Free will illusionism

Free will illusionism December 21, 2014

One approach to the growing evidence, and immutable logical philosophy, for the fact of (adequate) determinism and free will as an illusion of the mind is that of the illusionist. This position states that libertarian free will (as the ability to chose otherwise in any given situation) is indeed an illusion and that it is useful as such. Humanity can’t somehow deal with the knowledge of free will being untrue or an illusion due to the consequences to this (fatalism, crime and punishment etc.) or the psychological dissonance in this. Thus we should maintain that illusion.

Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky wrote a book on free will showing that it is not, as commonly understood, existent. However, he went on to say:

The Fundamental Dualism, according to which we must be both compatibilists and hard determinists, was my first proposal. Now let us move on to the second. Illusion, I claim, is the vital but neglected key to the free will problem. I am not saying that we need to induce illusory beliefs concerning free will or can live with beliefs that we fully realize are illusory. Both of these positions would be highly implausible. Rather, I maintain that illusory beliefs are in place, and that the role they play is largely positive. (p. 497)

Illusionism is the position that illusion often has a large and positive role to play in the issue of free will. In arguing for the importance of illusion, I claim that we can see why it is useful, that it is a reality, and why by and large it ought to continue to be so. Illusory beliefs are in place concerning free will and moral responsibility, and the role they play is largely positive. Humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue, and this seems to be a condition of civilized morality and personal value.

The sense of “illusion” that I am using combines the falsity of a belief with some motivated role in forming and maintaining that belief—as in standard cases of wishful thinking or self-deception. However, it suffices that the beliefs are false and that this conclusion would be resisted were a challenge to arise. It is not necessary for us to determine the current level of illusion concerning free will.

The importance of illusion flows in two ways from the basic structure of the free will problem: first, indirectly, from the Fundamental Dualism on the Compatibility Question — the partial and varying validity of both compatibilism and hard determinism . Second, illusion flows directly and more deeply from the meaning of the very absence of the grounding that libertarian free will was thought to provide. We cannot live adequately with the dissonance of the two valid sides of the Fundamental Dualism, nor with a complete awareness of the deep significance of the absence of libertarian free will. We have to face the fact that there are basic beliefs that morally ought not to be abandoned, although they might destroy each other, or are even partly based on incoherent conceptions. At least for most people, these beliefs are potentially in need of motivated mediation and defense by illusion, ranging from wishful thinking to self-deception.

PF Strawson advocated a compatibilism based on the fact that humans appear to be unable to separate reactive attitudes to moral responsibility woven with notions of free will. There are several strands to his argument, the psychological aspect being one:

Strawson argued that it would be psychologically impossible to stop holding persons morally responsible for their conduct since it would be psychologically impossible to stop having certain kinds of emotional responses to others, responses that are simply part of our very nature. Hence, arguing about whether or not determinism threatens moral responsibility is idle. There is no way to take seriously the threat that it does, since, were it taken to discredit moral responsibility, given the nature of the human condition, no one could simply opt out of all moral responsibility practices anyway.

We are too psychologically dependent upon notions of free will and resultant moral responsibility that we must maintain belief in it somehow.

So this idea of free will as a necessary illusion is distinctive as being consequentialist in character. In a recent, excellent Reasonable Doubts podcast, the team look at the announcement that Alfred Mele spearheading research into free will and a $4 million dollar grant from the Templeton Foundation (a religious organisation which seeks to harmonise religion with science). When evaluating this, they conclude that Mele is looking critically at determinism and discounting it on account of the ramifications which result. However, the truth of a claim should not be inferred by the consequences which pertain. Perhaps, though, at the end of the day, it is sometimes beneficial to lie.

The problem on a large scale is that it is tough trying to calculate the consequences which would result from discounting free will. There are some interesting psychological studies which look at how people act as a result of deterministic of libertarian free will outlooks, and at the direction of causality therein. That will be the subject of my next post.perf6.000x9.000.indd

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  • D Rizdek

    Rather than assuming some sort of moral responsibility for actions, we simply apply the same strategy we do to animals and even inanimate objects. If a rock is in the wrong place, we move it. NOT because we think ill of it or assume it has moral responsibility for being where it is, but for the convenience of us and others who don’t like it where it was. We put a rogue elephant “down” not because it is morally evil but because it is rogue and a danger to society. Likewise, someone who is unable to conform their life style to abide by civilized societal laws might have to be removed from that society. We don’t even need to apply any kind of moral judgment or outrage. Simply treating them as a nuisance is sufficient to keep on charging folks with crimes, convicting them and punishing them.

