The philosopher and atheist Julian Baggini has a new book called Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will. As you can probably tell from the title, it’s a compatibilist book, claiming that although all our acts are determined by the laws of physics, we still have a kind of free will. And it’s reviewed in the April 1 Guardian by the theist Terry Eagleton, who agrees with Baggini’s determinism but also with his compatibilist solution to the problem of feeling like we have a choice when we really don’t. Here’s Eagleton’s precis on how Baggini solves the problem:
What, however, if our beliefs and desires lead us to act in a way that feels inevitable? Can we still be free if we could not have acted otherwise? Baggini is surely right to claim that we can. In fact, most of the things that matter – being in love, composing a superb sonata, detesting Piers Morgan, feeling horrified by the slave trade – have a smack of inner necessity about them, as this book argues in a perceptive chapter on art. What define the self most deeply are the sort of commitments from which we could not walk away even if we tried. The point, however, is that we don’t want to. Freedom from such engagements would be no freedom at all. True liberty lies in being able to realise such a self, not shuck it off.
This is of course making a virtue of necessity, as does all compatibilism. The smack of “inner necessity” comes largely from our genes, substantially from evolution, and partly from our environment. Take being in love. That emotion, of course, is determined by physics acting on evolved organisms (or so agree Baggini and Eagleton), and is a compulsion surely stemming by our genes, one that almost certainly evolved as a bonding mechanism. We don’t not want to be in love, for love feels good—like orgasms, evolution’s cue for adaptive behavior is often the sensation of pleasure—but what on earth does this have to do with “freedom”? It doesn’t—except for those who are desperately groping about to find some way, when we’re held in thrall by the connections between our neurons, to redefine that as “freedom.”
And what does it mean to “define the self” by the compulsions we feel and which we even know we cannot abjure? Where, exactly, is the freedom in that? If you have no choice about those things, what does it even mean to “realize a self”? What you’re doing is simply instantiating a self: the program run by your neurons which you feel is “you.”
What Eagleton says here is that we are compelled to behave and feel in certain ways, that we like some of those compulsions and at any rate cannot escape them, and that is “true liberty”. That, dear readers, is Orwellian doublespeak. Compulsion is both freedom and “true liberty”; black is white. As Sam Harris said, compatibilists view us as marionettes, but ones who love our strings.
The fact is that we don’t “make” anything of our compulsions, or use them to “realize the self”. We have no ability to “realize” our self; all we can do is rationalize what we do and re-brand it as “freedom” so people don’t get scared. So Eagleton’s simply engaging in nonsense when he says stuff like this:
Freedom is not a question of being released from the forces that shape us, but a matter of what we make of them. The world, however, is now divided down the middle between off-the-wall libertarians who deny the reality of such forces, and full-blooded determinists such as the US convict Stephen Mobley, who 20 years ago tried to avoid execution for the murder of a pizza store manager by claiming that it was the result of a mutation in his monoamine oxidase A gene. It wasn’t the smartest way to appeal to a jury of citizens likely to endorse Oprah Winfrey’s view that “we’re responsible for everything that happens to us”.
Yes, we’re “responsible” in the sense that someone identifiable as Stephen Mobley did a crime. It may not have been solely the result of his mutation, but it was solely the result of his genes and his environment. He was wired in a way that he had to commit that crime. It’s sad that people like Oprah don’t seem to realize that, but the sooner we do, the sooner we can reform our judicial system in a way that’s both empathic and efficacious.
Eagleton then dwells on the gene theme (which determinist ever said that physical determinism was solely genetic) to go after his favorite target—the now bullet-ridden Richard Dawkins:
Men and women aren’t authors of themselves, as a character in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus remarks of its proud protagonist, but neither are they slaves of their genes. When Richard Dawkins describes human beings as “survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”, his language is redolent of neoliberal capitalism as well as the scientist’s laboratory. To see people in this demeaning way is simply the flipside of the idealising talk of pure autonomy. If the former captures something of the bleak reality of the marketplace, the latter belongs to the heady rhetoric that helps to legitimate it.
Well, I’d take some issue with Richard’s statement here, for we’re programmed not solely by our genes, but by our genes and our environment, which are the only things that influence the configuration of molecules and neurons that determine our behavior and “choices”. Nevertheless, we are still robot vehicles, even if we don’t feel like it!
Is it “demeaning” to see people that way? I don’t think so, for it happens to be the inescapable truth. Eagleton and Baggini are, after all, determinists. Eagleton seems to be so blinkered by his hatred of Dawkins that he repeatedly equates physical determinism with genetic determinism (see below). It’s not. If we have an accident that injures our brain, so that henceforth we behave in very different ways, but ways predictable from brain neuroscience, well, that accident was determined by physical law, but its sequelae have very little to do with our genetic endowment.
At the end, Eagleton not only calls determinists “enemies of freedom” (equating us with, say, fascists or totalitarians), but manages to get in a final gratuitious lick at Dawkins:
For most people, Freedom Regained will seem like a kind of Maginot line, defending a territory that is not under attack. This, however, is because the new enemies of freedom are not much evident in everyday life. They are mild-mannered, soft-spoken men and women in senior common rooms, not wild-eyed dictators raving through public address systems. Among its other virtues, the book reveals how many of these soft-spoken types engage in one of the oldest of all debating devices: setting up a straw man of the concept under fire so as the more conveniently to bowl it over. It is just what Dawkins does with God.
Eagleton should surely know enough about religion, and about surveys of folk attitudes, to know that the idea of contracausal free will, in which we can choose to behave in ways other than we did, is palpably not a “straw man”. I suspect it is the dominant view of most people, and it’s certainly the dominant view of religionists, especially those who say we can choose whether or not to accept Jesus or Allah, or that evil exists on earth so people can choose whether to behave good or badly. Libertarian free will is not a straw man.
And Eagleton’s final slap at Dawkins is equally misguided, for the kind of believers Dawkins addresses—those who really see God as a bodiless human with feelings and a moral code he wishes us to obey—are quite common. Muslims and conservative Christians embody the Dawkinsian God quite well, thank you. That god is not a straw man. Just because Eagleton is a Sophisticated Believer™ shouldn’t blind him to the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t share his rarified notions.
At first I thought that Eagleton’s ascerbic review was an April Fool’s joke, but then I realized that the man has no detectable sense of humor.