Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Free Will: No Means No

(by Joe)

When it comes to free will, no means no. Not no, except for really important decisions. Not no, except for choosing to not do something. Not no, except for the internal attitudes that shape our actions. No free will means no free will.

Yet all too often writers for whom I otherwise have a lot of respect fall into this trap. They present a solid argument against free will, or express a concern about someone else's suspect use of free will, then turn right around and commit one of above fallacies. They are fallacious because they make an exception solely in order to support a particular point. These exceptions are never supported, or even acknowledged - they just sit there, spoiling an otherwise good argument.

Most recently I caught Susan Blackmore doing this, when at the end of The Meme Machine she turns round and advocates a kind of meditative practice in order to cope with the vertiginous feeling that comes when you realise that you probably don't have any free will (1999: 242). In general I've got a lot of sympathy for such practice, and I broadly agree with her analysis of the illusory nature of the self that precedes it (ibid: 219-34). But as an answer, or at least a coping strategy, to the free will problem, it is distinctly inadequate. She can't expect me to choose to pursue such a meditative lifestyle, can she? Of course she might simply be hoping to nudge my psycho-memetic systems into behaving in the way that she advocates, which is all well and good, but the simple point remains that it is entirely inconsistent to on the one hand deny freedom of the will, and on the other tell your reader what they should do about it.

Daniel Dennett seems to me to make the same mistake when, in Freedom Evolves and elsewhere, he argues that whilst 'we' don't have any direct volitional control, we are somehow able to choose not to act on the volitions that emerge from our multiple drafts of consciousness. It's been a while since I read Freedom Evolves, and I haven't got a copy handy (so forgive the lack of references), but I recall that something like this formed the centre of his compatiblist account of determinism and free will. In any case, I certainly didn't find his account convincing, for much the same reason that I have yet to find any (physicalist) account of free will convincing - none of them take determinism seriously enough. There's no such thing as partial determinism, unless you introduce randomness, and anybody who denies free will but then tells you how best to cope with this denial is simply being inconsistent.

In fact, without free will the very concept of any course of action being 'best' begins to lose a lot of its worth. How can I have any obligation to act one way rather than another, either morally or rationally, if I'm not able to meaningfully make that decision? Both conventional, rules-based moral philosophy and alternative approaches that emphasise "moral imagination" (Nussbaum 1985: 516) or "ethical attention" (Bowden 1998) suffer from this contradiction. In the first instance agency is removed when we are told that there is only one right answer to a dilemma - we no longer have any meaningful moral choice to make. On the latter view, to be moral is to live in a certain way, to be the kind of person who makes moral decisions - whatever those decisions may be. Here, again, we seem to lack ethical agency - either I am this kind of person or I am not, and when it comes to moral dilemmas I no longer have any choice, I simply act in the way that I must. Yet when I made this point in an essay, the marker insisted that "imagination is in part agential" - in which case, surely, the alternative approach simply collapses into the conventional, only with the critical choice being made prior to a dilemma, when an agent exercises their imagination. In my opinion he had fallen into a version of the trap that I outlined above, denying that morality was about freely willed decisions, but then simply reintroducing those decisions in another guise.

Of course, it is not anyone's fault when they make these mistakes, for they could not have chosen to do otherwise - could they?

  • Blackmore, S. 1999. The Meme Machine. Oxford: OUP.
  • Bowden, P. 1998. "Ethical Attention: Accumulating Understandings." European Journal of Philosophy 6/1: 59-77.
  • Dennett, D. 2003. Freedom Evolves. Viking Books.
  • Nussbaum, M. 1985. "'Finely Aware and Richly Responsible': Moral Attention and the Moral Task of Literature." Journal of Philosopy 82: 516-29.

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