6

The Mediocrity Principle, though it had a very specific meaning when it was first stated, is now a more general principle the essence of which is not to assume "a phenomenon is special, privileged, exceptional or even superior".

The Laws of Science are basically laws that matter and energy are seen to follow in nature (the laws of nature). Everything physical follows one or other scientific law of nature (physical determinism)

If we are to entertain the possibility of Free Will we have to demonstrate, because we are physical beings, that we are in some way "special, privileged, exceptional or even superior".

As per the Mediocrity Principle we shouldn't - it's more likely that we're not "special, privileged, exceptional or even superior".

Ergo,

We (probably) don't have free will.


Alternatively, consider a more "explicit" form of my argument:

  1. The mediocrity principle is true

  2. If the mediocrity principle is true then we're not "special, privileged, exceptional, and even superior"

  3. We're not "special, privileged, exceptional, and even superior" [1, 2 modus ponens]

  4. If we're not "special, privileged, exceptional, and even superior" then we're physical and scientific physical laws apply to us

  5. We're physical and scientific physical laws apply to us [3, 4, modus ponens]

  6. If we're physical and scientific physical laws apply to us then determinism is true for us

  7. Determinism is true for us [5, 6 modus ponens]

  8. If determinism is true for us then we don't have free will

  9. We don't have free will [7, 8 modus ponens]

QED

11
  • 2
    Can you tighten the argument and clean it up? How do you link "free will" (however you define it) with "special, privileged..." for example?
    – Frank
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 17:48
  • 2
    Maybe your "newfound" principle is even simpler to explain away free will than Strawson's "infinite regress" argument discussed in this recent post?... Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 17:58
  • 2
    From William James: the fact that you can decide to not believe in Free will is the proof that Free will exists. Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 20:02
  • 1
    (6) is falsified by the Kochen-Specker lemma, or contrapositively by the Bell inequality; there is experimental evidence that some observable properties of the universe are not objectively determinable by hidden local variables. This leads to the Free Will Theorem. Good luck!
    – Corbin
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 13:36
  • 2
    @Corbin I'm not sure we should attempt to reply to such a post with QM - the reason being it gives the impression that physicists have something to say about free will based on results of QM. They may, privately, but no physics program I know studies "free will". There is a mismatch in categories, "free will" is not a topic in physics, and I think it's misleading to make QM say more than it really says. It feeds into layman and media grand generalizations that can feed into an anti-science sentiment (because QM seems to address questions people are passionate about).
    – Frank
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 16:48

8 Answers 8

9

This is a coherent argument, but most of its premises are false. First, laws of science are regularities, not "laws" and all of them are broken. See 'The role of symmetry in fundamental physics', Gross which explains how conservation laws are not universally true.

Second, our universe is not determined. Determinism is untrue for physics, both for classical and quantum physics. See this answer: Deterministic or stochastic universe?

Third, agent causation is not a special case for humans, but is true of all animals. See this reference: 'A Metaphysics for Freedom', Steward.

Also, less central to your thinking, but implicit in your question, is the presumption of the truth of "physicalism". But there is increasing realization among philosophers that physicalism cannot be true. See Amazon review of 'New Problems in Philosophy', Stoljar.

When the assumptions you are working from are not true, your conclusion cannot be considered supported by the argument.

14
  • Not sure why you say that the PNAS reference means that "all of science regularities are broken"? Surely you don't mean that "symmetry breaking" implies that there is something "broken" with the laws of science?
    – Frank
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 19:47
  • @Frank The article notes that all "laws" in physics are just reflections of a symmetry. And specifies that all symmetries spontaneously break, therefore all "laws" will also be spontaneously broken.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 21:40
  • 7
    I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of "symmetry breaking" in physics. Please check out: plato.stanford.edu/entries/symmetry-breaking.
    – Frank
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 22:21
  • 1
    @KristianBerry and Frank, I overstated what my link showed. It is only the CONSERVATION laws that it shows are all broken. The general principle still holds -- all laws in physics are regularities, not unbreakable principles, but my link does not make that stronger claim. I will edit my answer
    – Dcleve
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 23:21
  • 3
    @Dcleve Saying "physical laws are not unbreakable (based on 'symmetry breaking')" shows a complete misunderstanding of "symmetry breaking" as used in physics.
    – Frank
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 17:46
5

Your argument is based on questionable assumptions. The most relevant is the assumption that free will would require humans to be special, privileged etc. The mediocracy principle would suggest not that humans do not have free will, but if they do have free will then the likelihood is that there are other entities in the Universe with free will.

