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It is true that a stopped clock is right twice a day. It is also true to say that some of my more, how do I say, problematic commenters say something worthwhile once…a year? Perhaps that is too generous.

In this case, the interesting comment came in the form of a question.

For Jonathan and those who have adopted his philosophical view, what is the greatest impact this adoption has had on your daily life?

Defining our terms

What is this philosophical view about which he talks? My long-term readers who have followed me from here to there and now to here will know that I deny libertarian free will. In philosospeak, I define this as:

The real ability to consciously and rationally do otherwise in a given situation.

What this means is that if we have a certain situation – say me deciding to make a cup of tea at 09:15 on this Tuesday morning – and if we let the world run on for ten minutes (forget whether we can actually do this since this is a thought experiment) and then rewound the world to 09:15, I would always choose to make that cup to tea, ceteris paribus.

This last phrase is rather important to my case. It means “all things remaining equal”, which in this context means that the original universe and the one rewound at 09:15 are identical. There is no difference whatsoever between the “causal circumstances” (for they are essentially the same universe), from the biggest phenomena and variables down to the smallest ones (wave functions and what have you).

Let us forget random and/or quantum here since that does not help the libertarian free willer (they will have neither rational nor conscious control over such random variables).

The free willer thinks that an agent really could choose otherwise in a given situation, that in the rewound world, I really could choose not to make a cup of tea. I say this is nonsense. What could rationally and consciously underwrite my choice to do otherwise given that absolutely nothing would be different about the universe? All my reasoning, learning up to that point, all the weighting I would attach to each argument for and against making tea, and so on, would be the same. Choosing otherwise, given the identical nature of “both” situations (i.e., the same universe) would look nothing other than random, lacking any other viable causation.

So that’s the basic argument against this kind of free will (some philosophers redefine free will so that you can still have causal determinism and free will). And I won’t get onto the plethora of scientific evidence for the denial of libertarian free will (arguably all of science seeks causal explanation for phenomena, implying casual determination).

Fine. Now what?

It turns out that most philosophers (unless they are religious) jettison this idea of free will, and so most philosophers are less concerned with whether free will exists than they are with the ramifications of such a denial. My friend and philosopher Gregg Caruso is one such example, expending an awful lot of time and energy working out how this lack of free will affects crime and punishment.

The idea is that someone will always commit a given crime in a given situation because they are who they are in the situation they are in. Thus retribution makes little sense. This is due to the fact that prison is usually seen in three dimensions: retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation. For the person who denies free will, retribution makes no sense (retributively giving someone “just deserts” for being who they are in the situation they are in). Moreover, prison has been shown to be of limited deterrence value, and so rehabilitation is arguably the core remit of incarceration.

Sadly, in reality, prison systems are in dire need of reform, and not enough money is spent on rehabilitation. So prisons become revolving doors for offenders who are let out to re-offend.

On the other side of the coin, there is the idea of tackling the environments (and this can include the biology of the offenders – see the incredible book The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine) to make sure that the crimes don’t happen in the first place.

We can see how someone like myself, denying free will, will change their views on big policies like crime and punishment, poverty, education, nutrition and health, and so on.

But these are big, rational decisions based on research and deliberation over long periods of time. This is hardly my daily life. How does a belief in the denial of free will play out in daily life?

Psychology vs. philosophy

And that’s the power of this question because it taps more into what philosopher P.F. Strawson called “reactive attitudes”: psychology. These are those psychological reactions we have that are wrapped up in the terms “praiseworthiness” and “blameworthiness.” Do I heartily congratulate an Olympic gold-medal swimming champion on account of being born with huge feet and the genetic potential for supreme athleticism? Do I jump up and down in glee for them winning on account of having been born into a well-off and dedicated family who could afford and had the aspirations to send them to swimming club day in, day out, week in, week out, supporting them right throughout the process with everything they could muster?

I undoubtedly do, because it is all wrapped up in my psychology and sense of, in this case, national identity and pride.

On the flip side, does someone (and I am generalizing and simplifying to make a point) born into poverty in a low-aspiration household, being let down by an education system where they slipped through the cracks, falling in with the wrong crowd and suchlike, deserve my blame if they would always end up acting as they did because of their genetic and environmental mixture?

Again, they might do if I am being more emotional and less rational, but if I shelve my psychology and think in strictly philosophical terms, my blame would be unjustified.

I have to admit that, for most of my day, I operate on the folk understanding that free will exists. I know it doesn’t, but we are so psychologically primed to assume and act as though it does that we struggle to live lives that deny its existence on a day-to-day basis. Strawson himself denied free will but maintained that we could not extricate ourselves from our psychology in any meaningful way and so we might as well continue to believe in free will anyway. In this sense, I am Strawsonian. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

On Strawson’s view, what it is to hold a person morally responsible for wrong conduct is nothing more than the propensity towards, or the sustaining of, a moral reactive attitude like indignation. Crucially, the indignation is in response to the perceived attitude of ill will or culpable motive in the conduct of the person being held responsible. Hence, Strawson explains, posing the question of whether the entire framework of moral responsibility should be given up as irrational (if it were discovered that determinism is true) is tantamount to posing the question of whether persons in the interpersonal community—that is, in real life—should forswear having reactive attitudes towards persons who wrong others, and who sometimes do so intentionally. Strawson invites us to see that the morally reactive attitudes that are the constitutive basis of our moral responsibility practices, as well as the interpersonal relations and expectations that give structure to these attitudes, are deeply interwoven into human life. These attitudes, relations and expectations are so much an expression of natural, basic features of our social lives—of their emotional textures—that it is practically inconceivable to imagine how they could be given up.

