would be behaving free from any prior causes? They wouldn’t have a reason for doing anything, because reasons are past causes – it would just be a random behaviour generator.” But he adds that it is difficult to conceive of anything that would convince him that his argument is wrong, because it isn’t a simple, testable hypothesis. “It’s hard to say there’s some particular experiment that could show we do or don’t have free will,” he says.

Clare Wilson, Free will: Can neuroscience reveal if your choices are yours to make?, New Scientist, September 27, 2023

The only thing the partisans generally agree on is materialism. Sapolsky’s critics want to keep both materialism and free agency. His fans may be content to live with what they accept is a mere illusion of agency. But that too is a choice, one they will perhaps deny really making…

If materialism will soon start to decline due to problems with the evidence, as some of us suspect, these sorts of conundrums will multiply.

You may also wish to read: Can evolution create free will? A neurologist says yes Could the impersonal natural force of evolution shape hierarchies in the human cerebral cortex so that we have the free will that it does not itself have?
It appears that materialists have not been able to simply disprove free will, so Mitchell seems to be trying to shape an evolution theory to fit it.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

The Free Will Debate Really Heated Up This Year