Poor Arguments for Free Will

The New York Times article, Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice, makes arguments that are so bad, I’m surprised it got past the editors.

The author, John Tierney starts out by showing that there are proven benefits to believing in free will.

“[People] pragmatically intuit that regardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone’s believing it does. The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in other research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.”

Tierney expands on this and cites a number of other examples that accurately prove this irrelevant fact. The benefits of believing in an idea do not amount to evidence for its truth.

His second argument is that people have a default assumption across cultures and around the world that we do have free will.

“That belief seems to persist no matter where people grow up, as experimental philosophers have discovered by querying adults in different cultures, including Hong Kong, India, Colombia and the United States. Whatever their cultural differences, people tend to reject the notion that they live in a deterministic world without free will”.

I, too, feel as though I have free will. But the related belief, no matter how broadly shared, does not constitute evidence that free will actually exists.

From Tierney’s concluding paragraph:

“Some scientists like to dismiss the intuitive belief in free will as an exercise in self-delusion — a simple-minded bit of “confabulation,” as Crick put it. But these supposed experts are deluding themselves if they think the question has been resolved. Free will hasn’t been disproved scientifically or philosophically.”

Perhaps it has not been disproved scientifically, but this is an argument from ignorance, a logical fallacy that suggests an argument must be true if it has not been proven false. It has, in fact, been philisophically proven false by Galen Strawson and others.

Tierney has suggested that we should believe in something because it’s good for us and makes intuitive sense. I think belief requires strong evidence or a solid argument for the truth of a position. Niether of  Tierney’s reasons can be considered strong or solid, and the publication of his article in the Times makes me wonder if there are any decent arguments at all for the existence of free will.