Book Club: Scientific Metaphysics, 5, Causation, free will, and naturalism

Philosophy as a Way of Life
9 min readNov 19, 2021
[image: the difference between causation and correlation, Wikimedia]

The standard story about free will is that if one is a naturalist (i.e., no gods and such stuff) and takes seriously the notion of cause and effect, then free will is an illusion. But does the standard story stand up to a bit of critical scrutiny? Let’s find out by discussing the last chapter of Scientific Metaphysics, a volume edited by Don Ross, James Ladyman, and Harold Kincaid that positions itself as an alternative to the sort of analytic metaphysics that has given us philosophical zombies, panpsychism, and a lot of other nonsense. (See parts one, two, three, and four of this series.)

The author of the chapter entitled “Causation, free will, and naturalism” is Jenann Ismael, currently at Columbia University. While the chapter discusses free will within the context of Newtonian mechanics, Ismael’s arguments apply just as well if we move to a model of the universe that is described by General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

The so-called problem of free will, writes Ismael, arises because the laws of nature allow — in theory — our actions to be predicted if we know the conditions that were in place at the beginning of the universe. The fact that we actually don’t know what those conditions were is irrelevant, the point remains. Incidentally, this is precisely the same reasoning you get from philosophical dilettantes who pontificate about free will without knowing what they are talking about, like author Sam Harris, physicist Lawrence Krauss, or biologist Jerry Coyne.

Ismael reminds us, however, that what we’ve learned from science about the very concept of causality undermines the “folk” (i.e., everyday, commonsense) conception of causality, which makes discussions of free will a bit more interesting and the conclusion not at all a slam dunk. Her chapter uses the issue of causation and free will as a model of what happens when one moves from analytic metaphysics (which is based on folk concepts) to scientific metaphysics (where the relevant concepts originate from the practice of science).

The first thing Ismael does is to give us a capsule history of the notion of causation. Obviously, some intuitive grasp of the notion is necessary for our survival, because establishing relations of cause-effect may make a…

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at