The Very Persistent Illusion:
Philosophy — By Joe Carter on July 8, 2008 at 11:59 pm
Absurd and Amusing Rationalizations About Free Will
[Note: I’m taking a brief vacation. Regular blogging will resume on July 21.]
Last year while discussing bioethics with fellow blogger Jim Smalls, I expressed my disgust and dismay about ethicist Peter Singer. How could anyone with his intellect, I wondered, hold such bizarre and ridiculous beliefs? Jim has an M.D. and a Ph.D. He’s an extremely smart guy who is used to being around smart people so I expected him to confirm my suspicion that Singer may not be as intelligent as he seems. Instead, he said that I shouldn’t be surprised at all and provided an answer that floored me: “Increased intellect provides an increased power for rationalization.”
I was reminded of that insight while reading the New York Times piece, Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t. The author of the article, Dennis Overbye, discusses the issue of free will with several scientists, psychologists, and philosophers, almost all of whom hold materialism as an unshakable presupposition. The resulting rationalizations provide support for Jim’s claim and show how smart people can believe the dumbest things.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
“If people freak at evolution, etc.,” wrote Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, “how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines…”
I doubt many people will “freak.” Mostly they’ll just think you’re an idiot. People tend to have that reaction when you tell them they’re merely an advanced species of sirloin.
“When we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair,” says Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University.
As usual, Dennett makes one of his patented baffling/absurd assertions. If free will is an illusion, both the “looking into the abyss” and the “plunge into nihilism and despair” are things–the looking and the plunging–that we have no control over. It’s just the way that the molecules flowed. (Note to Dennett: That’s what it means when you say you have no free will.)
The real question is why we don’t assume this conclusion will lead us into peering into the chasm of cotton candy. Why wouldn’t it plunge us into euphoria and warm fuzzies? Why do we assume that our molecules would be like Nietzsche rather than Tickle-Me Elmo?
“Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.” Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
In other words, free will is much like indigestion. It gives us a sense that we are having a heart attack but it’s not a power or driving force that can kill us. It’s just an effect of a cause we can’t control. Like eating bad pizza.
He goes on to add:
“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it.”
So the pattern is (a) scrutinize free will leads to (b) realizing you don’t have free will. But if we don’t have the free choice to scrutinize free will then we don’t have the free choice to realize that we don’t have free will. And how do we keep our molecules from getting stuck in some endless loop of scrutinizing and realizing? Oh wait, we can’t. We don’t have the free will to make that choice. (Just thinking about it gives me that looking and plunging feeling….)
Overbye points out that most people take a different view: “Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.”
“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”
By “many people”, Silberstein apparently means “people gullible enough to subscribe to materialism.” Most people, in fact, do not find the concept of free will incoherent because most people do not believe the silly idea that we are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines. Perhaps if you believe that matter is all that exists then it might appear incoherent. But then you have to explain how a word like “incoherent” has any meaning when the mere utterance of the sentence was either determined or random.
Fortunately, as Overbye notes, not all scientist are so gullible: “A vote in favor of free will comes from some physicists, who say it is a prerequisite for inventing theories and planning experiments.” Indeed, the moment one posits that we lack free will the foundation of science is completely undercut. It’s hard to justify getting funding for an experiment when everything–from the grant proposal to the experiment’s outcome– is physically and causally determined by the interaction of random molecules.
But let’s get back to Dennett, my favorite fuzzy-headed philosopher. His section is so convoluted that it’s worth quoting in detail:
The belief that the traditional intuitive notion of a free will divorced from causality is inflated, metaphysical nonsense, Dr. Dennett says reflecting an outdated dualistic view of the world.
Rather, Dr. Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.
“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.
“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”
In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”
Dennett is an extremely bright philosopher who has a profound ability to make utterly moronic statements. His view of free will, for instance, is a brilliant example of sheer stupidity. Look closer at what he says:
(1) Free will cannot be divorced from physical causation. This means that our “will” cannot be separated from the laws of physics and chemistry. Ergo, our actions are determined by physical laws.
(2) Our immersion into a deterministic system actually frees us since the deterministic, physical universe has endowed us with “feedback systems” that allow us to break out(?) of this physical causality long enough to reflect, think, and imagine. Ergo, our actions are determined by physical laws yet we are free to be moral agents.
(At this point you might be saying, “But…that makes no sense…” which would reveal that you lack the power of intellect to appreciate such absurd rationalizations.)
If Dennett is right and our will is physically caused and determined by the laws of physics and chemistry then our “feedback systems” are also caused and determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. Our ability to “look ahead and plan” would be nothing more than an illusion since we would still be subject to forces that began at the creation of the universe.
Essentially Dennett is saying that our will is determined by physical causes but it is okay since the physical universe endowed us with the magical abilities to transcend physical causation and take control over our will, thereby making us moral agents. Or maybe that’s not what he’s saying at all. It’s hard to say since it makes no sense.
You don’t need a PhD to say something so stupid; but without it people are more apt to just point out that you’re speaking gibberish.
My favorite line, though, comes from Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner:
“[Free will is] an illusion, but it’s a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back,” he said, comparing it to a magician’s trick that has been seen again and again. “Even though you know it’s a trick, you get fooled every time. The feelings just don’t go away.”
And the cold, deterministic, materialist universe responds: “Of course you get fooled every time, you bonehead. What’dya expect? After all, it’s not like you have a choice…”