I’m rereading Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality for purposes that will become clear later. I do like the book, but oy, does it take naturalism to its most extreme! Alex wears the label of “scientism” proudly, and in many ways I agree with him, though he does take evolutionary psychology to unsubstantiated lengths. But he’s right on the mark in his views about determinism, free will, and consciousness. All of you should read the book, though many will disagree.
But while thinking about the book at the dentist’s yesterday (you have to think of something when they’re stuffing tubes of rubber into your bored-out nerve canals and then melting the rubber with red-hot probes as acrid smoke pours from your mouth), I had this thought about compatibilists—those philosophers and intellectuals who agree that while our thoughts and actions are controlled by the laws of physics (and so we can’t really choose differently from how we do), we still have some kind of “free will.” It’s just not the type of free will that most people think we have. I’ve written about this ad infinitum, and feel that compatibilism is merely a semantic trick, and the important thing, which none of these philosophers seem to emphasize, is the determinism behind our actions and its implications for stuff like criminal justice.
But putting that aside, why do philosophers engage in the exercise of comporting physics with “free will”? I can think of only three reasons:
1. It’s just an intellectual game with no consequences for the real world or how the average person thinks.
2. It makes people feel good by assuring them that, despite the advances of neuroscience that tell us we don’t really have the ability to influence how we think, we nevertheless remain active agents in our behavior, and can really make choices that could have been otherwise. After all, that’s the way we feel!
3. It’s necessary to tell people they have some form of free will because if they think that determinism is solely behind their actions, they’ll start acting either immorally or will lose all ambition and lie abed. That, for example, is at least one motivation behind philosophers like Daniel Dennett (see my post and the video here).
I can’t see the first alternative being the case, but I think #2 is partly true, and #3 is certainly true for some compatiblists, as evidenced by their own statements.
This makes compatibilists like creationists. After all, one of the motivations—perhaps the main motivation—for creationists to keep attacking evolution is that they think the theory has inimical effects on morality. If we think we evolved from beasts, they say, we’ll act like beasts. And so evolution must be denied lest the moral fabric of our society disintegrate. You hear this over and over again from creationists and fundamentalists.
That’s how many compatibilists feel about free will. The observations, from both experiment and observation, that determinism does not make people immoral—and that incompatibilists like myself still try to behave well, and do behave well—is irrelevant.