Friday, November 13, 2015

How to live what we don't believe.

Veteran readers of MindBlog will be aware that a continuing issue has been the problem of what to do with our understanding of how our brains really work - the fact that there is no free will, morality, or "I" of the sort we commonly suppose. (See for example "The I-Illusion," "Having no self..," "Are we really conscious.")

Two recent Op-Ed pieces in the NYTimes continue this thread: Risen and Nussbaum on "Believing What You Don't Believe" and William Irwin on "How to Live a Lie." Irwin considers morality, religion, and finally, free will:
When a novel or movie is particularly engrossing, our reactions to it may be involuntary and resistant to our attempts to counter them. We form what the philosopher Tamar Szabo Gendler calls aliefs — automatic belief-like attitudes that contrast with our well considered beliefs.
Like our involuntary screams in the theater, there may be cases of involuntary moral fictionalism or religious fictionalism as well. Among philosophical issues, though, free will seems to be the clearest case of involuntary fictionalism. It seems clear that I have free will when, for example, I choose from many options to order pasta at a restaurant. Yet few, if any, philosophical notions are harder to defend than free will. Even dualists, who believe in a nonmaterial soul, run into problems with divine foreknowledge. If God foresaw that I would order pasta, then was I really free to do otherwise, to order steak?
In the traditional sense, having free will means that multiple options are truly available to me. I am not a computer, running a decision-making program. No matter what I choose, I could have chosen otherwise. However, in a materialist, as opposed to dualist, worldview, there is no place in the causal chain of material things for the will to act in an uncaused way. Thus only one outcome of my decision-making process is possible. Not even quantum indeterminacy could give me the freedom to order steak. The moment after I recognize this, however, I go back to feeling as if my decision to order pasta was free and that my future decision of what to have for dessert will also be free. I am a free will fictionalist. I accept that I have free will even though I do not believe it.
Giving up on the possibility of free will in the traditional sense of the term, I could adopt compatibilism, the view that actions can be both determined and free. As long as my decision to order pasta is caused by some part of me — say my higher order desires or a deliberative reasoning process — then my action is free even if that aspect of myself was itself caused and determined by a chain of cause and effect. And my action is free even if I really could not have acted otherwise by ordering the steak.
Unfortunately, not even this will rescue me from involuntary free will fictionalism. Adopting compatibilism, I would still feel as if I have free will in the traditional sense and that I could have chosen steak and that the future is wide open concerning what I will have for dessert. There seems to be a “user illusion” that produces the feeling of free will.
William James famously remarked that his first act of free will would be to believe in free will. Well, I cannot believe in free will, but I can accept it. In fact, if free will fictionalism is involuntary, I have no choice but to accept free will. That makes accepting free will easy and undeniably sincere. Accepting the reality of God or morality, on the other hand, are tougher tasks, and potentially disingenuous.

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