Pretend to Believe In Free Will Or Else You Will Make Bad Choices

By William M Briggs Published on May 30, 2016

I want to be nice about this, but believing that we do not have free will is dumb. If you’re stung by this opinion, and do believe we lack free will, then remember: I had no choice but to call your belief idiotic.

Attacks on the notion of free will (free will itself is immune to assault) are increasingly common. The latest foray is found in The Atlantic, by philosopher Stephen Cave in “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will: But we’re better off believing in it anyway.

Some twenty five centuries ago, Zeno of Elea gave the world some clever paradoxes, one of which is this. If you start at point A and want to get to B, you must first go half way between the two. Once at the mid point, you still have to go half way again from the mid point to B. And once at your new midpoint, you again have half way to go. And so on ad infinitum. Because no matter where you are, you still have half the distance between where you are and your destination, thus your travel is endless.

Now Zeno knew that men moved. He himself often walked from A to B, and he was aware of it. Yet neither he nor anybody else could (then) derive a satisfactory solution to his conundrum. His premises appeared true and unassailable. The logical steps from those premise to the conclusions appeared sound and valid. The conclusion that men are immobile must be true. Yet still men moved!

What Zeno did not do at this point was to insist that because he, poor Zeno, could not solve his riddle, therefore nobody moved. Nor did he go on to write learned articles recommending that it would be better for society if simple men believed they moved, even though, as proved the best science and philosophy of his day, they obviously could not.

Well, Elea was a different place than the modern West. Nowadays theories have precedence over reality.

Cave says the “sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.” He thanks Charles Darwin for sparking this boldness. He also says, falsely, that there is “agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons [in our brains] determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”

He insists that because there is cause and then effect, and all the parts of our body are under the force of causes and have effects, therefore all our actions are determined and thus there is no free will.

We are right back at Zeno. The premises to Cave’s argument appear true. The deduction would seem to be valid and sound. Thus the conclusion that we lack free will must be true.

But where Zeno retained his love of reality, and recognized that movement happens, Cave surrenders himself to his theory, body and soul. He is so blinded by the beauty of his theory he can’t even see himself. He is so consumed by his argument he didn’t even recognize that he freely chose to write his article.

At this point it becomes strange, for no sooner does Cave repudiate free will, then he asserts that, after all, people should freely choose to believe they have free will. Why? Because it

seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts.

Give in to base instincts? As in freely choosing to act in certain ways?

Cave quotes Saul Smilansky, another theory lover and philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, who says if common folk disbelieve in free will it would be “very dangerous for society.” Smilansky warns: “If everyone accepts that there is no free will, then I’ll know that people will say, ‘Whatever [that man] did, he had no choice β€” we can’t blame him.'”

But isn’t blame an act of free choice? Yes, sir, it is. If there is no free will, the rioting rabble that pillages a town can’t be blamed, nor can the judge who hangs the riot’s instigator. They are all slaves to their neurons.

It is bizarre and logically contradictory for Cave, Smilansky, or anybody to try to persuade our leaders to freely choose this or that policy in “an attempt to retain the best parts of the free-will belief system while ditching the worst.” Theory trumps reality again.

Listen, dear reader. You do not have to know how a thing works to know that it works. That some philosophers cannot unravel Cave’s argument, just as ancient philosophers couldn’t solve Zeno’s riddle, does not mean that Cave’s conundrum is unsolvable. And even if it is unsolvable, it still would not imply we do not have what we clearly do.

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