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The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing Up to a False Belief Paperback – October 1, 2012
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`Most people are completely taken in by the illusion of free will. Happily, Richard Oerton is not among them. The Nonsense of Free Will is a wonderfully clear - and very clever - little book.' -- Sam Harris * author of The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and Free Will * `There are philosophical, scientific, scholarly, novel, determined, American, pompous, dotty and other books on free will and determinism. There are also a few books that are lucid and informal introductions for ordinary readers and let you know that your free will does not exist. Richard Oerton's may be the best of these.' -- Professor Ted Honderich * Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic, University College London * This book is superbly written and a delight to read. Starting as a clearly reasoned treatment of determinism, it merges seamlessly into a critique of English criminal law and penal policy, and ends with a plea for society to abandon what the author sees as its irrational belief in free will.' -- Joshua Rozenberg * lawyer and legal commentator, formerly legal editor of The Daily Telegraph *
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Oerton refers to the independent research of neuroscientists Benjamin Libet and John Dylan-Haynes who, using EEG and fMRI respectively, confirmed that subconscious brain states (which give rise to consciousness) register a decision before the “decider” decided. However counterintuitive may be the research data, it doesn’t take a neuroscientist or brain-imaging systems to identify the poverty of the free will argument. “Willing” requires causations advanced by brain states, and brain states are causal states, which, as it happens, are deterministic. It’s that simple. A choice is causally derived, and, says Oerton, “that’s determinism.” As he wrote elsewhere, “Free will is a concept which, when examined, comes apart in your hands.”
Richard reminds us (thrice, by my count) that “a person acts as he does because he is what he is; and he has not made himself what he is.” So simple is the construction, yet so utterly profound and lasting is the remark. With the skill one would expect from a seasoned legal mind, Oerton explains how ridiculous the claim of free will truly is. “Phenomena have causal explanations.… [And] determinism is causality.” Free will invokes an acausal state, and where is the coherency in that arrangement? Sans the smoke and mirrors, free will reduces to a logical fallacy.
The writer wastes no time in telling the reader where he intends to go. “Free will is indefinable,” he writes, “and it’s indefinable because it is an incoherent idea – a nonsense; literally a piece of non-sense.” The remaining pages are devoted to an in depth adumbration as to why this is so.
But pushback is to be expected. “No-one held a gun to my head when I ‘freely’ chose a cheeseburger over a chicken sandwich,” skeptics will insist. Perhaps they were “free” to choose the burger: But from whence originated the want to be wanted? From whence originated the desire for beef rather than chicken? “It is we alone who make our choices,” Oerton writes, “but we make them in the way we do because we are the people we are; and we are the people we are because of the causal factors which have made us that way.” Furthermore, someone endowed “with a low I.Q. is [not] free to become a rocket scientist,” any more than “someone with a recognized mental illness is free to behave quite normally. … [H]uman behavior results from factors which can be explored – that is caused.”
We are not free to will an alternative identity or phenomenal reality. But even if we were, the brain’s cooperation would still be required. There’s no escaping it: Brain states are causal states. “Homosexuals don’t create their homosexuality,” reasons Oerton; sexual identity, too, is causally derived. “If free will really did allow us to choose our personalities, or to slough them off at will,” he asks rhetorically, “who in the world would freely choose to have the personality of a serial killer …? Criminals are victims of causality just as their victims are …” In short: Casual and deterministic mechanisms explain why we are the way we are, and it truly is that simple.
We’ll agree that the restaurant patron chose the cheeseburger because that’s what he felt like eating. But where did the feeling come from? What are its causal factors? The feeling had to come from somewhere – somewhere “inside” – and whatever he felt, he was not free to feel it any other way. Therefore, determinism (not free will) explains the decision. “We seldom set out consciously to think the thoughts we think,” writes Oerton, “or to feel the feelings we feel. They just pop into our heads – or, more accurately, into our conscious minds – seemingly out of the blue but actually out of the unconscious part of our brains. We do not summon them and quite often we do not welcome them.” And in a nutshell, that’s the point our disciplined guide is looking to drive home.
