I came across a post the other day by an atheist who seems to be a public speaker, and who runs a blog on ChicagoNow. This post was about the “free will” topic and how he holds a belief in free will. To be fair I suspect that the blogger is unfamiliar with much of the nuance of the free will debate from our little chat we had in the comment section, and he seems like a swell guy. I thought it might be good to respond to his post as some of the things in it are those rudimentary mistakes that those new to the debate quite often make, such as the idea that if hard determinism is shown false, that opens the door for free will.
Please read James Kirk Wall‘s post in full here: “This Atheist Believes in Free Will”.
Though it will make my response much longer, I’ll quote each part just to keep his words in full context.
Wall’s post starts out in a strange way, addressing atheisms relation to free will. I suspect this is because he is an outspoken atheist with a focus on that topic.
Would the existence of free will threaten atheism? The answer is no. Life began on earth and that life evolved intelligence. The human brain is the pinnacle of that intelligence. It’s a thinking machine capable of making decisions, even, on occasion, controlled decisions. So what?
How does this threaten atheism at all? Does free will give any legitimacy to the talking snake fable? Is arguing against free will simply an attempt to attack the Abrahamic religions? We are materialists to the extent in which we understand all that we are is in the physical brain. But we shouldn’t treat materialism like a religion.
Here Wall is, of course, correct. Atheism is just the lack of belief in a god or gods. One can be a theist (believe in a god or gods) and hold a belief in free will, or they can be a theist and disbelieve in free will. One can also be an atheist and believe in free will, or be an atheist and disbelieve in free will. Now I’d argue the belief in free will in the important sense (the one that applies to just desert responsibility or what I refer to as the “strong sense of responsibility”) is an irrational belief regardless if one is a theist or an atheist, but the topic of free will is not tied to theism or atheism and both can (and should) understand why we lack it and what that means that we do.
In regards to “a thinking machine capable of making decisions, even, on occasion, controlled decisions”, most free will skeptics would not reject this ability though the idea of “controlled decisions” would fall under causally controlled by a product (we are products) that ultimately stemmed back to events that were outside of any control of that product.
Next he mentions “Abrahamic religions”. For this, arguing against free will is not simply to attack the Abrahamic religions (there are far more important reasons to reject free will), but it does put into question notions of “hellfire” being at all just, and various problems with “original sin” and other strange factors of various religions used to invoke blame. It also should be noted that the reason we lack free will does not reside on materialism being necessary. It just resides on an understanding of cause and effect (logically), and how anything that could fall outside of cause and effect cannot be “caused by us”. Even some magical, supernatural cause simply could not help the free will of importance – at least if we are to accept the constraints of being logically coherent.
After this, Wall asks a question that much of his argument for free will seems to reside on:
What’s the alternative to a worldview of free will? Hard determinism?
Though posed in question format, the author sort of suggests a false dichotomy – that if no free will, then hard determinism, and much of the arguments made suggest vice versa, that if no hard determinism, then free will. Keep in mind that this also sets him up for what I and many consider the worst account of free will, which is that of the “libertarian” variety. The word “libertarian” here is not used in the political sense, it simply means that some notion of indeterminism (lack of determinism) can grant free will. Keep in mind that free will compatibilists and free will skeptics alike (almost always) reject this libertarian variety of “free will”, and for good reason: Any indeterministic event, whether that be an event without a cause, or some more magical ontological probability, would never be “up to the chooser”. These events would just “pop into existence” or be like “throwing magical dice” in which what lands is but sheer luck (or unluckiness depending on outcome). Let’s move on.
Can your decision to read this article be traced to the beginning of the Big Bang? According to Hard Determinism the answer is yes. Every event was caused by a past event without exception.
Though it is true that hard determinism says this, most hard determinists are also hard incompatibilists, meaning they say that even IF indeterminism was the case, this could not help with free will. If you are unfamiliar with the term “hard incompatibilism” read here:
Through reductionism everything can be traced back, or reduced down, to one singular thing.
