Why Free Will Doesn’t Matter

Published by timdean on

Free will is an illusion. There, I said it. Now, let’s move on. For it matters not a jot.

Only, it seems we can’t move on. Despite evidence, physical and metaphysical, to the contrary, a majority of people refuse to acknowledge that we have no free will.

diceBut perhaps this is a good thing? Evidently, people who believe in free will behave in more magnanimous ways. Even if it does result in some startlingly incoherent beliefs:

If we don’t have free will, a perverse kind of anarchism emerges, one which seems to encourage us to act any way we choose.

Hang on… If we don’t have free will – meaning we don’t have choice – we end up having anarchism, where we act any way we choose. That’s pretty clear…

All this says to me that the psychological notion – the illusion – of free will is important in every day life, but let’s divorce that from the physical and metaphysical notions once and for all.

Philosopher, Saul Smilansky, has already outlined a similar position, called Illusionism. From what I’ve read of it, it needs some polish – mainly because the topic as a whole is horrifically confused and riddled with equivocation over what different terms, like ‘free’, mean – but it offers a compelling roadmap to escape the free will dilemma. Basically:

Illusionism is the position that illusion has a large and positive role to play in the issue of free will. In arguing for the importance of illusion, I claim that we can see what it is useful, that it is a reality, and why by and large it ought to continue to be so. Illusory beliefs are in place concerning free will and moral responsibility, and the role they play is largely positive. Humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue, and this seems to be a condition of civilized morality and personal value. (Smilansky, 2005)

So free will is a kind of ‘error theory’. It doesn’t really exist, but it’s useful to assume it does.

Why am I sympathetic towards this view? Because my own research indicates a similar thing might apply to morality. Yeah yeah… That’s even more contentious than free will, but let the truth take us where we will. Wishful thinking about free will or morality won’t change the facts.


scaryreasoner · 25th January 2009 at 2:46 pm

Good post.

I wrote some stuff about the rather obvious absence of free will here. Likely it’s nothing new to you.

I suppose I wrote this because it couldn’t have been otherwise. 🙂

Christopher Harris · 23rd April 2009 at 9:23 pm

“Free will is an illusion. There, I said it. Now, let’s move on. For it matters not a jot.”

I strongly disagree.

I think an awful lot hinges on people’s conception of themselves as genuinely autonomous agents. You seem to assume that, even though it’s an illusion, the idea of “free will” will remain intact and influential. I disagree, I think the idea is already in conflict with many scientific paradigms (e.g. dopamine neuroscience, behaviorism), technological developments (e.g. iPlants) and related issues (e.g. the disease model of addiction). We can’t have our cake and eat it too. The development of a new conception of agency, one that is scientifically and technologically plausible, and can be widely adopted in our culture without causing in widespread disenchantment and cynicism, is a very serious issue. It matters.

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