    A side benefit of this is that this ability to charge, convict and punish folks for their actions becomes a very real part of who they are and what motivates them. They might be more prone to behave themselves if they live in a society with an efficient and fair criminal justice system. It’s the libertarian free willys that scare me. It means they do not think themselves motivated by the threat of punishment or reason, but by some “inner do loop” that churns out decisions based on, it seems…nothing but how this inner being feels about things.
    And if questioned how can society make someone pay for what that person was not responsible for, simply change what “responsible for” means. If the person did it based on decisions not visibly/forcibly coerced, then “they” did it and are responsible for it. No one else did it and THEY, because they do these things, have become the menace that needs to be removed from society.

    Another benefit of approaching criminal justice like this (i.e.removing the moral outrage and the potential emotions that brings) is that we might avoid the injustices and biased processes that are born of moralistic assumptions and we can start to view causes and effects scientifically and begin to actually find solutions to misbehavior beyond assuming someone does these things because they are just “morally bad.”

    • I suppose the issue there might be about intention. A rock doesn’t intend to get in the way, whilst a human can intend to harm.

      But essentially, you seem to advocate the non-retributive approach to crime and punishment, as do I.

      Punishment should be about protecting society and trying to rehabilitate.

      • Latverian Diplomat

        What about deterrence? (I know it’s a problematic issue to demonstrate the effectiveness of deterrence statistically).

        That is also an aspect of punishment that does not require free will. Fear of consequences can influence our decisions without requiring that those decisions be non-deterministic ones.

        • Deterrance is a tricky one. Derk Pereboom in Living Without Free Will claims that it is not justified philosophically. It gets pretty complex.

          I suppose one simple problem is that it can be analogous to a healthy man walking into a hospital and being killed for his organs to save 5 others. Being used instrumentally for the benefit of others. Where is that arbitrary line of acceptability.As you state, stats on it are pretty dodgy.

          There is defence of deterrence:

          “One of the finest non-utilitarian developments of the deterrence theory can be found in “The Justification of General Deterrence” by Daniel Farrell.18 Farrell’s theory is impressive if only because it rests punishment on grounds most would accept – the right to harm in self-defense or defense of another” (DP,, LWFW, p. 168).

          I can expand on this if you want.

      • D Rizdek

        Just thinking more about it…I realize a rock doesn’t have intent, but if all our actions AND any intents behind those actions and the intents behind those intents ad infinitum…are chemical reactions ultimately determined by outside factors (which they must), can we be truly accused of “having” intent? Isn’t that the illusion you were discussing? If it isn’t free (whatever that can mean), it isn’t really intent in the sense of having a free-willed intent to, say, do harm/good, any more than a rock rolling down the hill…following the laws of physics…can be accused of having intent.

        And as a side thought, even assuming humans have a soul doesn’t give the free will advocates an “out.” The soul, whatever it is was inserted/created/assembled BY whatever made it. However it works, how it thinks and reasons, whatever innate morality it has was also put together by that “whatever.” We had no say in anything about it…we “inherited it” just like our eye and hair color. Our “souls” would have no more freewill than the snowball I might pack and throw at a wall. No matter how many loops of decision making it might be said to have, it’s still depending on input and parameters and thought processes that were/are outside our control.

      • Void Walker
        • Cheers. ‘Trick’s an online friend of mine – he’s on the case there!

  • Void Walker

    Fantastic post, dude.

    In your opinion, what evolutionary advantage(s) would such a complex set of illusions grant us? That is, why would such an intuitive sense of contra causal free will have been selected for to begin with? (crosses fingers for a potential post regarding this)

    • This is a god question which I have ruminated on before, even towards the end of my free will book. So I am thinking that being a social animal, there are aspects of social cohesion which demand some kin of understanding of free will. If you do something for me, then ascribing you as being morally kind in doing so means that I am likely to do something good back to you, or accept you into my in group, rather than ascribe that no moral responsibility, or ascribe that causality to the cosmos.

      Also, an early primate which free rides, and takes advantage of the in group, and gets found out; if they are seen as morally culpable for those actions, then they would be rejected, getting their just desserts.

      In simple, self-aware societies, without this high level of philosophy, these shortcuts allow for social functioning.

      Thus moral responsibility is interwoven with notions of contra-causal free will.


      • Void Walker

        Fascinating points.

