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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.
Hence, when we choose eggs instead of cereals for breakfast we appear to be making a choice out of free will. No one compelled us to choose eggs over cereals. But on closer examination, we will find out why we chose eggs. For example, we had cereals the day before, and we have a practice of not eating similar breakfast two days in a row; and that practice started when we were 12; that practice started with an event in which a relative fell ill after eating similar breakfasts two days in a row; and so on. What we do today, and how we think, are affected by past events. Our attitude, character, personality goad us towards certain bias in decision-making, and these factors are formed in us, bit by bit, layer by layer. Further, neuroscience has also shown that in the bulk of our decision-making, our subconscious brain already starts to move in the direction of the final decision before we are consciously aware of that final decision.
Having set out the state of science and reason, Miles tears away at the Libertarian dependence on religion (God) for the basis of asserting free will. He argues, for example, that the Libertarian view that we have free will because we have the power to do otherwise than what we in fact do, implies that any conception that God is all-powerful, all-benevolent, and all-knowing, cannot be true. If we decide to do evil and God does not stop us, he either has no power, or is not willing, or he just cannot know the future.
In the next two chapters, Miles then attacks the flaws in the diverse arguments of the compatibilist views of free will. Compatibilists can be religious or not, but they all accept that the universe is governed by deterministic laws, yet they believe that nonetheless, we still have free will. Naturally, there are many versions and theories as to how that might be possible. Miles attacks the strongest of these, including the views of Kant, Iwagen, Dennett, and Watson.
Miles takes the view that belief in free will undermines our ability to empathise with the less fortunate. The conceit that holds us to the belief that we make good our lives also leads us to believe that poverty and misfortune is not attributable to luck but to our own design. The conceit of free will denies the existence of moral luck. Thus compatibilists spend a great deal of effort attempting to show how free will can overcome moral luck. Miles addresses all those arguments and explains why they are flawed and inadequate.