You Don’t Have Free Will. That’s Why You Make Such Bad Choices

You have no choice but to agree.

By William M Briggs Published on February 8, 2018

There a special kind of stupid achievable only by the very intelligent. I’d ask you to pardon me for such a harsh statement, except that I can’t.

I didn’t have a choice but to say it. You didn’t have a choice in how you reacted to it. And if philosophy professor Tamler Sommers is right, nobody has any choice in anything they do.

Sommers says “recent advances in cognitive neuroscience” show that we must “abandon the deeply problematic concept of free will and ultimate moral responsibility.” We “feel free” and “we feel responsible,” but we aren’t.

One reason we don’t choose to ditch the belief we can make choices “is that the ethical implications of denying free will and moral responsibility seem terrifying.”

That sentence might not have been clear, so let me restate it. Sommers argues we have to abandon the idea we choose our actions. Only then will we make better choices. If we accept that we aren’t morally responsible for our behavior, then our behavior will become more moral. 

Be Not Afraid

There’s not much sense in those renditions, either. Because there is no sense in Sommers’s position. If we can’t make choices, we can’t make choices. We can’t freely acknowledge we can’t make choices if we can’t make choices. If we are not morally responsible for what we do, then for us there are no immoral or moral acts.

Sommers is not alone in disbelieving in free will. Many modern philosophers agree with him. They acknowledge we common folk feel like we have free will, but they argue we are suffering an illusion.

Yet this is impossible. In order to have the “illusion” of making a free choice, a person had to have the ability to freely make a choice. As Alfred R. Mele says in Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, “If there is an illusion … it’s the illusion that there’s strong scientific evidence for the nonexistence of free will.”

There just is no philosophically consistent argument against free will. The acres of paper darkened with ink on this subject always end in absurd spectacle: a philosopher arguing why you have to freely choose to not believe in free will. And the implied farcical cry, “I do not have free will!”

The First Mistake

Why do philosophers like Sommers make this mistake? For two reasons.

The first is a dislike of criminal punishment. Sommers wants us to “cease to relentlessly blame criminals (or political figures) for their behavior.” Criminals, Sommers insists, don’t have any choice but to commit crimes.

He admits the “idea that criminals do not morally deserve punishment is tough to accept.” But other true ideas were also hard to accept such as “the claim that the earth revolves around the sun.” The difference is this: In that case, what we observed gave evidence that the earth revolved around the sun. Nobody can observe the lack of free will.

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What’s perplexing is why Sommers thinks criminals have no choice, but that somehow prosecutors do. If he were consistent, he would recognize that prosecutors have no choice but to toss criminals in the hoosegow.

Sommers therefore implies some people have free will, and some don’t, while at the same time insisting nobody does. This incoherence is proof enough his argument is fallacious.

The Second Mistake

All philosophical arguments begin with assumptions, or premises. From these are derived a conclusion. Sommers’s main premise is that the brain is nothing but a physical object operating under fixed chemical laws. His conclusion is that free will is impossible since people cannot direct their brain chemicals.

But everybody observes free will, and indeed free will is obviously present (in most circumstances). Sommmers’s conclusion is wrong. That means there is something wrong with his premises.

Sommers is reluctant to abandon his premises because they’re part of a beautiful theory describing how the brain works. This theory exerts a powerful influence over many philosophers and scientists. The theory must be wrong, though, regardless of its beauty.

It’s wrong because it’s false to say that we are the sum total of our brain’s operations. We are more than this, and must be. We know that we are more because we observe we have free will.

If we have free will and are more than just our brains, we must be something higher. And there is only one direction that evidence points. It’s no wonder some philosophers aren’t willing to follow it.

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