There are some people who understand that free will is an illusion, but at the same time say that we should keep the general population within that illusion – or rather, not educate them out of it. This stems from a concern over people learning that they do not have free will, but at the same time taking it to wrongheaded conclusions about fatalism, defeatism, futility, and so on. Ideas that can often have bad consequences.
They might cite studies that were done which create a temporary confusion were the person will display signs of “less free will” leanings after being “primed” by a passage.
This idea of keeping the general public “in the dark” on the truth of free will is sometimes referred to as “free will illusionism”. Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky promotes this position. He was interviewed by The Atlantic in an article titled “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will – But we’re better off believing in it anyway”:
“Imagine,” he [Smilanski] told me, “that I’m deliberating whether to do my duty, such as to parachute into enemy territory, or something more mundane like to risk my job by reporting on some wrongdoing. If everyone accepts that there is no free will, then I’ll know that people will say, ‘Whatever he did, he had no choice—we can’t blame him.’ So I know I’m not going to be condemned for taking the selfish option.” This, he believes, is very dangerous for society, and “the more people accept the determinist picture, the worse things will get.”
To put this another way, Smilansky and other illusionists think that free will is an illusion, but that there is a negative consequence to telling people they do not have free will. At that point, they basically allow for an argument from adverse consequence fallacy to take hold, at least when it comes to discussing this topic with the general public.
Other free will skeptics, such as myself, are “disillusionists”. We believe that it is important that people become disillusioned about free will – that everyone recognize that free will is an illusion and understand why. We disagree with Smilanski’s assessment and think it far more dangerous in the long run to sustain the illusion of free will. We look at the type of backward blaming condemnation as something that actually stunts the progression of humanity by justifying hatred, retribution, gross inequalities, and a number of really “dangerous” mindsets. We think the free will topic is a base level topic that plays into so many other important issues that it cannot simply be ignored.
That being said, as a disillusionist myself, I have absolutely no doubt that people new to the topic or who have just learned that free will (in the sense here) is an illusion – often intuitively move to the more futile fatalistic ideas of lacking free will, at least initially. That is right, I think there is a actual legitimate concern that the illusionist brings up. At the same time, taking that concern to the “illusionism” idea is, per me and most disillusionists, a truly horrible solution.
Imagine if we said that people who don’t really understand evolutionary theory very well and who do not believe in it, when “primed” to lean in the direction that it is true, behave poorly or display some fatalistic attitudes that lead to less moral behavior. Would it be best to keep the general public in the dark about evolution and not try to educate them? Well, considering a large part of our biological and medical science depends on the theory, it seems keeping people ignorant of the science would be a horrible idea. We’d be basing our science and hence actions on falsehoods. So even if initially people leaned toward irrational ideas that were a non-sequitur from the idea that we have evolved, they can and should be educated out of those bad ideas. We certainly shouldn’t keep them in the dark at the expense of understanding the implications that the truth holds.
This can be said for any topic in which an initial reaction happens to be irrational and negative, but which, through further education, people can move past the bad ideas and into the good ones (the one’s that are actually rational and helpful). In fact, I’d argue that the only way for humans to progress is to educate people on the truth, and if they make wrong conclusions based on the truth (e.g. if studies show they do this), to educate them out of those wrong conclusions as well. Let’s keep in mind that people are reactionary, especially when something new conflicts with their deeply embedded ideas. Progression and education take time.
For the free will disillusionist, the positives of removing the belief in free will far exceed the negatives of the initial feelings and confusions people may have. It also has the benefit of being the truth, which if we are going to base our actions on anything, it’s usually better not to do so on a falsity. In fact, I’d argue that the more accuracy humans have in regards to what is true, the better they are able to navigate the reality they live in. This should go without saying, but the illusionist would obviously disagree here.
I share pretty much the same thoughts as Gregg Caruso on the topic of illusionism vs. disillusionism. Please read this article by him:
- Does Disbelief in Free Will Increase Anti-Social Behavior? There is no reason to fear free will skepticism.