        It is also interesting how a belief in cc free will nets the believer a greater sense of control and authorship for their actions, and that they tend to be much happier than a cranky determinist such as myself. I suppose I will be selected against, but I had no choice. ;-)

      • I’m with Void Walker. I’m woefully ignorant in this area of analysis so forgive the “graphic novel edition” thinking but what continued to go through my mind is that historically…since time memorial and before cave bears… we have “freely” given up “free will without consequences” and pounced on … well at first religion or mythology .. but really any system which presented us a limitation. — which had me wondering if it really is as illusory as it appears, or so horrifically real we deny it. At nearly every point when reading libertarianism I find myself saying — “well, yes… but we don’t…” at all of their “good bits”

        Looking forward to the follow up. Thank you for posting this one.

        • The issue would be that it simply cannot be a functioning mechanism because it is at base illogical. Contra-causal free will as the ability to do otherwise is impossible to philosophically defend.

          Which is why it gets redefined.

          So I guess it can’t really be real because, well, it makes no sense!

          • I’ve been told (by several people who I believe know of such things) that I have little understanding of “true” philosophical logic — just like some might not have an understanding of true fiction genre like romance, horror or western, which I understood right away and took no offense at their judgement. So I will not argue or agree with you — buy only because I can’t. I will say that the “idea” of it seems so attractive to the common king-baby mindset we have in early youth, that if there was any way that we could have operated on this level, … we would have. But thank you very much for the reply because I looked up your term “Contra-causal free will” and found “Hard Determinism” which as a mental exercise (being done by a fiction writer) has been entertaining me for the last few hours :-)

          • How did you get on with contra-causal free will?

            Incidentally, are you involved in the heforshe UN movement? Fancy writing a piece on what it is for some added publicity?

          • Well first question — I searched google to see what you were talking about and one of the serps was contra-causal and it turned out to be interesting.. though not really related I guess . As to the other, sure. I’ll post my address into your comment area. Our local site is

          • Apologies Hoping to get this out there on the line.. The leader of the demonstrators in Ferguson has no plans of stopping the demonsstrations or achieving anything by them. He’s just pushing those people and leading them on. If you have press connections the story is on that link. If not pass it forward. Those people out there.. 20k of them.. should at least know who and why ..

    • D Rizdek

      Rambling and conjectured thoughts follow.

      Perhaps the only way an animal species could advance to complex societies, even those as simple as what humans had thousands of years ago, was to develop some sort of instinct to expect others to behave in a manner that corresponds to me and my feelings. Maybe that was the big difference between the species that was us vs some of our evolutionary cousins who apparently died out. Our level of ability to develop assumptions about others in our tribe/family unit, assumptions about how they should treat us and how we ought to treat them and to expect fairness far surpassed the others. AND those abilities were, perhaps, crucial to developing the advanced societies a relatively weak (physically) species would need to survive. And to maintain those assumptions about how we think we ought to act and how we think others ought to act had to include the assumption that we all could be reasonably held responsible for our actions. IOW they had to assume each one was free to choose.

      I think we see a rudimentary form of this chimps, for example. Chimps seem to have a social order that allows at least enough cohesion to live in extended family units where each individual has a place and can expect others to behave in an expected manner and even wage tribal warfare. This was shown in Planet Earth, The Jungle episode. It showed a band of Chimps moving stealthily through the jungle, stopping occasionally looking at each other then moving on toward a raid on a neighboring tribe of Chimps. It acted as if they felt they had a will that allowed them to a) not just attack each other randomly and b) to expect all in the band to participate in the planned activity. They could trust the others to support them in the raid. It was actually a bit scary to see how they behaved as they moved though the jungle.
      I think there is also a rudimentary form of this in, say, wolves where the alpha wolf expects the others to act in a certain way toward him and reacts if behavior is out of line. There also seems to be an expectation that when the hunting party returns after a kill that food will be shared with others including the pups. They seem to approach it on the assumption that the pack understands how they ought to act. And, wolves, like humans benefit from being a cohesive group, to, say hunt. They act as if they know what the other ought to do during a hunt. IOW, I don’t think it’s just humans who have develop a sense of what we ought to do and expect that others ought to behave thus and so in a given situation.

      I would go so far as to say what we call morality is an inherited instinct. So I would think, regardless how complex and arbitrary it seems, assuming freewill, or at least assuming each person is personally responsible for his actions and can be held accountable, is an instinct we inherited.

      • Which means that it would also function in terms of cheating and free-riders, which is a fascinating area of research for evolutionary psychologists and biologists.

