Several readers sent me a link to a new Guardian piece on free will by journalist Oliver Burkeman (some added that I’m quoted a couple of times, which is true). It’s a “long read” for those with a short attention span, but I have to say that it’s a very good piece, covering all the bases: the definitions, the consequences of contracausal free will, the “solution” of compatibilism, the implications for moral responsibility and for judicial punishment; yes, it’s all there. And although Burkeman’s personal take, given at the end, is a bit puzzling, it’s a very good and fair introduction to the controversies about free will.
Click on the screenshot to read:
As I said, I have mostly praise for Burkeman’s piece, as he’s clearly done his homework and manages to condense a messy controversy into a readable piece. So take my few quibbles in light of this general approbation.
First, though, I must note Burkeman’s opening, which, surprisingly, shows the hate mail philosophers have received for promulgating determinism. (Burkeman notes, correctly, that even compatilists who broach a new kind of free will are still determinists.) Although I was once verbally attacked by a jazz musician who said I’d taken away from him the idea that he had complete freedom to extemporize his solos, I’ve never received the kind of mail that Galen Strawson has:
. . . . the philosopher Galen Strawson paused, then asked me: “Have you spoken to anyone else yet who’s received weird email?” He navigated to a file on his computer and began reading from the alarming messages he and several other scholars had received over the past few years. Some were plaintive, others abusive, but all were fiercely accusatory. “Last year you all played a part in destroying my life,” one person wrote. “I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did … Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.” “Rot in your own shit Galen,” read another note, sent in early 2015. “Your wife, your kids your friends, you have smeared all there [sic] achievements you utter fucking prick,” wrote the same person, who subsequently warned: “I’m going to fuck you up.” And then, days later, under the subject line “Hello”: “I’m coming for you.” “This was one where we had to involve the police,” Strawson said. Thereafter, the violent threats ceased.
Good lord! Such is the resistance that people have to hearing that they don’t have “contracausal” (you-could-have-chosen-otherwise) free will. Regardless of what compatibilists say, belief in contracausal free will is the majority view in many places (see below).
There are only a few places where Burkeman says things I disagree with. One is how he treats the issue of “responsibility”. My own view, as someone Burkeman calls “one of the most strident of the free will skeptics,” is that while we’re not morally responsible for our misdeeds, which implies we could have chosen a different path, we are what Gregg Caruso calls “answerably responsible”. That is, as the agent of good or bad deeds, whatever actions society deems appropriate in response to our acts must devolve upon our own bodies. Therefore, if we break the law, we can receive punishment—punishment to keep us out of society where we might transgress again, sequestering us until we are deemed “cured” and unlikely to transgress again, and punishment to deter others. (Caruso, also a free-will skeptic, disagrees that deterrence should be an aim of punishment, since it uses a person as an instrument to affect the behavior of others.) Caruso holds a “quarantine” model of punishment, in which a transgressor is quarantined just as Typhoid Mary should be quarantined: to effect possible cures and protect society from infection. Burkeman describes Caruso’s model very well.
What is not justified under punishment (and most compatibilists, including Dan Dennett, agree) is retributive punishment: punishment meted out by assuming that you could have chosen to behave other than how you did. That assumption is simply wrong, and so is retributivism, which is largely the basis of how courts in the West view punishment.
As for praise or blame, or responsibility itself, Burkeman somehow thinks they would disappear even under a hard-core deterministic view of society:
Were free will to be shown to be nonexistent – and were we truly to absorb the fact – it would “precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution”, Harris has written. Arguably, we would be forced to conclude that it was unreasonable ever to praise or blame anyone for their actions, since they weren’t truly responsible for deciding to do them; or to feel guilt for one’s misdeeds, pride in one’s accomplishments, or gratitude for others’ kindness. And we might come to feel that it was morally unjustifiable to mete out retributive punishment to criminals, since they had no ultimate choice about their wrongdoing. Some worry that it might fatally corrode all human relations, since romantic love, friendship and neighbourly civility alike all depend on the assumption of choice: any loving or respectful gesture has to be voluntary for it to count.
But no, praise and blame are still warranted, for they are environmental influences that can affect someone’s behavior. It is okay to praise someone for doing good and to censure them for doing bad, because this might change their brains in a way to make them liable to do less bad and more good in the future. (Granted, we have no free choice about whether to praise or blame someone.) The only thing that’s not warranted in Burkeman’s list is retributive punishment. Gratitude, pride, guilt, and so on are useful emotions, for even if we had no choice in what we did, these emotions drive society in positive directions, reinforcing good acts and discouraging bad ones.
Burkeman goes on, emphasizing the danger to society of promulgating determinism—a determinism that happens to be true. As the wife of the Bishop of Worcester supposedly said about Darwin’s view that we’re descended from apes,
“My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”
This appears to be the view of not only Burkeman, it seems, but also of Dan Dennett. As Burkeman notes “Dennett, although he thinks we do have [compatibilist] free will, takes a similar position, arguing that it’s morally irresponsible to promote free-will denial.”
Morally irresponsible to promulgate denial of contracausal free will? Morally irresponsible to promulgate the truth? Or does he mean morally irresponsible to deny compatibilist notions of free will like Dennett’s? Either way, I reject the idea that we must hide the truth, or quash philosophical discussion, because it could hurt society.
