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.”