Feelings, like all emotions, have causal explanations, and the fact that the patron felt like eating beef sufficiently explains his selection. “The issue here,” Oerton writes, “is not whether we make choices (of course we do) but whether the choices we make have causal explanations and, if so, whether those explanations lie within ourselves – in our being the people we are, and in the factors which have made us that way. If they do, that’s determinism.” The reasoning is as tight as it is sagacious.
Was Oerton’s fictional character “Burglar Bill” free to live his life any other way? Not if he enjoyed being a burglar. As Richard observed, “There would be nothing to stop Burglar Bill from turning away if he had the wish to do so; but he didn’t have that wish…. And since he didn’t wish to turn away, there was no actual possibility that he would. When we have within ourselves the motivation to do something, we do that thing; and when we have no motivation to do something, we do not do it.” “But he could have made better choices,” critics will be heard to cry. Perhaps, but only – only – if the requisite neurobiological infrastructure existed with which to refer to consciousness alternative behaviors recognizable and appealing to this habitual criminal and mischievous wag. In the absence of such fundamental requisites, “Burglar Bill” is destined to live a life of crime.
Oerton reminds us that “the real causes of a person’s choice are not necessarily to be equated with the reasons for which he or she thinks it is made.” It is here that neuroscience serves as a useful guide. There are causal explanations for each and every element of our subjective experience and phenomenal reality, and it’s precisely unconscious brain activity that makes consciousness possible and from whence the illusions of self and free will emerge.
I found Oerton’s “religious beliefs” and “free will” comparison instructive and insightful. To wit: “If religious belief is sufficiently ingrained, if it brings you comfort, if you see it as wisdom received from people you respect and trust and you have made it a fundamental part of your life, then, however intelligent you may be, you probably won’t have the motivation to set out on any intellectual journey which might take you away from it. … [Likewise,] if belief in free will is ingrained and brings satisfaction and is a fundamental part of your approach to life, then (just as in the case of religion) you probably won’t want to set out on an intellectual journey which may end in your rejecting it.” If you find favor in believing that you have free will, it is unlikely that you’ll expend the effort required to disabuse yourself of delusional convictions. (In similar fashion, God exists if we believe he exists, and for no other reason.)
If understanding the illusion that is free will is a subject of interest, then knowing the mechanisms which explain its existence becomes a matter of no small importance. And if the mechanism is causal (and how could it be otherwise), where lies the freedom or independence in determined arrangements? Our inability to explain the observed or that which is experienced will account for the magician’s success and the gullibility which holds hostage the minds of a beguiled and mesmerized audience. I agree that it feels like we are free; but feelings are not facts. Take away the brain and its causal mechanisms and therein lies the fate of the foolishness that is free will.
In sum, I found Richard to be a methodical and deliberate thinker who writes with simple elegance and alacrity (devoid of protreptic ambition), thus making my study of “Nonsense” a delightful and informative romp. His views are lucid and expressed with great economy and unwavering precision. Oerton’s reasoning powers and adroit thinking skills allow him to morph the abstruse into something palatable, obvious, and recognizable to eyes less familiar with the complexities of the subject. The argument from determinism makes “The Nonsense of Free Will” a perfect companion-piece to Sam Harris’s “Free Will.” In this critic’s view, “Nonsense” is a brilliant achievement and a triumphant piece of scholarly writing.
Nonsense, in that it can't even be mapped onto reality. Nonsense, because those who have attempted in providing a definition of it, fail miserably, and actually show how strong the case is for causality and determinism. I'm glad to see Sam Harris give his approval on it as it is more detailed than his book! This book, along with Free Will by Jonathan Pearce are the best books out there.
One point of dissention I will bring up, Oerton does become rather enamored with how the judicial system should change as a result of accepting determinism, but even with this knowledge, I don't see much happening. We humans, it seems, are quite unable to detach from retributive justice, even if ultimately a person was determined to any particular crime. This is in our nature just as much as the illusion of free will is.
I mean, I accept determinism as factual as any theory could be. But when I see what's going on with ISIS and the trouble we have, I cannot divorce myself in anything other than thinking they should be killed. No amount of knowledge of how ultimately they were determined to be how they are will suffice me in thinking otherwise (Hey, I was determined to write that).
Excellent book, one of the best.
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