Burkeman goes on about morality:
By far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what it seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness). “For the free will sceptic,” writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, “it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible.”
The operant word here is “deserves”—the idea of “desert” that’s the topic of a debate between Caruso and Dennett that I recently reviewed. If you mean by “deserve” the fact that you’re deemed “answerably responsible,” and thus can undergo punishment for something bad you did, or can justifiably be praised, then yes, there is good justification for holding people answerably responsible for their good and bad deeds, and taking action accordingly.
There is much to argue with in the piece, not with Burkeman, but with some of the compatibilists he quotes. One of them is Eddy Nahmias:
“Harris, Pinker, Coyne – all these scientists, they all make the same two-step move,” said Eddy Nahmias, a compatibilist philosopher at Georgia State University in the US. “Their first move is always to say, ‘well, here’s what free will means’” – and it’s always something nobody could ever actually have, in the reality in which we live. “And then, sure enough, they deflate it. But once you have that sort of balloon in front of you, it’s very easy to deflate it, because any naturalistic account of the world will show that it’s false.”
Here Nahmias admits that determinism reigns, and implicitly that contracausal free will is nonexistent. But what I don’t think he grasps is that the naturalistic view of will, determinism, while accepted by him and his fellow compatibilists, is flatly rejected by a large majority of people—and in several countries (see the study of Sarkissian et al., though I note that when presented with concrete moral dilemmas, people tend to become more compatibilistic). Contracausal free will is the bedrock of Abrahamic religions, which of course have many adherents. Those who proclaim that everybody accepts pure naturalism and the deterministic behavior it entails—that denying that is “an easily deflatable balloon”—probably don’t get out often enough.
Likewise, though who say a society grounded on determinism will be a dreadful society full of criminals, rapists, and murderers are wrong, I think. This is for two reasons. First of all, know quite a few free-will skeptics, including Caruso, Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, myself, and others, and if free-will skepticism had a palpable effect on someone’s behavior, I can’t see it. It’s an unfounded fear.
The other reason is that there’s an upside in being a determinist. We still have our illusions of free will, so we can act as if our choices are contracausal even if, intellectually, we know they’re not. Hard determinists like myself are not fatalists who go around moaning, “What’s the use to tell the waiter what I want? It’s all determined, anyway.”
And there’s the improvement in the penal system that comes with accepting deteriminism: there’s a lot to be said for Caruso’s “quarantine” model, which is more or less in effect in places like Norway, though I still adhere to the value of deterrence. And, as Burkeman says eloquently, a rejection of free will paradoxially makes us “free” in the sense that we can be persuaded to give up unproductive retributive attitudes and overly judgmental behavior:
In any case, were free will really to be shown to be nonexistent, the implications might not be entirely negative. It’s true that there’s something repellent about an idea that seems to require us to treat a cold-blooded murderer as not responsible for his actions, while at the same time characterising the love of a parent for a child as nothing more than what Smilansky calls “the unfolding of the given” – mere blind causation, devoid of any human spark. But there’s something liberating about it, too. It’s a reason to be gentler with yourself, and with others. For those of us prone to being hard on ourselves, it’s therapeutic to keep in the back of your mind the thought that you might be doing precisely as well as you were always going to be doing – that in the profoundest sense, you couldn’t have done any more. And for those of us prone to raging at others for their minor misdeeds, it’s calming to consider how easily their faults might have been yours. (Sure enough, some research has linked disbelief in free will to increased kindness.)
. . . . Yet even if only entertained as a hypothetical possibility, free will scepticism is an antidote to that bleak individualist philosophy which holds that a person’s accomplishments truly belong to them alone – and that you’ve therefore only yourself to blame if you fail. It’s a reminder that accidents of birth might affect the trajectories of our lives far more comprehensively than we realise, dictating not only the socioeconomic position into which we’re born, but also our personalities and experiences as a whole: our talents and our weaknesses, our capacity for joy, and our ability to overcome tendencies toward violence, laziness or despair, and the paths we end up travelling. There is a deep sense of human fellowship in this picture of reality – in the idea that, in our utter exposure to forces beyond our control, we might all be in the same boat, clinging on for our lives, adrift on the storm-tossed ocean of luck.
I agree with this. And there’s one more benefit: if you are a free-will skeptic, you won’t always be blaming yourself for choices you made in the past on the grounds that you made the “wrong choice.” You didn’t have an alternative! This should mitigate a lot of people’s guilt and recrimination, and you can always learn from your past mistakes, which might alter your behavior in a permanent way. (This is an environmental influence on your neural program: seeing what worked and what didn’t.)
In light of Burkeman’s paean to free-will skepticism, then, it’s very odd that he says the following at the end:
Those early-morning moments aside, I personally can’t claim to find the case against free will ultimately persuasive; it’s just at odds with too much else that seems obviously true about life.
The deterministic case against contracausal free will is completely persuasive, and I think Burkeman agrees with that. So exactly what “case against free will” is he talking about? Is he adhering to compatibilism here? He doesn’t tell us. What, exactly, is at odds with what seems “obviously true about life”? But so much that “seems obviously true” is wrong as well, like the view that there’s an “agent”, a little person, sitting in our head that directs our actions. I would have appreciated a bit more about what, after doing a lot of research on the free-will controversy, Burkeman has really come to believe.
h/t: Pyers, David