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Big Questions Topic Update – December 2016-2017

“Science leaves no room for free will.”

The Burden of Proof and the “leaves no room” Clause of the Topic

By design, Big Questions debate places a burden of proof on both sides of the topic. On the present topic, this means that the affirmative must prove that science leaves no room for free will, and the negative must prove that science does leave room for free will. As debaters on each side have a burden to provide proof for a proposition, the negative ought not win merely by providing reasons to doubt that the affirmative has met their burden of proof. Instead, Big Questions debate intends for judges to apply a balancing test in adjudicating debates: the judge should vote for the side that has provided the better justification—“better” in comparison to the justifications provided by the other side—for endorsing their position on the topic. For example, if a judge believes that the affirmative has provided better reasons for thinking that science leaves no room for free will than the negative has provided for thinking that it does not, then they should vote for the affirmative, even if the negative has raised compelling concerns that the affirmative’s justifications do not prove absolutely that science leaves no room for free will.

That is how things are intended to work, in principle anyway. In practice, however, certain types of negative arguments on this topic—in particular, arguments that make use of the “leaves no room” clause of the topic—end up pushing the boundaries of the intended burden structure, subtly minimizing the negative’s burden of proof. Obviously, this poses a strategic problem for the affirmative. Here, I will consider an example of this type of argument, explain the difficulties that it raises, and explore ways that the argument could be improved by the negative and addressed by the affirmative.

The Problem

A common argument forwarded by the negative side on our topic proceeds as follows. The negative points out that the topic asks the affirmative to prove that science leaves no room for free will, rather than to merely show there is some scientific evidence that appears (given our best information at the moment) to be incompatible with free will. The negative might then illustrate the difference between proving these two things by pointing to cases in the history of science where we thought that we had good evidence for a conclusion, only to discover later that the information we had did not really warrant that conclusion—for example, perhaps our experiments had unrecognized methodological flaws, we misunderstood what the experiments were testing, or the data gathered was open to alternative interpretations that we did not consider. Science is an evolving investigation. What makes it powerful as a method of explaining and understanding the universe is not that it is immune to error, but that it is self-correcting (sometimes slowly), so that out of a history of error, it allows us to slowly catch glimpses of truth. So, it is not particularly difficult for the negative to find examples that suit the purposes of their argument. Call this the “simple” argument for negating on our topic.

Where does the “simple” argument leave us? At first blush, it appears that it makes it quite tricky for the affirmative to win a debate. It seems that even a well argued affirmative constructive, packed with the best available evidence, will be susceptible to the “simple” objection: despite all of the affirmative’s argument and evidence, we cannot say that science leaves no room for free will. After all, even apparently firm scientific conclusions are provisional. They can, and not infrequently are, corrected, overturned, or revised. The ever present possibility of error and correction makes room for the possibility that there is free will, even if present scientific conclusions appear to show that there is no free will.

However, I do not think that the “simple” argument needs to be as devastating for the affirmative as it seems to be, at least not if the affirmative takes appropriate steps to defend against it. Below, I consider some ways that the affirmative might address the “simple” argument, and I also briefly suggest ways that the negative might improve upon the “simple” argument in order to make it more sophisticated.

Affirmative Considerations

One could imagine the affirmative pointing out in response to the “simple” argument that it does not satisfy the negative’s burden of proof in the debate. This would be to advance a claim using the analysis of burdens in Big Questions debate outlined above: the “simple” argument casts doubt on whether the affirmative has fully met its burden of proof, but it does not appear to offer positive justification in its own right that the negative has met its burden of showing that science does leave room for free will. This response raises a reasonable point for consideration, but I’d like to suggest that it is risky for the affirmative to allow the round to hang on this point. The reason is that there is a crucial ambiguity in the negative’s burden: one might say that the “simple” argument does satisfy the negative’s burden by offering a reason why, whatever the current state of scientific knowledge, science necessarily still leaves room for free will. Is that reason merely defensive, or does it establish that room for free will remains? This is the ambiguity. Combatting that ambiguity in a definitive way therefore requires that the affirmative consider additional, substantive responses to the “simple” argument. Here are two points worth considering on the affirmative.

First, the affirmative might argue that, while it is true that the current state of our scientific knowledge is provisional (open to revision and reformulation upon the presentation of new evidence), it does not follow from this that science does not genuinely allow us to know anything. The negative’s argument depends on conflating these two points, since the “simple” argument moves directly from one to the other, arguing roughly: “what we take to be scientific knowledge now could be revised tomorrow, so we cannot say that we know that science leaves no room for free will.” Accordingly, the affirmative’s task is to make a distinction between, on the one hand, correctly noting the obvious fact that the current state of our scientific knowledge is provisional, and on the other hand, concluding from this that we should not take scientific evidence to establish definitive conclusions.

