Response to David Didau’s post ‘What causes behaviour’

Unfortunately, I think that David Didau’s last post contained a number of grave confusions.

  1. DD conflates the ‘nature vs nurture’ argument with the ‘free will vs determinism’ argument.

The ‘nature vs nurture’ argument assumes the principle of sufficient reason – i.e. that everything has a cause/explanation. The question is whether nature or nurture is more powerful.

The ‘free will vs determinism’ argument is (in part) about whether the principle of sufficient reason is actually a valid principle.

  1. The idea that ‘Free Will is nothing but a convenient and pervasive illusion’ is superstitious nonsense – the very opposite of science.

The article that DD links to has, amongst its arguments, the sentence, ‘Nothing in the universe “goes beyond” the laws of physics’ – this is a meaningless phrase at best. The idea that everything occurs according to the laws of physics is, to paraphrase Popper, either a logical proposition, in which case it is merely a definition of ‘the laws of physics’ as ‘that according to which everything occurs’, and it tells us nothing about the nature of free will; or it is an empirical proposition, in which case it is as yet unproven since we have not yet taken a census of every event that has taken place! (The same holds for the human body – until we have a tested theory for how, for example, the brain works, to say ‘we do not have free will’ is unproven. [And given that ‘free will’ is essentially unfalsifiable, i.e. an account of the human body that is full enough to eliminate all potential ‘gods/souls of the gaps’ would require science to be complete, I am tempted to say that its denial is, ab initio, unprovable, and therefore not appropriate subject matter for science.]

If the notion of ‘the laws of nature’ concerns something empirical, then they are not prescriptive they are descriptive. They are simply our best attempt at describing what has happened, along with our best guesses at what will happen. They are not a prescription of what must happen. Consider how Newton’s description of the gravitational field was shown to be faulty by that of Einstein. Physics is not complete! The superstition here is the belief that the laws of nature will someday be complete, and therefore we must all be acting in accordance with what will someday be written down.

  1. Were it true that ‘free will is nothing but a convenient and pervasive illusion’ then DD would be contradicting himself when he says that, ‘…of course, science cannot ever meaningfully comment on what values we should hold or how we ought to act’.

By denying free will, science would already have commented upon the values we hold and how we ought to act in that it would have rendered the whole notion of morality nonsensical. If somebody’s actions are determined by laws, then their actions are in theory entirely predictable, in which case that person cannot be held morally responsible for what they do since their actions did not originate with them. Ted Honderich (2015) argues that according to this logic, we are not responsible for our actions and therefore have no ‘free will’: ‘…on every occasion when we act, we can only act as in fact we do. It follows too that we are not responsible for our actions …’ (p,187).

  1. Finally, the following sentence causes me a degree of concern: ‘If you dismiss the scientific method then there are no grounds for your beliefs to be questioned’.

Firstly, it depends what one means by ‘scientific method’ – this is not a settled argument, and so it is entirely plausible that someone might dismiss a version of the scientific method. Secondly, there is a terrible danger that, reading this sentence, one might confuse ‘scientific method’ with some form of foundationalism, or objectivity. We cannot, of course, be absolutely objective (since we cannot see things from a God’s eye view), we can, however, by accounting for more variables and qualifying our statements more, become more objective. Science is a collection of practices, it is what scientists do; it is not foundational, or undeniable, nor can it be until it is finished. Thirdly, what this statement appears to miss is that there exist (especially in psychology) experimental methods and conceptual confusions. An experiment may well be conducted accurately and diligently, yet be built upon entirely confused concepts – thus the outcomes of carrying out these methods having nothing to do with the problem that was initially troubling us. I think that quasi-scientific attempts to discuss ‘free will’ may be one such issue.


2 thoughts on “Response to David Didau’s post ‘What causes behaviour’”

  1. Odd response.

    1. No, I’m not conflating anything. Both are respectable intellectual positions and neither depends on the other to be probably correct.
    2. Sorry you don’t like that article. I’ve replaced the link with one of my own posts 🙂
    3. That’s seems awfully like “nuance of the connoisseur”
    4. What version of the scientific method supports your grave concerns? The “terrible danger” you mention is not one that have ever occurred to me – I don’t think it would occur to anyone who wasn’t striving to dismiss the scientific method. *Of course* experiments can be conceptually confused. So what? Denying the possibility that science can provide valid answers is quackery of the worst kind. Have you read Dennett on free will? His position pretty much sums up what I thinks is true: there is no free will but it makes sense to act as if there is:


  2. 1. My point was that you treat the two as if they are the same argument when they are not. For example, you write a sentence in support of Nature, followed by one dismissing Free Will:
    ‘Moreover, adopted siblings raised together will be no more similar than random strangers. Free will, it would appear, is nothing but a convenient and persuasive fiction.’
    2. Yes, that’s certainly better than the article you linked to previously, though the ‘determined does not mean inevitable’ line (I assume from Dennett) is pretty meaningless if you then conclude that free will is an illusion.
    It is a meaningful line if one accepts that one’s logic is domain and practice dependent, but if one still insists on being a materialist and assuming that everything has a ’cause’, then it isn’t – i.e. If my biology determines that I be tall, it is of course true that it is not inevitable that I become tall – an accident might somehow stunts my growth, for example. But my height is still determined, just not by the same cause. Laplace’s demon would still have known my final height.)
    3. No it’s not. I can assure you that I am not trying to insinuate the I am a connoisseur that appreciates a pointless nuance – it is a logical point. If we have no free will, then our decisions don’t originate with us, hence it would then not be possible to say that science can’t comment on morality.
    4. Yes, I don’t agree with Dennett’s views. I think that he has lots of interesting things to say, and I think that his ‘determined =/= inevitable’ line (along with his ‘intentional stance) hints at the right issue, i.e. that the debate involves the sublimation of the logic of our language, its removal from everyday practices to places it won’t go. But in my view he still repeatedly sublimes the logic of our language himself… but that’s a much longer post.

    Liked by 1 person

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