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The Rise of the New Determinists

 review of

The Nonsense of Free Will

by  Richard Oerton

The case against God is now old hat. No eyebrows are raised when the Big Guy is called out for not existing. The debate about religion among secularists now concerns the benefits of belief, whether we’re biologically predisposed to supernaturalism, and whether atheists need naturalist substitutes for supernatural religions, their institutions and liturgy to ward off anomie.

So what’s up next?  It’s the denial of libertarian, contra-causal free will, what I’ve come to call soul control: the idea, with a long history in dualist folk intuitions, religion and philosophy, that we are in some capacity exceptions to natural causal laws.[1]  In having soul control, we transcend the determinism of our neural decision-making machinery by virtue of being, at the core, an immaterial conscious controller or mental agent, something like a soul. Souls make possible what Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen call “magical mental causation” (p. 1780).  But such causation can’t make us free simply by tapping into randomness. After all, in acting freely we want our actions to be caused by us, not be arbitrary rolls of the dice. So to avoid being determined and to avoid randomness, we have to suppose we are uncaused, or ultimately self-caused, causers.

Such an idea, of course, can’t withstand scrutiny.[2] You’d have to already exist to create yourself, so self-creation is a logical impossibility, and the evidence is overwhelming that each and every bit of who we are is ultimately traceable to causes, conditions and circumstances that we didn’t choose. The implausibilities of soul control (there are others, about which more below) make it an obvious target for free thinkers. But there’s a strong taboo against questioning free will in a culture which celebrates the myth of the ultimately self-made man, where individuals are thought to deeply, morally deserve their freely chosen fates.

Recently however, some naturalists and atheists, notably Sam Harris in a recent book and some talks to large audiences, are starting to deny the little god of contra-causal free will. The literature, academic and popular, produced by those we might call the new determinists is growing apace.[3] But flatly declaring the demise of free will doesn’t sit well with Harris’s new atheist collaborator, Daniel Dennett. He worries that, unless we’re very careful, tossing soul control and admitting determinism might result in wholesale demoralization. Folks might (and they often do, I’ve noticed) mistake determinism for fatalism and therefore conclude we don’t have self-efficacy or self-control.

So Dennett has a point. Indeed, the cover of Harris’s book has the words “Free Will” dangling from marionette strings and in it he says we are “bio-chemical puppets” (p. 47).[4] Likewise, in stoutly debunking contra-causal free will at Why Evolution is True, biologist Jerry Coyne insists that we don’t really make decisions since these are all predetermined for us by our environment and heredity.

But of course we are not puppets. Our decisions aren’t made for us in advance – we make them using what we consist of as intelligent agents: the magnificently orchestrated neural networks in our heads. Puppets, on the other hand, have no internal behavior-guiding mechanisms, so do nothing on their own. As the critique of soul control gains momentum and visibility (see note 3), naturalists have to take care not to propagate the meme that determinism disempowers us or renders human agency unreal. We remain autonomous and self-controlled, and just as causally effective as our antecedents.

I’m happy to report there’s a really very good book that debunks soul control without making the puppet mistake, or any others of consequence that I could detect: Richard Oerton’s The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing up to a false belief. This is what you need to read if you’re in the least tempted to suppose either that contra-causal free will has a shred of plausibility or that we shouldn’t discuss its demerits in public. It will disabuse you of the confusions of libertarian freedom without demoralizing you. Or, if you’re already disabused, give it to those you know who harbor the belief that human beings are exceptions to cause and effect, that’s to say, nearly everyone you know. Even if it doesn’t convince (which won’t be its fault!), the book is a delightful read in any case - unassuming, straightforward, philosophically informed and funny – the author a mildly exasperated British barrister who thinks it’s high time to cut to the chase about free will, and does so quite handily.

Oerton’s primary thesis is that the traditional (libertarian, contra-causal, Kantian) notion of free will just can’t be made sense of, so is literally nonsensical. This is not an original idea of course, and most philosophers, including Dennett, agree that soul control is incoherent to the core. But Oerton is making his pitch to lay folk, so the deconstruction is refreshingly direct and jargon free, patiently built up and reiterated over a number of chapters using everyday examples.

He acknowledges that there’s another conception of free will out there, the compatibilist (compatible with determinism) conception: even though we’re fully caused creatures, we’re free and responsible insofar as we act without coercion or compulsion. But this, Oerton believes, is not the popular conception, what most folks have vaguely in mind when thinking about free will: that real freedom and responsibility are incompatible with determinism.  Whether Oerton is right about this is an empirical question. Work being done by experimental philosophers on folk conceptions of free will suggests we have both compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions.[5]

In any case, what contra-causal free will requires, Oerton argues, is an originator of choices and actions that is not itself caused or determined, but that still puts the person in control. This means the person has to be in control of the originator. But as he points out, an uncaused originator would necessarily be uncontrolled by the agent’s own character and desires, in which case the reasons for a person’s choices and actions become a mystery:

The price you pay for believing in an originator – the price you pay for believing in free will – is that you cannot know why anyone does anything. You can never ask why free will was exercised in this way rather than that way, because to do so would be to presuppose that the exercise had a causal explanation… (p. 22)

Summing up the absurdity:

Can we perhaps say that [free will] is something – a capacity, a faculty, a facility? – the possession of which entails the consequence that its possessor is able to act against his or her own wishes and may actually do so? Do you find that a definition of something you really can believe in? Me neither. It is not so much a nonsensical definition as a definition of something which is nonsensical. (p. 23)

What should replace this nonsense, Oerton argues, is a straightforward, unblinking acceptance of cause and effect determinism, but a determinism that doesn’t commit the puppet mistake. This means we can accept it with equanimity:

Determinism works through our wishes and desires, not against them…It is we alone who make our choices, but we make them in the way we do because we are the people we are; and we are the people we are because of the causal factors which have made us that way. There is nothing alarming about this. Wouldn’t it be alarming if it were not so? (p. 15)

Indeed. We are controllers and choosers in our own right, but not uncaused choosers, and a good thing too. Were it a logical and naturalistic possibility, being an uncaused controller would be a net disutility, since a controller uninfluenced by the prospect of different outcomes would have no reason to select between options. It would render you terminally undecided, not good for successful behavior.[6]  This is the widely unappreciated, fatal defect of being a contra-causal agent, and it’s why we are no such thing.

