Why is science talking about freewill?

Science is about the physical reality. Scientists themselves can also think about things outside of physical reality but that is not science. So why is there a trickle of papers dealing with freewill? I ask this because I cannot find anything for freewill to be free-from other then the processes of matter and energy in the nervous system. In other words, freewill is freedom from physical reality. Science concerns itself with what can be actually investigated and it cannot investigate anything that is not physical. Whether freewill exists or not and what it might be like are not scientific questions.

Some (see Brembs paper) would like to make it a scientific question by unilaterally re-defining the word/phrase ‘freewill’. Changing the meanings of words is something that science does fairly often. But in this case it is DANGEROUS. The general media and the anti-neurobiology commentators are not going to warn the public that science has changed the meaning of freewill. They will just point out that science has accepted the spiritual. It would be as dangerous as changing the meaning of ‘intelligent design’ to mean a natural process of optimization. What science has to get across is that the freewill-vs-determinism argument is dead because BOTH ideas are flawed.

Now I hear people say, “you are making me an automaton, you are denying that I make decisions, you are taking away my spontaneity, you are saying that I am not responsible.” Nonsense, you are not an automaton but a living thing. Of course you make decisions and of course you are responsible for the decisions you make. What have these concerns have to do with some non-physical process? Leave the dualism at the door.

Introspection is not reliable – it is a process of educated guesses not direct knowledge. We guess at the world, and test our guesses and make a pretty good working model of the world. That model includes many of our thought processes. Our model of the tree is not the actual tree and likewise, our model of our thought process is not our actual thought process. We guess at our own motivation and we guess at other’s motivation. We know deep down that we can be fooled about our and about other’s motivation. Here is the abstract from a recent paper (Pronin, Kugler). It seems to show that we assume more freewill in ourselves than in others. It could also show that we guess motivation differently in ourselves and others. We may even, on occasion, see the reasons of someone else’s decision more clearly then we see our own decisions.

Abstract: Four experiments identify a tendency for people to believe that their own lives are more guided by the tenets of free will than are the lives of their peers. These tenets involve the a priori unpredictability of personal action, the presence of multiple possible paths in a person’s future, and the causal power of one’s personal desires and intentions in guiding one’s actions. In experiment 1, participants viewed their own pasts and futures as less predictable a priori than those of their peers. In experiments 2 and 3, participants thought there were more possible paths (whether good or bad) in their own futures than their peers’ futures. In experiment 4, participants viewed their own future behavior, compared with that of their peers, as uniquely driven by intentions and desires (rather than personality, random features of the situation, or history). Implications for the classic actor–observer bias, for debates about free will, and for perceptions of personal responsibility are discussed.

 

ResearchBlogging.org
Pronin, E., & Kugler, M. (2010). People believe they have more free will than others Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1012046108
Brembs, B. (2010). Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2325

5 thoughts on “Why is science talking about freewill?

  1. “The general media and the anti-neurobiology commentators are not going to warn the public that science has changed the meaning of freewill. They will just point out that science has accepted the spiritual. It would be as dangerous as changing the meaning of ‘intelligent design’ to mean a natural process of optimization. What science has to get across is that the freewill-vs-determinism argument is dead because BOTH ideas are flawed.”

    This is a very good argument. Scientists have redefined terms before (I have some examples in my article, but I’m sure there are more), but it is difficult and dangerous, as you point out. However, I have not heard a good new term/phrase to replace ‘free will’.

    JK: Thank you for your comment. I have used ‘decision making’ as the phrase, but I agree that it is not ideal to get across the nature or the feel of our motivation and action. I should and probably will now be searching for a good phrase – found or invented.

  2. I just did an explanatory article on the study you cite first. it’s sad to see misleading titles and pictures connected to the articles around the web covering this. Really the study is about predictability and objectivity. Sensational headlines are a bad trend, but it grabs hits. I titled my coverage on Astronasty as “The Insidious Lack of Objectivity Colors Our Perception” I agree with you about the danger involved with sloppy ambiguous adjectives. The hard truth is a lot of people don’t read the articles, much less the sources of the articles. Headline and that’s it, so make it good, but make it accurate, people!

    JK: I have now read your post and although it has a slightly different message than mine, I recommend it to others. http://astronasty.blogspot.com/2010/12/insidious-lack-of-objectivity-colors.html

  3. Janet, (JK) thanks!
    I am hesitant to add links to my own stuff in comments. A lot of people consider that spam. Thanks so much for your recommendation
    Much Respect,
    -DJ Busby

  4. There is a discussion of Dr. Brembs paper at “yahoo groups evolutionary-psychology”.

    JK: Thanks for pointing to an interesting string. The problem with this conversation is that it only occasional gets past the dichotomy between determinacy and freewill. This argument will only generate a lot of heat but no light. Determinacy is a useless idea because it is impossible to use it to predict our decisions. We can believe we are in a causal physical world but believing this does not help because you cannot use it to predict. Therefore you have to actually go through the process of actually making the decision. On the other hand, freewill is also flawed because it is incompatible with a physical world without any spiritual bits floating around. The answer is to discover scientifically exactly what is involved in the process of making a decision – the real physiology of it. The chemical and electrical nitty-gritty. We are no where close to this yet. Science should avoid using the term ‘freewill’ in order not to confuse the general public and get on with the science. Then later they will be able to show people how it is our purely physical system makes its decisions.

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