Free will as an ideological weapon…


From Mimi and Eunice.

The belief in free will (in the self as the partial or total creator of its decisions) is so patently absurd that the fact that so many people, even people educated in science, still adhere to it must give us some pause. It is, in that sense, very similar to the debate around God or statism. Why do people cling to these obviously nonsensical and discredited models?

The answer, of course, is morality. People cling to God, statism and free will, whether they believe these concepts are discredited or not, because they believe that said concepts are necessary to maintain morality (whether in society or as an abstract concept).

Another obvious correlation is that both the God debate and the free will debate are showdowns between a supernaturalist, anti-science perspective and a naturalist, pro-science perspective. To admit of the existence of supernatural entities or processes (such as a soul, free will mechanism or god) is to shut science down a priori and affirm intuitive “proofs” as its masters. To affirm the supernatural is to write a “here be dragons” on our map of reality, is to gloat of a final victory for irrationality; for if we thought any such area could one day be uncovered by science, we would not call it supernatural, merely still unexplained.

I know that free will proponents would not agree that this is what they are doing. They have hidden this fact to themselves through the use of a variety of projections. To prove my point, I am going to list a few of these.

Before I begin, let me give some simple definitions for the two sides of this debate. Naturalists are people who believe human actions can be solely explained by prior (naturalist) causes. Free will proponents are people who believe that this is not the case; some believe human actions cannot be explained at all by prior (naturalist) causes, and some believe human actions can be partially, but not completely, explained by prior (naturalist) causes.

* One may argue that denying free will is contradictory because communicating this denial implies that one chose to communicate in the first place. If the person did not choose to communicate, then, since the intent is lacking, the communication cannot be meaningful.

Those of you who know ancap rhetoric will recognize this argument as the identification of a performative contradiction (which occurs when the act of stating a proposition contradicts the proposition itself, such as saying “I am dead” in a literal sense).

It is however not clear how denying free will is a performative contradiction, since it’s not clear at all how not having free will means one cannot communicate meaningfully or intend to communicate meaningfully. All it means is that our intent to communicate has prior causes.

If we look at free will proponents who believe our actions have no prior causes, however, we do end up with a problem. If we are having a discussion and I come to believe that your intent to communicate is based on no prior cause, such as what I have just communicated to you, then how can I believe that it’s meant as a reply to what I said? Again the hard problem of free will (the impossibility of free will proponents to point out how their supernatural mechanism interacts with the natural world) rears its head.

This is basically an attempt to reduce the debate to the issue of choice and to argue that we obviously choose what we do. But this is not an argument, merely a restatement of the free will position. It is not at all “obvious.”

* Free will proponents argue that we all possess a deep intuition that we are contra-causal agents, and that this is sufficient proof that free will actually exists. This seems rather unlikely to me. I experience my beliefs and my decisions as the results of prior causes, and I can’t imagine what it would even be like to experience myself as some kind of ghostly self-creative entity. How could they possibly know this is what they are experiencing? I think it is more likely that they are trying to hide to themselves the fact that their own intuitions contradict what they believe.

* Another argument used is that if determinism was true, then we couldn’t change our minds, or alternately that there is no point in doing anything because fatalism becomes true. From a determinist perspective, this is a bizarre argument; everything is in a state of flux, everything changes, so why wouldn’t human minds change as well? Under determinism, it is unchanging minds that would be surprising, not changing minds. Under the free will perspective, however, it’s hard to understand why people would change their minds, since they are not subject to physical change, or why proponents do not think fatalism is an issue.

* Finally, there is an argument that determinism is an attack on human dignity. Seen from a determinist perspective, this is a weird criticism; how does seeing human beings as integral parts of the natural world attack human dignity? The alternative we’re looking at is a fairy tale, that there is some kind of supernatural self governing human beings on a random or unfathomable basis; how is that not an attack against human dignity?

