Libertarian Free Will Is Not Just Bad Philosophy, The Concept Hurts People

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Along with the belief that a cosmic being created the entire universe, was responsible for the entirety of the diversity of life on Earth, and that it’s really bad if you keep fapping, there often comes the idea of the soul. Somehow this soul may or may not be your mind, and is responsible for your moral decisions. The soul represents the “ghost in the machine”, the concept that somehow you are a type of spirit inhabiting a corporeal form, making decisions until your body dies and you get sent to your eternal destination.

The idea that somehow we are making free decisions using our soul independent of our bodily function is one of the guiding assumptions behind libertarian free will. This has nothing to do with the political affiliation, and when most people think of free will this is the concept they are most likely envisioning. It is a basic foundational assumption of Christian apologetics, as it is a common response to arguments like the problem of evil or why the Christian god doesn’t save people in mass shootings. An excerpt from Theopedia illustrates this concept.

Libertarian free will means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God. All “free will theists” hold that libertarian freedom is essential for moral responsibility, for if our choice is determined or caused by anything, including our own desires, they reason, it cannot properly be called a free choice. Libertarian freedom is, therefore, the freedom to act contrary to one’s nature, predisposition and greatest desires. Responsibility, in this view, always means that one could have done otherwise.

While as an atheist I certainly don’t think my choices have anything to do with any deity, based on the scientific evidence I cannot decouple my choices from my physical being. As far as I can tell, I am my brain, and my brain is subject to the same physical laws everything else is subject to. Since my mind is mostly a result of patterns of electrochemical signals, which are physical processes, the choices that I make are mostly the end result of matter and forces moving through the universe.

Keep in mind, just because we are simply the result of the laws of nature doesn’t mean that I can treat myself and others the same as the inanimate objects that surround me. I can still recognize agency in humans and other animals. Perhaps I am just matter in motion, but I still value happiness and joy and loathe pain and suffering. I can see the consequences that my actions have on others’ personhood. While the underlying mechanisms behind how people function are nothing more than the natural mechanisms found everywhere else, the fact that we function in an emotional, intelligent way is profound in itself. We have great reason to value the fluorishing of all those around us simply based on the knowledge that we are thinking and feeling beings.

Even absent physical explanations for how our minds work, this type of free will is nonsensical. I came to this conclusion after listening to Sam Harris talk about this. In his speech below (and likely in his book, which I haven’t read), he describes how our minds come to conclusions almost absent our own input. When we try and come up with something like our favorite city, names of cities pop up in our heads absent any effort from ourselves. When we try and come to a conclusion on something, there is a time when we are unsure of our position, and then a time when we have our opinion. The idea that our “self” ever actually gets to decide on anything before we arrive at our conclusions is like coming up with the concept that we decide something before we decide it. This is a nonsensical concept whether or not we have a soul. Libertarian free will can’t exist. Sam Harris illustrates it much better than I can, so I recommend listening to him when you have the time.

Free will is often portrayed as some lofty, ivory tower based concept that old white men debate in philosophy departments. Perhaps that even is the case, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Whether or not free will exists in our universe is a fact, and as a result has an effect on our everyday lives. It’s possible that being wrong about free will doesn’t just mean that we’re wrong about some abstract idea. In fact, I’d submit that thinking that we are free agents holds humanity back in demonstrable ways.

This is actually quite apparent to any atheist who has engaged in debates and arguments with apologists for any amount of time. The apologist is no stranger to telling the atheist that “you choose to believe in god or not”, or that “you choose for yourself to go to Heaven or Hell.” They are still operating on the nonsensical idea that somehow we as free agents are choosing to believe something or not. That simply isn’t the case, though, and we will often come to our beliefs before we even know that we hold a certain belief. Our beliefs aren’t some decision that our soul picks out based on weighing different evidences we have filed away in our brain wrinkles. Our mind has evaluated the evidence we’ve been able to absorb and experience, and tries to create a coherent model for ourselves such that we can function in the real world.

Of course, this means that we ultimately have no choice whether or not we believe in a god, but this is not immediately apparent to the person who still thinks we can choose our beliefs. To the theist, we appear to have maliciously chosen to reject their loving creator and all that is good (especially if they hold the belief that their god has revealed himself in everyone’s heart). It doesn’t matter that many of us have taken a look at the evidence for a divine creator, found it lacking, and our brains shifted to a worldview absent of a god. From the outside, it appeared that some agent flipped a switch on our belief, however inaccurate that is. This means that every instance of discrimination based on belief system is based on something completely out of our control. Every time a parent tells a college student they can’t return home because they’re not Christian, every time someone leaves their spouse for abandoning the faith, every time a school bullies an atheist, it’s for doing something that they essentially had no say over.

