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Free Will?: An investigation into whether we have free will, or whether I was always going to write this book Paperback – November 3, 2010
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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I would recommend this book to free will believers who are Christians because they will find familiar concepts that will teach them more about their own beliefs as well as that of others.
Particularly interesting is the parts about Calvinism and Molinism. I learned some thing I didn't know before.
But the final reason that free will is impossible has nothing to do with religion. Determinism cannot be escaped for the atheist either. This is a book for everyone.
The fifth part of the book is about the concepts of morality, responsibility, and the purpose of punishment. For the determinist, punishment can only serve as a correction for criminals to ensure that they do not repeat the crimes. Any feeling of retribution is gone for those who see free will for the illusion that it is.
I really think the 50 pages of text on biblical prophecy and theological determinism was a little much. Obviously it is tangentially related to the topic but he spent way too much time on it and I got tired of it. The book would have been better with a little less of this, however it is so good otherwise I still give it 5 stars.
While the book is organized into sections and chapters, their content repeats somewhat, and subjects and themes cross between chapters and sections freely. I did not find the book to have any linear or cumulative structure to it, though it seemed to break down into three main portions. The first portion of the book introduces the reader to the problem - that Free Will seems to be incompatible with either causation or randomness, and pretty much everything seems to be either caused or random, so there is no obvious method that Free Will could work. Pearce introduces the Libertarian, Compatabilist, and Determinist POVs as ways to resolve this conflict, and expresses his views that Libertarianism is incoherent, Compatabilism is just sugar-coated Determinism, and that he is a happy Determinist. He also introduces his theme of second-guessing the judicial system, in particular its retributive and judgmental aspects.
The middle portion of the book elaborates on these three POVs. While it does not add much to understanding of Libertarianism or Compatabilism, this portions discussion on Determinism was particularly interesting. Here, Pearce recounts psychological, neurological, upbringing, genetic, and philosophical studies on the strength of influences on our behavior. These studies provide very interesting insights into humanity, and Pearce does a good job compiling info from a variety of sources. The scope and magnitude of the influences he recounts he considers to be strong evidence for determinism, and he repeats this claim several times in the conclusion.
This claim is the major reasoning shortfall I found in the work. Pearce himself admits that almost nobody holds by pure Libertarianism. Libertarians hold by influences and predilections, and acts of will to overcome these influences. His examples all show INFLUENCE. They only refute pure Libertarianism, not influenced Libertarianism. Therefore, since they are not critical test cases between Determinism and Influenced Libertarianism, they are not evidence for Determinism.
The last section of the book focused primarily on religions, and how they deal with Free Will and Determinism. He points out that a God who knows the future, and who is outside of time, is incompatible with Free Will. This is fairly explicitly accepted in Islam, but most Christian theologians have come up with sugar-coated Compatabilist techniques to argue that we sort of have free will, even though everything is already determined. He takes many tangents here to critique the limited freedom involved in stringent religious codes, with repeated interventions by God, etc. He wanders even further afield with moral critiques of Old Testament laws, and the actions of Yahweh. The point seems to be that most people who reject determinism do so because of the religious necessity of Free Will, and he is trying to refute those claims by showing the simultaneous religious necessity for determinism, and if that fails, demonstrate that religious views are flawed for other reasons. These logic and moral critiques are for the most part valid. However, the attacks on religion in this portion of the book fit only tangentially into the purpose of the book, and look like something he should have mostly excised, and turned into a separate book critiquing religions.
One hole he failed to plug is that some theologians have taken a route out of his determinist minefield, by holding that God is INSIDE time, and experiences change. He mostly brushes over this point, but does launch a side attack to try to refute it, by attacking time. He asserts time is like a dimension (and calims this is how most physicists think of it today), and therefore physics is already holding that the future already exists (is determined). However, as the multidimensional String Theory and M-theory universes have X dimensions AND TIME (no more than one time field), not X dimensions ONE OR MORE OF WHICH ARE TIME (time and dimension fields are fundamentally the same) - it is clear that time really isn't a dimension. While it may be possible that most physicists hold this opinion, its failure in practice trumps his citation of expert support.
A final theme he returns to with greatest focus in the last portion is criminal justice. He holds that the "determining" influences on all our lives are full moral exculpation for whatever one may have done wrong (or right). Which leads him to an argument our criminal justice system should be integrated into a social system which should be preventative (starting with infancy, and the proper conditions/influences/training etc one needs to be a well balanced good citizen), and once one commits a crime, society's sole goal should be rehabilitation - as a moral necessity. He considers uneven wealth distribution (not just inheritance, but also income based on productivity) to be morally wrong, the result of luck in a random lottery for genes and upbringing.