In it he addresses some of the problems with the studies that prompt this “illusionism” idea, for example, the fact that it’s suggested by many that the wrong things are being primed within the studies. Rather than priming for hard incompatibilist or determinist ideas, other ideas are being primed. As Caruso suggests:
“the Crick excerpt subjects read is actually priming a scientific reductionist view of the mind, one that is proclaimed to demonstrate that free will is an illusion. Free will skepticism, however, need not entail such a reductionist view and the priming passages may be giving participants the mistaken impression that scientists have concluded that their beliefs, desires, and choice are causally inefficacious—a claim not embraced by most philosophical skeptics.”
This, to me, is extremely important. I, for example, am a proponent of mental causation as well as a free will skeptic:
I also reject the more defeatist, fatalist versions of lacking free will, and educate the distinctions frequently:
- Determinism vs. Fatalism (a comparison) – InfoGraphic
- What It Doesn’t Mean to NOT Have Free Will – Infographic
- Pointlessness Doesn’t Follow from Determinism (combating non-sequiturs)
And I promote the benefits of moving away from the free will belief:
Caruso also brings up some other problems with these studies. One is with problems replicating them. For example, one of the most commonly cited studies (cited 341 times in other journals and even cited in “The Atlantic” article I linked above) is titled “Free Will and Cheating” and had various problems being replicated. Another problem is that these studies could build their effects on other psychological issues such as “ego depletion”. Per Caruso addressing Nadelhoffer:
“Thomas Nadelhoffer has argued that it is equally plausible that the cheating behavior is being driven by the more general fact that participants are being told that one of their cherished beliefs has been shown to be an illusion by science.”
Caruso also mentions the fact that the consequences come directly after the “prime”, and seem to be temporary. A while back I addressed this very point here:
So even if we accepted these effects, basically due to a temporary confusion regarding what a lack of free will means or does not, or some other reason such as ego depletion, they say nothing about long-term effects. There is no good reason to assume any problems in the long run. In fact, I’d suggest just the opposite, the benefits far exceed any problems with a temporary misunderstanding that can arise without proper education.
That being said, I think free will skeptics, who are also disillusionists and educators on the topic, need to not only educate people on why free will does not exist, but at the same time on what it means, and even more importantly on what it does not mean – that we lack free will. We need to recognize that people unfamiliar with the topic could initially and reactively leap to the wrong conclusions. We most certainly should create preventative measurements to avoid these types of misinformed leaps when possible.
There is one last point I want to make, and that has to do with how inconsistent the idea that we require illusionism is – if it is at all based on the idea that people will do the wrong things due to having wrong ideas. This suggests that we can correct for one set of misinformation (e.g. having free will) and not for another set of misinformation (a lack of free will makes things futile, or defeatist, or reductionist, or pointless, etc.). This is a sort of educational pessimism for Y, but not for X, that is a kind of special pleading fallacy.
The idea that the mainstream layperson cannot be educated on what it means and does not mean to lack free will (and hence be dangerous due to this misinformation), but at the same time can be educated on the reasons why we lack free will, is inconsistent. If they can learn why we lack free will, they can also learn the actual implications of it and be moved away from incorrect conclusions they have.
If you think they can correct for their free will belief, there is no reason to assume that they cannot correct for their poor assumptions about what it means to not have free will. You can’t have it both ways. If the general population is smart enough to learn and understand why free will is an illusion (which I think they are, even if it’s an uphill battle), it should not be a concern that they will be unable to learn and understand what that means as well. If, on the other hand, they are unable to learn what it means, the chances are high that they are probably equally unable to learn why free will doesn’t exist. So as long as the free will skeptic “disillusionist” teaches both, the concerns of the illusionist should diminish if they are not to special plead. Either people can learn and adjust their position (including their position on free will and what it means) or they cannot.
As free will skeptics who are educators and disillusionists, however, I do urge us all to consider the way we go about educating people. Let’s not just explain why free will cannot exist and leave it to the imaginations of people to interpret what that means. That, perhaps, is the larger lesson we can get from the ideas that surround illusionism:
Let’s carefully educate. Let’s explain in great detail the mistakes people often initially make and why, and what the correct analysis is and why. With that, we will see a much better world with far more compassion – and far less confusion. And we can do this without keeping people in the dark about the truth, and without allowing all of the harms that the belief in free will justifies.
Not sure why you don’t have free will and what it means that you do not? Check out:
Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind
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