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Is free will a thing? Apparently not.

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Science appears to be cutting the gordian knot of philosophical isms

Canto: The subject of free will often comes up, and I’ve recently read Sam Harris’ booklet on it, so I want to state right now my view that if we do have free will, it’s a far more circumscribed thing than many prefer to believe, and I’m open to the view that it doesn’t exist at all.

Jacinta: Yes I’ve read a fair bit on the subject over the years, including Dennett’s Elbow Room in the eighties, and a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky, dating back to the sixties, but like everyone I’ve forgotten almost all of any book I’ve read within weeks of having read it, so it’ll be good to get back to the subject enfin. 

Canto: But have you been exercised by the actual subject, intellectually speaking?

Jacinta: Very much so. Let’s return to our old friend the Dunedin longitudinal study, which indicates that the various personality types – roughly characterised as well-adjusted, confident, reserved, under-controlled and inhibited – are established very early on and rarely change outside of neurological damage. These constrain free will, as does your broad environment, for example whether you’re a scion of the British aristocracy or the offspring of Mongolian goat-herders. You’re not free to choose these things or your genetic inheritance or, presumably, your neuronal wiring, at least not as a youngster.

Canto: I think the free will people would concede all that, but their best argument would be that in spite of all the determining factors that make you who you are, your moment-to-moment decisions – whether to get out of bed or sleep in for a while, whether to break your diet or stick to it, whether to watch a TV program or go to the pub, whether to study physics or psychology at uni (assuming you’re qualified to do either), and so on – these decisions are made of your own volition, so you are responsible for them and nobody else. If there’s no free will, there’s no responsibility, therefore nothing or nobody to praise or blame. And then where would we be with our ethics?

Jacinta: That’s interesting because we often get confused about that, or some people do. I would say most people believe we have free will, so we’re happy to punish people for criminal acts. They chose to commit them after all. But take those serial paedophiles that the tabloid press like to call ‘monsters’. They describe them as incorrigible – that’s to say, uncorrectable. So they should never be released again into the public, once they’ve been proven to commit some heinous paedophile act. What’s being claimed here is that the paedophile can’t help but commit these acts again and again – he has no choice, and presumably had no choice to begin with. But prison is a terrible punishment for someone who has no choice but to be what he is. They’re denying that he has free will, but punishing him for acts that should only be punished if they’re undertaken freely. You can’t have it both ways.

Canto: Well put, and my own tendency towards what used to be called hard determinism comes from reading the writings of ‘compatibilists’ or ‘reconciliationists’ who wanted, I thought, to give themselves as much credit for their success as they possibly could, seeing that they were successful academic philosophers earning, I assumed, the kind of salaries I could only dream of. On the other hand, as a hard determinist, I naturally wanted to blame everyone else, my parents, my working class environment, my lack of wealthy and educated connections, for my abject failures in life.

Jacinta: You jest a little, but I know you’re being essentially serious, in that the Gina Rineharts of the world, inheritors of millions, are the biggest spruikers of the notion that everyone is free to be as rich as everyone else but most people are just too slack, or, for reasons unfathomable to her, aren’t sufficiently interested in material self-enrichment, so they get precisely what they deserve.

Canto: Or what they’re destined to get. Just reading through some of that old philosophical material though, I find myself reliving my impatience with the academicism of philosophy. For example, the endless analysis of ‘able to’, as in ‘she’s able to play the piano’ but she can’t because she hasn’t got one right now. So she has the skill but not, right now, the equipment. Perhaps because she’s fallen on hard times and has had to sell it. Which leads to having ‘potential ability’. She might have been one of the world’s greatest soccer players, having the requisite skill, speed, drive, etc, but she was never introduced to the game or was discouraged from playing it.

Jacinta: She was told to study piano instead. Or more importantly, potential scientific geniuses who just didn’t get the opportunity due to a host of external circumstances, to attain that potential. They say geniuses are made not born, but they require external material to make themselves into geniuses, if that’s what they do. The point is that you can get caught up with words like ‘able to’ or ‘could have done otherwise’, which you can then interpret in varieties of ways, and it becomes almost a philosophy of language thing. But the main point is that although it seems obvious that you can choose between having a piece of cake before bedtime or not, these aren’t the most important choices..

Canto: And maybe even these choices aren’t as freely made as we might think, according to research Sam Harris cites in his essay. It seems science is catching up with what I knew all along. Not only do we have no control whatever over our genetic inheritance, but the way those genes are expressed, based largely on environmental factors, which lead to our brains being wired up in particular ways to release particular levels of hormones and neurotransmitters in patterned ways, leading to those character types identified in the Dunedin study, all of this is way beyond our conscious control. In fact it’s fair to say that the gradual retreat of the notion of free will is largely the result of the assault on the primacy of consciousness. Far more of what we do is less conscious than we think.

Jacinta: Yes the neurophysiological research around everyday ‘decisions’ is compelling, and disturbing to many. It suggests that our feeling of having freely decided on something is a delusion, though perhaps an evolutionarily useful one. Believing in free will usually entails belief in personal moral responsibility, and thus supports punishment for damaging acts and reward for heroic or beneficial ones. And  some research has actually shown that people primed to disbelieve in free will are more prepared to cheat and pilfer than those who aren’t.

Canto: So if this continues, this spread of disbelief or skepticism about free will, it may lead to a spike in criminal activity, large and small?

Jacinta: Well I don’t know if there’s been a rise in crime, but there has certainly been a rise in ‘my brain made me do it’ defenses. The effect of all this might be a ‘go with the flow’ attitude to pursue self-interest because your brain’s wiring supposedly impels you to.

Canto: So, that’s interesting, maybe a solution to this is more knowledge. The understanding that we’re the most social mammals on the planet, and that what we do, such as cheating and pilfering, adversely affects others, which will ultimately rebound on us. Even our brain’s own wiring has been caused by environmental factors, primary among those being human factors. So emphasising that our ‘self’ is more of a social self than our privileged access might lead us to believe will encourage us to consider what we owe to the wider society that helped shape us.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. And I think, as Harris and others point out, jettisoning the free will notion should help us reduce our tendency to blame and hate. I struggle myself with this – I ‘hate’ Trump, but I quickly realise he’s always been like this, and I can’t even blame his parents, who are what they are, etc. So I turn, as I think I should, to a US political system that enables such a person to reach the position he’s reached. In focusing on this system I can heap blame upon blame to my heart’s content, which I always love to do, without getting personal, which may have rebounding consequences for me. It’s a great solution.

Canto: Anyway, I think we’ve just scratched the surface with this one. Don’t we sometimes appear to agonise over decisions? People make lists of pros and cons about whether to spend x money or whether to travel to y, or whether or not to break up with z. How does this sort with a lack of free will? There must be a lot more to say.

Jacinta: It’s determined by our brain’s wiring that we agonise over some of our decisions and not over others. And how often do we make those lists you speak of, often prompted by others, and then just go with our original intuition?

Canto: Hmmm, I still think this is all worth further consideration…

Jacinta: I don’t think there’s any way you can seriously argue for free will. The argument is essentially about the consequences.


Sam Harris, Free will

Bernard Berofsky, ed, Free will and determinism


Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2018 at 10:16 am