It’s holiday time, so why not tell people to believe in fictions as their New Year’s resolution?
Another nonsensical article has cropped up titled “Need a New Year’s Resolution? Believe in Free Will!” written by science writer John Horgan for the Scientific American website. Of course this opinion piece is anything but scientific or unbiased.
In this article Horgan takes the compatibilist position of Daniel Dennett, basically defining free will as something compatible with reality, but avoiding the free will most people feel they possess.
In this lengthy article that doesn’t get to the point until near the end, I’m going to only address the absurd and entirely relevant parts to the debate on free will. So go ahead and read the article here, and let’s get to it!
The first part where Horgan actually addresses the idea of free will is when he starts discussing Dennett’s ideas about the term:
“Dennett calls free will “an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs,” which humanity acquired recently as a consequence of language and culture. Free will is a variable rather than binary property, which can wax and wane in both individuals and societies; the more choices we can perceive and act upon, the more free will we have. Dennett’s most subtle, profound point is that free will is both an “objective phenomenon” and dependent on our belief in and perception of it, “like language, music, money and other products of society.”
Notice that a single definition of free will never comes about. Both Horgan and Dennett seem to do this. They assume qualities or various things about free will, but they never really define what it is in any clear way. They create these really vague notions about it such as it being a “consequence of language and culture” or it’s “a variable”. And somehow this “variable” can “wax and wane”. It’s a special waxing and waning variable. Pretty cool huh? And the more choices we “perceive and act upon”, the more of these super special “waxing and waning free will variables” we have. Oh, and we only have these variables if we believe in free will and “perceive it”. And it’s an “objective phenomenon”, that obviously only happens when we believe in it and perceive it. You know, like language, music, and money that only objectively exist if you believe in them.
The above passage by Horgan is steeped in a thicket of dogma. But people who want to hold on to their “free will” won’t see it. The fact of the matter is, more options do not make us more free to choose any one of them. They are all a part of the causality that lead to selecting the one option dictated by such. Just as every other variable is a part of the process that leads to selecting that one option. And those options will be there whether we believe in free will or not. We just won’t (if we understand that we lack free will) mistakenly believe that we could have, of our own accord, chosen otherwise … once we do select one or act on one. And that’s the important part about not believing in the free will definition of relevance. It’s the key point that people like Horgan miss entirely.
So let’s move on:
“We, in turn, are dependent on free will. The concept of free will underpins all our ethics and morality; it forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or a divine plan. Choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Try telling prisoners in Guantanamo or Syrian civilians fleeing bombs and bullets that choices are illusory. “Let’s change places,” they might respond, “since you have nothing to lose.””
Here, Horgan conflates fatalism with hard determinism or hard incompatibilism. A common thing that I have debunked in numerous other articles. He also assumes that a freely made choice is what makes life meaningful, not recognizing that such is a nonsequitur. Meaning does not follow from freedom of the will. In fact, if this freedom actually existed (which it does not), such could very well lead to a less meaningful response (or even one with meaning in the form of harmful or negative meaning).
He is right, however, that free will underpins people’s ideas about ethics and morality, especially when it comes to our capacity to place unwarranted blame, grant unwarranted deserve, justify inequality and unfairness, allow us to be angry with those who act unethically in our eyes, to take retributive action, and so on. Yes, indeed, the very understanding that we lack free will must tie into our ethical system (my next book’s topic). The belief in free will is actually very corrosive to an ethical system for a number of reasons.
And most free will skeptics don’t say things like “choices are illusory”, only that one of those options that we choose are dictated by antecedent variables, and if another becomes viable due to some non-caused event (indeterminism) that would be completely out of a willers control. But it certainly does not follow that someone has “nothing to lose” by switching places with prisoners in Guantanamo fleeing bombs and bullets. Once again, this is a conflation of determinism with fatalism.
“Freedom, Dennett asserts, can be “studied objectively from a no-nonsense, scientific point of view.” The nonprofit organization Freedom House does just that by charting the ebb and flow of freedom around the world. Freedom House defines a nation as “free” if it meets two criteria. First, it must “elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate.” Second, the nation must allow “freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state.””
Here Horgan conflates the word freedom used in “a free nation” with freedom of the will. Yes, the word freedom can and is used in many contexts. We can say that a person leaving prison has gained their “freedom”, or that for some countries there is “freedom of speech” or “freedom of religion” or some might have “financial freedom”, and so on. None of these “freedoms”, however, imply that the will is free (freedom of the will). That’s simply not how freedom is used in these contexts. And yes, context is everything. Placing the word “free” before the word “will” is an entirely different context than placing it before the word “falling” while skydiving.
So on to Horgan’s conclusion (or rather unfounded assertion):
“So there you have it. Not only does free will exist. We have much more of it now than our ancestors did. If we keep believing in it and insisting on our right to it, maybe someday we’ll all be free, in our own imperfect, confabulating way.”
What can one say other than this:
I define fairies as the little white floating dandelion florets and seeds that the wind carries away, but only if you believe in fairies, otherwise they are just florets and seeds and not fairies. So there you have it, fairies objectively exist. Not only that, the more you believe in fairies and the more dandelions you allow to take over your lawn, the more fairies you allow to exist! So for your New Year’s resolution, why not believe in fairies? I’m sure it would be less harmful than believing in free will. Just be careful with the mower this year!
Or perhaps we simply shouldn’t be playing around with terms in which the majority or people hold an entirely different definition to. Especially when the majority definition or intuition is one that is causing great harms in the world (such as with free will). If you’re unsure why the belief in free will is so dangerous, perhaps read Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind as your New Year’s resolution instead.
And causally have a wonderful New Year!