Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dan Barker’s will Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converge to Create a Beautiful Illusion is a good read. These days, I love books that are short and easy to devour. This is certainly one of those books.

Barker is essentially a free will illusionist who spends much of the book  analogising his understanding of free will and he does a good job. It kind of reflects my present thinking on the subject, which I have discussed over the last few weeks. I could quite easily be a compatibilist (someone who believes free will and determinism are compatible with each other) because the move is, as far as I am concerned, a semantic one. It is why, these days, I see myself as both a compatibilist and a hard determinist. I can even see the merits in free will illusionism. The position is that we don’t have free will in the libertarian sense, but ideas of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness and the reactive attitudes of our human psychology are so intertwined that it is too difficult to live our lives on a daily basis as hard determinists. Upholding the illusion of free will has its pragmatic uses.

Really, the question should come down to evidence for either position and I’m not sure that we have enough robust data to support one position over the other. If we take for granted that libertarian free will doesn’t exist, then we have two positions to entertain: free will illusionism and hard determinism. On a daily basis, how do we run our lives? Is it more pragmatically useful to uphold the illusion of free will or do we strive to live our lives by debunking libertarian free will in the hope that hard determinism is beneficial to us individually and across society? I generally err on the side of the latter and have written a fair amount on the subject. But I don’t dismiss the former because, really, I don’t have enough data to support one over the other.

Is the illusion more beneficial to us than the stark reality?

Over to Dan Barker to sum up his feelings:

So, do we have free will? Yes, and no. Free will is not a single scientific truth. It is a social truth. Like a song, it is a human creation, a beautiful composition of behavior and moral judgments (melody and harmony) that produces the useful illusion of freely chosen personal actions. It is not indeterministic; it arises retroactively, after we make behavioral judgments. Although we talk about “having” free will, it is not something we have; it is something we experience. It is one of many works of art that reveal that we are more than just a swarm of atoms in motion. Free will makes us fully human.

In his book Behave: The Biology of Humans act Our Best and Worst, the neurologist Robert Sapolsky, after showing that all of our behaviour is strictly biological, says, “I can’t really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will. It may never be possible to view ourselves as the sum of our biology.” Gazzaniga calls free will “a powerful and overwhelming illusion that is almost impossible to shake. In fact, there is little or no reason to shake it, for it has served us well.” Dennett, in From Bacteria to Bach and Back agrees: “this is not an illusion we should want to dismantle or arrays; it’s where we live, and we couldn’t live the way we do without it.” [p. 119]

Of course, Dennett’s quote is rather misleading. In saying that we couldn’t live the way we do without it is merely to say if we don’t want to change anything, then we shouldn’t change anything. Of course, in believing and grappling with the reality of a lack of libertarian free will, we would necessarily have to change how we understand the world and what we do with that knowledge. People like Derk Pereboom (in, for example, the excellent Living without Free Will) advocate for changing the way we do society – like crime and punishment – changing the way we live. The whole point of this position is that we do want to change the way we live! That this change will improve our collective lives. (I am presently reading Robert Sapolsky’s book and am thoroughly enjoying it.)

Barker continues:

Yes, the Tin-Man determinists are right – we don’t have actual free will. The laws of cause and effect are unbendable, flat as a sheet of metal. As a transcendent essence, free will is just as phony as it can be. But like love, the illusion of free will – the heart in the Tin Man – gives our lives is fullness and color.

We don’t locate love all free will by staring through a microscope. We don’t find them by analyzing antecedent material causes. They are qualities we human animals experience.

When my daughter Glen was a young teenager, I told her that I think free will is an illusion, and she immediately replied, “Well, if we have the illusion of free will, then we have free will.” She gets it. It is no big mystery. “We are responsible agents,” Gazza may go writes. “As my kids say,’ Get over it.’ Human life is really a good deal.” [p. 120]

So, to offer something of a conclusion, I both agree and disagree. It just depends which way the wind is blowing. Well, it depends which way the data falls. It would be great to do a controlled experiment comparing one society with another like society where one lives under the illusion of free will and the other under the reality of a lack of libertarian free will. But that ain’t gonna happen. That said, are we already moving, in the Western developed world, to prison systems that take rehabilitation much more seriously and put retribution on the backburner? Cause and effect and big data are already foundational bricks underpinning our increased understanding of the world. How far do we take that, though?

[I will look more critically at some aspects of this illusionism in a post later this week.]


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...