5

There's a quasi-axiom in statistics that I think is far more generally applicable — and useful in this case — to the effect that: "Good assumptions create power; bad assumptions create crap." Assumptions grant us analytic power; literally, the more we can take for granted, the more accurate and detailed our reasoning and analysis can be. But throw an incorrect assumption into the mix and all that analytic power starts to work against us, not merely clouding our results but actively leading us in the wrong direction.

See the Wikipedia article on Type I and Type II errors. It's a typically bad article — e.g., no one in statistics talks about the Null Hypothesis being 'true', since the Null is just a foil used as a comparator for the actual experimental outcomes — but the general idea is that assumptions help us avoid Type I error at the risk of inducing Type II error if our assumptions are wrong.

At any rate, two assumptions made in this argument are questionable. First (and less important) is the assertion that "we are physical beings," offered with an imputation of limited reductionism. This assumption goes well beyond the current state of scientific evidence. We barely have a grasp on the interactions of single particles in simple quantum interactions — enough to know that they don't behave like classical mechanics — so making broad assertions about the complex electro-chemical interactions of the human brain is little better than wild speculation. As speculation it's perfectly fine; as assumed fact it's terribly under-supported. That doesn't exactly contradict your argument, but does leave it open to a damning charge of 'facts not in evidence'.

More significantly, however, your assertion that belief in free will means we must prove "we are in some way 'special, privileged, exceptional or even superior'" is strangely backwards. The common, everyday experience is that humans (and many if not most lower life forms) do experience something like free will. When we stop at an intersection we see ourselves as making a choice whether to go left, right, or straight ahead. We don't think: "well, whichever way I go is the way I was always going to go anyway, so whatever"; we have purposes and plans. More pointedly, we all see ourselves controlling our emotions so that we don't kill every person who ticks us off, and we are all a bit shocked when we hear a murderer say "I couldn't help it; it was out of my control". In fact, we treat murderers of that sort (and anyone who denies that they have a free capacity to make choices) as 'special or exceptional' in a bad way: defective, insane, confused, or merely choosing to lie about their inner state to escape.

A belief in free will is the norm; a belief that we are deterministic philosophical zombies is an esoteric and argumentative position. The Mediocrity Principle should lead us to believe in free will — that unexceptional, experiential, normative assertion — until we have strong, solid evidence to reject it.

6
  • Good points. We do believe we possess free will, it's the norm as you say. The responses against that is too obvious to state; someone as learned as you would know. Much obliged.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 8:35
  • Surely it's about the incoherence of 'unphysical', as per Elizabeth of Bohemia's critique of Cartesian Dualism.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 15:02
  • 1
    @AgentSmith: Often it's useful to state things that are 'too obvious to state'; resting on unspoken truths is problematic. But since I imagine you're critiquing the unreliability of perceptual norms, I'll point out the un-obvious fact that perceptual norms are all we have to work with. Take the obvious examples of the earth seeming flat and the sun seeming to rise in the East. Prior to advances in modern physics, one would be a fool not to believe these perceptions were true; with modern physics one is a fool not to believe these perceptions are false. Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 15:31
  • @AgentSmith: But this isn't magic. Modern physics gave us new ways to perceive: new observations we can make that show us our earlier (more natural) perceptions are incorrect. We don't believe the Earth is spherical just because; we believe the Earth is spherical because we observe the results of physical experiments that could not occur if the Earth were flat. If/when physics gives us observations that put the lie to free will, we will be foolish to believe in free will. But it hasn't come close to doing that yet, not by a long shot, so we'd be fools not to believe in free will. Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 15:39
  • @CriglCragl: Mwah-ha, I haven't thought about Elizabeth of Bohemia in a dog's age; but yes, that's a nice way of framing it. Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 15:41
4

The Mediocrity Principle, like Ockham's Razor, is a guideline, not a rule or principle. It is unwise to assume that something is special, privileged, exceptional or even superior, without evidence.

Nevertheless, it does not mean that there is nothing that is not special, privileged, exceptional or even superior. It means that we have to offer evidence for its extraordinary nature.

For instance, of all the bodies in the Solar System, Earth is special in that it's the only one with an oxidizing atmosphere. This is established by careful inspection of the planets, not by arguing that the Earth has a reducing atmosphere after all, or the Earth doesn't exist, by the Mediocracy Principle.

2
  • 1
    Good points. Have you read Martin Rees? I haven't finished the book but he sure makes a good argument that we are special. A big round of applause to science. Caution! Men at work. 😄
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 8:43
  • Ad interim we may assume earth, life, humans are special, no problem with that! Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson videos.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 8:45
0

Point 6 is non sequitur. Therefore all subsequent points are false.

Being non-exceptional physical beings does not mean that determinism is true.

Being physical beings does not take away our mental capabilities or remove randomness from reality.

