Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

If I Don’t Have Free Will, I Choose to Give Up

October 4th, 2005 · 5 Comments

I was a bit surprised to read Majikthise’s reaction to an odd hypothetical from Kevin Drum:

With this in mind, here’s another possibility for what happens after we create fantastically advanced computing capabilities that are thoroughly merged with human consciousness: we discover — in a way that’s truly convincing — that free will doesn’t exist. And so we give up. Within a few decades, the human race chooses to put itself out of existence because there’s really no point to its continued survival and our biological urge toward self preservation, honed over millennia by evolution, no longer controls our merged biological/machine selves.

Now, I think Lindsay’s right to reply that if we (well, many people) have been able to hang on to a belief in free will in the face of what are already some fairly potent arguments against it, there’s not a great deal of reason to think we won’t be able to simply continue doing so. Anyway, Drum’s own analysis hints at a sort of evolutionary answer: If any of us decide to program our unfree selves to be compelled to either continue believing in free will or not be bothered that we haven’t got it, then that group will become the core of future, similarly programmed populations as the others die off.

But the more obvious response to me is: Why should we think it will really make that much of a difference? Free will, it seems, is a little like God in this respect: Believers often seem to think it’s so centrally important that without it, life would necessarily be meaningless. Yet those who don’t believe seem to get on just fine: Life is not, after all, sapped of its meaning. Most atheists manage to care about being good people without the threat of divine sanction—indeed, it may even come to seem as though trying to treat people well because we fear hell, rather than because we see the value of others’ happiness or dignity in itself, rather misses the point. And we manage to take seriously our own choices, to see them as (ideally) flowing from who we are and what we value, even if we realize that these things are not themselves “open” in some very deep metaphysical way, all the way down. (Compare Nozick’s comments on desert here.)

Now, what might well bother us is to see ourselves as what Daniel Dennett calls “sphexish“: determined in some crude or stupid way. But this is already part of the process of most people’s self-development anyway: We realize that we fall into self-defeating patterns of behavior habitually, or that we’re “fighting the last war” in our relationships, or that we’re otherwise following simplistic behavioral scripts instead of really thinking about what we want to do and be. If we think that is usually healthy and good, then insofar as technology lays bare our own scriptedness, it seems less likely to lead us into despair than to open up new possibilites for greater complexity and autonomy.

Tags: General Philosophy



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Charles Murtaugh // Oct 5, 2005 at 3:09 pm

    You can count me as still unconvinced that any scientific datum could disprove the existence of free will, insofar as the entire validity of the scientific enterprise seems contingent on the existence of free will. But this is something I haven’t given deep thought to for a couple of years, so I won’t dig myself a deeper hole. Instead, I will ask what the phrase “greater complexity and autonomy,” in the last sentence, is supposed to signify in the hypothetical case that free will is disproven.

  • 2 Anonymous // Oct 6, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    You don’t see Calvinists committing mass suicide, do you?

  • 3 Wilson // Oct 6, 2005 at 3:09 pm

    I think believing and not believing in free will is not quite like believing and not believing in god. If you believe in god, you do alot of things because the Lord tells you to. It really heavily influences your actions and motives.

    If you claim, intellectually, not to believe in free will, you still act as if you have it don’t you? Intellectually, I recognize free will as likely a mythology. But I still have the illusion of it and I believe that illusion wholeheartedly. I’m fairly sure eveyone does. Free will is alot more fundamental to your existence, and I think this argument is saying that this would destroy that illusion.

    I guess all I’m saying here is that there is a difference between the illusion of free will and the belief in free will, and I think the religion analogy is misplaced, since I would maintain that even if you claim to not have the belief in free will you cannot possibly shake the illusion. Thankfully, it’s much easier to shake the belief in god.

  • 4 jordan // Oct 10, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    What about compatabilism?

    I’m not going to pretend that i’m close enough to that class on Free-will i took as an undergrad to give the argument convincingly, but i do recall that there are some pretty good arguments for why Free will and deterministic fate aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive (the introduction of 2nd order volitions, as I recall, was quite compelling . . i think it was G.E.M. Ancomb, but i could be wrong– its been a while).

    in point of fact, if we’re to assume that we’ve created a fully free-willed, Turing-test-passing, Data-from-star-trek-like robot, i’d assert that we’ve probably proven something like compatiblism: this robot seems, to me, to be something that can make its own choices AND be programed to want to be the type of being to chose those choices (eg, have second order volitions).

  • 5 jordan // Oct 11, 2005 at 3:40 pm

    correction in above: it was Frankfurt, not Anscomb.