I disagree that reductionism is required for hard determinism or for (theoretically) “tracing causal events” back to the so-called ‘beginning’ of the known universe. I think this often comes down to a misuse to the term “reductionism”. The reality is, it is also the case that a holistic or downward causal approach would be equally as deterministic, meaning parts cause “wholes” with properties that play back “down” into the part behaviour. One does not have to be a reductionist to note that non-reductionism would not equate to indeterminism. The wholes would be equally as caused as the parts, and vice versa.
As soon as the Big Bang began, and anything leading up to that moment which is unknown to us, everything was determined. Hence the word determinism. With the size, speed, and direction of celestial bodies we can trace where they were in the past and determine where they will be in the future.
Causal determinism does not suggest that we can or will be able to trace events like this. A common misconception is to suggest that determinism for the free will debate means that we can “determine” or predict events. Rather, it means that each event that takes place is determined by another (antecedent) event (or events) which is equally determined by others (so on down the line), regardless of a capacity to trace these or not. Sure, we can use a Laplace’s Demon thought experiment for the “predictability” aspect, but it is hardly needed for the tenets of causal determinism.
Here is a post I wrote about the terms used for the debate:
Even if no “trace” could ever happen due to various technicalities regarding the limitations on knowledge – like the measurement problem at the small-scale (that in order to measure at this scale one must interact, changing what was being measured), the uncertainty principle (problems measuring both momentum and position at the small-scale), chaos theory (small changes producing complex and large differences that cannot reasonably be kept track of), or what not – it is still the case that causal determinism may be true and that all events were dictated by other events.
Our minds are made up of star stuff. They contain the same elements and therefore must contain the same determined paths. Or do they?
If every event has a cause – yes – they do. If some events do not have a cause, if we invoke indeterminism in, they do not. But indeterminism is anything but a saviour of “free will” as will be pointed out.
To provide another view of the implication of hard determinism, think about the following scenario. Take our current universe and go back 10,000 years. Freeze time and make a snap shot. Make 100 exact copies and unfreeze time. Our universe will be exactly the same as it would be akin to rewinding a movie and letting it play again. The 10,000 years already happened for our universe. But for the other 100, it was a fresh start 10,000 years ago.
First it must be denoted that the idea of “copies” bring up notions of inexact copies even if the word “exact” is used, as it suggests a separateness from the original, something perhaps, in some ways, locationally different. One cannot imagine a “copy” that is exact in every way, because a copy is not (in the logical sense) identical to what it is a copy of. This is why, rather than “make a copy”, we usually just bring back time to 10,000 years and let causality “play out again” from that point in time of the same universe.
So here’s the question, after 10,000 years are the 101 universes exactly alike? The positioning of the stars and galaxies would be exactly the same. But what about human civilization? If human events and history is different in all 100 worlds; that would mean random choices exist. Anything random destroys the concept of determinism. An action out of randomness is unpredictable and not determinable.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the word “exact” means identical in every way (even though that is impossible for copies – let’s not nitpick as I think we know what Wall is alluding to) – if every event has a sufficient cause, there would be 101 universes that are exactly alike. The playout must be identical. For there to be a change, there would have to be a difference somewhere (which if identical cannot happen) or there would have to be an indeterministic event (an event without a sufficient cause).
Such an indeterministic event cannot in any way, shape, or form, be “chosen”. The word “random” used here is also one of those words that are often conflated. A truly random event is one that is not caused to be a specific state. This differs from the randomness of say a “roll of a die” in which physics dictates exactly what number that die will land on (even if we may not know all of the causal variables). A truly random event in the indeterministic sense is one that is not sufficiently caused by antecedent events. A truly random choice is a contradiction, as choosing is caused by a chooser.
Wall is correct that anything truly random in the universe means that determinism is not sustained, but the reason is because there was an event that was not determined by an antecedent cause (the reason is not because it was unpredictable and undeterminable – though it is the case that a truly random event must be those as well). And because it was not determined by an antecedent cause, it cannot be determined by a willer. This is why indeterminism simply cannot help free will. If anything, if an indeterministic event had any say over our thoughts and actions, these events would more likely be a detriment to willing. At least on a causal account there can be a causal chain of so called “causally willed” events – even if they could not have been otherwise (not free). Suggesting an otherwise possibility from indeterminism is like saying one’s decisions are made on the whim of acausal events popping into existence or the roll of quantum decision making dice. This is anything but free will
Even free will compatibilists note the problems with suggesting indeterminism helps with free will.
