Confusion Over Compatibilism and Determinism
In a recent post, I discussed the logical incoherency of libertarian free will. Some of the commentary that followed included discussion of scientific findings that provide strong evidence for the deterministic nature of human decision-making. Papalinton cited some articles that discuss neurological evidence of the illusory nature of libertarian free will. Keith Rozumalski dismisses the neurological evidence and counters that many materialists are compatibilists, apparently without realizing that the neurological evidence for determinism is entirely consistent with compatibilism, which is, after all, a form of determinism. Compatibilism is the philosophical position that despite the deterministic nature of our decision-making processes, we are still responsible for our own choices, as long as those choices are not coerced.
It is apparent that this discussion has split into two tracks, with one talking about evidence for determinism, and the other focusing more on the moral aspect of free will, but at the same time, thinking that that is a refutation of determinism, which it is not. Finally, Keith cited a recent finding that many peer-reviewed studies in psychology could not be replicated. It turns out that one of those studies related to beliefs about free will. Keith mistakenly proclaims:
So, this great proof that free will is an illusion, which was very similar to the one you mentioned, isn't even reproducible. This just bolsters my point that there is no defeater for my intuition that I freely make decisions.There are a few important points to be noted in this article:
First, this is a good opportunity to get in a plug for science. The article Keith cited is an example of how science works. As I have said many times, every scientific theory or finding is tentative, and subject to being disproved. Of course there will always be examples of scientific studies that employ faulty methodology, or the data is faked or misrepresented, or there is some other flaw that invalidates it, or it simply can't be replicated. In the long run, those flaws will be exposed. The great strength of scientific method is that it is self-correcting. That's what sets it apart from any other philosophical endeavor. For example, no matter how badly flawed a theistic philosophical argument might be, there is no retraction, and no corrective mechanism. If somebody disputes it, that only results in a difference of opinion, not a movement within the broader community to expunge the flawed work.
Second, the findings in this article do not disprove any of those studies. At best, they call the methodology into doubt. It will require further research and experimentation to either confirm or reject any of those studies. The most likely eventual outcome is that some of those studies may be withdrawn, and others will stand. That's science at work.
Third, only one of the studies called into question was related to free will. But it had nothing to do with confirming or refuting determinism. Rather, it was a study about the psychological effects of believing in determinism. So even if this study is rejected as being invalid, that does absolutely nothing to weaken the scientific evidence for determinism, or to bolster the position of free will advocates.
Fourth, there are still many scientific findings that support the case for determinism, and they haven't been called into question. Some of this evidence was pointed out by Papalinton, but there's much more. In fact the evidence for materialistic determinism is so strong, that there is very little dispute within the scientific community about it. It's rather like evolution theory. Plenty of evidence to support the scientific consensus, and it's mostly people outside the scientific community who don't understand it and still try to insist that some supernatural explanation works better.
Finally, I need to repeat to Keith that he seems to be confused. He associates compatibilsm with free will, and determinism with fatalism. Since this kind of confusion seems to be common among theists, I'll try to explain once again. The term "free will" has different meanings. Most theists believe they have libertatian free will, which implies a lack of material causation. The believer in libertatian free will thinks that a person can make choice A or choice B with nothing in his brain or his body determining what that choice will be. Given the identical circumstances and brain states, he can choose A one time, and B another time, because it is only the immaterial soul that makes the choice. The determinist thinks that circumstances and brain states determine the outcome. So, given the identical circumstances and brain states, he will always choose A.
There are some, especially theists, who believe that determinism implies a lack of moral responsibility. To them, it seems that if if determinism is true, then we are all just billiard balls being knocked around by external forces beyond our control, and lacking any morality or responsibility for what we do. This is referred to as "fatalism". The fatalist believes that outcomes are fixed, and he has no power to change them, and no responsibility for what happens. Very few people are fatalists. But most actual determinists have a different perspective. They understand that we are more than just billiard balls. We have big brains capable of thinking about the consequences of our choices, and we choose not to abdicate responsibility for those choices. Yes, our choices are determined by our brain states, but that doesn't mean that we have no control. Because we can contemplate our actions, we can still take moral responsibility for what we do. In doing so, we can and do influence our own brain states. This is referred to as "compatibilism". Compatibilism is determinism that is compatible with moral responsibility. Is this free will? In a sense, it is. As long as we are not coerced, we are free to let our own brain states make the choice. But that's still determinism. And it is definitely not fatalism. I discussed this topic in an earlier post, but it bears repeating.
In this discussion, I have picked on a single individual who has a confused understanding of determinism and free will. But it is quite common for theists to have this misunderstanding. That's why you always hear theists saying ridiculous things like "atheists have no morality" or "materialism is just matter in motion". They deny that the thinking brain can influence our behavior or make moral choices. But the evidence still says otherwise.