The hoary old hypothesis that ‘There is no such thing as Free Will’ has fired up public debate yet again thanks to a recent article by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian. And once again, to judge from the many letters and comments it has aroused, the result is inconclusion, if not total confusion.

But there’s no necessity for that if you appeal to The Scientific Method. At its very heart lies a technique for Hypothesis Testing called ‘Bayes’ Rule’. What it offers to do is alter one’s Odds on any hypothesis H by appealing to any evidence E consequent on that hypothesis. But if there is no such consequent evidence, as there appears not to be in the Free Will case, Bayes’ Rule is helpless, and any debate about the matter is therefore fruitless. The mediaeval scholars who didn’t understand that wasted their lives discussing such arcane matters as ‘How many angels could dance on a pinhead.’ Why don’t so many modern scholars realise that Inconsequential Hypotheses are undecidable and so a waste of their time, and everybody else’s?

I would suggest it is because Western Philosophy is rooted in a quest for Certainty. On the one hand the Ancient Greeks thought that Certain truths could be arrived at solely by Deductive, even mathematical, Logic. On the other hand, Abrahamic religions held that Man, who sat on the right hand of the only true God, could find Certainty in Holy Scripture. The idea that Certainty was unavailable, except in trivial circumstances, as we recognise now, and that gambling Odds would have to do instead, was anathema to both schools.

The sad result is that the Education Establishment, even today, largely ignores Bayes’ Rule, and thus Common Sense Thinking in general, because of its abhorrent roots in gambling. It’s not so surprising though when you recall that Oxford and Cambridge for instance were set up by papal bulls in the thirteenth century to train priests. Gambling was certainly not on their curricula. Nor did they even teach Science until forced to do so by the Government late in the 19th century.

Thus the Free Will debate brings to light an extraordinary situation. The academic world largely ignores Common Sense Thinking because it lies outside a 2,500 year old tradition rooted in unsound philosophy and Abrahamic theology. Science has only progressed by ignoring both.

Equally though it highlights a quite extraordinary opportunity. We could now teach Common Sense Thinking , with its key principles: Bayes’ Rule, The Detective’s Equation, Ockham’s Razor, the Principle of Animal Wisdom and Provisionality to everyone over the age of 13. It will probably lead to advances far greater than did either Industrialisation or Electricity. And importantly, it would teach us Tolerance, because provisional (i.e measured) thinking and Tolerance for alternative ideas, are opposite sides of the very same coin.

Anyone interested in these matters might like to read Thinking For Ourselves, a 20 year study of The Scientific Method and Common Sense Thinking, discussed here under the My Books Category. And look under the Thinking Category for many other allied Posts.

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