Choosing free will

More in class today on free will. Augustine’s theological commitment to the concept is one hook, neuroscience is another. “Our brains take decisions before our minds are aware of them,” reports the BBC podcast I’ve asked students to consider.

“But there’s evidence that whether or not we have free will, believing in it is good for us.” Some experiments support the claim that those who believe in free will, and act on that belief, are by various measures happier, healthier, more conscientious and ethically responsible, less liable to cheat, steal, and lie.

The “happier” claim is most arresting, or it will be for us in Happiness class this afternoon. William James, in his books but more impressively in the totality of his post-free will crisis lifetime, supports it too. One day he “just about touched bottom,” the next he resolved that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,” and in subsequent decades he certainly seemed to find pragmatic vindication for the concept. In his own terms, he found it better for him to believe in free will. Far better. That’s not proof, but neither is it irrelevant or illusory.

But is it an adequate answer to Gregg Caruso’s contention (and Sam Harris’s) that as a society we would be better off giving it up, even if some individuals like James would not be? Caruso:

I maintain that life without free will may actually be good for our well being, and our relationships with others, since it could tend to eradicate an often destructive form of moral anger, a kind of moral anger that’s corrosive to our relationships and to our social policies…

We need to acknowledge the role that luck plays in our lives, who we are, and how we turn out… Let’s give up the belief in free will, and with it, the pernicious belief in just-deserts, that people justly deserve what they get. Let’s leave this adequate notion behind, lose our moral anger and stop blaming the victim. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the difficult task of addressing the causes that lead to criminality, to wealth inequity, and educational inequity. Once we relinquish the belief in free will, this will allow us to look more clearly at the causes and more deeply at the systems that shape individuals and their behavior, and this will allow us to adopt more humane and more effective policies in education, criminal justice, and social policies.

 Sounds great. It might be the right choice, if we have one. But I don’t think it would have got William James up off the floor, when he touched bottom. I’m not sure it would have got me up out of bed this morning at 5 am. I choose to suspend final judgment on this issue. Or think I do.

5:30/6:38, 61/88

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