Comment: Eradicating the free-will myth – the ‘always’ illusive dream

Like most naturalists, I consider the concept of human free-will, ability to rationally choose one action over another independent of or inspite of prior causes, as one of the last great myths to which most people subscribe.

I grew up in a very secular family with a ‘what is the evidence’ mentality. So seeing ourselves as an intrinsic part of the physical world has always been an obvious approach to life. Moreover, overlaying a supramundane existence on that physical world that happens to address coincidentally human needs seemed all to fanciful to be plausible. Over the years of studying and lecturing in philosophy, religion, and science (with some history thrown in), I have softened my criticisms of those who actually believe in the supramundane. My position isn’t quite as ‘obvious’, as I have always assumed.

Free-will is another intrenched example for all of us. We all know the dilemma. Our best conception of the world seems to be that of direct observation guided by subsequent reasoning, the methods of the (natural) sciences. The sciences offer our best hope of disassociating our wishes and desires from the understandings of the world about us, the ‘It’ in Martin Buber’s terms. Similarly ’cause and effect’ is a model that well explains our experiences in that world. Only experimental results in Quantum Physics have presented dilemmas for the cause and effect model.

However our scientific approach with its causes and effects seems most unsatisfactory and unintuitive when it comes to our ‘I’ world – the potentially imaginary world of free-will, self, consciousness, love, and so on. Take free-will. Despite my lifetime of naturalism (even before knowing the term), I still get mad at rude drivers, discourteous waiters, violent people, and mass murders who presumably had not chosen to do the things they did. And to further complicate things I imagine I didn’t choose to get mad either. Their rudeness and violence and my reactions were the inevitable results of prior causes and none of us are immediately responsible for these acts (though perhaps partially for our specific makeups that contributed to these acts). My last bracketed comment asks whether our prior thoughts can be part of the causal mix for future actions. This thought is consistent with ‘us as conscious riders of our subconscious elephants’ analogy used by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia. Either way most people out there will give me short-shift, if I put this ‘not responsible’ argument, especially for the committers of heinous crimes. Perhaps my audience was caused to do so.

So I see a disconnect between abstract and interesting discussions of free-will by philosophers and the assumed free-will practice on the ground. Fianally I’m probably fortunate, at least compared to fellow travellers in the US, that our justice system in Australia seems less driven by retributive punishment, which would be so offensive to the non-free-willers. We are not into consecutive 99 year jail terms for serious offenders, for example, or for jail time for relatively minor offences. This may not always be so if the conservatives have their way here.

Alex McCullie

News: Free-will, Determinism and Moral Responsibility

Shaun Nichols, Professor Department of Philosophy, University of Arizona makes a plea in a Scientific American article for free will (and rejection of deterministically forced decisions) on the basis that we need the belief in free will to be moral. Nichols details a psychological experiment showing that participants cheated more when they we told that free will doesn’t exist. (see article). Also here is a contrary response by Tom Clark, Center for Naturalism.

Alex McCullie