One thing that’s distressed me a bit is the unwillingness of my Big Name Atheist Friends to speak frankly about free will. When asked, as Richard Dawkins was below, what they think of it, they often mumble or deflect the question. Richard’s answer here is the same one he gave when I asked him the identical question about two months ago in Washington, D. C. He’s right in quoting Hitchens’s witticism that “I have no choice” to make the point that we feel as if we have free will, but while that may describe our illusions, a flat “no” would be more to the point. And I’m dubious about Richard’s assertion that he “doesn’t have a very well thought-out view about it”, even though he finally admits that yes, our behaviors are determined. (I wish he’d talked a bit about why we feel we have agency when we really don’t, again something he admits. It’s a fascinating evolutionary question.)
In the end Richard recommends reading Dan Dennett, who of course thinks that we do have free will: but a kind that’s different from what we think it is (many compatibilists are fuzzy, and certainly contradict each other, about “the kind of free will we do have”).
Lawrence Krauss adds that because we act as if we have free will—and here both men are construing “free will” as “libertarian I-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will”—then it doesn’t make any difference whether we do or not. (He also seems to confuse predictability of behavior with determinism of behavior, a common conflation.) He concludes that it’s a question for philosophers rather than scientists.
But it isn’t, and it really does make a difference whether we only think we can choose freely or whether we really do choose freely. It’s an enormously important issue, for if all our behaviors are determined, then we can’t hold people like Jeffrey Dahmer or Harvey Weinstein responsible for having “made the wrong choice”, and vilifying them for not having chosen otherwise. The fact is that these predators—and ourselves—are, as Richard admits, determined by antecedent causes that we don’t fully understand. (I hasten to add that there are good determinist reasons to punish people like Dahmer and Weinstein, and I’ve discussed those at length.)
If you don’t believe in libertarian free will, then the concept of moral responsibility becomes problematic, though the problem of responsibility itself is not problematic. What changes is how we reward and, especially, punish people. Think about it: if people really couldn’t have chosen otherwise, and had to behave as they did, then doesn’t that have any implications for how we deal with bad behavior? After all, the law already takes this into account, somewhat exculpating people if they’re deemed mentally incapacitated or unable to tell the difference between right and wrong. But all of us are like that, and even if we do know the difference between “right” and “wrong”, we can still act in only one way at a given moment, so that knowledge is irrelevant when determining punishment.
I’ve already discussed what reforms should be made to the penal system under determinism (see here, for instance), and that is not just “something to be discussed by philosophers”. It involves real effects on the lives of men and women, and on society at large. And it leads to more humane treatment of prisoners, treatment that can be based on science (e.g., “What forms of ‘punishment’ are best for deterring others, keeping people away from others until they’re reformed, and how can we best reform them?”)
Further, it can make a difference in your own behavior. In my case, I no longer beat myself up over decisions in my past that, I once felt, I could have made differently. I couldn’t. Such recriminations are not only mentally sapping, but scientifically untenable.
I don’t know why people like Richard and Lawrence seem loath to discuss the moral and penal implications of determinism, but rather fob people off on philosophers like Dan. As I’ve said repeatedly, working out and putting into effect the implications of determinism—which happens to be true—is far, far more important than trying to find a form of free will that simultaneously admits of determinism (that part is usually buried) but still reassures people that they have some form of free will. That endeavor is fine as far as it goes, but in the end it’s a purely semantic and academic exercise, and beyond the interests of the public. (Be aware that surveys show most people construe free will as being “I-could-have-done otherwise” form.)
Fixing the horrible prison systems around the world in which people are tortured or mistreated because it’s thought they made the wrong choice is a far more important problem than confecting semantic compatibilism. Why don’t atheists deal with something that is, in the end, a scientific question, and one that’s palpably true (read Sean Carroll if you doubt its scientific truth)? And of course philosophers can play an important role in that discussion. It’s just that most of them don’t.
It could be, as Dan has said, that it’s dangerous for society to embrace pure determinism without being given a semantic alternative to the term “free will”. But I don’t believe that, for determinists like me haven’t wrecked our world, and won’t. Moreover, such a statement is a condescending “little people” argument like the one used for God: “we can’t tell people that there is no God without giving them a substitute God (a ‘ground of being’?), for society cannot live without religion.” We all know that’s bogus, and I’m sure neither Richard nor Lawrence accepts that. So why do atheists act like theologians when it comes to free will? (It goes without saying that libertarian free will—the free ability to choose Jesus as a saviour, or do good rather than ill—is a bedrock for many religions.)
I challenge my atheist colleagues like Richard and Lawrence to go beyond the statements they make below, and come to grips with what accepting determinism really means for how we treat others. That’s not a philosophical question but a psychological and societal one. To me, getting people to accept determinism and then act on that acceptance is at least as important as getting them to accept that there’s no evidence for gods.