- File Size: 499 KB
- Print Length: 115 pages
- Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1454927356
- Publisher: Sterling (February 28, 2018)
- Publication Date: February 28, 2018
- Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B075TT25ZG
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Not Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #272,598 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
|Digital List Price:||$8.99|
|Print List Price:||$9.95|
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Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converge to Create a Beautiful Illusion Kindle Edition
"Children of Blood and Bone"
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut. Learn more
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The book is well worth reading for qualities like these, and for its quiet precision of language and analogy. Its appeal is poetic rather than polemical though, and after reading I found myself disagreeing as profoundly as ever with its core assumption.
That assumption is expressed several times in the book, but without much support, as if it were a settled matter of science rather than a leap of faith. For instance in the sentence: “Your actions are all predetermined by unconscious natural causes before you are aware of them.” While reading, I kept expecting Barker to backpedal and start replacing the word “predetermined” in statements like this with something less absolutist like “constrained.” But the line of thought never budges from strict, dogmatic determinism, the belief that there is an unbroken chain of inevitability tracing through all events.
And yet that whole wild extrapolation of strict causality is, first of all, so counterintuitive. As a jazz musician and an author, can he really believe that each note or word he’s ever been inspired to reach for was written already, eons before anyone’s birth, in some minor imbalance of the pre-atomic plasma?
Forgive me, but isn’t this just reconfiguring the traditional omnipotence and omniscience of god into an equally mystical scientism? Of course causality exists, David Hume notwithstanding; and we observe it in particular in certain mechanical relationships that are readily induced and measured. But there is no reason to postulate the total absence of any relationships other than strict causality among events, such as might be represented in consciousness. Certainly our experience of life tell us that we are at least somewhat free, and why should we assume that such a fundamental level of experience must be illusory?
It seems so much more plausible that nature and the sequence of causality create parameters for us, capacities of various kinds, instincts, predilections, etc, which yes of course are rather deterministic at the population level - but that at the same time sentience is able to carve a degree of genuine individual freedom within this flow of events. The analogy would be life itself, and its ability to carve a niche of evolutionary order as a kind of back-current in the flow of entropy.
There is of course no syllogism to prove that free will exists. The determinist can answer any seemingly free action by insisting it was foreordained. You can even argue, seemingly irrefutably, that determinists are inconsistent in their own lives, because they make efforts of various kinds (writing books, raising children, resisting enemies, etc), while allegedly considering all effort to be futile. But of course the answer even to this is, I do so only because I have no ability to do otherwise.
Perhaps the most marvelous feature of Dan Barker’s charming book comes roughly halfway through. Namely, while he was typing one day out on his back patio, Little One (the chipmunk) hopped onto his keyboard and made a random hyphen. Barker left the hyphen in. He would have us believe that neither he nor the chipmunk had a choice in the matter.
I'm a free will junkie.
I find this subject fascinating. I've read most of the books that argue free will doesn't exist, even though we humans believe we possess it. So since the subtitle of Barker's book is How Science and Philosophy Converge to Create a Beautiful Illusion, I expected a rational, reasonable, factual explanation of not only why free will is an illusion, but the benefit of giving up a belief in it.
Well, even before I got through the introduction, I found myself writing more and more question marks in the margins, because what Barker was saying made so little sense.
He admits that free will is a fiction. Determinism rules through chains of causes and effects. So far, so good.
Where Barker lost me is his contention that "Free will is a product of judgment." He claims that "free will is irrelevant -- it doesn't even exist -- until you judge behavior. It is a retroactive product of judgment."
He's talking about a particular sort of judgment, moral judgments. Supposedly free will is a social truth, like marriage. Well, this goes against how almost everybody in the world, aside from Barker, I guess, looks upon free will.
Almost everybody feels like they possess free will, even though it is an illusion. Likewise, almost everybody says "the sun is setting" rather than "the Earth is revolving." We feel like we have free will when we're alone, just as we see the sun setting when we're alone. If someone is by themselves on a desert island, they are still going to feel like they have free will, no moral judgement required.
We choose a flavor of ice cream. We pick a book to buy. We decide where to go on vacation. None of these decisions entail making moral judgments, unless the meaning of "moral" is stretched far beyond its normal usage. I fail to see how a sense of free will only arises after a judgment is made, but this is a core tenet of Barker's book.
Now, what bothers me the most about "Free Will Explained" isn't the crazy way Barker looks upon free will, but the implications he draws from that viewpoint. Unlike virtually every other author who writes about the illusion of free will, somehow Barker is simultaneously able to embrace the reality of determinism while also claiming that we are morally responsible for our actions.
"We can be completely unfree, yet also completely accountable for our own actions," he writes. Barker further asserts that "moral accountability only needs to go as far back in time as the mental decision to act was made."
So even though someone's decision to rob a bank, say, was completely determined by their genetics, upbringing, and countless life experiences, Barker is fine with the justice system assuming that they possessed free will and could have chosen to not rob the bank. Hence, it is perfectly justified, in Barker's view, to exact retribution for freely willed acts, rather than viewing criminality as something that society needs to be protected from, and the criminal rehabilitated from.
Barker goes so far as to write, "Yes, the brain tumor (or whatever) is one of the causes of the action, but the individual human being is the actual perpetrator. It is irrelevant to ask whether the person was ultimately free or not. We only assume the person was immediately free."
Huh? Barker admits that free will is an illusion, It doesn't exist. Yet somehow he is OK with a judge or jury assuming that someone with a brain tumor was "immediately free" at the moment of making a decision, even though the tumor caused them to act in a certain unlawful way.
One of the more annoying parts of Barker's book is when he raises the straw man of determinists failing to praise people or favoring moral education. He says that when his children took their first steps and he clapped his hands to congratulate them, "Should I have acted like a dull determinist and coldly remarked to my kids, 'That's no big deal. You had no choice'?"
Geez. Barker doesn't understand how us determinists view reality. Everything at the level of everyday life is determined, everything! (I'm leaving out quantum phenomena, though arguably these also are determined, albeit in a probabilistic sense.)
A determinist is going to praise their children because this is what they have been determined to do. If they don't, then they have been determined to do that. There's no getting outside of the bounds of determinism in our causal universe.
At the end of his book Barker notes that "Free will is not a scientific truth, it is a social truth." Again, this doesn't make sense. An illusory sense of free will exists in humans because it has some sort of evolutionary advantage. This makes it a scientific truth. The illusion of free will also is a scientific truth, as Barker readily admits.
Yet he persists in believing that it is better that people believe in the illusion, than in the truth. He appears to be fine with exacting retributive justice that is justified by a judge or jury assuming that someone possessed the free will to not commit a crime.
Amazingly, Barker goes so far as to say, "Denying free will is a put-down to human nature." Wow. Discovering the truth that free will is an illusion is a put-down to human nature? I heartily disagree. For centuries people had the illusion that some races are superior to others, which justified slavery. They also had the illusion that women are the weaker sex and shouldn't be able to vote, among other consequences of that illusion.
Belief in free will isn't an innocent illusion. It is used to justify harsh punishments, since our justice system is founded on an assumption that, aside from insanity, people are free to either commit a crime or refrain from that behavior. Books like the one Barker wrote aren't merely wrong, they are dangerous.