Free will rhetoric itself is really all smoke and mirrors. But if you realize that it’s coupled with the belief that people are innately evil, then it’s a whole other ball of wax, because then people can have their cake and eat it too (talk about mixing metaphors). With this, one can both refuse to explore human behavior and provide a simplistic explanation for human behavior at the same time; the explanation merely reinforces the need not to look any further.

Ultraconservative Dinesh D’Souza is a staunch opponent of determinism and provides us with a good example quote:

If neither society nor genes made them do it, what did? The third possibility is that they did it because they are evil. This option, so easily scorned by sophisticates, is actually the clearest and most satisfying description of the facts before us. This was an evil act, and it was done by some really bad people. Evil inspires indignation, and this indignation is not a mere emotional response but reflects a rational comprehension of the horror that has been perpetrated.

You see, D’Souza rejects the possibility that we can explain murderers’ behavior through analyzing cause and effect, so he gets to keep his belief in free will and “choice.” But at the same time, he does provide an explanation: the murderers were “evil” and “really bad people” (another common example is when criminals are called “monsters”).

We have a superficial contradiction and a deeper contradiction here. The first is, how can the murderers have made the contra-causal “choice” of killing people if they were already “evil people”? If they really are “evil people,” then they were just doing what “evil people” do, and there can be no further talk of “choice.” So D’Souza ironically proves that he believes in determinism, he just disagrees what the causes of behavior are (not society, not genes, but some innate evil nature).

The deeper contradiction here is, if this is a correct account of murderers, then why do most people not commit murder? Since D’Souza does not believe in determinism, no cause in the world can prevent us from being “evil people.” So why are we not all “evil people”? Do we simply lack the opportunity? But plenty of murderers kill others in circumstances in which they are easily caught. Why are we not all doing this?

Either way, it should be obvious that a society full of such sociopaths would disintegrate in short order. So D’Souza’s position is a logical impossibility. This is unlikely to bother people like D’Souza who argue against determinism not out of an actual desire to know the truth but out of a desire to support their failed religious worldview.

It is my contention that for a lot of people, especially those who know what the debate is all about, free will is used as an ideological weapon in support of certain worldviews, many of which oppose each other (capitalist voluntaryists, fundamentalist Christians, law and order statists, New Age hucksters, etc). What sort of weapon is it?

Free will is part of a set of dangerous ideas which hold that the individual somehow self-generates its own meaning and purpose in a vacuum. These ideas also include self-ownership and moral/ethical relativism (in which I include the extreme form of individualism as well, where the individual is said to create eir own morality). These three ideas have one obvious common property: they all serve to occlude reality and permit the flourishing of evil.

I’ve already commented on the fact that collapsing into one’s self leads to people being incapable of standing up to tyranny. In that regard, free will is the perfect complement to self-ownership and relativism; the latter produce tyrannical social institutions, while free will permits the demonization and subsequent desire for revenge that makes the rise and flourishing of such institutions possible.

In some cases, the association between free will and tyrannical institutions is out in the open, like in the case of people who argue against determinism on the basis that it eliminates the desire for revenge which is at the basis of our “justice” system. The fact that there are some intellectuals who are willing to go at bat for tyranny shouldn’t be too surprising. But most do not, at least not openly.

Free will advocates may reply that my deterministic worldview does not allow for political freedom. This is correct… in a certain sense. It depends on what kind of political freedom we’re talking about.

If we’re talking about the traditional notion of political freedom as “freedom from coercion” or “freedom to make our own choices,” then no, that kind of freedom is impossible. Here is one such definition:

…[W]e are free to the extent our actions flow from our character-based motives and desires, not from coercion or duress.

As determinism makes clear, our “choices” are not “our own,” but rather are molded by social and institutional forces. As John Kenneth Galbraith discusses in The Anatomy of Power, incentives and conditioning are merely an extension of the use of force, all three being aspects of what we call power- the ability to control minds. There is therefore no reason to arbitrarily state that someone who is free from coercion has “freedom,” when ey is still subject to a different kind of control over eir mind.

