In brief, the author, William Edwards—described as founder of Bright Tapestry Data, a company pushing back on misinformation and fake news. . . [and] an independent scholar, with a Master’s in Experimental Psychology”—says that there’s not enough evidence to give us confidence in physical determinism, and that, combined with fundamental physical indeterminism, somehow vindicates the notion of our having dualistic (“contracausal”) free will.
He clearly is plumping for dualistic free will rather than compatibilism because he opposes his notion of “free will” to determinism, and concentrates on the notion of real human agency. In the end, he dislikes the idea that determinism seems to absolve us of moral responsibility, and cites evidence (weak, I think) that determinism makes its advocates behave worse.
In the end, Edwards advises us to believe in contracausal free will as a kind of “Pascal’s Wager”. The “win” here is not eternity in heaven, but the good behavior and better societies that Edwards thinks come from believing in free will. The implicit idea is that you can force yourself to accept free will even if you think evidence is against it, or if you’re a diehard determinist.
Needless to say, there is substantial evidence that people who believe in free will, or at least believe that they are in control of their own lives, are more prone to exhibit good mental health and productive, ethical behaviour. There is a not inconsiderable moral dilemma here. As we illuminate the role of DNA and other fixed factors, we will acquire knowledge that should allow us to improve and save countless lives. On the other hand, if more and more people come to accept the idea that they’re not choosing their thoughts and actions, their subsequent behaviour may guarantee that a lot more lives are in need of saving.
Thinkers like Harris and Weinstein are preoccupied with how we build a less risky world, which may be partly why their thinking appeals to conservatives. However, it is worth remembering the well-established relationship between risk and reward, because whether or not we believe in free will may turn out to be the Pascal’s Wager of the twenty-first century. With that in mind, any professional gambler worth their salt should bet on free will. There is just too much about the universe that we don’t understand, and the potential pay-off from agency is staggering.
I’ll have a lot to say about this later, but probably not on this website, and so feel free to discuss the article in the comments below.