This is all fairly abstract, but we could approach it through observations of how we speak to each other in ordinary conversations. Consider an example situation. Suppose that I have just been into a classroom and spoken with the people inside of that room. I leave the room and you then ask me whether Sally was present in the room. I tell you that Sally was indeed in the room, that she was sitting at a desk, and that I spoke to her for a few minutes. At this point, in any normal circumstances, you would say that I know that Sally was in the room and that you now know too, since I have told you as much. That is, supposing that you have no reason to think I am insane or a habitual liar, I will have established for myself and for you some knowledge about Sally’s location. Nevertheless, if someone asked us, we would have to admit that this knowledge is provisional: for example, it is possible, even though farfetched, that I underwent a seizure when I entered that classroom, causing me to hallucinate an interaction with Sally, who was in fact not in the room at all. In that case, I would think I know that Sally was in the room, but I would be wrong. Still, ordinarily—that is, absent any evidence that something strange was going on—we wouldn’t even consider this possibility. In fact, if someone raised a doubt on the basis of this possibility, we would likely roll our eyes, mostly because we would consider it an example of a set of idle doubts which one could always raise, but which in practice can simply be ignored except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. So, what any of us would say about our example is simply that I know Sally is in the room, and that I conveyed this knowledge to you; in short, that what I have evidence of leaves no room for Sally not having been present in the classroom—the evidence that I have and Sally not having been in the room are not compatible, they can’t both be true.

Our example illustrates two related points. The first is that, if we have strong evidence in favor of a conclusion, and we have no specific reason to doubt that evidence (“specific” as opposed to general, free-standing doubt grounded in the possibility for error), then we ordinarily say that that our evidence establishes that we know something. This isn’t because we are unaware that we could conceivably be incorrect or misled. Of course we know that sometimes we get things wrong. The point is that we are also aware that quite often we are not incorrect or misled when we draw conclusions on the basis of our best available evidence. So, there is no use to always diminishing our claims to knowledge with a vague threat that “we could be wrong.” And, the affirmative could argue, this vague doubt is all that the “simple” argument is really establishing.

That’s a point about the conditions or requirements we impose on ourselves in order to establish that we know something. The second point is about our usage of evidential terms like “knowledge” or, as in the case of our topic, “leaves no room for.” We need to square the obvious fact that there is always room for doubt with the equally obvious fact that we frequently affirm claims with certainty. In other words, we say that we know things all of the time, even though we would admit that it is conceivable we are mistaken. This raises a question: what does it mean when we say that we know something? One obvious option here would be to interpret knowledge statements as meaning something like: “as much as we know anything, we know such-and-such.” So, another strategy for the affirmative in combatting the “simple argument” would be to offer an interpretation of our topic along these lines, claiming that the topic really means something like: “Science establishes, as much as anything could be established, that there is no room for free will.”

That is the first set of strategies that the affirmative can use to combat the “simple” argument. However, there is also a deeper strategy that the affirmative could employ. The reason that the affirmative is vulnerable to the “simple” argument in the first place is that affirmatives are resting the proofs they offer in their constructive speeches solely on the shoulders of experimental findings. The affirmative could instead opt to supplement experimental findings with claims that the basic principles of scientific explanation—rather than this or that finding or data point arrived at using these principles—are themselves incompatible with the possibility of free will.

On this point, let me draw your attention to a line of thinking elaborated in the initial topic analysis for the year:

“French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace wrote:
“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”1

Laplace was expressing a view commonly referred to as determinism: the complete description of the universe at any point in time combined with a complete set of the laws that govern the natural universe entails a complete set of everything that is true about the universe (including, therefore, everything that has ever happened and everything that will ever happen).

Often, those who argue for the truth of determinism argue that a commitment to the basic explanatory ambitions of the natural sciences simply requires belief in determinism. They may further claim that determinism is incompatible with the existence of free will because we cannot plausibly be said to freely choose what we do if what we do was determined long before we were even in the picture…. The main point is this: determinists of the sort just described are not primarily making the claim that this or that experimental finding poses a challenge to the existence of free will. They are claiming something more basic: belief in the scientific enterprise (an enterprise which they take to involve a commitment to determinism) is incompatible with belief in the existence of free will. This is an example of the second way in which science might be said to leave no room for free will.”

The view that Laplace is expressing is that science is committed to a certain type of explanation: science attempts to explain the universe and what happens in it by way of combining a complete description of the way things stand at a particular moment with a set of universal laws that govern and explain what will happen. And his idea is that if we are committed to giving explanations of that type, then there is no room for free will. For, free will requires that we could have a complete description of the world, and a complete set of natural laws, but still what will happen next is left open, in part, due to the free choice of persons.

