Over at the Richard Dawkins Foundation, you can find a new essay by “Zeuglodon” on free will and determinism, “The raw deal of determinism and reductionism.” It’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, but seems to conclude that free will is a convincing illusion. Along the way, though, Zeuglodon makes an unnecessary diversion:
Speaking of crimes, the notion that responsibility evaporates because we can point to prior causes and therefore shift the blame is made dubious by the reductio ad absurdum that, following the chains all the way back, you come to the conclusion that the Big Bang should be blamed for all the crimes ever committed. Indeed, the Big Bang caused every earthquake, every intention to kill, every stroke of luck and so on. It’s possible to blame the universe, of course, but this is mostly achieved by anthropomorphising the universe as something that can be blamed, and here lies the key to the strangeness of this argument. In any case, this argument only really works if culpability was solely about causality. . .
I’m not aware of any incompatibilist—those who claim that determinism and free will are incompatible (I’d add that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics may not do much to give us free will)—who claims that determinism absolves us of responsibility. Though it absolves us, I think, of moral responsibility, we still must hold people responsible for their actions for the good of society. For holding people responsible can deter others from actions we think are bad for society, or stimulate others to do good. No incompatibilist thinks that minds can’t be changed by what they observe.
At any rate, Zeuglodon reaches a conclusion that some may find harsh:
Determinism and reductionism thus pull through, not because they have finally grasped the truth, but because – like our excellent brain simulations and the world they simulate – they fit much better than the alternative options and are quite up to the job of helping us decipher it. Free will – at least the metaphysical kind – has by comparison done little more than stoked human egos and misled people down unpromising avenues. Indeed, it has done what intelligent design proponents have done; offered a pseudoexplanation and worked hard to justify its intellectual laziness, a paradox if ever there was one. It is tempting to blame religion for this, but religion works with what’s there, and free will would never have been so alluring if it didn’t appeal to people’s desires for power and to people’s fear for weaknesses that could be exploited. Even now, brainwashing, and something like it if you don’t like the Hollywood connotations of the word, are terrifying prospects made easier if you think the mind is something that can be predicted or shaped.
Yes, free will is pushed largely by the faithful, but also by many atheist philosophers like Dan Dennett. I do agree with Zeuglodon, though, if what he means by “people’s desires for power” is that “people want to think that they really can make choices undetermined by physical law.”
Again, if there is no ghost in the machine—and none of us think there is—then what, exactly, is “free” about “free will”? Nothing. That “freedom” merely means that we don’t understand the antecedent and deterministic (and perhaps quantum-mechanically random) causes of our actions and decisions.
Zeuglodon floats the old canard that “freedom” of will means “uncoerced” will, i.e., we don’t have freedom about whether to hand over our money when there’s a gun to our heads. But even in those cases we do seem to have a choice (some people don’t hand over the dough!), and the results are just as determined as what we “choose” to eat for lunch. At any rate, “lack of coercion” is hardly a substantive base for “free will,” and if that’s what it means, than virtually all animals have it, too.
Curiously, at least one of Zeuglodon’s commenters ( “ccw95005” in comment #4) sticks up strongly for free will:
Of course if you go down to quantum level we are all just robots made up of colonies of cells. All our decisions are the result of the structure and connections and chemicals in the brain and could be predicted by a superdupercomputer or God if he existed, within the limits of quantum uncertainty.
What does that have to do with our everyday lives? Nada. It’s an intellectual exercise, nothing more.
For all we can tell, in our actual existence we have total free will, unless we get into theoretical mode. You can decide one second from now to raise your right hand, or your left, or neither, or both. Go ahead, try it.
At a higher level, we can ask whether we have been programmed by our life experiences so thoroughly that out free will is limited. No. Your personality characteristics and tendencies have been shaped by nature and nurture, but you still have free will. You can decide to pull the trigger or not. Upbringing and environment have made your decision more predictable, but you can still do either . . .
Although the commenter fails to define “free will,” he/she seems to be pushing the ghost in the machine, Can we really decide, in any meaningful sense, which hand to raise, or has that decision already been made for us? We think we can make that decision, but if its has antecedent causes that precede our “trying it,” then our choice isn’t really free. And if our personality characteristics have been shaped by nature and nurture, and are based on a material body and brain, what does the commenter mean by “we still have free will”? That’s an assertion without evidence.
To those who argue on this site that nobody believes in the ghost in the machine, or that our “choices” aren’t determined by physical forces, I offer this commenter (and several of my friends with whom I’ve discussed the issue) as a counterexample. Just trying getting into a discussion about free will with a friend who hasn’t pondered the issue before.