A Question of Freedom

Can free will be naturalized?

That's one of the questions tackled by CATO Institute's Will Wilkinson and University of Arizona professor Shaun Nichols in a video discussion of "Morality, Psychopathy, and Thomas Jefferson." Like the idea that our biology codes for a universal moral grammar, the suggestion that free will can be traced directly back to a definitive source is a compelling modern idea and one they discuss at some length. A couple of reactions:

One of the things I think I've learned while blogging IF is that emotion is indispensable to thought, and the two reinforce that point: reason without emotion is a pathology. Unappealing and repugnant choices can be made when the only thing at stake is a choice.

On the other hand, too much emotion brings punitive biases into play. Nichols points out that hot-heads can make similarly damaging and hurtful decisions.

Second thought: it seems to me that while we're backward compatible to a natural systems, the result of those systems - free will, agency, sentience - are less so. By that I mean that if simple systems can produce an infinite number of outcomes, the idea of causation is effectively emptied of meaning and working notions of choice and culpability, for example, remain preserved. At one point Nichols says that the notion of causally-determined outcomes seems somehow inadequate. I agree with that suggestion.

The idea that we are free to choose - or not, if you're a hard determinist - is unlikely to be settled anytime soon, but one place you might begin to answer the question for yourself is at the IdeaFestival.

So can free will can be naturalized? My view is that a strong inference, but fewer firm conclusions, can be drawn. A long list of comments follow the archived video discussion at bloggingheads. Check it out.

Wayne