Thing that always cracks me up about anti-free will arguments is the contradictions. Too many of those arguments take this shape: if only people knew they couldn’t make choices, they’d make better choices.
I had no choice but to say that. And you have no choice but to laugh. And a few of you had no choice but to pass on that rollicking joke to somebody else (use the share buttons below).
That second paragraph is a joke, too, of course, but more on the amusing side than a do-you-get-it elbow poke guffaw. But it’s also an argument.
We met it last time discussing Sabine Hossenfelder’s failed attempt to disprove free will. What’s even funnier—today is filled with good humor—is that when she was confronted with the I Have No Choice, she scoffed and dismissed it. She went on instead to other arguments she mistakenly thought proved her point.
My dears, it really is an unanswerable argument. If nobody has a choice, then nobody has a choice. Even those people who dispute that nobody has a choice.
That means those who punish wrongdoers have no choice but to punish wrongdoers, even if wrongdoers have no choice but to commit wrongs.
Nothing could be plainer. Punishers aren’t granted momentary free will, if free will doesn’t exist, to do their punishing. They must punish. Or, if they are granted free will only in those instances they punish, but not when they commit wrongs, then free will exists.
Enter academic Barbara H. Fried, who discusses the argument that the people who choose to punish shouldn’t be exercising their free will to punish, because the wrongdoers punished had no choice but to do wrong.
…scientific research into the determinants of human behavior has told us over the past four decades. Most of that research…points to the same conclusion: our worldviews, aspirations, temperaments, conduct, and achievements—everything we conventionally think of as “us”—are in significant part determined by accidents of biology and circumstance. The study of the brain is in its infancy; as it advances, the evidence for determinism will surely grow.
One might have expected those developments to temper enthusiasm for blame mongering. Instead, the same four decades have been boom years for blame.
Retributive penal policy, which has produced incarceration rates of unprecedented proportions in the United States, has been at the forefront of the boom. But enthusiasm for blame is not confined to punishment.
Love how she blames blame mongers?
To say “I have no choice but to be hungry, I must eat or die” is true. We are in this sense slaves to our biology. But that sentiment is equivalent to this one: “I have no choice but to be sucked down by earth’s gravity, and I cannot fly.” We are also slaves to gravity. And electromagnetism, and a host of other things.
(The same guy who circled every instance of “fish” in his copy of Moby Dick and who penned in the margins “Ackshually, whales are mammals” so that nobody would think he was fooled, is now saying, “Ackshually, we and earth are attracted to each other because of our mutual gravitational attraction.”)
To say we have free will in no way is to say our will cannot be constrained by circumstance. Of course it can be. Whoever said it could not?
Determinism is the idea that all things are governed by unbreakable physical “laws.” It is false. Its falsity is proved by witnessing it to be false. We are confronted by choices, and we make them freely, within whatever constraints exist at the time.
Determinism is believed to be true based on theory. On models. Theory says, “With material things, this has no choice but to follow that, and we, ourselves, are material things.” Accepting that, it does follow that free will is out. Our bodies are, theory says, only following blindly certain physical “laws”.
I put the scare quote around “laws” to signal I am not on board with this interpretation of Nature. My take is that the world works not by laws of nature, but the law of natures. Things operate according to their nature. What is of essence is essence.
It is of course possible I am wrong about that. It makes no difference. We still observe free will. It therefore exists. I don’t know how. I would love to know how, but that I cannot demonstrate how does not mean that what I observe is false. I’ve used the example before, but it’s like how people used to say in the 1970s that bumblebees can’t fly because theory insists they cannot. And therefore we don’t really observe them flying?
With bumblebees one of two things has to go: theory or observation. Same thing with determinism: theory or observation. You can’t have both.
I also jettison the materialist premise of determinism. We are not entirely material beings. Again, maybe I’m wrong. That still doesn’t kill the observation.
I’m veering too far from Fried. She doesn’t want to outright say free will is false, but she wants to put it into a pill and make it disappear. Thus she attacks the constraints side of the argument, intimating these are overwhelming:
For the metaphysician, the theoretical possibility that one could have acted otherwise in some alternative world may suffice to establish free will. But if the question is whether we should hold a real-life Smith blameworthy in this world, one would think that the requisite sort of free will is not metaphysical but practical: When all is said and done, how plausible is it to think that Smith could have acted differently?
To take an all too frequent scenario, suppose that Smith grew up in a neighborhood where drug dealing was the most common form of gainful employment. He was raised by a single mother who was a cocaine addict, and by the time he was twelve was supporting his family by selling drugs. When he was seventeen, he got caught up in a drug deal gone bad, and in the altercation that ensued, he shot and killed the buyer.
How should we think about Smith’s level of moral responsibility?
We say Smith murdered the buyer, that’s how. And we punish him. The form of punishment can also be constrained or mitigated by circumstance—which everybody also agrees with.
But to say, as Fried wants to say, that he “really” had no choice, and that therefore punishment is not due at all, is false.
Once again, we have the argument that constraints only affect the wrongdoer, but not the punisher. Those who punish also grew up in certain ways, and live now in certain ways. They too must follow the path destined for them, if Fried is right. Thus they must punish.
Fried is careful not to make any direct statements, except to castigate “blame mongering”. If the criminals who are unpunished in her regime go on to wreak havoc and make life miserable for many, she can always say “I was only asking questions.” No blame can be directed at her choices. She must not be punished.
I first learned of Fried through Steve Sailer, who includes Richard Pryor’s crude thoughts on jailing criminals.
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