Why should we believe that the human mind contains the same determinism of celestial bodies? Why would we not believe that the human brain is an agent capable of making undeterminable random choices?
First, I don’t know why he separates out the human brain here. If indeterminism happens in the universe, it happens at the quantum scale regardless of being in a brain or not.
Second, any true randomness in the brain that affects our decision-making process cannot be up to the chooser any more than the causal events that our decisions ultimately stem from that are outside of us. We are products of our biology and environment, and if that environment happens to be bombarded with indeterministic events, those events not only would be out of our control entirely, but also be far more of a detriment to the coherency of our thoughts. It would be like typing this post with random letters just popping into the coherent thought.
Of couPrWQse th@t woQSuFld notT be vQSDVery heF1lp9ful. 😉
How does this relate to free will? Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded. You’re making a decision, there are at least two options. Not only are you unimpeded on what to choose, you are unimpeded in what not to choose. According to hard determinism, free will is just an illusion. Any decision we make was already determined.
Here Wall define’s what he is calling “free will”. This is appreciated as many people miss the step of defining what they are referring to. Let’s, however, go over this definition:
Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.
This is better than compatibilist notions as it suggests that free will requires one to be able to choose otherwise. That there is more than one possible course of action. As he already recognizes, if the universe is deterministic, then there is only one possible course of action, so he must inject in indeterminism. This makes his position strictly of the libertarian variety (requiring indeterminism).
Now let’s look at the key word he decides on for his definition: “unimpeded”. The question must be asked, unimpeded by what? Certainly an indeterministic event that a person would have absolutely no control over the outcome of, that changed the course of action, would be a huge impediment. This would impede on the choice you were going to causally make, my hitting you with some truly random event that was entirely out of your control. How could indeterministic events that bombard one’s coherent causal flow of thoughts or decision-making not be something that impeded? It seems we don’t have his definition of free will either.
Our gender, parents, genes, cognitive ability, innate talents, time, place, and economic circumstances into which we happen to be born were not our decisions to make and yet provide enormous influence on who we are and how we think.
Not just an “enormous influence”, these are the things that make up our state of being. Throwing (truly) random events into that influence is not helpful when we are not any more responsible for those random events than we are the above.
Do these factors influence our decision making? I don’t see how anyone can argue that they don’t. But do these factors not only influence, but determine every decision we make? I would argue no.
Arguing “no” here is not to argue for a coherent view of free will.
I believe that humans have free will. But let’s not think of this as an on-and-off switch. And let’s be clear on all that’s necessary to debunk determinism. Let’s suppose out of every 10,000 decisions you make, 9,999 are predetermined based on past events and one is based on choosing possible courses of action unimpeded. Hard determinism is dead, and every instance of the 100 word scenario has a different human civilization.
And here it is, the libertarian argument for free will: hard determinism is or may be untrue (as there is or may be indeterminism), therefore “free will”.
And there is that word “unimpeded” as if a truly random event affecting our decisions would not be an impediment. As if we would have some say over such an event taking place the way it does and causing what it does. First, we don’t know if such an indeterministic event can happen, that depends perhaps on which quantum interpretation one subscribes to. But even if we accept that there is real indeterminism in the universe, even if hard determinism is not the case in that a full chain of events had to all causally happen, indeterminism in any sense of that word cannot help with free will and just labeling random events that would be out of the control of willing as “free will” is the reason libertarian notions of free will are not taken seriously.
But would only a fraction of a fraction of free will make any significant difference? The answer is yes. A small decision can have an enormous rippling effect. Let’s suppose an ancestor 10,000 years ago that was female, instead of going with male A mated with male B. An entire lineage is changed. Generations expanding exponentially to other generations over 10,000 years are effected.
A fraction of an indeterministic event can theoretically have a rippling effect (though even then many would suggest that large-scale determinism would probably be an overriding factor), but such an event is not something you would have any control over, and any ripple effect it caused would be equally out of your control. To call this free will is no conception of free will that is of any worth. It would still be the case that we were not morally responsible in the just desert sense – as we simply could not be responsible for some truly random / indeterministic event that created a ripple effect.