Advancing an argument along these lines could be helpful to the affirmative in combatting the “simple” argument. The reason is that it allows the affirmative to claim that, while this or that specific finding or theory might later be corrected or disavowed, the scientific method of seeking explanation will not itself be disavowed. After all, it is that method of explanation that would later lead us to correct or disavow a particular conclusion that we previously held. So, the affirmative can make a stronger claim than merely that our current scientific knowledge is incompatible with free will: the affirmative can claim that the very method of scientific explanation means that there is no room for free will. A claim of that strength would be much less vulnerable to attack by the “simple” argument. Of course, this claim can also be combined in a constructive speech with experimental findings. Indeed, those experimental findings will themselves be strengthened if they are presented in the larger context of a Laplace-style argument. Of course, there are also ways of combatting Laplace-style arguments (for an overview, see this year’s initial topic analysis).

Negative Considerations

The “simple” argument is fairly powerful in its own right, and it seems to be persuading judges in many rounds. So, we will not spend much time here elaborating additional ways to defend it. Perhaps that will be the subject of a future topic update. However, it is worth mentioning a few considerations that would allow the negative to strength the “simple” argument.

First, the “simple” argument works best when it is combined with arguments about where we should set our default assumptions with regard to claims about free will. Since the “simple” argument functions to raise doubts, the relevant question is: how much or what kind of doubt is sufficient to establish that we should leave room for free will? For the negative’s purposes, it makes most sense to argue that our default position should be that there is room for free will, and that, further, we should not override this default position absent great (perhaps an inescapable degree or kind of) evidence. One way to argue for this claim would be to point out the centrality of free will in our self-conception. We have a great deal of first personal and interpersonal evidence for free will: this evidence is before us every time we make a decision, appeal to someone’s conscience, or hold ourselves and others responsible. A related point might be that belief in free will is central to our social and political lives; our criminal justice system, for example, is largely based on the assumption that free will is the norm. An argument could be made that, while we should be willing to revise our way of life in light of new evidence, we should not overthrow our most central beliefs without possessing overwhelming evidence that these beliefs are wrong. So, if the evidence we have is something short of decisive, perhaps we should retain our default position. I will touch more on these issues in a future topic update. In any case, the reason to supplement the “simple” argument with arguments about our default position is that doing so allows you to acknowledge that the “simple” argument may not straightforwardly satisfy the negative’s burden of proof, but it then allows you to go on to give substantive reasons why we should treat the negative’s position as proven unless and until the affirmative has met their burden of proof.

Second, there is a deeper, philosophical question issue raised by the idea that we have first personal and interpersonal evidence of free will. Specifically, there is something at least approaching the paradoxical in the affirmative’s attempt to convince us that there is no room for free will. For, an attempt to convince is an attempt to appeal to our best judgment, our capacities to reason through questions, and draw conclusions based on the best evidence. However, our understanding of these things—reasoning, making judgments, drawing conclusions—is hard to separate from our belief that our mental life is characterized by free will. We ordinarily understand the activity of considering evidence and coming to a conclusion as a free activity: we contemplate the information provided to us, and we decide what we have most reason to believe. We often speak of this as a process of “making up our mind.” It is therefore deeply alienating to consider that, when we consider things that very process of consideration might be out of our hands. And there is something paradoxical or mind boggling about being asked to conclude that you have no control over what you conclude. There are any number of directions in which this observation might be developed by the negative, and many thorny questions are raised by it. Again, perhaps these issues can be pursued in more depth in a future topic update. However, one thing that stands out as a possible negative strategy here is to point out that we have good reason to resist placing ourselves in a paradoxical or mind boggling state, unless there is simply no other option. Perhaps that is a good reason for us to adopt a strong default position in favor of leaving room for free will.

[1] Laplace, Pierre Simon. 1951 (translation). A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. Translated by W.F. Truscott and F.L. Emory. New York: Dover Publications.

Tom Evnen

Tom Evnen

Tom Evnen has a B.A. in philosophy from Swarthmore College, and an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. As a high school student, Tom debated for four years for Lincoln Southeast High School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Tom twice cleared to elimination rounds at the Tournament of Champions. His senior year, he was a state champion and finalist at the Tournament of Champions.

Tom has been an active debate coach and educator for over a decade. He was a full time teacher and debate coach at at the Hockaday School (TX), and he has also coached at University School (FL), Oxbridge Academy (FL), Lake Highland (FL), and La Jolla (CA). Tom has coached students to elimination rounds at the Tournament of Champions thirteen times, including four quarterfinalists, two semifinalists, and one finalist. Tom also coached students to the final round of LD at the National Tournament for three years in a row, and they won the championship two of those three years. In addition, Tom’s students have reached finals or won championships at Apple Valley, Blake, Bronx, the Bronx Round Robin, Emory, Greenhill, the Greenhill Round Robin, Glenrbooks, Harvard, Stanford, St. Marks, Valley, and Yale.

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