Free Will: Have We Outgrown It or Is It Still a Useful Illusion?

Free Will: Have We Outgrown It or Is It Still a Useful Illusion? June 28, 2019

I was having a conversation on Facebook about this so I thought I’d bring it here, setting the scene in this first post. Let’s assume that libertarian free will is not true. I have written a lot on this over the past 10 years such that if you would like to find out why I think this, then check my free will and determinism category at the bottom of this blog post. Given the negation of libertarian free will (the conscious and real ability to do otherwise in any single given causal circumstance), it is worth noting that it doesn’t really matter what causal version of reality we then add here to – whether it be strict, hard determinism, compatiblism, adequate determinism that allows for quantum indeterminacy or something else.

The question then becomes, why do we have the illusion of free will? Why do we think we can freely choose otherwise in a given situation? All other animals that we look at appear to be situation-action machines. That means, given a particular stimulus, they react in a particular way. It’s a biological algorithm of sorts. We, as humans, add so much more complexity onto this, and so much language and philosophy, that we think that we are categorically different from these other animals. But that level of complexity doesn’t make us a different category of being entirely, I would argue.

Now, given evolution, we can explain or try to explain all our behaviours, psychological and otherwise. Why we laugh, why we dig music, why we lie, while we vie for status – all of this is explicable by evolution and evolutionary psychology. So why free will? Why can’t we just look at other humans and understand them mechanistically?

Well, simplistically, it could be that this has been a very useful illusion that has allowed us to successfully exist, in terms of evolution, as a complex, social organism. We might look at something like this. Imagine a farrier puts some horseshoes on your horse. You, as a farmer, attributes responsibility to him as an agent. You don’t look at him and think “wow, look at how the universe has conspired to cause this entity, known as the farrier, to put horseshoes on my horse!” First and foremost, this would require a really complete understanding of science, philosophy and the world around us that early humans simply didn’t have. These worldviews and their cadres of knowledge take time to develop.

Attributing causal responsibility to the farrier for putting horseshoes on your horse means that you, as a farmer, are more likely to give him four bushels of hay. The whole idea of agency where actions are supposedly really carried out by that agent appears to underwrite transactions and human social interaction. Arguably, this is a very useful illusion. Although, in reality, whole myriad variables necessarily had to come together for the farrier to do what he did. We so often utilise something called proximal or proximate causation so that we look at the nearest agent to an action and declare “She did it!”

So perhaps the illusion is both simple (as in, easy for us to understand – it was simply impossible for us to fully understand or even think otherwise with our limited knowledge) and useful. There might, indeed, be other reasons that have developed evolutionarily that showed the usefulness of libertarian free will as an idea or humanity.

However, it is now pertinent to think about whether this useful illusion is still, indeed, useful. I hope to answer this in my next post. That said, there is every chance that I might just end up asking more questions and not giving any answers at all!



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