In our own history, let’s suppose Plato dedicates himself to writing tragedies instead of being a student of Socrates. That would result in a significant change to our current history of Western Civilization.
Again, a historical change that was out of our control is not free will, it just would point out the whim of indeterminism that our future would be susceptible to. It would be a detriment to our capacities to make reliable predictions – that is about it. And if these events were pervasive, it would make even consequentialist assessments become untenable. At least sufficient causality is something we can work to understand and causally have an intentional effect on.
At this point in the post the author turns the tables in important ways that I don’t think he is aware of.
Going back to the circumstances that we’re born into, I don’t believe those factors mean we don’t have free will. The implication is that not everyone has the same level of free will. Making decisions is about having options. As a writer in the United States with a laptop, internet connection, and blogging site, I have an enormous set of options on how I want to express myself. But let’s suppose I was born into poverty in North Korea.
Perhaps he does not realize this, but now he has converted to promoting more a compatibilist notion of free will – one that is “compatible with determinism”. I find these sorts of conversions very telling, as they sort of point out a lack of the nuance when understanding this topic. Note that one could lack options that another has, for example, someone in prison lacks the option to be able to go to the movie theatre on a Saturday night with friends, but given determinism, if the person not in prison does decide to go to the movie theatre, she still could not have done otherwise than make that decision and go. The fact, however, that she had the “freedom” to do so while the prisoner did not have that freedom, is the sense of “freedom” often used by compatibilists. If someone is not restricted, coerced by another, and so on, they have “more free will” than another who has these restrictions, per many compatibilists.
This compatibilist notion is a better free-will version than what Wall has been arguing for prior. Of course I argue against compatibilist definitions of free will as they also bypass the important points of the debate and cause unnecessary and harmful confusions for laypersons who carry more problematic notions of free will abilities.
In all the discussions about free will, what should be included is freedom. If all you have to eat is rice, guess what you’re going to have for diner. Let’s suppose you have money and traveled to Chicago, New York, or Paris. You go out to eat, but haven’t decided what. You go out the door and start walking around a place you’ve never been to. Where will the journey take you?
No one can predict what you’ll wind up eating. You can’t predict what you’ll wind up eating. You pass 20 restaurants, back up five, and wind up at restaurant number fifteen. There are 100 things on the menu. You narrow it down to two choices, and you can go either way. You wind up with A instead of B, but you could have gone with B instead of A.
And now we see some strange mix of compatibilism and libertarianism. First he addresses the restrictions of having only rice, and how certain factors can have less restrictions. This is inherently compatibilistic as it does not require indeterminism.
But then Wall hits us back with:
You wind up with A instead of B, but you could have gone with B instead of A.
This is specifically indeterministic if he is saying, given the same initial conditions, that you going to B was a real possibility. For that you would need an indeterministic event somewhere down the line, one that would be entirely out of your control. If you went to B instead of A, it would be something forced upon you by indeterministic events you’d have no control over, which is not any better than you deterministically going to A instead of B (in fact I’d argue worse for willing).
Sam Harris believes that free will is an illusion, it doesn’t exist. But the premature conclusions of the Benjamin Libet experiment which he uses to base this claim in his book Free Will has since been debunked. Sam Harris cannot say that science has proven free will doesn’t exist. He wrote a book and gave lectures based on a conclusion from an inconclusive experiment. That is one heck of a blunder!
I tend to agree with Wall that the Libet experiments alone are insufficient, but Harris does not use this as his only mechanism for defending against free will. His book is not entirely about this experiment. That being said I think the neuroscientific evidence against free will is excellent supporting evidence in rejection of it:
But Harris only uses the Libet experiments as an example on the neuroscience front and to suggest this is the entire base for his conclusion is a strawman of his position. It is easy to call a strawman of someone else’s position a “blunder”.
In matters of randomness, Harris argues that random choices do exist but doesn’t mean free will. Why? He argues that unless you can explain why you picked one option over the other at random, like the two choices in the restaurant scenario, that’s not free will. I would argue that Sam Harris is wrong. You don’t need to explain why, you simply need to make the choice, understand the choice, and accept the consequences.
