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More on John Searle and Free Will

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A reader objects to my post, “John Searle on Free Will.” The reader cites Searle’s books Rationality in Action and Freedom and Neurobiology, contending that he is in fact a defender of free will, and consequently that we owe Searle an apology. However, I stand by what I wrote.

Here’s a quote from Searle in a print interview on this topic:

If forced to choose today on the basis of the evidence we have, we would choose the hypothesis that suggests that free will is an illusion.

Searle does this a lot. He has done some very fine work — he is probably the most accomplished opponent of strong AI and of the notion that computation is thinking. But he has a propensity to undertake quite thoughtful analyses of philosophical problems, and then arrive at a witless conclusion only remotely connected to his analysis.

His book Mind: A Brief Introduction is a good example. He gives a nice review of the strengths and weaknesses of various theories of mind, excoriates materialism, properly raises the problems with Cartesian dualism, ignores hylemorphism, and then proposes “biological naturalism” to explain the mind. People are still trying to figure out what “biological naturalism” means. “Biological naturalism” is essentially the materialism he excoriates, with emergence thrown in ad hoc. After a thoughtful and often incisive analysis, he seems to conclude that “the brain does the mind, and someday we’ll figure it out with science.” Profound.

I haven’t read Rationality in Action, so I can’t comment on it. From the interview in print and on YouTube (click on the image above to watch it), Searle clearly believes that free will is probably wrong and gives quite a bit of credence to determinism, which is reason to excoriate him.

A further thought on Searle and free will. Note that the three defenses of free will that I listed are obvious points that any informed and minimally thoughtful person would raise.

(1) Determinism (understood as the presence of local hidden variables) is dead in physics, and has been convincingly refuted over the past two decades. If there is any “consensus” in science, it is the consensus that there are no local hidden variables and that Einstein was wrong in his EPR paper. Nature is not deterministic. A (very few) physicists hold out for non-local hidden variables via idiosyncratic cosmological theories that would rescue determinism, but they are not taken seriously. “Nature is non-deterministic” is the current state of physics, and that seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

(2) Denial of free will is self-refuting. If we are determined by chemicals, there is no reason to take the opinions of chemical soups seriously, because chemical reactions produce products, not propositions.

(3) Abstract thought is obviously immaterial, as I (and all of the classical philosophers and a number of modern philosophers) have argued for some time now. Free will is entirely compatible with immaterial powers of the soul such as intellect and will. It is in the immateriality of the will that we are free.

Note that Searle addresses none of these obvious issues. He doesn’t even seem to be aware of them.

I must say that of all of the active controversies in philosophy of mind today, the discussion of free will is the most witless. The errors and just plain ignorance of these very basic issues is remarkable. It’s a sad commentary on philosophers and scientists and on the state of our public intellectual discourse.

The denial of free will is a psychiatric, not philosophical, issue.

Photo: John Searle via YouTube.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.