Yes, I know I’m writing about two Atlantic pieces in one day, but so be it: such are the laws of physics. The second piece, much better than the article on FGM, is an essay by Stephen Cave, “There’s no such thing as free will but we’re better off believing it anyway.” I’ll try to be brief, as the piece is long. The salient points:
- Libertarian free will [the “we could have chosen otherwise” form] is dead, or at least dying among intellectuals. That means that determinism reigns (Cave doesn’t mention quantum mechanics), and that at any one time we can make only one choice.
- But if we really realized we don’t have free will of that sort, we’d behave badly. Cave cites the study of Vohs and Schooler (not noting that that study wasn’t repeatable), but also other studies showing that individuals who believe in free will are better workers than those who don’t. I haven’t read those studies, and thus don’t know if they’re flawed, but of course there may be unexamined variables that explain this correlation.
- Therefore, we need to maintain the illusion that we have libertarian free will, or at least some kind of free will. Otherwise society will crumble.
Cave offers two solutions to keep the illusion.
One is “illusionism” as adumbrated by Israeli philosophy professor Saul Smilansky: “the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend.” Smilansky believes this illusion is vital because discarding libertarian free will—the notion that we can really “choose otherwise”—undermines both praise and blame. How can we hold people responsible for their good or bad deeds if we don’t think they could have chosen to be good or bad?
My response is that we can still hold people responsible, but not morally responsible. We should realize that an individual who does something bad should be punished, but punished to keep them out of society, to rehabilitate them, and to deter others. In that sense, an individual who does something should be held responsible, but we should also realize that that individual didn’t have a choice. To me, that realization, which you get only if you accept determinism, is the upside of discarding libertarian free will. And individuals who do something good should be praised, for that not only prompts them to do more good, but shows others that if they also do good, they’ll also get goodies.
It’s impossible to act as if you’re a robot, so deeply ingrained in our brains is the idea that we’re conscious agents who can choose freely. But remembering that individuals don’t freely choose to do good or bad is a healthy thing to keep in mind, if for no other reason than it improves the way we dispense justice. We can be determinists in how we run society while still victims of our illusions that we’re free agents.
Lest you say (and some of you will) that “we already fully incorporate determinism into our justice system,” my answer is, “No we don’t.” I got an email this morning (sadly, I trashed it), by some person who, after reading one of my essays on free will and criminality, thought that I was dead wrong—that we need to punish people even more severely for what they do. Needless to say, that would be a disaster for the criminal justice system in America.
Cave’s other solution is this: we should become compatibilists and conceive of free will as Dan Dennett does: the fact that the human brain, although its actions be determined, requires a complex nexus of inputs and brain processing to give an “output”—a choice. While data show that this form of “free will” isn’t the one that most people hold (and certainly isn’t the view that most religionists hold), it’s basically a semantic relabeling of libertarian free will.
If you want to say that we’re free because we have complex computers in our heads (and, of course, so do many animals), then go for it. What’s important to me is not how you define free will, but to always remember that determinism (absent any quantum effects) holds: that at any time we could not have chosen otherwise. And to author Cave (though perhaps not to all readers) this leads to a sea change in society:
Waller’s definition of free will is in keeping with how a lot of ordinary people see it. One 2010 study found that people mostly thought of free will in terms of following their desires, free of coercion (such as someone holding a gun to your head). As long as we continue to believe in this kind of practical free will, that should be enough to preserve the sorts of ideals and ethical standards examined by Vohs and Baumeister.
Yet Waller’s account of free will still leads to a very different view of justice and responsibility than most people hold today. No one has caused himself: No one chose his genes or the environment into which he was born. Therefore no one bears ultimate responsibility for who he is and what he does. Waller told me he supported the sentiment of Barack Obama’s 2012 “You didn’t build that” speech, in which the president called attention to the external factors that help bring about success. He was also not surprised that it drew such a sharp reaction from those who want to believe that they were the sole architects of their achievements. But he argues that we must accept that life outcomes are determined by disparities in nature and nurture, “so we can take practical measures to remedy misfortune and help everyone to fulfill their potential.”
Well, Cave gives no data to show that Waller’s (and Dennett’s) definition of free will is the one most people hold; in fact, the study of Sarkissian et al. shows otherwise: surveys in four countries showed that most people hold a libertarian view of free will (see below). The figure below shows the proportion of people surveyed in four countries who think the universe is not deterministic: that human decision making is not governed by the history of the individual. Between 65% and 85% of people are pure libertarian free-willers.
But again, never mind. The second paragraph above is the telling one: “No one has caused himself: no one chose his genes or the environment into which he was born.” (Women are left out here, but they’re of course they’re subject to the same constraints!). And that does lead to a very different view of justice and responsibility than the one we hold today. Yes, the American justice system does exculpate those who weren’t thought to have a choice, but nobody, and no criminal, had a choice! That is a radical view for most people, but it happens to be true.
Waller’s last thought above is equally true: determinism leads to the notion that “life outcomes are determined by disparities in nature and nurture.” I can’t emphasize that strongly enough, for it completely overturns the “just world” philosophy that pervades conservatism: that people are responsible for what happens to them, and should be treated accordingly. If you’re poor, that’s your fault; if you’re a criminal, that’s your fault, too. Those who make a lot of money deserved it.
In the end, what you label “free will” doesn’t matter to me so much as people’s need to accept the determinism that science tells us is true. For only when we embrace that can we begin to walk the path of treating people fairly.
h/t: John O’Neill