This is another strawman of Harris. First, Harris is not denoting some sort of “random” event here (especially in the indeterministic sense), he is pointing out that conscious processes stem from unconscious processes and we often don’t even know why certain thoughts come to the forefront of consciousness and not others at any given moment (not that they randomly happen). Harris tries to get people to experience a sense where there is no free will. But this is hardly his argument for why free will does not exist, rather it is an intuitive type of thought experiment he uses addressing that even the experience of free will can be adjusted if one thinks about it.
This being said, I myself do not agree with Harris on everything and I think some of the ways he words things can cause problems in the minds of others (but the bigger picture he is right on). I wrote this a while back about his talk on the experience of lacking free will:
I appreciate Harris for being a popularizer of free will skepticism, and for that his work is important, but other free will skeptics I think have said it better at times.
You picked from the menu. If the food is delicious, you picked wisely. If the food is terrible, you screwed up! And now you’ll have to live with regret.
Sure, regret can happen even if one understands they lack free will. One can even be frustrated that an event played out the way they did, or that they deliberated the way they did and made a poor decision. One can also be happy that they made a good decision. One can even learn from past mistakes. All of this can be part of causal processing and one does not have to inject in notions of blameworthiness to have regret or frustration over an event in hindsight. A sucky event is still a sucky event.
I found it interesting that Harris injected this “you need to understand why” into the definition of free will. Seems like an attempt to move the goal post. My statement that free will is simply an illusion rests on shaky ground, therefore I’ll attempt to redefine the term rather than admit my logic may have been a bit faulty.
That is not exactly correct. This is how Harris defines free will in his book:
- that each of us could have behaved differently in the past
- that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present
Now I don’t even need #2 the way Harris defines it, I would just say that for the free will of importance:
- that we could have done otherwise (which is the same as he says in his #1), and
- the event that causes the “otherwise” difference to happen would have to be something that could be “up to us” (not something out of the control of the willer).
I compact this into “the ability to have done, of one’s own accord, otherwise”. I also provide a present tense version so people don’t get hung up on tense: Free Will
The reason this (or something like this) is the definition of importance is that, without this ability, we cannot be “just desert morally responsible” or what I call “the strong sense of responsibility” in this infographic:
I really found this statement of Harris interesting as I’ve heard the exact opposite. If you understand why you made a decision it was not free will. Why? Because there were obviously pre-existing reasons that determined the choice. So people arguing that there’s no free will seem to be saying that if you know why you made the choice, it’s not free will, and if you don’t know why you made the choice, it’s not free will. How convenient.
Harris is not suggesting there are not pre-existing reasons (here Wall is making non-sequiturs), Harris is suggesting that unconscious reasons fall outside of “conscious willing”. They fall outside of “conscious decision making”. But unconscious processes are pre-existing reasons that determine the choice. The fact that free will is incoherent either way is not the fault of the free will skeptic.
When it comes to analyzing a decision and finding out why it was made, here’s the problem. No matter what decision was made, it can be analyzed and reasoning can be made. If out of 1,000 choices someone went with #937, we can examine the reasoning as to why. But if they went with choice #47, we could also examine the reasoning as to why. For a hard determinist, reasoning why a decision was made becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that it must have been made.
Again, to suggest that the deliberation process could have ended in #937 or #47 is to inject in indeterminism that would be entirely outside of the control of the willer – logically. If #937 had a sufficient cause for it and that cause had a cause, the only way to get to #47 would be an event without a sufficient cause being thrown into the mix without the willers say.
But let’s suppose hard determinism is right. Each instance in the 100 world scenario is exactly alike. Each world contains the same population, and the same history. Everything was indeed determined before the human species even existed. Well now what? What are the practical implications? Are there any?
There are tons of practical implications with understanding we don’t have free will in both a deterministic universe (hard determinism) and an indeterministic universe (hard incompatibilism).
Here are just 10 of the benefits of not believing in free will:
A big criticism of hard determinism is that if people aren’t free to choose their options, nobody can be accountable for them. Criminals were going to do bad things, it’s not like they had any control. We should feel sorry for them. Why should we punish people that couldn’t help what they were doing?
So shouldn’t we change our justice system if we have determined free will doesn’t exist? The answer is no. Not that we should never make changes to our system, but not based on determinism.
