My rabid pro-Leibniz partisanship notwithstanding, I have to give kudos to Thomas Levenson for his article on the faith of Isaac Newton over at Killing the Buddha. The article closes with a somber reminder:

Hence the pathos, the danger that I think Newton himself glimpsed. There is a serious discussion to be had on the meaning of faith in the context of modern science. But from the beginning, even in the hands of the perhaps the greatest believing scientist in history, it was already clear where the peril lies in the attempt to recruit science in defense of God. Once you admit the authority of scientific accounts of nature, you must live with the consequences of what you do and do not discover in such investigations. Newton was able to persuade himself that the fault with his alchemy lay with his powers of inquiry and not with the overwhelming God to whose service he had dedicated himself. It did not take long for those in the Newtonian tradition to entertain the alternative hypothesis.

I’ve long been interested in the ways in which philosophers of science try to “split the difference” by accepting the authority of science in some domains but not in others. This can be done in more or less helpful ways. One place where people are particularly prone to do it in a less-helpful way is the old issue of free will vs. determinism. Here’s Noah Millman at the American Scene :
there’s really no room for the concept of an independent entity possessed of “will” in a worldview shaped by cause and effect; the only place for “will” to retreat to is the zone of true randomness, of complete uncertainty, which means that truly free will as such must be completely inscrutible [sic] . . . Statistical laws govern the decay of a block of uranium, but whether or not this atom of uranium chooses to fission in this instant is a completely unpredictable event – fundamentally unpredictable, something which simply cannot be known – which is equally good evidence for the proposition that it’s God’s (or the atom’s) will whether it splits or remains whole, as for the proposition that it’s random chance. The choice of one or the other interpretation has everything to do with our emotional response to the event (and, hence, to the universe), and nothing to do with making accurate predictions (the latter being the proper business of science).

This represents, quite frankly, an unconscionable defeatism. As I’ve written before, the trouble with what I take to be his perspective is that it shrinks the box in which free will can operate to a very small one indeed. Seeing the locus of free will in randomness means that every advance in quantum mechanics, cognitive neuroscience or behavioral economics means a further defeat for free will. To counter the microtubules and/or thermodynamics response, I’d just point out that the corrsepondence principle deals the whole Penrose argument a pretty shocking setback if what we’re really caring about is prediction. Besides, do we actually want to rely upon the scientifically AND metaphysically suspect Copenhagen interpretation when it comes to mounting a spirited and intellectually serious defense of the idea of free will?

The holy grail for those who want to preserve the idea of free will is a rigorous articulation of the proposition that mere prediction does not imply the lack of freedom (or, perhaps, a lack of the meaningful kind of freedom, since we all mean different things when we talk about “free will” anyway).

Millman is correct that the business of science is in making predictions. The catch is that venturing towards either extreme in our views on the relationship between observation/prediction and underlying reality leads to serious trouble. Collapsing the distinction between the two leads to a stale materialism, while preserving a radical seperation leads to the kind of epistemological despair that permeates bad pomo philosophy of science and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

What do we do from here? One possibility is to circle back and face squarely the problem I raised at the start of this post. We can argue for collapsing observation/prediction and reality in certain domains and not in others. In my opinion, Christopher Norris comes the closest to doing this in a convincing way,  but I remain troubled by his account. My preferred approach is to reintroduce into science and into philosophy of science the concept of explanation . I’ll flesh out what this means, and why it’s troublesome and far from straightforward, in a later post.

Articles by Will Wilson

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