Re: Answer to Eugenie Scott's views

Dick Fischer (
Wed, 25 Mar 1998 02:05:32 -0600

Dear Will, you wrote:

>How can one be anything, believer or nonbeliever, and not believe in free will?

That wasn't the question. What or who pushes the buttons impeding our
ability to make free, uncoerced choices? I can make free choices because
God doesn't impose his will on me, Will. If you, a self-avowed atheist,
are somehow restrained from exercising your free will, what or who is
the restraining agent?

>Women care less because traditionally their lives are more
>determined by circumstances, so not having free will is not as bad for them.
>One of my students organized a grand conference on free will here at Cornell.

I hope that student wasn't a woman!

The speakers were Richard Boyd and Carl Ginet from the Philosophy Department,
>David Levitsky from Dept. of Nutrition, John Hopfield, Physicist from Cal Tech,
>and me. Moderator was Carl Sagan. The philosophers favored free will, though
>Carl Ginet's position has become more complex now as he approaches
>incompatibility between free will and determinism. David Levitsky is an expert
>in drug addiction and the nutrition problems that result from it, and he hates
>the idea of human free will. Hopfield was sure free will was impossible from
>the view of physics--all the indeterminacies of physics were pretty well damped
>out in human minds and would not give free will in any case. I argued against
>free will, of course, from the perspective of modern biology.

Of course I have no say over the circumstances that brought me into existence.
If that's the argument, I toss in the towel. Many things that happened in 15
billion years predating my birth date were deterministic in some respects to
my physical body. But that's not the conventional way we think of free will.
Free will involves choices. We can't select our physical bodies even if we
can alter them a little.

>To answer your question: biological organisms result from a combination of
>genetics and environment. Both are totally deterministic. I think of organisms
>as locally determined, meaning that nothing more is claimed about cosmic
>determinism, etc. Determinism need not be a silly version so easily attacked,
>but reasonably sophisticated determinism. Then free will becomes
>unintelligible. It makes no sense at all in an organism determined by heredity
>and environment and their terribly complex interaction.

No argument from me. Up until it's born no critter has a choice about anything.
I doubt any of the luminaries you mentioned put up any fuss about that.

>The horrid spectacle of our movie stores jammed with revenge movies to the
>gills befits our belief in a nonexistent free will.

I'm sorry, this point is lost on me.

>But I know that virtually no one on this list might be convinced by a far
>longer argument. So can I join with Christians who believe totally in human
>free will, given by a kindly God who knew that we humans would ask why we did
>such bad things (then it was our fault), but who also follow Christ's teaching
>that a bad person deserved forgiveness and rehabilitation. Maybe you also
>believe that our system of criminal treatment and punishment is a moral
>travesty, and we can work together, non-believers in free will and believers.

Now here the argument that we can't affect the circumstances causing our coming
into physical existence digresses into a so therefore argument that we
aren't responsible for our actions. You and Phil Johnson are closer
together in your
methods of reasoning than you think you are.

And why do we have morals at all if we didn't learn them from a moral God?
Who sets a better example of how to live our lives than Christ? If your
intellectual acumen and your academic standing prohibits you from accepting
the reality of God, then let the value of His teachings at least arouse you
to the possibility of God. That will move you from atheist to agnostic.
With agnostics
at least we have a chance.

Dick Fischer