The lack of free will has huge implication for the way we run our criminal system. Free will skeptics such as Pereboom and Caruso address these at length. We need to move away from retributive models that only reinforce undesirable behaviors, and focus on more rehabilitative and quarantine models:
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “there’s a new sheriff in town.” Where did this expression come from? When European settlers in the U.S. headed west, remote towns were established. Without organized law enforcement, these towns were lawless. People didn’t feel safe walking the streets.
So some tough son-of-a-gun comes into town, takes the badge, and makes their presence known. I’m the new sheriff in these parts and everyone will obey the law. If they don’t I will hunt them down and string them up. Not wanting any part of that, people who were causing problems are now walking the straight and narrow. Crime goes down significantly and people now feel safe to walk the streets.
This is the very archaic, even barbaric mentality free will skeptics are looking to change. We don’t live in the “wild west” any longer and the idea is to progress, not to regress. The lack of free will does not equal just letting all criminals run free, it doesn’t even equate to no crime deterrence. What it does equate to is a compassion for the variables of people who, if you were in their shoes atom for atom, you would have acted just like. We also need to account for victims who do not deserve being victimized by causally unfortunate mentalities. The criminal system, however, needs to remove retributive justice and just focus on the most compassionate consequentialist justice possible.
What if the sheriff came in and said, “All your actions are determined, and since everyone is going to do what they’re going to do anyway, no one can be blamed for anything.” What would happen? Crime would continue.
The actions of the sheriff establishing law and order immediately became a past action that directly impacted future actions. Even if these actions were determined, they still made a positive and significant impact.
No, not holding people “to blame” does not equate to not preventing criminals from harmful acts – any more than not holding people who accidentally contract a contagious disease “to blame” would prevent us from quarantining that person, or not holding a mentally ill person “to blame” would prevent us from stopping that person from harmful acts. In fact we can still have great concern and compassion for the person in quarantine or the mentally ill person, yet still prevent them – even against their wishes. Same with the criminal who is a product of circumstances.
Fatalism is the belief that none of our actions mean anything. That doesn’t make any sense at all.
Wall has that right, but whatever you do, don’t conflate determinism (or hard incompatibilism) with fatalism. They are not the same thing:
Our thoughts and actions play a causal role in the future output, even if those thoughts and actions stem from events that were ultimately out of our control – our biology, and our environment (and any acausal events we are bombarded in per the indeterminist).
The bottom line is that a society must establish law and order. Good arms and good laws as Machiavelli would say. This means people need to be made accountable for their actions in order to guide others in making constructive decisions. Actions to help determine future actions.
Yes, we need to have “law and order”, but you know where the crime rates are less? Where criminals are treated with compassion rather than hatred and disdain. Take Norway’s prison system as an example. We also need to understand that people are not truly blameworthy in the “just desert” sense (in the sense that they deserve it). This leads to far greater compassion over the causal variables of another, and leads to lesser harsh punishments that they are not truly deserving of.
Hard determinists will often throw out extreme examples where people didn’t have free will. A brain tumor or schizophrenia caused someone to be violent. How can you punish people in those instances? But our justice system already has ways to address those uncommon scenarios. Reasons of insanity or temporary insanity, if proven to the court, receive a different sentence than those determined to have control, meaning free will.
Here Wall misses the point of these so-called “extreme examples”. There are a few points:
- Someone who is not considered mentally ill or who does not have a brain tumor is not any more “blameworthy” for the causal variables that have led up to their particular “sound mind” brain state at any given moment that processed a bad decision.
- We still prevent people with brain tumors or mental illnesses from harmful acts, even though they obviously are not blameworthy. They are just the product of unlucky circumstances, yet we don’t just “let ’em loose on the streets” as free will advocates like to suggest we would need to do with criminals if we understand they are not blameworthy.
Yes, the way we rehabilitate someone of supposed “sound mind” may differ from one of a mental illness, just as someone with a brain tumor differs as well. But the free will skeptic would hold that all three are equally as unblameworthy in the sense that they do not deserve punishment for their wrongdoing (even if we had to for consequentialist reasons). It just happens that the “sound mind” person was influenced by causal factors that stem from events that are out of their control (or if one inject in indeterminism, then uncaused or probabilistic factors that were out of their control as well).