Michael McKenna & D. Justin Coates, in “Compatibilism.”

It is hard to fight against this on a daily basis, I won’t lie. I get angry with my children when they misbehave. It’s not just my children who might anger me, it’s a whole range of people, and an awful lot more. Trump spent four years deeply angering me, and he still does. And yet, at no point, do I (but I should) say “He’s just being who he is in the situation he is in. It couldn’t happen any other way!”

I have to admit that for most of my day I operate on the folk understanding that free will exists. I know it doesn’t, but we are so psychologically primed to assume and act as though it does that we struggle to live lives that deny its existence on a day-to-day basis.

It’s funny, because denial of libertarian free will has made me much less judgmental of people across society. But there is a big old box of people for whom I am still judgmental, and this box is certainly filed under “hypocrisy” or “philosophical contradiction.” How can I be much more understanding of a criminal who is victim to their environment and the causal variables of their life, but not to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Mitch McConnell or…or…?

There is still this oil-slick of double standards that smears so many people at whom I take often political aim. No, it smears me.

I can’t help it. Whether it be Trump or my own children (hey, they aren’t that bad, but you get the point, right?), I know that a deterministic outlook should be an antidote to anger. But my genes, biology, and environment have something else to say about the matter!

I say this with a hint of sadness because, in reality, I am more impatient and quick to anger than I ever have been – it is a symptom of my progressive multiple sclerosis. It’s a fight I have against my biological determinism and one I don’t always win.

It is as if my own life is an ongoing fight between my rational self and my emotional self. When I am sitting in the pub, chatting with my friends about the state of the world or politics, then my rational self has primacy, and I make rationally justified arguments. But when reacting in real-time to people and decisions, the psyche often wins out.

Living without free will: What battles have I won, what changes have I made?

The lack of libertarian free will means that the God hypothesis has failed before it even got off the ground. A judgmental god makes little sense in this light. Although I disbelieved in God before I came to deny this kind of free will, it has made me realize that many theists skirt around the issue when they should be dealing with it head-on: If you can’t solve the free will problem, you can’t rationally hold your god-belief.

Then, of course, ideas of crime and punishment are affected. Politically speaking, not only do I think much harder about the causal variables for people’s (criminal) behavior, but also about how to stop them from reoffending.

I am no politician overseeing the Department of Justice, but it has changed my idea of the sort of society I want to live in, the sort of criminal justice system I would want (and vote for). Moreover, such a worldview affects how I view causal variables. The importance of poverty, nutrition, opportunities, role models, education, fully functioning welfare states – all of these variables are massively important in determining individuals and thus societies.

I live in a world of causal variables, of cause and effect. I now very much question why everything happens. This natural inquisitiveness has certainly blossomed.

How can I be much more understanding of a criminal who is victim to their environment and the causal variables of their life, but not to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Mitch McConnell or…or…?

As I have embraced this philosophy more and more, my political leanings have shifted leftwards. Those on the right hold individualism dear: “On your bike, son, it’s a meritocracy out there! All you need to do is to work hard and you’ll make it like anyone else.”

Now, I’m not decrying working hard, but I am saying that when someone inherits an awful lot of money, is handed privileged opportunities, and accesses resources and people more than the next person, then perhaps success isn’t just about working hard. So, for me, my politics has adapted to take into account the huge importance of the determining variables in our lives, and to strive for greater equality of opportunity.

There are many other areas of life where similar big thinking has changed for me.

In short, determinism has changed my politics.


And finally…fatalism.

What I have established here is that my big-picture thinking has changed, but I struggle with changing my day-to-day outlook. That said, it’s a battle I am determined to win in the arena of living without free will.

But nothing changes.

Whoah. That’s a bit depressing.

Okay, I need to be clear here. People change. They change from one thing to another, one version of themselves to a different one, throughout time. But we don’t change course. There is no, “If I hadn’t done this then that would have happened” because I was always going to do this. Hypotheticals aren’t reality.

Nothing changes because “change” makes no sense under determinism. There just is. In a very real sense, we don’t change reality, we enact it. There is merely a hypothetical change. We have hypotheticals in our heads that go something like this:

“If I put a loving arm around my son and ask him why he did that and seek for understanding, it will be more effective in changing his behavior now than scolding him and causing a confrontational argument. If I shout at him, then I might feel better in the immediate short term, but it will be counter-productive. I will change my mind and comfort him so that he changes his behavior.”

In reality in this example, my choice will be what it is determined to be in that situation, and his behavior likewise. No one is changing anything.

And that is the dreaded specter of fatalism and arguably why the illusion of free will persists. The psychological challenge to meaning and action is a veritable thorn in the determinist’s side. But, alas, I will face that ghostly elephant in the room in my next piece, “Fighting Fatalism.”

For now, let me say that I feel like the realization of the incoherence of libertarian free will has caused me to change my behavior and beliefs on a macro scale even though I still struggle on the micro-scale. But that was always going to be the case, wasn’t it? It may have changed me, but it hasn’t changed my course.

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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,...