Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Freedom and Belief

An interesting interview with prominent philosopher Galen Stawson was that was posted at The Believer. I know Strawson from his panpsychism model, which he presented last spring at the Science of Consciousness conference here in Tucson - I blogged his presentation here.

This interview was from 2003, but it's still interesting. The begin by discussing Strawson's Freedom and Belief (a new edition was just released in October, 2010).

Anyone who quotes Vonnegut is generally pretty cool - even if he doesn't believe in free will.




Things that do not exist:

Love (maybe)

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by free will. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

—From Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Imagine for a moment that instead of Timothy McVeigh destroying the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, it had been a mouse. Suppose this mouse got into the wiring of the electrical system, tangled the circuits and caused a big fire, killing all those inside. Now think of the victims’ families. There would, of course, still be enormous grief and suffering, but there would be one significant difference: There would no resentment, no consuming anger, no hatred, no need to see the perpetrator punished (even if the mouse somehow got out of the building) in order to experience “closure.” Why the difference? Because McVeigh, we think, committed this terrible act out of his own free will. He chose to do it, and he could have chosen not to. McVeigh, then, is morally responsible for the death of the victims in a way that the mouse would not be. And our sense of justice demands that he pay for this crime.

There is an undeniable human tendency to see ourselves as free and morally responsible beings. But there’s a problem. We also believe—most of us anyhow—that our environment and our heredity entirely shape our characters (what else could?). But we aren’t responsible for our environment, and we aren’t responsible for our heredity. So we aren’t responsible for our characters. But then how can we be responsible for acts that arise from our characters?

There’s a simple but extremely unpopular answer to this question: We aren’t. We are not and cannot be ultimately responsible for our behavior. According to this argument, while it may be of great pragmatic value to hold people responsible for their actions, and to employ systems of reward and punishment, no one is really deserving of blame or praise for anything. This answer has been around for more than two thousand years; it is backed by solid arguments with premises that are consistent with how most of us view the world. Yet few today give this position the serious consideration it deserves. The view that free will is a fiction is called counterintuitive, absurd, pessimistic, pernicious and, most commonly, “unacceptable,” even by those who recognize the force of the arguments behind it. Philosophers who reject God, an immaterial soul, and even absolute morality, cannot bring themselves to do the same for the dubious concept of free will—not just in their day-to-day lives, but in books, and articles and extraordinarily complex theories.

There are a few exceptions and one of them is the British analytic philosopher Galen Strawson. Strawson is one of the most respected theorists in the free will industry and, at the same time, a bit of an outsider. Two main philosophical camps engage in a technical and often bitter dispute over whether free will is compatible with the truth of determinism (the theory that the future is fixed, because every event has a cause, and the causes stretch back until the beginning of the universe). But if there is one thing that both sides agree on, it’s that we do have free will and that we are morally responsible. Strawson, with a simple, powerful argument that we will discuss below, bets the other way.

Strawson’s was not always such a minority view. Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza, Diderot, Voltaire, and Holbach challenged ordinary conceptions of freedom, doubted whether we could be morally responsible, and looked to ground theories of blame and punishment in other ways. Strawson is a descendant of these philosophers, but still incorporates the British analytic tradition into his work. His views are clear and honest and there are no cop-outs, quite unusual in a literature mired in obscure terminology and wishful thinking. And his essays are always deeply connected to everyday experience. One of the main issues Strawson addresses is why we so instinctively and stubbornly see ourselves as free and responsible. What is it about human experience that makes it difficult, impossible maybe, to believe something that we can easily demonstrate as true?

Galen Strawson is the son of perhaps the most respected analytic philosopher alive, the great metaphysician and philosopher of language, P.F. Strawson. Though not primarily concerned with the topic of free will, P.F. Strawson has written one of the classic papers of the genre, an essay called “Freedom and Resentment.” Galen (not from Oedipal motives, he assures us) is one of its most effective critics. In addition, Strawson is author of Freedom and Belief (Oxford University Press, 1986), The Secret Connection (OUP, 1989), Mental Reality (MIT Press, 1994), and numerous papers on free will, causation, and philosophy of mind. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading.

—Tamler Sommers

1 comment:

Steven Nickeson said...

The interview was a fun little chat, but the way Strawson defines free will as an absolute makes the argument against it a slam dunk cinch because nothing is absolute including the statement that nothing is absolute.

Because it is so easy to make a case against free will as defined in the interview the entire subject, pro and con, is rendered exceptionally superficial.