I’ve written an op-ed piece that is online at the latest USA Today: “Why you don’t really have free will.”
My views won’t surprise regular readers, many of whom of course object to such views. To these detractors I’ll respond as did Hitchens at 7:03 (but, since I love my readers, without the invitation to posterior osculation): “I can’t find a seconder usually when I propose this but I don’t care. I don’t need a seconder. My own opinion is enough for me. And I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, anytime.”
Actually, I do have a seconder: Sam Harris, whose new book Free Will is due out out in March. His views are largely confluent with mine.
I’m sure I’ll hear from the usual defenders of compatibilism: the idea that physical determinism, on which I think most of us agree, is perfectly compatible with free will. And my feeling about compatibilism is pretty much the same as Sam’s, which he expresses in his upcoming book (quoted with permission):
As I have said, I think compatibilists like Dennett change the subject: They trade a psychological fact—the subjective experience of being a conscious agent—for a conceptual understanding of ourselves as persons. This is a bait and switch. The psychological truth is that people feel identical to a certain channel of information in their conscious minds. Dennett is simply asserting that we are more than this—we are coterminous with everything that goes on inside our bodies, whether we are conscious of it or not. This is like saying we are made of stardust—which we are. But we don’t feel like stardust. And the knowledge that we are stardust is not driving our moral intuitions or our system of criminal justice.
Compatibilists resemble theologians in many ways, not the least of which is that they both engage in endless lucubrations trying to show that something that doesn’t exist, but that is hugely important for our psychological well-being, really does exist in some form or another. People hate the idea that they aren’t agents who can make free choices, just as they hate they idea that there might not be a Protective Father in heaven.
Some sophisticated philosophers who defend compatibilism also resemble sophisticated theologians: their language is fancy, but the content remains thin. There’s another resemblance, too: as science (in this case neuroscience) does away with the traditional notion of free will, just as science did away with the traditional arguments for a Great Designer, philosophers simply make a philosophical virtue out of scientific necessity. That’s precisely what theologians do with the God problem.
In the end, we simply aren’t agents who can make free choices among alternative courses of action. What we do is determined not by our own agency, but by physical laws. All else is rationalization.
I predict, because I claimed that dispensing with free will makes hash of many religious views, that the most flak I’ll get for this piece will not be from philosophers, academics, or smart secularists, but from the faithful.
The problem with compatibilism, as I see it, is that it tends to ignore that people’s moral intuitions are driven by a deeper, metaphysical notion of free will. That is, the free will that people presume for themselves and readily attribute to others (whether or not this freedom is, in Dennett’s sense, “worth wanting”) is a freedom that slips the influence of impersonal, background causes. The moment you show that such causes are effective–as any detailed account of the neurophysiology of human thought and behavior would– proponents of free will can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang their notions of moral responsibility. The neuroscientists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen make this same point:
Most people’s view of the mind is implicitly dualist and libertarian and not materialist and compatibilist . . . [I]ntuitive free will is libertarian, not compatibilist. That is, it requires the rejection of determinism and an implicit commitment to some kind of magical mental causation . . . contrary to legal and philosophical orthodoxy, determinism really does threaten free will and responsibility as we intuitively understand them (Greene J & J. Cohen. 2004).