‘Free Will’ — a pseudo problem

By | October 8, 2019

The quoted excerpts are from an article • ” The World Without Free Wıll” by Azim F. Shariff and Kathleen D. Vohs

What happens to a society that believes people have no conscious control over their actions?

• In the past decade an increasing number of neuroscientists and philosophers have argued that free will does not exist. Rather we are pushed around by our unconscious minds, with the illusion of conscious control.
• In parallel, recent studies suggest that the more people doubt free will, the less they support criminal punishment and the less ethically they behave toward one another.

In reference to the man who choked his wife to death while sleepwalking, unaware of what he was doing..)

Such cases force people to consider what it means to have free will. During sleepwalking the brain clearly can direct people’s actions without engaging their full conscious cooperation. Recently an increasing number of philosophers and neuroscientists have argued that—based on a current understanding of the human brain—we are all in a way sleepwalking all the time. Instead of being the intentional authors of our lives, we are simply pushed around by past events and by the behind-the-scenes machinations of our unconscious minds. Even when we are wide awake, free will is just an illusion.

Philosophers with this viewpoint argue that all organisms are bound by the physical laws of a universe wherein every action is the result of previous events. Human beings are organisms. Thus, human behavior results from a complex sequence of cause and effect that is completely out of our control. The universe simply does not allow for free will. Recent neuroscience studies have added fuel to that notion by suggesting that the experience of conscious choice is the outcome of the underlying neural processes that produce human action, not the cause of them. Our brains decide everything we do without “our” help—it just feels like we have a say.
Not everyone agrees, of course, and debates over the existence of free will continue to rage. . .
Robert, thanks for an interesting article from Scientific American on one of my favorite subjects: The philosophical quandary concerning free will.  I agree with the authors that if people believe that humans lack freedom of action and humans are caused to do what they do by events and conditions out of their control, then there would be dire consequences for people’s ethical behavior and their treatment of others. Of course, if one is not responsible for what one does then those disposed to exploit and cheat will do so, while denying any and all responsibility. The consequences for our legal system and ethical/moral conventions would be dire. I also agree with their statement that most people who deny that anyone ever acts of his own free will favor penalties that are intended to reform and deter bad behavior over penalties that are retributive and mete out punishment for the sake of punishment.

“As our research has suggested, the more people doubt free will, the more lenient they become toward those accused of crimes and the more willing they are to break the rules themselves and harm others to get what they want. Thus, the second possibility is that newfound skepticism of free will may end up threatening the humanitarian revolution, potentially culminating in anarchy.”

They suggest that a possible solution is to reinvent belief in free will.

“More likely is the third possibility. In the 18th century Voltaire famously asserted that if God did not exist, we would need to invent him because the idea of God is so vital to keeping law and order in society. Given that a belief in free will restrains people from engaging in the kind of wrongdoing that could unravel an ordered society, the parallel is obvious. What will our society do if it finds itself without the concept of free will? It may well reinvent it.”

However, avoiding such utterly bad consequences for society surely does not require the invention of a mysterious faculty called free will. This is because the problem of free will should never have been laid in terms of the question: Does free will exist? Of course, it does not. But that is entirely irrelevant to real questions about human freedom or the lack of it.

There isn’t any  human faculty of free will. Modern neurology, evolutionary biology, and the cognitive sciences have established this much. Materialists (philosophers) have also known this for centuries. There is no such thing as free will.
But from this is does not follow that humans lack the capacity to act ‘freely,’ in the sense that in many cases (most cases for some) people do what they want to do and what they think is in their best interest. It does not at all follow that people are not in conscious control of what they do. (Imagine that we believed this screwy proposition. Would we get in our cars and drive the public streets and roads?) It also does not follow that people are not responsible for their actions, or open to blame when they screw up and credited with commendation when they do well.

In many cases (in most cases for those fortunate enough to live in a free, open society) we are not pushed around and compelled to act by external causes, such as a powerful, totalitarian state, or in the case of slavery, by the slave master and his police force. And even in many cases in which unconscious motivations cause us to act in uncharacteristic ways, we’re still generally responsible for what we do, unless our situation is a pathological one  (We are not sleepwalking. We are not drunk or in a drug-induced stupor.).  There are exceptions to the general fact that humans are responsible for what they do. These are exceptions which are recognized by medical professionals and the legal systems. But exceptions do not make up the general conditions of human behavior. It is false on the face of it, that “we are all in a way sleepwalking all the time.”

Humans are organisms bound by laws of physics, chemistry and biology. And, if I allow for the sake of argument that the “universe does not allow for free will,” (in the sense of a faculty that is unaffected by physical causation), then we could agree that there’s no free will in the universe. But that mysterious, metaphysical, spiritual entity called ‘free will’ is not at all a necessary condition for affirming that in the ordinary meaning of freely chosen actions – doing what one desires to do and what one judges to be in one’s best interest – people act freely much of the time.

Yes, we are conditioned to varying degrees by all kinds of neurological conditions, physiological conditions, genetic conditions, environmental conditions, etc. We don’t live and act in a vacuum free of external and internal causation. But this does not prove or even offer compelling evidence for concluding that we never make meaningful choices and act responsibly. To say that, because of the conditions that affect how we act, nobody is to blame for wrongdoing is just as much a fallacy as saying that because an artist was affected by a large set of external and internal conditions, that artist should not get any credit for his works of art.

The entire business of denying free action and affirming a universal determinism is quirky business right from the start. I can understand how philosophers might fall victim to sloppy thinking on this; but surely scientists who should approach matters critically and with skepticism should never have fallen for the pseudo problem of free will.

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