Thursday, 12 June 2014

The dangers of 'no free will'?

The debate around free will is one of the major topics in philosophy of course, and has come to a lot of people's attention recently due to Sam Harris' book Free Will (he argues we don't have it). Many have countered his arguments, most significantly (for me at least) Daniel Dennett. In a recent workshop meeting of philosophers and scientists set up by cosmologist Sean Carroll, Dennett said a few times that he thought it was dangerous to be publicly articulating the argument that we don't have free will, because it's conceivable that people will take that as meaning no one is ever fundamentally responsible for their actions, leading to a 'social vacuum' as he calls it which is a very scary prospect.

Couldn't the same argument be made for belief in God though? As billions of people on the planet believe there is a God watching over them day and night, isn't that same danger there if all those people lose that belief? Dennett has no problem at all with saying there is no God. The ideas seem similar to me as they both suggest that there is no such thing as justice. No God, no ultimate justice, that's an obvious argument. With free will it's a bit more complicated - if there's no free will, and that is scientifically 'proven' (in the minds of the general public) then that would have to lead to people not being held accountable for their actions in the way they are today (the whole concept of retributive punishment becomes a problem) - and therefore there would be no justice.

But we don't think that of belief in God, do we? We don't think for a second that people who lose their faith in God will suddenly decide it's perfectly fine to go and steal, rape and kill because there's no ultimate justice waiting for them - any more than we believe atheists, agnostics, humanists or any non-believers somehow lack any morality. So why would we think it for losing free will?

Personally I'm undecided on free will, I'm most persuaded by the idea that even though it's not to be found in fundamental laws of physics, that it is an emergent property and no less real than anything else.

Links:

Free Will by Sam Harris

Dennet's review of Free Will and Harris' response

Sean Carroll's workshop 'Moving Naturalism Forward'

Another book called Free Will by Mark Balaguer which I enjoyed