We go about our lives acting as if everyone around us is some independent free spirit, choosing whether or not to take a certain action or say a certain thing. To an extent that’s true, but we fail to recognize the sheer amount of cognitive activity going on in our minds subconsciously. We fail to recognize that when someone is irrational, it’s not always due to some independent agent deciding to think poorly. We are all products of our brain functions, and we have plenty of unconscious biases and poor cognitive functions. We all have our mental blocks and irrational beliefs, and sometimes we have faulty memories or unreliable experiences to back up what we think. It makes sense that as a society that we should hold each other accountable when we are wrong or behaving poorly, but it would be best to do this while keeping in mind how our own will works.

Consider how our justice system is constructed. For many of our crimes, we enforce prison sentences, where society locks us away from those who are free. The idea is often that we punish criminals such that they “learn their lesson” and decide for their own selves not to do something poorly. We’ve also convinced ourselves that if we set up a punishment stick by having strict laws that people will be afraid to commit crimes in the first place. As we all know, that really doesn’t bear out. The presence of punishment does not serve to make us “behave”, it simply makes us work to avoid the punishment. Our prisons may be “punishment”, but the mere isolation from society in a harsh environment doesn’t really teach us anything. Prisons are fairly lacking in resources to help us learn better ways to avoid misbehaving in the future, such as psychological services or education and jobs programs. We feel somehow that the people in prison deserve what they get based on their free will choices, instead of considering the environments and conditions that caused them to behave the way they did. It’s much easier to chalk everything up to a lawbreaker’s choices and blame them rather than help them make better choices in the future.

Free will also matters we engage in discourse. The old mantra of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” rests on the assumption that if we hear something, we can just walk away. We can do this to a large extent, but there are a lot of underlying processes in our head that guide our behavior and our performance. One of the first things I was taught as a graduate TA was that reminding minorities and women of their stereotypes in society caused them to perform differently on exams. This doesn’t happen with white people or men. Most people have the attitude that if something is distressing they should just look away and go somewhere else, but this literally makes people perform worse in schools (in a sexist and racist way, no less).

This also ties into the “trigger warning” debate. A lot of the discourse has been lost on this topic because many think that being triggered literally just means getting offended. But for those who suffer from panic attacks or have PTSD, it’s a lot more than that. If we were just souls controlling some human meat suit, perhaps we could just walk away from something “we don’t like”. But alas, we are performing as a function of our brain activity. A triggering event can easily cause a panic attack, which for completely irrational reasons can cause someone to shut down and stop functioning for a minute or two. They could dissociate from their surrounding environment, often for a period of several days. Conservatives often blame people who suffer from these conditions and say they’re getting whiny and offended. They want those who suffer from mental conditions to “buck up”, and blame them for not trying hard enough. This makes sense under a libertarian free will model, where we actually choose our emotions, our behaviors, and our basic neural responses. The problem is, science doesn’t corroborate this at all. Libertarian free will completely ignores the very real mental barriers that can prevent us from behaving in an ideal manner. We can’t just “choose” how to feel, and what soul would possibly freely choose a panic attack? In that sense, libertarian free will is ableist.

Libertarian free will is thoroughly anti-skeptical. Within skepticism circles, we talk all the time about avoiding biases and correcting for them. I suspect that we don’t do a good enough job correcting for our biases, as a holdover from when we viewed ourselves as pure, independent agents capable of making our own rational decisions. While most skeptics champion the use of eliminating bias, the dominant behavior right now appears to be chalked up to saying “don’t be biased” and stopping right there. What we don’t realize is that regardless of how we want to believe, we are all biased. For example, as a result of our human nature, we are all subject to implicit bias, and there’s very little we can do about it. Without thinking about it, we really do treat people of races other than our own differently, and most Americans at least unconsciously think of white people superior to those who are black. The same is the case with women, as we think of them as worse leaders. This is almost unavaoidable. We are not some free spirit making purely logical evaluations based on our environment, we have internalized many attitudes from our culture as we developed and that has partially made us into who we are. It doesn’t work to just tell ourselves to “not be racist” or “not be sexist”. We have to actively counter our bias, and second guess where our criticisms are coming from.

Hopefully I’ve illustrated some very good examples of why libertarian free will is harmful. We are more susceptible to harm when our model of the universe is inaccurate, and this is just one instance. We aren’t free souls making entirely free decisions independently of our bodily functions. Mind-body dualism is garbage. We need to recognize our own agencies for what they are: physical brains inhabiting a physical universe due to natural laws. We need to recognize all the biases, instincts, and hurdles that come with that. The more we treat people as they truly are, the better off we will be.

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2 thoughts on “Libertarian Free Will Is Not Just Bad Philosophy, The Concept Hurts People

  1. […] week, I talked about how libertarian free will is not only a ridiculous concept, but the belief in it leads us to hold […]

  2. notabilia January 18, 2017 at 6:53 PM Reply

    This is an excellent read – you are completely right about the targeting of prisoners instead of their environmental circumstances, and about the dangers of the “libertarian free will” untruth. Bulls-eyes on all scores, here.

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