Free will makes an unexpected comeback.
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A choice argument

Did you choose to cheat on your taxes? Or snub a friend? Free will makes an unexpected comeback.
Denyse O'Leary | 24 March 2011

Cartoon by Rex May, alias BalooPossibly no issue between traditionalists and new atheists rankles more than this one: Are we simply the products of our genes and neurons, or can we make authentic choices?

Traditional religions encourage repentance for sin, which just means, “I knew what I was doing and it was wrong.” No one repents of slipping on the ice, and ending up in traction. But a new doctrine has been highly seductive. You never choose.

In a blog entry, “No soul? I can live with that. No free will? AHHHH!!!,” on the Psychology Today website, Tamler Sommers, professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, explains why he thinks no free will is no big deal. He acknowledges that most materialists have not wanted to confront the issue directly.

To bring his idea home: Why should a man suffer any penalty if he kills your spouse, rapes your daughter, and maims your son? By definition, he is not responsible for his behaviour. That’s not because he passes normal tests of insanity, but because no one is ever responsible for their behaviour. Ever. At all.

Sommers cites one study where we learn that

The first group was given an excerpt from Francis Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis which stated that scientists had denounced the notion of free will. The control group read another excerpt that did not refer to free will. The subjects in the first group were more likely to cheat on their tasks. The authors end their paper by asking: “Does the belief that forces outside the self determine behavior drain the motivation to resist the temptation to cheat, inducing a “why bother” mentality?... Or perhaps denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes.”
But he thinks that denying free will would work anyway, because
... my prediction is that the masses can handle the truth, just not, in some cases, right away.

No, not right away, certainly. Sommers offers some optimistic accounts of living without free will. My sense is that no free will would work well for everyone except the victim – oh, wait, in this no-free-will regime, there is no crime, and no perpetrators or victims. No one reforms either.

It would be somewhat like the zookeeper waking up and discovering that one chimpanzee, Alpha, had perpetrated a mass slaughter of chimps during the night, and was chewing their bones in a tree somewhere on the grounds. Bad, yes. Call the police, no. Just delete the mangled chimps from the ledger, and place a note in the file about Alpha. Is this the policing you want?

Understandably, many jurists have been reluctant to embrace this view, whatever their other commitments. One issue is a practical one, determining moral guilt: Suppose a local machinist, for example, believes he’s the President of the United States. Does that mean he isn’t guilty if he bludgeons the old lady next door to death because she “spitefully” refuses to acknowledge his position? No, because if the President had committed the same crime, he’d obviously be guilty too. Most of us have a sense of crime as behaviour “beyond the bounds.” On the other hand, if the man has a brain tumour, and sees everyone he meets as part of the horrible pressure he feels ... he may be unfit to stand trial. Judges must make these decisions every day. But the decision depends critically on the question of whether the man was free to act otherwise. In other words, on free will.

What’s really interesting is the divide between new and old atheists in this matter. Raymond Tallis, an atheist philosopher, has no use for these no-free-will theories. As he explains it,

This essay is an attempt to persuade you of something that in practice you cannot really doubt: your belief that you have free will. It will try to reassure you that it is not naïve to feel that you are responsible, and indeed morally responsible, for your actions. And it will provide you with arguments that will help you answer those increasing numbers of people who say that our free will is an illusion, or that belief in it is an adaptive delusion implanted by evolution.

The case presented will not be a knock-down proof — indeed, it outlines an understanding of free will that is rather elusive. It is of course much easier to construct simple theoretical proofs purporting to show that we are not free than it is to see how, in practice, we really are. For this reason, the argument here will take you on something of a journey.

It sure will take you on a journey, one you won’t be sharing with new atheists, or half the social work schools in your nation.

Tallis is by no means alone in this matter. Consider agnostic materialist John “End of Science” Horgan, for example, who wrote, “Dear scientists, please stop bashing free will.” (December 8, 2010):

I choose to reject this conclusion. Yes, the mind can be hideously complicated, and divided, often working at cross-purposes. Ancient Greeks like Homer and Sophocles told us that. Yes, researchers have demonstrated that all our thoughts and actions are underpinned by physiological processes, but what else could they have found? Evidence of an immaterial soul?

Science has discovered nothing that contradicts free will. To deny free will’s existence is to deny that our conscious, psychological deliberations—Should I ask my girlfriend to marry me? Should I major in engineering or art?—influence our actions. Such a conclusion flies in the face of common sense. Of course, sometimes we deliberate insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, or we fail to act upon our resolution. But not always. Sometimes we consciously choose to do something and we do it. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it often does.

Moreover, free will must exist, if some creatures have more of it than others. My teenage daughter and son have more free will—more choices to consider and select from—than they did when they were infants. They also have more than our dog Merlin does.

Ah yes, we must never forget Merlin. Created by the hand of the Almighty as a dog, Merlin must just be a good dog. He is relieved of any moral responsibility for what that means (finding lost children, or pursuing refugees fleeing for their lives).

But we humans cannot escape moral responsibility just by deciding to pretend we are Merlin. To the extent that we even wonder whether we have free will, it is obvious that we do.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | atheism, free will, psychology
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