A study showed that this is an intuitive conclusion:

But now suppose we introduce a somewhat fanciful thought experiment. Suppose that a skillful manipulator has set things up from the very beginning of your life to make sure that you perform a particular action. He carefully arranged your whole childhood, exposing you to certain friends, certain TV shows, etc. In the end, his plan works perfectly. You end up acquiring exactly the beliefs, desires and values he wanted you to have, and as a result of having those psychological states, you perform exactly the action he was trying to get you to perform…

[from the study results:] Incompatibilists and compatibilists (mostly) agree that there is a strong intuition that a manipulated agent, i.e., an agent who is the victim of methods such as indoctrination or brainwashing, is unfree.

It’s obvious that this “thought experiment” is more or less what happens to all of us when we grow up, except that the manipulators (our parents, our schools, the media, government, etc) do not have a specific action in mind. They just want you to become a “good” child/student/citizen/worker.

I do believe in freedom from all control as a sort of ideal. It would be nice if we could both live in organized society while being free from incentives or conditioning, but it’s impossible. Obviously I’d rather live in a society where the influence of incentives and conditioning on my decisions is as limited as possible, and we can continue to call this limitation on power “freedom” (i.e. freedom is a state of society where power is limited to a greater extent).

I point out the error in this concept of “freedom” because it creates an illusory dichotomy, between coercion on one hand and incentives and conditioning on the other. This is dangerous because people can be subject to all sorts of incentive systems and conditioning systems and still believe they are “free” (a la Brave New World, or as exemplified by the way we fail to pay attention to dangerous cults today because they do not use physical violence). This therefore permits the existence of any tyrannical institution or system.

People who have read my entries on voluntaryism should notice a similarity here, because this is more or less what voluntaryism does: it hides the operation of incentive systems and conditioning systems and declares the individual “free to choose.” So we get the absurdity of people living in poverty being “free to choose” to live in a factory in a state of near-slavery or Indian women who were “free to choose” to commit suttee.

I have not yet touched, however, on what is by far the most important way in which free will is used to support tyranny, its support of demonization and revenge.

Suppose you work in a factory that houses a number of machines that produce cars. One of these machines starts to malfunction and produces cars that blow up when they crash. What would be your feelings towards this machine? Would you be angry at the machine? Would you think the machine is evil? Would you want to destroy it?

You’re probably not psychotic, so no. You wouldn’t demonize the machine, nor would you want revenge done to the machine. It’s just a machine. You’d want it to be fixed, and you’d want to know that there are better safety standards in place, but you wouldn’t call it evil.

When we accept determinism, we slowly come to the understanding that human beings are nothing more than complex organic machines which are programmed by their genetics and the inputs that they have received. There is no reason to be angry at people, call them evil, demonize them, or punish them for what they do. Doing so is as psychotic as demonizing and punishing a machine.

What this means, amongst other things, is the end of the legal system as we know it, given that it is made to enact revenge for criminal acts. This is highlighted by the fact that the “justice” system is predicated on free will:

It is embarrassing, to say the least, that proof of criminal guilt depends on blocking plausible explanations of both behavior and character, but in fact this is what the law requires. For, it is widely supposed, once we allow that a person’s acts or essence are explicable in terms of cause and effect, the primary basis for responsibility – the freely willed choice – evaporates. Unless the agent somehow acted on its own (or created itself) in some important respect independently of influences and circumstances, we forfeit the fundamental retributive justification for punishment. The prosecution therefore wanted the jury to believe that the essential Susan Smith, the self-agent-controller pulling her own strings, deserved capital punishment for an act that she alone originated.

So in essence, the “justice” system punishes people on the basis of a pseudo-scientific worldview. And while our “justice” system needs free will to exist, the “justice” system is also used as evidence that we need to maintain belief in free will, so it’s ultimately a circular argument. The fact that free will is false, and therefore should not be believed, cannot be disproved by looking at an institution which is founded on free will. The people who say the “justice” system “works” and must be preserved are assuming that revenge is valid, and therefore that free will is true.

Of course, there are plenty of things that are evil with the “justice” system. This is just one of them.