    • Marcus Ashes

      I believe that it is a meaningless question. Life has to exist since nothing is impossible and consciousness is the only possibility since absence of consciousness cannot be experienced (tying in with the nothing cannot exist idea). However everything must be quantifiable and make sense so determinism has to be true therefore there is no alternative to it. So basically we are aware of going through the motions of our genetically determined actions. It’s not about advantage but necessity.
      We can’t see the cause of our actions because then there would be a cause before the cause ad infinitum leading to infinite regression.
      This is what leads to the illusion of free will. It’s like a computer program trying to read itself.

      • Void Walker

        I personally fail to see how my original question is, in any way, “meaningless”.

        Our brains, and the myriad behaviors granted by them, are essentially products of evolution. It follows, then, that this intuitive sense of contra-causal free will would itself also have served some sort of advantage wrt survival. If not, I’d be interested in finding out just why the fuck such an absurd, causally defiant sense would develop!

        • Marcus Ashes

          I don’t know maybe like I said it couldn’t have been otherwise. It wasn’t necessarily intentional for cc free will to be intuitive but a necessity. Like a computer program trying to read itself it would not be able to perceive the cause of its own behaviour.
          I mean truth is I for one would like
          to know why some people are capable of certain behaviours and others are not. IMO though I believe it is a false dichotomy in a deterministic multiverse in which everything must happen.

  • Marcus Ashes

    What if it is abundantly apparent to somebody that they dont have complete and absolute freedom because no matter how much they desire sonething they cant bring themselves to cause it?

    • Well, this certainly shows that a complete unadulterated free will is absurd!

  • Marcus Ashes

    I don’t see any evidence of free will myself. I mean when I go about my daily business I see a remarkable consistency with people’s behaviour which you wouldn’t expect and shouldn’t if we really had free will.
    I have schizoaffective disorder myself and have been around a lot of people with mental and behavioural disorders in psyche hospitals and also I see a lot of mentally handicapped people in my local area and they act in bizarre ways which leads me to conclude we are biological machines that can go very wrong. I mean I need medication to function prop

    • An interesting point. People abrogate responsibility to people who behave abnormally due to some disorder or another but are unwilling to do so to neurotypical people even though the processes are equally biological.

      Have you read my post here for more on this:

      • Marcus Ashes

        Yes I was reading about that case a few months back. I have seen people do fairly dangerous and outrageous things when drunk but refuse to do the same when sober. I have seen people take legal highs and then attack people with weapons for no reason and with day to day experience of retardation and autism and my own experiences with paranoia (causing me crippling unwarranted fear and to tell my brother to kill my mum) I am pretty certain determinism is true for everyone, its just the typical brain is wired well typically so produces consistent and common behaviour

  • Marcus Ashes

    But it is obvious to me that chemistry of the brain determines awareness and behaviour with the experiences I’ve had and only I can say this for me. I have blacked out on occasion where I was somewhere doing something then in the next moment I was somewhere else doing something else. People black out when drunk and still carry on so it would seem consciousness isn’t even necessary in order for people to act.

  • Jack_Ma

    In my view, moral anger is superfluous to its imagined purpose i.e., motivation to challenge unwanted behavior. Furthermore, insofar as it relies upon a belief in the objective reality of evil, it gives rise to a fanatical sense of duty to destroy it, which, in turn, fuels some this planet’s most horrifically destructive human behavior.

    Best be rid of it as much as possible.

    • Marcus Ashes

      The way I’ve always viewed it is if you had free will anger would be a choice so would fear and sadness etc but the problem is if they are consciously chosen responses then they are not genuine feelings because you have control over them. My point is why suffer these negative feelings when you don’t have to. Kind of defeats the object of why we react to situations in the first place and it loses its function. It basically means emotions lose their purpose.

    • We are indeed very psychological and emotional creatures. One only has to look at Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow to see the conflict in the brain and psychology of system 1 and system 2 thinking.

  • Marcus Ashes

    I suppose though philosophically speaking in the universe (multi verse possibly) every event is realised. It has to be deterministic 1. So and because the universe follows exact natural laws and 2. For completeness philosophically. Also this would probably negate meaning. (As I’ve said in a previous comment the universe has to exist since nothing is impossible and it also has to make sense).

  • Guest
  • Apologies up front Hoping to get this out The leader of the demonstrators in Ferguson has no plans of stopping the demonsstrations or achieving anything by them. He’s just pushing those people and leading them on. If you have press connections the story is on that link. If not pass it forward. Those people out there.. 20k of them.. should at least know who and why ..

  • Marcus Ashes

    Interestingly the children of the Canaanites weren’t allowed to use their ‘free will’ and were exempt from judgement because god order their deaths. So in other words god allowed people into heaven for free. According to William Lane Craig