Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 1 – The Origins of Free-Will Denial

Investigating what set the stage for free-will denial

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I heard about an add in a newspaper which read: “Free help for the illiterate. Write for details.” followed by the address where the illiterate were supposed to write to. The situation is similar here. The title of this blog might be instead “Good news for those deprived of free will. Read on for more details.” But this blog cannot possibly change anybody’s mind if the reader does not have free will. Life would then be a strictly scripted play and no change from the script would be allowed.

While the vast majority of people believe in free will, there are some which don’t. As one could expect, they are materialists. They believe everything is reducible to matter and, given the insurmountable problem of getting fee will out of matter, they decide that we don’t actually have free will. An example is Sam Harris who, in his book Free Willcalls free will an “illusion.” Sam Harris is one of the “four horsemen” of new atheism along with Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

Harris claims’ are not new. This point was made by behaviorists, for example by J.F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity back in 1971. Skinner derides the illusion of free will or “autonomous man,” as he calls it. He says “What is being abolished is autonomous man—the inner man, the homonuculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity.”

However, the rejection of free will is a modern phenomenon. You would think that this tendency simply outgrew from scientific progress made by neuroscience and other fields such as behaviorism. However, I suggest that these are not enough to explain it. There were two ideological developments of modernism that laid the groundwork for free-will denial. One is indeed related to science. More exactly it’s related to a reductionist and materialist view of science or scientism. It started with logical positivism early in the last century.

Science, however, does not require scientism. Understanding how things work does not require in anyway that everything is reducible to that understanding. Newton, for example, who is often considered the greatest physicist of all time did not think that physics is incompatible with metaphysics. He saw the hand of God beyond the reach of science, especially as it pertains to origins. As a matter of fact he wrote more on theology than he wrote on science. Another example is Einstein who exalts the mysterious, the impenetrable—that which is beyond our limited knowledge of science. He says1:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science… To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

In this sense, Einstein say, he is “deeply religious.” While he did not believe in a personal God, he believed in Spinoza’s God who “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” To him, getting to know this harmony did not exclude a mind behind it. On the contrary, it revealed “the mind of God” as he famously said “I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.”

Besides this reductionist view of science, a second factor that contributed to the advance of free-will denial is related to humanism. The “forward thinking” and “progress” that was touted (aka, departure from traditional views) proclaimed that humans are essentially good. This, along with dethroning God, was simply a side effect of exalting humans. This implied saving humans from the “fearful grip of religion” and liberating them from the guilt that came with it. In 1972, one years after Skinner wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Karl Menninger, reknown psychiatrist and a founder of the world famous Menninger center of psychiatry, wrote Whatever Became of Sin?—a book that is even more timely now than when it was written. A point made in it is that the word sin “has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, but the sense of guilt remains in our hearts and minds.” But many humanists continued to push hard the “humanist progress” and to remove this sense of guilt and responsibility as well. From “the devil made me do it” to “the environment made me do it,” or “the genes made me do it,” human responsibility has been constantly eroded and people have been declared free of guilt. Therefore the problem is no longer with the person in question but rather with external factors2 which the person doesn’t have control over. These external factors are meant to explain one’s actions and behavior and, along with that, to release one from guilt. Those external factors are now to blame. Bad, guilty humans are incompatible with the positive outlook that humanists have on humans. Thus, instead of raising responsible people, the humanists are inevitably raising victims. Indeed, I-am-a-victim thinking and culture is so prevalent today and it came at the cost of personal responsibility. More and more, the attitude is now: “You cant’ blame me. I’m the victim here—victim of my genes, my environment, my upbringing, and a plethora of other external factors. I have no fault in all this.” This attitude is simple a forerunner of the position that humans have no free will. While the latter may seem radical it’s only a few steps further down the same path of “humanistic progress.”

The two factors go hand in hand. The more science explained why one acted the way it did, the more excuses one has for acting the way one did. Both of them are a drastic departure from the Judeo-Christian worldview which lays at the foundation of the Western culture3 and even especially of the US4. It is in this context that free-will denial arose. And, indeed the assumptions that characterizes these factors (such as scientific reductionism) are required prerequisites of free-will denial. It is only on their foundation that free-will denial begins to make sense. The free-will denier must assume that everything is reducible to science, to the how-things-work description of science. The denier must also assume that the external factors effectively cause and determine one’s actions and behavior and thus, fail to establish responsibility.

In the second part, I’ll discuss the arguments for and against free will.

Footnotes:

1

On the same note Einstein says:

I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

2

While one may say that genes are not an external factor, their make up is indeed determined by external factors such as parents, environment and natural selection.

4

Even Huffington Post admits: “The United States was founded primarily as a result of people wanting freedom of worship and fairness in government. There is no question that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.”

Author: Adrian M Chira

I'm interest in goal achievement and productivity. I'm developing an online system to help people achieve their goals. I'm also writing a book that goes with it and I started the Wordpress blog to discuss some of the topics from the book. I'm also interested in science (particularly theoretical physics, some areas of mathematics and biology), apologetics, theology, philosophy, computing and technology.