Interestingly, as the quote notes, the “justice” system does allow for plausible explanations of a person’s acts, such as “insanity.” “Insanity defenses” and other such explanations are deterministic, in that they presume that there may be some cause to a certain human action. It is only when such explanations fail that free will is declared operational. “Little god” of the gaps?

There is something fundamentally wrong in declaring the desire for revenge the best reason we have to maintain belief in free will. Think about it. The desire for revenge is a primal instinct, and in order to maintain the illusion that our actions are not caused, we should let this instinct cause our actions.

Another institution which could not continue to exist in its current form is war, as war relies heavily on the demonization of the enemy. This is not to say that the absence of demonization would make war impossible, but that it would take a very different form. For one thing, it would be impossible to create enemies out of whole cloth like we do today through media campaigns.

Demonization is another process which unites both the concepts of free will and innate evil. In order to demonize the “enemy,” one must believe two contradictory things: one, that the “enemy” is “fully responsible” for their actions, and two, that the “enemy” is somehow evil and therefore must be exterminated. This is just as nonsensical as D’Souza’s treatment of criminals.

But I think it’s about even more than support of specific institutions. Free will can be used as a weapon against pretty much anyone. Consider for example that the people who benefit from prostitution are justified by determinist explanations (“they can’t help it!”) but the victims are blamed on the basis of free will (“they chose to do this!). Now look at this pattern elsewhere. You will find that blame is always given on the basis of some “freedom of choice,” while excuses for people’s behavior will often follow determinist patterns. This is the basis of “hatred through personal responsibility.”

Now think about what people say about religion: “but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Now that’s not entirely correct, as many other worldviews can do the trick, but what is it exactly about religion that does this? The first step is the acceptance of some fixed idea, like the existence of God. And you might say that this is the whole trick.

But morality does not necessarily change even with this fixed idea, because there is a vast gulf between divine obligation and moral obligation. So there are missing steps there.

I think one of those steps is free will. When we look at ourselves from a determinist perspective, there is no reason to believe that we should act in any way but that which conforms to our personal values. It takes belief in free will to make a person believe that they should act in ways which conflict with eir personal values. To the machine that is a human being, religion will always be an outside programming and cannot be primary (one must first judge the Bible or Christianity from one’s own standards before accepting it).

So it’s no surprise that all Christian sects put emphasis on belief in the soul and the dichotomy between “the world” (“sin”) and “God” (“salvation”). If you think of yourself as a self-caused agent, then you give yourself the justification to compartimentalize yourself, and to reject what is good in you in order to rationalize doing evil.

Now I think we can grasp the proper scope of the free will debate, as well as why philosophical discussions always seem to come back to it. The analogy with self-ownership and relativism (the other two parts of the triad) is striking, since it seems that all political discussions come back to the former, and all moral or ethical discussions come back to the latter. They all come down on whether the individual is self-created or if ey is the product of outside forces (free will can be briefly described as self-caused decisions, relativism as self-caused morality and self-ownership as self-caused ethics).

In all cases, we are invited to cheer for “freedom” and are told that anyone who objects to these magical, contra-causal ideas is against “freedom.” We are told that systemic analysis is intolerant and wrong, that only the individual creative intent matters, that we should ignore the facts unless they reinforce the status quo.

It seems to me that this ardent desire to ignore patterns is as inane as the Creationists’ desire to ignore the patterns in the changes in lifeforms. Both free will advocates and Creationists basically don’t want you to use your brain and draw conclusions regarding patterns that are all around us.

One of the reasons I find this attitude so fascinating is that it strikes me as a direct repudiation of a singular, vital, and noble aspect of humanity – the ability, and desire, to aggregate multiple (sometimes apparently disparate) bits of information into connected events, which, when considered in the light of experience with cause and effect, can be crafted into hypotheses, and eventually knowledge. Humans tease patterns out of associated observations. It’s part of our cognitive structure to acknowledge and collate connections that go on to form the basis for understanding.

To compound the chilling effect, some proponents of free will go so far as to propose that we keep people in ignorance of the non-existence of free will, because spreading that knowledge would make people lose their sense of ethics. They point to a study in particular which demonstrated that when students were exposed to determinist messages, they were more likely to cheat on a test.

This should be a familiar story to people who were raised religious and deconverted to atheism, or who have read such stories. There is sometimes a phase where the individual has rejected the religious beliefs but hasn’t yet integrated the alternatives, and asks always the same questions: “what is good and evil?”, “where do I go when I die?” and “why does anything matter?” For a period of days or weeks, you live in a sort of suspension where your entire life is in upheaval.

There’s no reason to think that people confronted with determinist-priming sentences won’t react in the same way, at first. We should expect them to feel demoralized, shocked, flirting with nihilism, and so on. After a while, however, people will get used to determinist thinking, will realize that their values are still there inside of them, and will realize there’s no reason for them to follow anything else.

What we stand to lose: our sense of self-aggrandizement, blame and revenge, our support of inequality and violence, and ultimately our support of evil institutions:

it seems to me that to casually (sic) deny free will invites the total collapse of every human institution, from law, to the family to the notion of the self – it reduces us to automata. Billiard balls with legs. Wind us up, show us a certain image or ideal, and we act – senselessly and without individual volition… Worse, if we’re robots, then what’s the bloody point? Of anything?

I find this to be a delicious ironic quote, because it reveals the truth (I think we should call such grandstanding oratories about the imminent naturalist collapse of society Arguments from Armageddon). Three cheers for the supposedly upcoming collapse of the law and the family, then, although I think that may be a bit optimistic. But what’s the bloody point, indeed, of the notion of the self? We’re better off without it, billiard balls with legs or not. Good show, wot?

8 thoughts on “Free will as an ideological weapon…

  1. Michael June 25, 2013 at 15:08

    I look forward to a more in depth look at this entry in the future and perhaps make some comments on it. Free will is indeed an ideological weapon the proponents use to hurth people with. I’ve just finished reading Free Will by Sam Harris. Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity that free will is an inherently flawed. Touching every aspect of society. Just in case you haven’t read it.

  2. luna920 August 2, 2013 at 16:00

    I was going to post this comment below your newest blog post, but I figured that it made sense more here. I think much of what you associate with free will is based simply uponthings you happen to dislike as is the case with your previous optimism post.

    But I want to make a more important point here, mainly that you’re arguments here about the free will being responsible for blame and that being a bad thing are ironic when many of your blog posts constantly attack people you merely disagree with in a rather extreme hyper moralistic preachy self righteous tone. that in and of itself might demonstrate that a belief in hard determinism would not lead to tolerance. also, considering the fact that you used to be a volyantarist type ancap yourself just a few short years ago do you beat your past self up all the time, and since you apparently saw the light maybe others could do, but they would probably be more likely to without moral hectoring.

    Just as an example in this article, you mention how in the area of prostitution, the “victims” are blamed for their actions with the perpetrators are supposedly excused. now whether thats true or not i would simply point out that in your view logically no one should be at fault and in fact to attack johns and pimps is as illogical as the other thing, after all they are simply doing what they are preprogrammed to do, everyone is a victim. same for things like porn etc.

    you make one claim that is empiraclly false when you write

    “What this means, amongst other things, is the end of the legal system as we know it, given that it is made to enact revenge for criminal acts. This is highlighted by the fact that the “justice” system is predicated on free will:”

    now the fact here is that the article you quote goes on to say later,

    “But are feelings of rage against a murderer and the wish for retribution never justified? If Susan Smith killed her children simply in order to advance an affair, are we wrong to condemn her? Obviously we are not wrong to condemn the act, whatever its causes, and it’s hard to resist the initial, angry surge of desire to impose comparable suffering upon the perpetrator. As Robert Wright points out in The Moral Animal, such feelings are simply the naturally evolved response to a horrific violation of a central human value. They serve to ensure that such transgressions are swiftly attended to, for if reliable sanctions were not imposed no ordered society could last for long. But whether or not we should freely indulge the retributive impulse, given what we now know about the springs of human action, is very much an open question.

