• Free will illusionism

    One approach to the growing evidence, and immutable logical philosophy, for the fact of (adequate) determinism and free will as an illusion of the mind is that of the illusionist. This position states that libertarian free will (as the ability to chose otherwise in any given situation) is indeed an illusion and that it is useful as such. Humanity can’t somehow deal with the knowledge of free will being untrue or an illusion due to the consequences to this (fatalism, crime and punishment etc.) or the psychological dissonance in this. Thus we should maintain that illusion.

    Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky wrote a book on free will showing that it is not, as commonly understood, existent. However, he went on to say:

    The Fundamental Dualism, according to which we must be both compatibilists and hard determinists, was my first proposal. Now let us move on to the second. Illusion, I claim, is the vital but neglected key to the free will problem. I am not saying that we need to induce illusory beliefs concerning free will or can live with beliefs that we fully realize are illusory. Both of these positions would be highly implausible. Rather, I maintain that illusory beliefs are in place, and that the role they play is largely positive. (p. 497)

    Illusionism is the position that illusion often 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 why 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.

    The sense of “illusion” that I am using combines the falsity of a belief with some motivated role in forming and maintaining that belief—as in standard cases of wishful thinking or self-deception. However, it suffices that the beliefs are false and that this conclusion would be resisted were a challenge to arise. It is not necessary for us to determine the current level of illusion concerning free will.

    The importance of illusion flows in two ways from the basic structure of the free will problem: first, indirectly, from the Fundamental Dualism on the Compatibility Question — the partial and varying validity of both compatibilism and hard determinism . Second, illusion flows directly and more deeply from the meaning of the very absence of the grounding that libertarian free will was thought to provide. We cannot live adequately with the dissonance of the two valid sides of the Fundamental Dualism, nor with a complete awareness of the deep significance of the absence of libertarian free will. We have to face the fact that there are basic beliefs that morally ought not to be abandoned, although they might destroy each other, or are even partly based on incoherent conceptions. At least for most people, these beliefs are potentially in need of motivated mediation and defense by illusion, ranging from wishful thinking to self-deception.

    PF Strawson advocated a compatibilism based on the fact that humans appear to be unable to separate reactive attitudes to moral responsibility woven with notions of free will. There are several strands to his argument, the psychological aspect being one:

    Strawson argued that it would be psychologically impossible to stop holding persons morally responsible for their conduct since it would be psychologically impossible to stop having certain kinds of emotional responses to others, responses that are simply part of our very nature. Hence, arguing about whether or not determinism threatens moral responsibility is idle. There is no way to take seriously the threat that it does, since, were it taken to discredit moral responsibility, given the nature of the human condition, no one could simply opt out of all moral responsibility practices anyway.

    We are too psychologically dependent upon notions of free will and resultant moral responsibility that we must maintain belief in it somehow.

    So this idea of free will as a necessary illusion is distinctive as being consequentialist in character. In a recent, excellent Reasonable Doubts podcast, the team look at the announcement that Alfred Mele spearheading research into free will and a $4 million dollar grant from the Templeton Foundation (a religious organisation which seeks to harmonise religion with science). When evaluating this, they conclude that Mele is looking critically at determinism and discounting it on account of the ramifications which result. However, the truth of a claim should not be inferred by the consequences which pertain. Perhaps, though, at the end of the day, it is sometimes beneficial to lie.

    The problem on a large scale is that it is tough trying to calculate the consequences which would result from discounting free will. There are some interesting psychological studies which look at how people act as a result of deterministic of libertarian free will outlooks, and at the direction of causality therein. That will be the subject of my next post.

    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce