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The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality Kindle Edition
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James Miles goes through the many different ways people try to dismiss the all too obvious fact that life is not fair.
By 1524 the Catholic Church had admitted there was no such thing as free will – at least to itself. Erasmus wrote that it had to keep it from the masses who were “too weak, ignorant and wicked” to deal with such information. Only the wealthy and church officials were privy to the truth about free will. It was a “justifiable fraud” because everything had to be done to prevent blame for evil being attributed to God. Only man could originate evil. This illusion of free will makes us who we are, both as a society and as individuals. Today, they still call this branch of free will illusionism .
There are two others: libertarianism and Compatiblism, which muddles the issue by validating free will without also validating free choice. That way advocates avoid blame in case of (daily) reversals. Libertarianism is the pure, Reaganite philosophy that everyone is equal in their ability to choose their own path, make their own way and lift themselves up from swamp by their own hair, as Nietzsche put it in his denial of free will. It has made the United States the unequal, prison filled, safety net-free state we see today.
In philosophy, free will and free choice mean no baggage. You are not responsible for anyone else, and you can’t blame anyone for your own state of affairs. The navel-gazing arrogance of free will proponents is that of being born white, middle class, in postwar USA or UK, allowing them to ignore the plight of everyone else. Using themselves as examples, they can see no reason to commiserate with anyone’s plight. They retroactively assume they actually made themselves this way, without serious physical defects, outside of poverty, with access to higher education and useful networks. The US and UK are nations of unfeeling, uncaring Asperger cases.
Miles backs his views with extensive and intensive arguments from all the big names in the field. He says there is zero external evidence of free will, and the arguments for it resemble theology, where absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. His chapters slice and dice free will and free choice from every conceivable angle, from biochemical/neurology to religion, politics, economics, law and of course philosophy. It has given us a fraudulent morality. He says “morality is culturally overlaid rejection of natural world behaviours”. Much as the winners write history, the winners also decide who deserves help and who deserves dire straits.
It is a remarkably easy read, and enormously engaging. There are a couple of things that could have made it better. Miles loves to quote, and he reuses the same quotes repeatedly. Also, the same arguments get redeployed endlessly. He hammers at it ceaselessly. He is particularly incensed by the 1984 declaration by Daniel Dennett, the ranking authority, that luck evens out over a lifetime, and fair enough is good enough so no one should complain. Miles retorts: try saying that to someone born poor, in a poor country, with a crippling deformity. He is not going to suddenly become a millionaire before dying. Soldiers killed in wars, orphans left to rot, victims of disease, slaves: none of them benefit from this evening out of luck. Free will is a fraud perpetrated by the lucky on the rest.
The main victim throughout, is American society, unequal and getting worse, incarcerated as no people have been before, unnecessarily denied help, education and mobility. Miles says free will and free choice rationalize our inflicting suffering on others. By coincidence, I had just reviewed Robert Putnam’s shattering Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which backs up everything Miles says about society with stats, graphs and sickening studies. Miles provides the provenance, Putnam the evidence. The one really reinforces the other.
The free-will doctrine is appealing not only because it seems to describe what people themselves feel but also, according to Miles, because it allows fortunate people to congratulate themselves on their own characters and accomplishments while blaming the unlucky for criminality or poverty or even physical or mental handicap. The doctrine excuses indifference to the fate of the less fortunate. It encourages arch-conservatives, anyway, to rejoice in blaming the poor for their plight. It is a profoundly immoral doctrine. It also appeals to many because free will absolves God of responsibility for human nastiness. (But what about earthquakes and hurricanes and disease?) Yet God himself, if he exists, cannot have free will (p. 223).
Contrary to Miles, deniers of free will hold no monopoly on morality. Many believers show active sympathy toward the victims of biology and environment and bad luck.
Both sides in the debate recognize the need for personal and collective self-defense against criminals, even by imprisoning them for life in extreme cases. But neither side need favor pointlessly and vengefully adding to the suffering of imprisoned criminals. Maybe some can be rehabilitated. A sound legal and penal system could contribute to a positive causal environment.
Miles emphatically condemns blaming unfortunate people for their plight. Yet he repeatedly and with gusto heaps blame on philosophers who propagate erroneous doctrines. He comes close, at least, to denigrating the personal characters and morality of some erring philosophers. He names many names, Daniel Dennett being the person probably most often condemned. Is there some inconsistency here?
What about academic controversy? Is every book and article, every published reply, and every rejoinder predetermined in detail, except as loosened by chance for which the writer is not responsible? Why take part in such a charade? Each controversialist might think that he is contributing to a sound intellectual environment for his fellows. Or he might recognize that he is helplessly predetermined to think and write as he does.
The no-free-will doctrine is irrefutable in the bad sense diagnosed by Karl Popper: it carries built-in immunity to any challenging evidence. Whatever anyone says or does, no matter how astonishing, could be explained as the consequence of biology, experiences, and chance, all in conformity with the doctrine. The free-will position is better, though not much, with regard to built-in immunity to contrary evidence. If persons convinced that they had freely willed some action could be shown in convincing detail just how that action had been fully predetermined, the free-will doctrine would indeed be shaken.
As far as I can see, and despite Miles to the contrary, the rival doctrines do not contradict each other on how anyone should live his life or on what is a proper code of morality. Sometimes I find it satisfying to think that I am acting in accord with my will rather than under compulsion. My will is mine, just as my tastes in food, cars, music, or houses are mine and just as I can choose accordingly, regardless of how decisively my will and tastes themselves may have been shaped by external causes. (See F.A. Hayek, “The _Non Sequitur_ of the ‘Dependence Effect’”, _Southern Economic Journal_, April 1961.) Possibly I have some genuine freedom to choose among available courses of action. This would be “emergence”, analogous to how human consciousness evolved from the more primitive brain or even how life itself emerged from inanimate matter.
Thousands of years of continuing controversy are pushing me toward thinking that the issue of free will versus determinism is insoluble, barring some unforeseeable breakthrough in types of argument or in what could count as evidence. Perhaps the issue is empty, a mere dispute over words, or like quarreling over whether a piece of Lewis Carroll gibberish is true or false.
I admire Miles’s book for its summaries of many nuances of doctrine. Reading it was exciting. I don’t like its standard uninformed criticism of a straw-man or now abandoned caricature of utilitarianism. Miles digresses into left-wing politics, irrelevantly casting aspersions on Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and others.
My main reason for awarding the book only three stars is its longwindedness and repetition. I was tempted to cry out, “Yes, yes, I get your point! Now can’t we move on?”