What about someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol? They are made accountable for taking the drugs or alcohol. We don’t let off drunk drivers because their judgement was impaired.
If all Wall means by “accountable” is that “we prevent drunk drivers from injuring and killing others” then that is no different than quarantining people with contagious diseases. They are “accountable” in the same sense that they had the unlucky variables to contract the disease. Likewise, the drunk driver had the unlucky variables for the psychological disposition to drive in that condition.
Mentioning half-baked experiments, and stating the obvious that past events have impact on our thinking and decision making, simply doesn’t add up to a good argument for hard determinism.
These are not “half-baked” experiments and have been reproduced, but again, this is not the argument for hard determinism and hard incompatibilism. Those arguments are logical arguments, and that is all that is needed to show that the free will of importance simply does not exist. The experiments are only supporting evidence from the neuroscientific front, they are not the end-all-be-all for why free will does not exist by any stretch of the imagination.
The arguments that our justice system should somehow reflect an understanding that we don’t have free will, even though that claim is uncertain, don’t appear to offer any intelligent reasoning as to why.
The claim that the free will of importance does not exist is not any more “uncertain” than the idea that invisible non-monkey monkeys who live in the core of uranus and who knit ontological square-circles do not exist is “uncertain”. Free will is logically incoherent in both a deterministic and indeterministic universe.
But even if free will was not logically ruled out, the burden of proof would still be on the person who claims it exists, and until proven, one should still “lack a belief in free will”. Wall is a self-proclaimed “atheist”, and should understand the distinction between weak atheism (lack of belief in a god or gods) and strong atheism (the belief that god does not exist). For free will, if there is no evidence of it (which there is not) and evidence against it (which there is), at the very least he should lack the belief in it until (good) evidence shows up. And for that matter the justice system should do the same. I’m fairly sure Wall doesn’t think the notion of “god” should affect our justice system until such time as “god is disproven”.
That being said, free will skeptics take on an extra burden to “prove a negative” which they successfully do by showing how free will is logically incoherent. Though that is as sufficient as showing that square-circles don’t exist, there is even scientific evidence piling up against free will. On top of all of that is the understanding that the belief in free will is a positive claim (like the belief in a god) that holds it’s own burden of proof. Due to this, if Wall wants to promote critical thinking, he should be an a-free-will-ist. 😉
Sam Harris seems to argue that when people hurt people, we should feel the same way as if the damage was done by a lower animal or weather event. We shouldn’t hate the people that hurt people and we shouldn’t want vengeance upon them. To me, that ideology is naïve, incoherent, and self-destructive.
There is an irony when Wall calls free will skepticism and the rejection of hatred and retributivism as “naïve, incoherent, and self-destructive”. Not only is the free will of importance incoherent, but free will belief has caused way too many harms.
The idea of determinism may belong in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, but outside of academia, it doesn’t appear to have practical applications. So keep doing what you’re doing, even if you don’t have a choice.
This idea that free will skepticism (which again is entailed in both determinism and indeterminism) does not appear to have practical applications probably stems from insufficient education on the topic. Here is a post I wrote on this some time back. Though it focuses on the problem with compatibilism for the importance of free will, it also details out the very practical importance to the free will debate:
The free will topic also affects individual mindsets in various important ways. Here are some infographics to give just a few ideas:
All of this being said, this post is not to demean Wall in any way, like I said, he seems like a great guy and if we lived near each other he’d be the type of person I would have a coffee with to discuss this topic further. Perhaps he will read this and disagree with my criticisms – in fact often criticisms like these are met with defensiveness (I hope this is not the case with him). Perhaps I’m even mistaken on his real position or have missed something important. But from my read of his post, it seems that he might have just started with the topic and what he has expressed in his blog is just a causal starting point to a transition to a more rational position of free will skepticism or at the very least a non-strong responsibility compatibilist (NSRC).
Latest posts by 'Trick Slattery (see all)
- Compatibilism: A Parable (comic) - December 7, 2017
- A Response to a Blog: “This Atheist Believes in Free Will” - November 30, 2017
- Free Will Exists!! (and Happy S-S-Day) - August 31, 2017