Free will: science vs humanities

Zombies don’t have free will. Any one zombie would know that about itself, that it doesn’t have free will. But how could it tell whether other zombies had free will? What questions would it have to ask them, what experiments would it have to perform on them, to find out?

Actually, this is part of a Turing Test. We’ve set up two rooms, one with zombies in it, and a second one with scientists. We’ve asked both groups the same question—do the members of your group have free will. The test is, from the groups’ conversations, can we tell which is the one consisting of zombies?

Actually, no, this is not a Turing test, there aren’t any zombies, there’s just the scientists, part of a $4.4 million Templeton Foundation four-year project titled “Big Questions in Free Will.” We can eavesdrop on their conversation in “FREE: Why Science hasn’t Disproved Free Will,” a report on the project for the general reader by the project director, Alfred R. Mele, William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University.

But if this were the Turing Test, it would be hard to tell the scientists from the zombies. Only once does anyone acknowledge having conscious experience—Mele himself: “I like extra legroom on planes. So right after I buy a coach ticket online, I check the airline website for an exit row seat — first on the aisle and then next to a window. If I find a seat I like, I snatch it up. I do all this consciously.” But everyone else in the book seems to be a zombie, without free will, and eager to show that none of the other zombies have free will either. “Some people say that free will is an illusion. This is a book about scientific experiments that are supposed to prove these people right,” says Mele.

So who else is there in the world, besides zombies and scientists? There’s artists, and members of the humanities. Let’s make up a group of those people. Now we’ve a triad of three groups. Divide that triad into two, between the two groups that are most similar and the one that’s most different. I’ve no doubt, the one’s that’s most different would be the group of artists and members of the humanities. If the scientists represent anyone, they represent not those of us in the arts, but zombies. They’re obsessed with whether or not other people have free will, with trying to identify it from the outside. And that goes for almost everything that gets published on the subject of free will. What free will means to artists and members of the humanities goes unacknowledged.

What free will means to us is, it’s something we each experience, as a vital part of ourselves. We take for granted that other people experience that too. We don’t need to prove they do, we know it. That’s just how human beings are. Why would anyone feel the need to prove it! Unless, like zombies, they didn’t experience it themselves.

I appreciate that, for many scientists, absence of experimental evidence for consciousness and free will means they can’t have physical reality. But, for me, to therefore dismiss consciousness and free will as illusions verges on insanity. Deprive me of consciousness and I could not register anything—almost by definition I can’t register the meaning of something if I’m not conscious of it. So life would be meaningless, I’d become a zombie. But restore consciousness, and life is meaningful again. And much of that meaning is about how I could improve my conscious experience if I did such-and-such. That’s free will. It’s what we do for the prospect of improved future conscious experiences. And from experiencing those improvements we know free will can express itself in the necessary physical behavior. For us free will is a part of our experience, more real than reports of our senses or the findings of science. There is almost no overlap between what consciousness and free will mean to us, and the quibbles of scientists over whether or not they can demonstrate free will in someone else’s behavior by one or another experiment.

Need the humanities respond to the physicalist attack on free will? I think so, to stem the spread of a sickly determinism. And that’s what I encourage in maintaining this site. Response could take the form of asking scientists to identify in a purely physical world any parallel to their being able to ask a question, hold in mind two alternative hypotheses, design equipment around experimental requirements, judge their results, even to apply reason. I believe scientists avail themselves of these operations without acknowledging they can arise only in consciousness, even as the same scientists claim their experiments show consciousness to be an illusion.