8 thoughts on “Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 1 – The Origins of Free-Will Denial”

  1. I’m a Humanist and I believe in free will. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. I also believe in reliable cause and effect, and its corollary, causal necessity/inevitability. When properly defined, there is no conflict between determinism and free will.

    Determinism is the belief (-ism) that objects and forces within the universe behave in a reliable, and thus in theory 100% predictable, fashion. But determinism is not an object or force, so it cannot be said to “do” anything. Only the actual objects and forces can be said to do anything. And we happen to be one of those objects.

    My genes, my brain, my thoughts and feelings, my beliefs and values, are all integral to “that which is me”. So any reduction of me to these things only goes to explaining me, but it cannot “explain me away”. I’m still here.

    Anyone who knows me well enough, how I think and how I feel about things, could probably predict most of my decisions. There is no conflict between (a) the fact that I authentically made the decision for myself (free will) and (b) the fact that my decision was predictable (deterministic).

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  2. The claim that free will does not exist is not due to materialism, reductionism, scientism, logical positivism or determinism. It is due to the fact that, as commonly conceived, “free will” is a logically impossible concept, like “square circle” or “married bachelor”. Even an omnipotent God could not make free will exist.

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    1. Those who say “free will” does not exist are actually referring to “freedom from causation”. Freedom from causation is an oxymoron (a self-contradiction), because without reliable cause and effect we cannot reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all. So, every freedom we have requires a deterministic universe.

      What people actually mean by “free will” is the process of deciding for oneself what you will do, free from coercion or other undue influence. For example, after setting off their bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers hijacked a car, and forced the driver at gunpoint to assist them to get to New York where they planned to exploded their remaining devices.

      The driver was not charged with “aiding and abetting” because he was not acting of his own free will, but was coerced at gunpoint to assist them against his will.

      There’s nothing metaphysical about this definition of free will. It requires no supernatural intervention. It makes no assertions as to anything being uncaused. And yet it is sufficient for both moral and legal responsibility.

      And pretty much everyone correctly uses this definition, except perhaps for certain philosophers, scientists, and theologians. And these supposedly knowledgeable people are wrong.

      The source of their error is a delusion that causal necessity/inevitability is a constraint, something one could or should be free from. But it’s not. What you will inevitably do is what you would have done anyway. It is exactly identical to you just being you, doing what you do, and choosing what you choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint.

      On the other hand, a gun to the head is a meaningful constraint upon your freedom to choose what you will do next.

      See the difference?

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      1. That is compatibilism, and is trivially true. But it is not what most people – including unsophisticated laypeople – think of when considering “free will”.

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      2. Actually, causal inevitability is the trivial fact. The fact that everything that happens is always causally inevitable makes itself irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It’s like a constant that always falls on both sides of every equation, and can be safely subtracted from both sides without affecting the results.

        The reason it never comes to mind is because it makes no practical difference to any real world issue. All of the utility of reliable cause and effect comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. We learn that a specific virus causes polio and we develop a vaccine to prevent it. This knowledge gives us greater control over our lives and our destiny. We learn how the planets move and the physics of propulsion, and now we can walk on the moon.

        But the single fact of universal inevitability has zero utility. It has no meaningful implications that we can put to any practical use. And every time we humans attempt to draw some meaning from this fact we end up making silly mental errors and saying silly things.

        You see, inevitability doesn’t actually do anything. Despite this, the human mind has a tendency to anthropomorphize it into an imaginary agent that controls us against our will. And it is this delusion of being controlled against our will by this bogeyman that causes all the problems.

        Ironically, the hard determinist position is dualistic. They say that over on one side of the room is “me”. And over here on the opposite side of the room is my DNA, my brain, my biological drives, my thoughts and feelings, my life experiences, and everything else that makes me uniquely me. But all that stuff IS me! There is NO SEPARATE “ME” in there being controlled by all my parts. I AM all my parts working together as a single person.

        Another thing to keep in mind is that the most relevant and meaningful prior cause of any deliberate action is the deliberation process that chose to do it. When we deliberately choose what we “will” do, we determine our “will”. And that means we are the final responsible cause of our deliberate acts.

        When we go looking for the causes of some harmful act or event, we concentrate first on those causes that directly brought about the event and that we can potentially correct to prevent additional harm in the future. If the harm was a person’s deliberate act, then we’ll need to address that deliberation process. To the degree that social circumstances contributed to that faulty deliberation process, we should also address them as well.

        But tracing the causal chain back to the Big Bang is ridiculous. When looking at the prior causes of prior causes, we discover it is not a chain of links or a stand of dominos, but rather an infinitely branching tree structure. And the farther back you go the less relevant and the more incidental each prior cause of a prior cause becomes.

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    2. stathis, thanks for your input. Your point (about free-will not making sense) is also a point that Sam Harris make. While I was going to address this in a second part, there is one side to the answer that pertains to this that deserves a separate post – the next one.

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