Our mental capabilities (including free will) are in no way extraordinary, they are just ordinary everyday business as usual.

3
  • What is the basis for a scientifically sound deterministic philosophy?
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 9:55
  • @AgentSmith There is no such thing as deterministic philosophy. There is no philosophy or any other mental activity in determinism, where everything is determined solely by prior physical events. Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 10:19
  • 🙂 I see. No such philosophy
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 31, 2022 at 12:43
0

As you said, humains are ruled by physical law and determinism. You also assume that freewill have to demonstrate "that we are in some way "special, privileged, exceptional or even superior". So i can suppose that the main underlying question of your theory is about how can humans be special if they are ruled by determinism.

0

I don't think one needs to invoke the mediocrity principle.

Rather, we shouldn't believe things without sufficient justification.

  • We don't have any conclusive evidence of anything apart from deterministic and random processes
  • Deterministic processes don't give rise to "free will", and randomness isn't "free"
  • Thus we're not justified in believing that "free will" exists

We also have plenty of evidence of human consciousness being influenced by the outside (natural) world: genetics influence emotions, upbringing strongly influences personality, various medical conditions can influence how one thinks and brain injuries can fundamentally change personalities overnight (especially when parts of the brain that's linked to certain emotions are injured).

So knowing that consciousness is influenced by the outside world (both before and after birth), and brains are physical objects with internal physical processes, it's just unnecessary to assume there's also something more that drives consciousness.


But note that I didn't say randomness doesn't give rise to "free will", because it might actually strictly speaking fit into the definition of free will, even though acting randomly doesn't really fit into a reasonable definition of freedom.

So the bigger problem here appears to be that there isn't a definition of "free will" (that I've found) that makes much sense, to formalise our intuitive and informal understanding of the concept (which suggests that the concept may be fundamentally flawed, or it's simply varying degrees of immediate influence from the outside world). A commonly-cited definition is roughly "the ability to have acted differently", but assuming you favour a single option above all others, picking anything other than that means you aren't doing what you most want to do, which isn't very free at all. And if you really do favour all options equally, your choice is arbitrary to you, which doesn't seem like it would say much about freedom.

0
  1. The mediocrity principle is true

The mediocrity principle is a heuristic not a hard and fast rule. And it more or less states the obvious that is that rare examples are rare and that if you took a 1 shot approach of picking from a set of variables, it's more likely that you've picked a common one. That tells you nothing about whether or not your choice is rare and it definitely doesn't rule out that rare choices do exist.

But following this principle works in the majority of cases so it's a good rule of thumb it's not suitable to be used in such arguments though, as what follows from it is at best again a heuristic not a certainty.

  1. If the mediocrity principle is true then we're not "special, privileged, exceptional, and even superior"

We shouldn't assume we are, but we still could be. Also it reduces the general applicability of rules quite significantly if all you deal with are edge cases, so yeah it makes sense to not assume you're an edge case until that is proven to be the case by more observations. So again good heuristic not a rule.

  1. We're not "special, privileged, exceptional, and even superior" [1, 2 modus ponens]

Can't deduce with certainty from a heuristic, so no that does not follow.

  1. If we're not "special, privileged, exceptional, and even superior" then we're physical and scientific physical laws apply to us

Also the laws of physics aren't hard and fast rules but heuristics based on patterns of observation. Breaking them is not generally impossible and has been done before, however it would likely result in a paradigm shift or would hint at special cases either of the event that broke them or maybe we're just living in an edge case. Either way breaking them would mean that something we took for granted doesn't work that way.

Also we ARE physical beings in the sense that our existence can be detected, measured and quantified by physical means and our bodies can be described by science.

But it's not that physics mandates a determinism, it's rather the other way around, in that it's a good idea to assume one, because if things happen arbitrary and without patterns we're out of luck describing and making sense of them. But science is descriptive not prescriptive, it can make predictions but they are assumptions not certainties, because they are reasoned starting from shaky grounds. So they are internally valid (or could and should be), but it's not certain that they are sound and science doesn't claim otherwise.

  1. We're physical and scientific physical laws apply to us [3, 4, modus ponens]

We are but that doesn't follow from 3 and 4 but rather from the fact that a description of us by science is somewhat successful.

  1. If we're physical and scientific physical laws apply to us then determinism is true for us

We'd assume that to be the case and the rag doll physics for our corpses seem to work well, but that's still insufficient to cast a judgement.

  1. Determinism is true for us [5, 6 modus ponens]

It's not entirely unreasonable in some domains, but insufficient to draw that conclusion.

  1. If determinism is true for us then we don't have free will
  2. We don't have free will [7, 8 modus ponens]

Apparently even that wouldn't convince philosophers who invented compatibilism.

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