Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Is Free Will Important?

In conversations over morality or over the self/soul, an often recurring claim is that 'without free will there can be no responsibility'. First of all, it is important to note that such a claim makes responsibility, not free will, now the subject of the conversation. So if the conversation was originally about something like souls then it has now changed to responsibility. Secondly, there are two claims embedded in such a claim:
  1. Is the existence of responsibility important?
  2. Is it necessary to have free will to have responsibility?
What seems easy to agree here is that responsibility is important, as without it, we cannot only not have morality but also have no social or legal responsibility. Responsibility appears too important and built into the fabric of our social interactions to do without - so this claim panders to a fear that without responsibility, anything goes. Still one should be wary of seeking comfort over truth. It may well be the case that responsibility does not exist and we are all operating under a delusion that it does. If this is the case it would surely be important to know this or should one be worried about 'breaking the spell' and so not think about it?

However, once these questions are posed there is no turning back, since avoiding exploring what others may already have done is hardly likely to benefit oneself and more likely to leave one at a disadvantage, compared to those other bold explorers. So this is not just a sensible and reasonable question to pose but an important one to answer and this requires recognising that such fears should not prevent one from honestly appraising reality. If the aforementioned claim is just an appeal to fear, then considering its importance it is better to overcome that rhetoric and be fearless, honestly and rationally considering the possibility that responsibility is just a delusion.

Without needing to answer this new question, it now becomes clear that once one has removed the appeal to fear built into the aforementioned claim, that this claim cannot be used as a defence of free will, since we need to know how responsibility does work, if it exists, before making a conclusion over free will. That is we need to answer the second embedded claim - is free will necessary for responsibility? Responsibility may or may not exist, however important we regard it and to choose to believe in free will just to reassure us that responsibility exists is an argument from comfort not an real argument. And this opens up another possibility, that responsibility exists but only if free will does not.

So anyone who makes the aforementioned claim and is truly concerned over the existence and importance of responsibility should be willing to consider not only that responsibility does not exist but that free will also might not exist and it is possible that free will and responsibility are mutually exclusive - and responsibility exists and free will does not. If they are not willing to entertain these questions then surely they are just wanting to defend free will at any cost regardless of and contrary to the implied importance of responsibility. That is they are not willing to engage in charitable, honest and rational debate and are hypocrites.

My main thrust here is that I although I will soon be arguing for a naturalistic responsibility absent of free will, I prefer that all agree that responsibility exists and we can operate upon and use this in mutually beneficial ways, regardless of how we think it originates. Do disputes over the origins of responsibility therefore matter? I would argue with one caveat no, since pragmatically once we have reasonable notions of responsibility we can work with them directly, regardless of how people understand how this works. The caveat is over retribution and desert but I think this can be dealt without needing to address free will directly.

Why does this concern me? Well it is one thing to argue for improving the morality of our world, by removing double standards for example, it is another that makes this predicated upon requiring too many people to give up too many cherished beliefs, this makes the challenge that much harder and is something to be avoided if possible. Even amongst atheists, brights and free thinkers belief in free will persists longer than many other discarded beliefs. Lets not make the task of improving morality in the real world harder by demanding that everyone gives up notions such as free will. So my tactic will be to show that existence or not of free will is not pragmatically important and that regardless of differing ideas of the origination of responsibility, there is sufficient overlap in understanding how it works and that is all that is needed.

Next Post Deliberation and Responsibility


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