I swear, it’s harder to convince the average person that their behaviors and “choices” are determined solely by the laws of physics—and not by some kind of dualistic “ghost in the machine”—than it is to convince the average religionist that there’s no evidence for God. That’s because not only do goddies have a special reason to believe in dualistic free will—their attainment of paradise or hell depends on their free ability to choose—but all of us have a strong feeling of agency, as if we really could have chosen otherwise when making a decision. (The classic dilemma is a burger vs a salad at a restaurant.)
Let me define terms before I pose my question, a sort of survey of readers. And let me divide up people into three categories, A, B, and C.
A. Libertarians: Those who believe in a kind of dualism: that somehow our brains can really overcome the laws of physics and, were we to return to a previous situation of “choosing”, with every particle in the universe configured as it was before, we really could have chosen differently from how we did.
As I’ve shown before, a study by Sarkissian et al., surveying people in four countries, found that this is indeed the way most people conceive of the world: between 65% and 85% of people say that were they to return to an identical situation of choice, they could have chosen differently from how they did. (You can, if you wish, deny the Sarkissian et al. results, but they do match my anecdotal experience with people who have never discussed determinism and behavior.) Further, 60%-85% of people surveyed say that in such a deterministic world, people would not be considered “fully morally responsible” for their actions.
B. Hard determinists. (I am one of these.) Those are people who believe that our brains, being material objects operating under the laws of physics, can give only a single output from the inputs they receive (barring any quantum indeterminacy operating in our neurons). Our behaviors are solely and uniquely decided by our genes and our environments, and nothing else. There is no dualism, and if you returned to the “original situation” described above, you would always decide the same thing. We feel as if we are agents who could have chosen otherwise, but in reality we can’t. Hard determinists like me feel it’s pointless to talk about “free will.” Besides me, to other hard determinists are Alex Rosenberg and Sam Harris.
C. Determinist “compatibilists.” Members of this class share the view of hard determinists that in a given situation, with all molecules configured identically, we can do only a single thing. As Sean Carroll argues in his new book The Big Picture (p. 295):
Under naturalism [Carroll’s a naturalist] there isn’t that much difference between a human being and a robot. We are all just complicated collections of matter moving in patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics in an environment with an arrow of time.
The difference between members of this class and hard determinists is that the class “C” members think that determinism is compatible with some conception of free will, though of course not the version adhered to by libertarians.
How compatilists conceive of free will differs: some say our “freedom” is simply the complexity of the human brain, which allows us to weigh different inputs (“reasons”) before acting in a way no other animal can, even if those weights are simply aspects of our neurons existing in our brains. Others say our freedom resides simply in not acting under duress: a person cannot “choose freely” to go to the store if he’s locked in jail. (My response, of course, is that the bars of a jail are no different from the bars in our mind that compel us to do one thing rather than another.) Because compatibilists disagree on what constitutes “free will”; the only thing they agree on is that we can conceive of human actions so that we have something called “free will.” Examples of compatibilists are Dan Dennett, Sean Carroll, and our own reader Vaal, who has argued elegantly for compatibilism on this site.
Readers who have followed our discussions know my view: I fit into class B, and consider the difference between classes B and C to be largely semantic. If you want to call the complexity of human brain programming as “free will,” so be it, even though that’s not what most people think of it. To me, it’s like saying to a Brit, “Okay, if you want to call a cookie a ‘biscuit,’ fine. They’re still the same thing.” But of course others disagree.
You’ll also know that the reason I bang on about this at length—frustrating compatibilist readers—is because I believe that fully grasping determinism has a huge potential effect on human behavior, including in particular how we treat transgressors or criminals. It also has import in politics in general: e.g., many Republicans believe in their “just world” philosophy that many people are poor simply because they made the wrong choices. Such a philosophy makes no sense under determinism. Finally, we all surely agree that accepting determinism will sink the libertarian free will inherent in many religions, which I think is a good thing. You simply CANNOT freely accept whether or not to hold Christ as your savior, or Muhammad as Allah’s prophet. To punish people for eternity on the basis that they could have chosen otherwise makes no sense at all.
This is a long-winded preface to my question for readers, which I’ll put in bold. It’s this:
Philosophers squabble about the difference between classes B and C, whereas to Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus), a far more important argument is to be had between members of combined class (B + C)—the determinists—versus members of class A, the libertarians. To me, the latter argument, B + C vs. A, is of vital importance for making society better, while the argument between B vs. C is basically a semantic squabble that has an import on academic philosophy but not on society.
Do you agree with me or not? State you reasons. (Try to be briefer than I’ve been!)