the free will talk

I hit up the Socrates Cafe again last week.  I was really looking forward to this topic -- do we have free will?  I was interested in the discussion but I had an agenda as well.  I wanted to find an answer to a related question I had.  Jargon-free my question is this.  Is it possible for people to have free will without a soul?

But before we go there, here's dinner.

I hit up a place that my friend Jessica recommended.  The tacos were good (I also had a grilled fish taco) but I think I was a bit out of place there.  The menu had about 10 choices while the tequila menu had about 100.  Plus I heard the homemade mole was good but was not available that night.  I ordered a diet coke instead of tequila and received a can - a sure sign that the refills will not be free.  So I quickly finished up and headed over to Lestats.

Back to the topic at hand.  I know it might be boring but I have to cover some terms for the discussion to make sense.  Skip down to "Let's restate my question" if you're versed in this kind of stuff.


Dualism: the belief that living beings (maybe just people, maybe all) have souls in addition to their bodies.  These souls are not physical and can't be detected by any physical instruments. I reside here, informed by my moderate-to-liberal evangelical beliefs

Materialism: the opposing view to dualism (for this discussion). The only thing that exists is the physical.  I don't mean to reduce to the absurd here, materialists can believe in dark energy, numbers, precepts, love, etc.

Determinism: everything that happens, including the decisions we make, are a result of what has happened in the past.  Think of a mechanical clock with its gears winding to its inevitable conclusion.  Similarly, the signals travelling the neurons in your brain are all moving in a certain direction which is a result of what has happened in the past.  And they will continue to move forward in the future according to where they are now.  If we could model appropriately and do enough math, we could predict everything including the future course of humanity.  This view has interesting implications with regards to responsibility, criminal justice, etc.

Free Will: the opposite of determinism.  We humans have the capacity to make choices from the mundane (how many tacos will I eat) to the significant (what career should I pursue).

Compatibalism: the belief that some forms of determinism and free will can coexist

Consequentialism: the deterministic concept that we should teach philosophy in schools to make society better

Note that I am defining these terms more tightly than is often accepted (as we used them in our discussion).  For more subtle definitions, check out the wikipedia article on free will or the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

In addition to confusion in terminology, there was a lot of confusion between determinism and human nature during the discussion which muddied a lot of the arguments.

Let's restate my question

Now that we have some terms, here it is.  Is it possible that free will could exist in a materialistic framework?  I heard two explanations of the affirmative.

#1: What we call the soul is actually a description of the animating force that all plants and animals share.  But it is not distinct from the body, it's just a name.

Usually, when we think of causality, it's describing an event-to-event situation.  Event A causes event B which causes the next event and so on.  But in fact, there is another kind of causality called entity-to-action.  We (entities) cause actions to happen.  Entities can exercise this kind of causality which is not the same as event-to-event causality.

Response to #1: To be fair to the proponent of this view, I didn't press him to go further.  But what he laid out there is what philosophers call "begging the question."  In other words, the answer above says that we have free will because as living organisms we by definition have that capability.  Thus, he did not prove anything.

#2: Because consciousness has the ability to self-reflect, we see the emergent capacity to "break the chain" of causality.  In other words the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (free will is an emergent property of the brain).  Put yet another way, self-reflection creates a "feedback loop" that can disrupt the linear causality chain.  This disruption breaks the determinism that we would otherwise suffer from.  As I write this, I wonder does this mean that philosophers, who self-reflect more often have "more" free will than lesser thinking people?

The proponent of this admits that he has taken a leap of faith (not his words) that the description above is accurate.

Response to #2: This is definitely a better explanation than #1.  I could uncharitably rephrase it as "the brain is a black box from which free will emerges."  But it makes some sense.  While my mechanism for free will has a name (the soul) and something of an explanation, it's still unprovable.  A leap of faith if you will.  Of course by faith I claim that I didn't just make it up, it was revealed to me.  My conversation partner as a materialist would not accept my revelation.  And that's cool.  I can't objectively say that my view is more likely than his.  Nor can he say so.

So there we go.  I ahem, decided to try Greek Cod Cakes for dinner tonight.  Like the commentors, I had a hard time getting them to stick together.  They were still fantastic.  I'll try some modifications next time and take pictures if it works.