This rationalization of his political agenda through an argument for determinism is the second major reasoning weakness I found in the book. Determinism does not justify his utopian scientific socialist nanny statism. Most people find the loss of free will removes any value to life of the universe; hence there is no remaining "moral" reference left to justify any kind of reform of society, or even of the criminal justice system. The consistent historical consequence of societal belief in determinism is to reinforce whatever social system is in place in that society. Pearce seems to be passionate to convince people of the reality of determinism, in the expectation that it will lead them to embrace his utopian vision. That his enthusiasm for convincing the rest of us we are deluded about Free Will would almost certainly lead to the opposite effect than he intends is an interesting twist to the issue of who, exactly is deluded here.
While I found Pearce's work an enjoyable read, it also failed to convince me of any of his conclusions. Basically, he commits the same reasoning failing that I have seen in all advocates of determinism. Determinism is a directly and easily derivable consequence of assuming causation applies to the universe, and he assumes causation, and arrives at a belief in determinism. Likewise, advocates of free will do so because experience the freedom of their will immediately and personally, and they consider personal experience to be absolute, hence they have free will.
Pearce's mere dismissal of this direct experience of free will as "incoherent" is not convincing for anyone who considers direct experience to be primary evidence, which is most people. Evidence trumps theory every time in science and empiricism, and his rejection of direct evidence in favor of his assumed theory of causation is also therefore counter to the founding principles of science.
He then tries to supplement this theory-based dismissal of evidence with his own supporting evidence, but evidence has to apply to the comparison between compting claims. The only thing his evidence refutes is absolute free will, not influenced free will, as I noted in the main body of my review. Meanwhile, he does not even discuss a major refuting piece of evidence, from the nature of consciousness and its role in decisionmaking. Our minds also have the features of evolutionarily tuned structures (poor/accidental overall system design, but well optimized and effective given those structural peculiarities). The primary function of consciousness for us appears to be decisionmaking. One cannot have evolutionary optmization of a feature unless it plays a key role in determining an entity's survival chances, and his deterministic view of our actions robs our consciousness of any decisionmaking role. His views are incompatable with the nature of observed consciousness, and natural selection. This is an empriical test case that refutes his views.
I was completely unmoved by his criminal justice discussions -- as I could not follow where he was coming from. Morality requires some set of shared assumptions as to what one is valuing, and as the worth I put on people is based on their consciousness and moral agency, his arguments that consciousness is illusory and we are not moral agents, for me, are arguments against even having any morality. They cannot lead me to any MORAL arguments relative to the criminal justice system! Additionally, I fail fo follow the whole point of his caring to write a book. If we have no free will individually, we have no more choice in what we do than a domino in a line of dominos. He is trying to convince a domino it is more moral to fall one way or another, and to convince the line of dominos to relocate itself for moral reasons, which seems beyond pointless. Meanwhile, he too claims to be a domino, and his "desire" to convince us a self delusion. I cannot understand why he can even act on any of his desires if this is something he really believes. So his entire point of advocating a set of values to individuals, with the goal of advocating activism leading to a societal transformation, while asserting determinism, strikes me as a nonsensical coupling. And this view is not unique to me, as I note in the main review that societies which adopt determinism as a dominant view become stagnant, and do not engage in morals-based transformations.
I still enjoyed the book, as the book feels like a good bull session with a friend. And one can disagree with a friend, even if the friend cannot see his own reasoning flaws, while still enjoying the bull session.
The author convincingly shows that determinism is borne out in countless recent scientific discoveries in neuroscience, psychology, biochemistry, physics and genetics which new findings are important and have wide application in all aspects of our lives. There is a new dawn of knowledge exploding around us and our lives depend upon our absorbing many new scientific discoveries in many complex fields. We cannot blame a god or a devil for our circumstances; the author deftly dispatches them from the new matrix. We have to get with the new paradigm and look at how we can improve our critical thinking, how we can make better economic decisions, how we can use our new scientific knowledge to create new art, how we can see one another in a more compassionate light and how we may reform education and the criminal justice system. I recommend this book because we need to make a lot of informed decisions every day and we need all the rational help we can get to understand our common humanity and to develop the full power and beauty of our finite being.