Tuesday April 8, 2008
Not that long ago, I read Dan Wegner’s wonderful The Illusion of Conscious Will. Wegner’s book is a careful and detailed account of his research into the experience of free will, and it is also a highly entertaining read in way that – alas! – far too few academic books are.
Regular visitors will know that I have tackled the question of free will before on thinkBuddha (see the posts here and here), but for those without the stomach to plough through those posts, let alone all the proper literature on the subject, the central problem was admirably summed up over two centuries ago by Samuel Johnson, who wrote that “All theory is against freedom of the will; all experience for it”.
Johnson is perceptive: we cannot deny the experience of free will. But our theories cannot seem to account for it. Wegner is interesting here, because he takes the lead from Hume to claim that will is, in fact, a feeling, rather than the source of action. The problem is not that free will is entirely ruled out by theory, but that in theorising free will we are looking to theorise something with causal efficiency, rather than looking to account for this feeling of authorship. And Wegner shows convincingly that in experimental situations it is possible for us to have the feeling of willed authorship without having any causal efficacy whatsoever. Conversely, it is possible to be causally efficacious without the feeling of will (for example, in the use of Ouija boards which, disappointingly, are not controlled by forces beyond the grave but by simple human shoving). So whilst we think that the causality is from conscious thought to action, instead Wegner proposes more complex causality whereby action and conscious thought are both unconsciously caused, leaving us to infer that the action is caused by the conscious thought when it isn’t.
The idea that will is a feeling is convincing, and certainly, without the feeling of will (sleepwalking, for example, or under hypnosis), it is not at all clear what it would mean to say that we willed something. Yet the problem many people have with all this, in the end, is ethics. Last weekend, I was talking about all this with a friend of mine, and he agreed that whilst this model made sense of experience, nevertheless, he was reluctant to give up on free will for ethical reasons. Free will, he said, seems necessary for ethics. And here, if we are talking about seeming, I cannot but agree. It does indeed seem to us that free will is necessary for ethics. But is it?
Wegner thinks it is. Towards the end of his book, he talks about the experience of (illusory) free will as ‘the mind’s compass’, claiming that this ‘emotion of authorship serves key functions in the domains of achievement and morality’ (318). In this sense, the illusion is a positive illusion. Susan Blackmore disagrees, however. There is a good article on her website where she writes as follows:
I have long assumed that free will is an illusion and have worked hard to live without it, but doing this provokes a simple fear – what if I behave terribly badly? What if I give up all moral values and do terrible things? What indeed are moral values and how can I make moral decisions if there’s no one inside who is responsible? I’m sure I don’t need to go on. I suspect that this natural fear is the main reason why so few people sincerely try to live without free will.
These are serious questions, but I myself wonder if the fear of moral chaos on giving up the idea of a legislating free will is the same as the fear that some have of moral chaos on giving up the idea of legislating God, but writ small. Without this legislating power, we fear, things will go to the dogs. But is this the case? One could also put the opposite view: that the idea of oneself as an autonomous subject who wills and who has the freedom to act in response to the dictates of this will may not be such a good thing after all, either for our own welfare or for the welfare of others. I’m not sure that our sense of ourselves as moral agents is necessarily the source of the kindness that makes the world a worthwhile place to live in. And when we start to assert ourselves in our capacity as moral agents, that is usually when the trouble begins…
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