Thursday, July 29, 2010

Free to choose?

As we touched on in our last post, the concept of free will is fraught with difficulties, perhaps most significantly the fact that it seems clearly inconsistent with our central premise that all is physical. However, for some reason this insight is nigh impossible to incorporate into our daily lives. As we said to Inigo the other day: "It's just the logical extension of everything we've been saying (everything is physical), but it feels like a whole new level of strangeness to say the brain decides something before 'we' realize it..."

Thus, we were fascinated to come across this interview with philosopher Galen Strawson where he discusses this exact issue. We highly recommend reading the whole piece, but here is a preview:

"There is an undeniable human tendency to see ourselves as free and morally responsible beings. But there’s a problem. We also believe—most of us anyhow—that our environment and our heredity entirely shape our characters (what else could?). But we aren’t responsible for our environment, and we aren’t responsible for our heredity. So we aren’t responsible for our characters. But then how can we be responsible for acts that arise from our characters?

There’s a simple but extremely unpopular answer to this question: We aren’t. We are not and cannot be ultimately responsible for our behavior. According to this argument, while it may be of great pragmatic value to hold people responsible for their actions, and to employ systems of reward and punishment, no one is really deserving of blame or praise for anything. This answer has been around for more than two thousand years; it is backed by solid arguments with premises that are consistent with how most of us view the world. Yet few today give this position the serious consideration it deserves. The view that free will is a fiction is called counterintuitive, absurd, pessimistic, pernicious and, most commonly, “unacceptable,” even by those who recognize the force of the arguments behind it. Philosophers who reject God, an immaterial soul, and even absolute morality, cannot bring themselves to do the same for the dubious concept of free will—not just in their day-to-day lives, but in books, and articles and extraordinarily complex theories."


  1. Great, he just about summed up my views on free will and moral responsibility. Bravo!

  2. More than 2000 years ago? Or 2000 years ago?What happened then that made "no one [is] really deserving of blame or praise for anything"? that "We are not and cannot be ultimately responsible for our behavior."? If all is physical, what happened circa 2000 years ago that didn't happen before? Is there a reference to some axial period I'm not seeing?
    If one is is to argue that all comes from matter, then you can't put a time to it; you can't even say it occurred at the dawn of conciousness. What's ingrained in the fleeting atomic particles that compose all of us is older than the stars. Mr. Strawson's position needs finer explanation IMEHO. -GC

  3. Which is why all blog posts and all comments on blog posts are at the very most worthless. Not that I don't enjoy this blog :)

  4. I believe he concept of free will does not conflict with a solely physical universe.

    Doubting free will suggests a Newtonian understanding of the universe, i.e. the universe is a precision machine simply going through its predetermined motions. Quantum mechanics has debunked that understanding. The actions of the universe do follow trends but are by no means perfectly predictable (just look at the stock market to get insight into the chaotic nature of the universe). It makes far greater sense that creatures inclined to question the degree to which they can control their own actions would evolve in a chaotic universe rather than in a Newtonian one. In a Newtonian universe life would never benefit from questions of efficacy because the perfectly orchestrated movements of the universe would indicate the only action that benefits survival at each and every moment.

    In our universe we have multiple options for acting to increase our long-term survival. That's how we know we live in a meaningless universe. The lack of plan gives us freedom to do as we like. Not a bad thing at all in my opinion.

  5. Anon-

    The 2000-yr reference is only to our ability to understand this issue; you are correct that nothing fundamental changed at that point. We would recommend reading the full piece for a more complete answer.


    We would dispute your argument - even if the universe is chaotic, it is still a leap to assume we have control over events. Lack of predictability is not the same thing.

    That said, we agree that it makes sense to act as if we have freedom to do as we like - as we said in our post, we don't spend a lot of time dwelling on the issue of free will. But when we do, we find the arguments against it awfully compelling...