    That impulse, science has shown us, is emphatically not justified by the existence of a freely willing agent who deserves condemnation for having autonomously originated the act. No such agents exist anywhere, or ever have, or ever could, since humans are as much part of the causal continuum as molecules and machines. And even if human behavior were partially attributable to some random element, that would do nothing to endow us with originative agenthood. Therefore we must, as Wright suggests, learn to accommodate ourselves to the fact that our rage at the “scheming monster” has no metaphysical justification in free will. The desire for retribution points us in the right direction, perhaps, but we need not follow that bitter path to the end.

    Our concept of moral responsibility need not rest on the myth of originative agency, but only on the necessity for social order. We must assign credit and blame, and impose legal and moral sanctions, not because freely willing agents exist but in order to channel behavior within acceptable limits. As this realization sinks in, the desire to inflict comparable suffering on those proven guilty may lessen, and our attention might shift from punishment to prevention, and from retribution to rehabilitation. To explain is not necessarily to excuse, but explanations can help considerably in moving us away from anger toward a more constructive response to crime and deviance.”

    clearly as the author points out, at least two justifications, deterrence and rehabilitation can be made for punishment in a determinist view, now I realize that the authors claims depend upon his utilitarian presuppositions being brought in and I suspect based on your other posts you would disagree with, as actually I would myself, but it still is important to be honest about what a view actually entails.

    • Francois Tremblay August 2, 2013 at 16:57

      * You have not demonstrated that any of what I link with free will is spuriously asserted. You just say they are. I am not going to believe you on your say-so. Provide concrete examples and why they are not really linked with free will. Otherwise you’re just wasting our time.

      * You are confusing blame with responsibility.

      * No justification can be made for punishment in a deterministic view.

      * I really don’t care if you think I’m mean. My entries stand or fall on their analysis, not on you not liking my personality.

  3. luna920 August 2, 2013 at 18:17

    I gave you one example concerning prostitution. also you have linked capitalism to free will in other posts, but one could just as easily make an argument that people need market incentives to do anything productive because their nature is lazy, stupid, incompetent(I am not endorsing this view).

    also moral relativism, I really see no connection beyond an assertion made by you.

    my comment about your articles had nothing to do with you being mean, it was rather about logical consistency. in this post you said that
    ” There is no reason to be angry at people, call them evil, demonize them, or punish them for what they do. Doing so is as psychotic as demonizing and punishing a machine.”
    yet I see a lot of that in your posts but I will concede that I do not know your motives when you write and maybe it is just a matter of misconception on my part.

    Lastly though, as for there being no justification for punishment in a deterministic view, I gave you an extended quote from the very article you quoted in your post giving at least three justification for punishment in a deterministic view (deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation) and while I don’t necessarily agree with them myself, I wonder what your response to the arguments as put forth by that author would be?

    • Francois Tremblay August 2, 2013 at 18:22

      “I gave you one example concerning prostitution.”

      Just right there, you’re proving that you have no retort. I have never made a connection between free will and prostitution. What I said was that free will is used as a weapon against prostituted women. If you can’t even follow such a simple argument, I don’t really see the point in continuing this conversation.

  4. […] They both define freedom as the absence of coercion. As I argue in “Free will as an ideological weapon…”, the dichotomy between coercion and conditioning is illusory and leads to the acceptance of tyranny […]

  5. cyanidecupcake April 28, 2014 at 03:44

    Do you think that all types of criminals can be rehabilitated or reformed, then? Also, were you arguing for the “after birth abortion” position?

    • Francois Tremblay April 28, 2014 at 03:51

      “Do you think that all types of criminals can be rehabilitated or reformed, then?”

      No, it seems to me like sociopaths are beyond “reform,” if our theories about them are correct. Either way, I don’t think it has to be the case that *everyone* can live peacefully in society, no.

      “Also, were you arguing for the “after birth abortion” position?”

      Not sure where you got that idea, but I have done so yes:
      https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/a-defense-of-after-birth-abortions/

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