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My Reply to Free Will Deniers: Show Me

My Reply to Free Will Deniers: Show Me
My Reply to Free Will Deniers: Show Me


Free will denial is a cornerstone of materialist–determinist ideology. We are, say the deniers, purely physical machines, meat robots.

Atheist-materialist evolutionary biologist Darwinian evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is a prominent proponent of deterministic free will denial, and there are many others — philosopher Stephen Cave, biologist Robert Sapolsky, author Sam Harris, attorney Clarence Darrow, to name just a few.

From Harris:

How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware?… My choices matter—and there are paths towards making wiser ones—but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do—for instance, after going back between two options—I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness.

Free will deniers invariably acknowledge that we have the ineluctable sense of freely choosing, and that our belief in free will is a cornerstone of human psychology, of our social interaction, of our moral codes and of our judicial system. Nonetheless, deniers claim, we are deluded. We are not free at all—we are slaves to the laws of physics and chemistry that govern the physiology of our brains.

How do we know what words really mean?

What to make of this bizarre viewpoint that we have no genuine freedom to choose—a viewpoint that is contrary to the lived experience of every human being? It is helpful to consider the question on a different level—not “do we have free will?,” but rather “what does it mean to believe we don’t have free will?”.

What does it mean to believe anything? Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) critiqued our conventional understanding of the “meaning” of words and I think he sheds light on what both meaning and belief really are. He pointed out (in his middle work, most notably The Blue Book , that it is confused to say that the meaning of a word is assigned via an interior mental act or act of interpretation. Why do we attribute the meaning of a word to brain physiology, when we could just as plausibly attribute it to the physiology of the larynx, tongue or hand when we speak or write the word?

Meaning, according to Wittgenstein, is just the way the word is used in life. Meaning, in a sense, is use. It is common for a word to have several different meanings, depending on the context in which it is used.

Even the word believe itself has several meanings depending on use—“I believe it’s going to rain,” “I believe in you,” “I believe that I will have a ham sandwich,” etc. The difference in the meaning of believe in these instances is in the context of use—what we mean by believe is determined by the context (the gestalt) in which we use the word. To believe something is to behave in a certain way.

Mousetrap with a piece of cheese on a dark vintage background. The concept -"There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Belief is behavior. The belief-behavior can include speaking or writing the belief, of course, but belief is behavior in a much broader sense than merely speaking. Belief is what you do, not merely what you say. Consider the statement by a serial adulterer “I believe in fidelity and chastity.” Of course, such a claim is not credible, because his behavior makes a mockery of that belief. Serial adulterers believe in serial adultery (otherwise, they wouldn’t do it), just as embezzlers believe in embezzlement and philanthropists believe in philanthropy. Belief is much more than words—it is, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, a form of life. Belief is a way of living.

So, do free will deniers really believe that free will isn’t real? Of course not. Free will deniers live as if free will is real, despite their proclamations and their blog posts. What matters is what they do, not merely what they say. Every human being lives life as if free will is real. We all believe—as demonstrated by our behavior— in the fact that we choose some options and not others, that we have real moral accountability, that there is such a thing as justice. No one (outside of a mental hospital) really believes that we are meat robots without free will.

If you want to know what a free will denier really believes, steal his laptop or dent his fender and see if he holds you morally accountable.

So what’s free will denial really all about?

So what are free will deniers really doing when they say that they don’t believe in free will, but never act like free will isn’t real? Free will denial is determinist signaling, in which materialists flaunt their bona fides. It is analogous to a political yard sign or a cross worn around the neck.

It’s a way of announcing to the world who you are—whether or not you really believe (i.e., behave in accordance with) your politics or your faith. The difference between a political belief expressed on a sign or faith expressed via a pendant and free will denial is that sometimes the sign or cross do correspond to a way of life, and thus are real expressions of belief. Free will denial, on the other hand, never constitutes genuine belief, because it is not possible to live as if free will isn’t real.

Free will denial as performance art

Materialists don’t really mean it because they never do it. To truly believe that free will isn’t real—to believe that our actions are wholly determined by our brain chemicals, for which we have no moral responsibility whatsoever—is to utterly abandon any real sense of morality, to deny not only the salience but even the meaning of right and wrong behavior. It means to live every moment as if you and all people on earth are meat robots, utterly devoid of choice or free agency. A person who really believed that free will isn’t real wouldn’t hold a murderer morally responsible for murder, any more than the gun or the bullet is. If you carelessly dent a genuine free will denier’s car in a parking lot, he wouldn’t hold you responsible any more than he’d hold your car responsible.

So the next time a LARPing materialist declares to you that he doesn’t believe in free will, say this: “Your free will denial is performance art. What you do is immeasurably louder than what you say. You don’t really believe that free will isn’t real, unless you live like it isn’t real.”

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