Saturday, September 24, 2016

Is Free Will an Illusion? (Pt. II)

Yesterday we took a look at philosopher Stephen Cave's essay on free will which appeared in The Atlantic last June. Cave quoted several neuroscientists who believe that our sense that we freely make the choices we do is in truth an illusion and that our choices are actually the product solely of chemical reactions occurring in the brain which are themselves the product of our genetic endowments or the environmental influences that have acted upon us throughout our lives. This view is called determinism.

Here are a few more excerpts, with my commentary, from Cave's article:
Determinism, to one degree or another, is gaining popular currency. The skeptics are in ascendance. This development raises uncomfortable—and increasingly nontheoretical—questions: If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, then as belief in determinism spreads, will we become morally irresponsible? And if we increasingly see belief in free will as a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it?

Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.
And little wonder. If determinism is true there really can be no moral obligation, nor any real moral right or wrong. Morality is based on the notion that we are free to choose between options. If no such freedom exists then neither does morality. It's merely an illusion, as Cave's words suggest.
Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will. Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this.

Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.
In other words, Smilansky can't live with the implications of his materialist worldview. It forces an untenable conflict between what's true and what's good, but any worldview that is unlivable is also unviable. Instead of saying that truth must go maybe he should be saying that his materialism must go. It's stunning that someone would cling so tenaciously to his worldview that he'd be willing to deliberately sacrifice the truth rather than give it up.
[N]euroscientist and writer Sam Harris, his 2012 book, Free Will, set out to bring down the fantasy of conscious choice. Like Smilansky, he believes that there is no such thing as free will. But Harris thinks we are better off without the whole notion of it.

According to Harris, we should acknowledge that even the worst criminals—murderous psychopaths, for example—are in a sense unlucky. “They didn’t pick their genes. They didn’t pick their parents. They didn’t make their brains, yet their brains are the source of their intentions and actions.” In a deep sense, their crimes are not their fault. Recognizing this, we can dispassionately consider how to manage offenders in order to rehabilitate them, protect society, and reduce future offending. Harris thinks that, in time, “it might be possible to cure something like psychopathy,” but only if we accept that the brain, and not some airy-fairy free will, is the source of the deviancy.

Accepting this would also free us from hatred. Holding people responsible for their actions might sound like a keystone of civilized life, but we pay a high price for it: Blaming people makes us angry and vengeful, and that clouds our judgment.
Harris' view is actually better than Smilansky's since Harris at least says that we should embrace the truth, at least as he understands it, and acknowledge that there's no free will nor any entailments of free will such as moral responsibility. This would perhaps free us from being "angry and vengeful," but at what cost? A world in which no one was seen as guilty (or praiseworthy), where no one was seen as morally responsible for anything they did, would quickly devolve into chaos. Moreover, who gets to define what "deviancy" is? One man's deviancy is another man's passion, and if determinism is true why should any deviancy be suppressed or "rehabilitated"?

These men are aware that there's a genuine conflict between free will, moral responsibility and materialism, but their solution is to hold tenaciously to materialism and have done with truth, free will, and/or moral responsibility. This is a bit like the obese man whose weight has caused his blood pressure to elevate and who chooses to address the problem by refusing to have his blood pressure taken. Maybe what the obese man should do instead is shed the weight, and maybe what the materialist should do is shed his materialism.