If you’ve ever seen the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting you’ll probably remember the powerful scene where the psychologist Maguire, played by Robin Williams, tells Will, a mathematical genius played by Matt Damon, that “It’s not your fault”. At first Will shrugs it off with an “I know” but Maguire ignores the attempts to shrug it of and re-enforces the idea that Will is not to blame. He knows the weight of such a burden on Will even if Will claims to already know that it isn’t his fault.
For this ‘just after’ Halloween post I’ll be moving outside of reality and talk about how souls, spirits, and ghosts cannot be free will mechanisms. I bring this up because someone who had read my book liked it very much, but felt that the section on “supernaturalism” was a little thin. They felt that the book made a strong case for the materialistic account of a lack of free will, but that someone’s “soul” could support some sort of “free will” mechanism.
This post is going to be about some of the problems with free will compatibilist (re)definitions that certain philosophers (which is different than layperson compatibilist intuitions) have. So what is “free will compatibilism”? It’s basically the idea that free will is compatible with a causally deterministic universe (and that indeterminism doesn’t account for free will). For compatibilist philosophers this is accomplished through a redefinition of free will. It’s basically a way to say that, even if our decisions are caused, the fact that we have certain causal processes which can include such things as wanting, desiring, thinking, and rational deliberation, and the fact that sometimes those processes are not prevented in some way by (“free” from) a force such as a person with a gun, a drug addiction, or something similar – that in such a context we can label that “free will”.
Some people believe that there is a separation between the causal events of the world, and the consciousness that happens or that arises from such. In other words, even if the mental may be caused by the physical or is in ways correlated to it, they’d suggest that the mental has no causation back to the physical. This rejection of mental causation most often stems from either:
Straw-man fallacies are interesting because they are almost always intentional, though sometimes they can be unintentional. I tend to think, when a compatibilist (a person who thinks free will is compatible with determinism) uses a straw-man fallacy, that most of the time they don’t do them intentionally – or at least I give the compatibilist the benefit of the doubt. Rather, I think it often comes from a profound misunderstanding or assumption of the free will skeptics position.
Naturalism is the belief that nothing exists outside of the natural world. Many people denote that if naturalism is true (which I believe is the case) that the laws that govern the universe are what make everything happen. That everything which happens in the universe is a physical play out through time. And that means everything single thing, including our conscious thought and decision-making. That these happenings aren’t some magical exceptions to the physics of the universe. In such a natural universe, things such as “free will” just don’t make sense. If our decisions are tied to the physical processes of the universe, then we only have a say in them in so far as the physical processes output what we will say about them. In other words, what we think, feel, say, and do are all an output of how the universe is playing out (both large scale and small scale processes).
And even if we accept that some events don’t have a cause (e.g. certain interpretations of quantum mechanics), those un-caused events are just part of the physical process that we still have no control over.
Though I agree with such analysis for various reasons, I think the incoherence of free will has a much wider reach. In other words, we don’t have to accept a naturalistic worldview to understand that free will doesn’t make any sense what-so-ever.
We just need to understand that an event (something “happening”) must either have a cause (be an output of something that already exists), or not have a cause (just happen – not the output of anything in existence). These are the only two possibilities for events. Not just “naturalistic” events, but any event. A so-called “supernatural” event simply can’t escape this dichotomy.
A confusion that often arises in the free will debate is on the usage of the word “responsibility”. It seems there are multiple ways in which this word can be used.
For example, we might say: “since free will is an illusion, the person that does action X isn’t responsible for such an action”.
But what exactly are we saying here? The problem with such a generalized statement is with the ambiguity of the word “responsibility”. It simply has different meanings, and only one applies to the sense of that sentence.
Someone could say that the person does X therefore the person is what is responsible for X. This is similar to saying the hurricane is responsible for tearing apart that house’s roof. It’s just a way of pinpointing the “thing” that caused the roof to be torn apart. We could also say that the hurricane is “to blame” for the roof being destroyed. But there are multiple ways in which the word “blame” is used as well.
This definition is very different from what the responsibility word surrounding the free will debate is about.
What do you mean I don’t deserve what I’ve worked hard for!
I mean you don’t deserve it any more than anyone else.
I worked hard for it. Of course I deserve it.
One doesn’t follow from the other.
Of course it does. Someone who didn’t work for it wouldn’t deserve it. I did work for it!
They couldn’t have, of their own accord, worked for it, and you couldn’t have not worked for it.
Why couldn’t they have? And why couldn’t I have not?
Because causal events have led them and you to the only possibility. And if there did happen to be another possibility due to non-causal events, those would be entirely out of theirs and your control anyway. There is no free will.
Fine, let’s assume that’s the case. So?
So basically you are saying that you deserve X quality of life because you worked hard for it, while another person doesn’t deserve X quality of life, because they did not work hard for it (they deserve Y, not X). X being a better quality of life than Y.
You better believe it. I put my hard work, sweat, and time into obtaining X quality of life. If they had as well, they’d deserve X quality of life as well.
But again, they couldn’t have and you couldn’t have not.
Fine, then they couldn’t have X and I couldn’t not have X as well.
That doesn’t mean you deserve X over them. It just means that you have X and they don’t.
What, do you think – I should give them half of X even though they didn’t work for it?
I didn’t say that.
It’s implied in saying I don’t deserve X over them.
No, it’s implied that you don’t deserve X over them, not that you should give them half of X.
Wouldn’t it be unfair for me not to give them half of X if they deserved it just as much as I do?
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