Category Archives: Free will

Free will. What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing!

I’m fast coming around to the view that the concept of free will is what Ayn Rand called an anti-concept.

An anti-concept is an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding. But in the realm of cognition, nothing is as bad as the approximate …

Free will is designed to obliterate human decision-making.

It’s simple. We make decisions.

Other people (including God) hold us accountable (i.e., deserving of moral praise or blame) for our decisions. That’s all there is to it, and all you need to know.

The Singularity – the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence – is coming, as early as 2030 according to some estimates. The first smarter-than-human AI will make decisions, like we do, only better. Will it have free will? That depends on whether other people (including God) hold it accountable for its decisions.

“The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it. (NIV)

daniel_7_lion_sm

Problem?

A couple of days ago, columnist Joe Bennett concluded his column in The Press by telling us

I’m going to spend the afternoon finding out how I’ve chosen to enjoy myself.

You’re about to find out that you’ve chosen to read on to see what on earth Joe Bennett was talking about. Here’s the start of his column.

But first an apology. A month or so back a gentleman emailed me about something I’d said on the radio. He wrote, and I quote, “free will is a childish delusion”.

“Scoff,” I wrote back. “Pooh pooh. I have free will. My free will is writing this email. Without free will we are automata.”

Since then, however, I have been on a wee journey and I would like to retract my scoff and pooh pooh. But I have forgotten the gentleman’s name and deleted his email.

So if you’re reading this, sir, sorry. You were right. I was wrong.

The change of mind followed last week’s column about the mutiny of the body.

In response I got several emails directing me to some neuroscientific research. It seems that neuroscientists have been nibbling at the idea of free will for years without telling me.

For example they attached electrodes to people’s skulls and then asked the people to click a computer mouse at a moment of their choosing. The boffins found that when people decided to click the mouse, their brain had already begun the physical process of clicking. In other words, the decision to click had been made before the people realised they’d made it. The click was already going to happen.

There were numerous similar experiments. They all suggested that when we think we decide to do something of our own free will, our consciousness is merely catching up with a decision that we have already made. We are rationalising after the fact.

We are deluding ourselves into thinking we are in conscious control of our actions. It’s a nice, consoling delusion, but a delusion none the less.

Problem? Well, yes! If we have no free will, we have no moral responsibility for our actions.

No free will means that Christianity is a nonsense.

No free will means that Objectivism is a false religion.

No free will means that “not my problem” doesn’t cut it.

I’ve known of the experimental results to which Bennett refers for the past 15 years or so, ever since I read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. 15 years later, I still have no rejoinder.

Dennett takes us to a very high mountain and shows us all the sciences of naturalism and their splendour. “Everything you want … you can have,” says Dennett.