Reframing the debate around free will - from the morass of moral responsibility to a grounding in biological agency

A recent article in the Guardian very nicely summarised “the free will debate”, or at least the more visible parts of it. The debate is a live one as new findings from neuroscience or even fundamental physics are supposedly constantly and cumulatively limiting any scope for free will to possibly exist. The article presents the two most popular positions among scientists and philosophers: free will skepticism and compatibilism, which are championed by influential figures like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. The trouble is, they are by no means the only possible options, and, frankly, neither is convincing or satisfactory, in my view, for many reasons.     First, they often start out with definitions of free will or criteria for what would constitute it that are not just different from each other, but independently highly arguable. Second, both take determinism to be true, as a given. Free will skepticism argues that determinism rules out free will. Compatibilism argues that free wil

Does quantum indeterminism defeat reductionism? (Response to Coel Hellier)

  KM: I’m grateful to Coel Hellier ( @colhellier ) for writing a blogpost in response to one I wrote arguing that if determinism falls, it takes reductionism with it. Rather than expect people to bounce back and forth between these posts, I have pasted Coel’s entire blog and intercalated my responses, in bold, below. For clarity, I have color-coded his excerpts from my original blog in blue: After writing a piece on the role of metaphysics in science, which was a reply to neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell, he pointed me to several of his articles including one on reductionism and determinism. I found this interesting since I hadn’t really thought about the interplay of the two concepts. Mitchell argues that if the world is intrinsically indeterministic (which I think it is), then that defeats reductionism. We likely agree on much of the science, and how the world is, but nevertheless I largely disagree with his article.   Let’s start by clarifying the concepts. Reductionism asserts

Does freedom bubble up from the quantum realm?

I’ve been writing lately (in this article and blogpost , for example) about agency and more specifically about whether neuroscience or basic physics rule out the idea of free will, of organisms like us being able to genuinely make choices based on their own reasons and thus act as causal agents in the world. I’m grateful to Philip Goff for responding to some of these ideas in a recent blogpost and to Philip Ball for continuing the conversation in a post of his own.   I respond to their arguments here and make some more general points along the way. (For convenience, I will refer to the two Philips by their last names, which feels a bit rude, so, sorry, Philips!).    The question that Goff takes up is my claim that fundamental indeterminacy at the quantum level creates some room in which free will can operate . He quotes the following passage, which sums up the argument: “The inherent indeterminacy of physical systems means that any given arrangement of atoms in your brai