Who’s NOT Wrong About Free Will?

George Ellis, Emeritus Professor of Complex Systems and Applied Mathematics, co-author of Stephen Hawking, and (IMO less auspiciously) winner of the 2004 Templeton Prize for reconciling science and religion has written a recent Aeon Essay explaining “why so many physicists are wrong about free will”, and has received an unsolicited rebuttal from Jerry Coyne. I haven’t yet read Coyne’s response but here’s my response to Ellis:

I have two comments.
The first is that the top down effect of my thought processes on subsequent mental activities and actions does not preclude the possibility of purely causal and/or random dependence of those thought processes on earlier purely physical factors. (Even if perhaps through a long chicken and egg sequence of immediately prior physical brain factors depending on earlier thoughts depending on earlier physical factors back to the moment of my first awakening – but never with any need to introduce anything other than purely causal and/or random explanations)
The second, and in my opinion more important objection is to your pessimistic conclusion that without something other than deterministic causality and pure randomness “We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way” and “responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture”. Since you have not established with any certainty that there is anything other than deterministic causality and pure randomness, that would indeed be a devastating conclusion. But fortunately we can be grateful that it is false. Not because we are not largely deterministic, but rather because we are.
The key is in the word “responsibility” which, interpreted on the basis of its structure, suggests ability to respond to a correction. This justifies censure and even maybe punishment, not on the basis of some abstract divine judgement, but because they work. And they work because we do respond to stimuli in some at least partly predictable way.

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