Oerton devotes the first third of the book to showing how various attempts to rescue contra-causal free will fail, covering lots of important territory in ordinary language. Among his pithy analyses, here are a few of my favorites:

Could you have done otherwise in a situation as it actually transpired? Well, had you wanted to do otherwise, you likely could have, but in the actual situation you didn’t want to, so you acted as you did. A better way to illustrate the absurdity of soul control, Oerton suggests, is to ask: would you, or might you have done otherwise given all the causal factors in play (p. 29)? And the answer is clearly no. To suppose you might necessarily involves a mysterious capacity to act outside causation which, as we’ve seen, is both incoherent and undermines responsible agency by ruling out character and desires as sufficient causes of behavior.

Would quantum indeterminacy give us free will if it had an effect on our behavior? Certainly not, says Oerton:

There is an unthinking belief that if only some flaw in the view that human behavior has a causal explanation, so that there is, as it were, a gap in determinism, free will is bound to rush in to fill the gap as air rushes in to fill a vacuum…But behavior which is the result of chance cannot be ascribed to free will, anymore than behaviour which results from determinism. (p. 48)

This means we need not deny that there might be gaps in determinism to deny soul control. But the existence of such gaps seems unlikely at the level of human behavior, in which case we can, and should be, happy, self-avowed determinists for all practical purposes.

Can consciousness, the subjective experiences that accompany certain sorts of brain activity, perhaps rescue free will? No way:

The central problem about any act done in exercise of free will is that it must both reflect our character, our nature – show us for the people we are – and yet at the same time allow us to divorce ourselves from that character or nature and rise above it (or fall below it), doing so for no ascertainable reason. This paradox remains insoluble no matter whether the act is initiated by the conscious mind or the unconscious brain. (p. 54)

Can our capacity for self-formation exempt us from determinism and thus confer a kind of buck-stopping, ultimate responsibility? Answering in the negative, Oerton takes on libertarian philosopher Robert Kane, politely but firmly pointing out the implausibilities of Kane’s theory of self-forming actions (SFAs). I’ve summarized some of Oerton’s analysis in a footnote, the point here being that as a self-confessed non-philosopher, he nevertheless does a very creditable job in joining the argument at Kane’s level. [7] Of course libertarians like Kane – the theologians of soul control – aren’t about to give up the fight (see note 2) but Oerton gives them a good run for their money. Importantly, he reassures us we don’t need to be ultimately responsible to be justifiably held responsible to reinforce moral norms and shape good behavior.

Do we perhaps have just a little free will? Fuggedaboudit. Being a smidgen contra-causal, for which there’s no evidence, raises the same problem as having full blown soul control, namely separating action from agent, rendering behavior capricious and unintelligible. And, by the way, do we really believe in contra-causal free will? Oerton makes the telling point that in just about all our analyses of action, we are good (and perhaps natural born) determinists, always looking for causes and operating under the assumption there’s a reliable connection between character and behavior:

…if free will did exist…then it would invalidate pretty much the whole of psychology, psychiatry, criminology, sociology and any other science or system you can think of which concerns itself with human behavior…They all assume what a single-minded proponent of free will could not accept: that people’s behavior, and their thoughts and feelings, are the result of their personalities, which in turn are the result of the hereditary and environmental factors which have gone to create them. (p. 72)

Having made and closed the case against libertarian freedom, in the remainder of the book Oerton demonstrates the practical and moral significance of debunking it, and why it’s vital we take this up in public. Again, I found his arguments for the most part spot on.

The main conclusion Oerton draws from determinism is that we don’t deserve credit and blame in the same robust, ultimate way that’s traditionally premised on our being contra-causal agents. This has immediate implications for reforming the criminal justice system, the major practical focus of the book. Determinism undermines desert-based justifications for retributive punishment but leaves intact more humane and productive responses to wrongdoing:

It must surely be true that if a person’s crime is determined, he or she does not deserve to be punished for it. But the italicized word needs to be emphasized. To my mind, the idea of deserved punishment cannot be reconciled with determinism. If… a person acts as he does because he is the person he is, and he has not made himself the person he is, then the view that he deserves to be punished for what he does is not sustainable. But this doesn’t mean that we should not take him in hand in some way or another… (p. 95, original emphasis)

Punishment, Oerton acknowledges, “does serve a purpose in a deterministic world, and does so because the world is deterministic” (p. 110). Punishment isn’t about to disappear since it’s still (unfortunately) necessary for deterrence. But he also points out that “punishment by itself is not a very effective way to change criminal behavior,” and indeed all crimes represent failures of deterrence. By subtracting ultimate desert from the moral landscape, Oerton forces us to consider the actual utility of punishment. Punishment may be motivated by retributive emotions, but can no longer be justified by supposing criminals deserve to suffer. In which case, we are morally bound to punish only in order to deter. Given the frequent failure of deterrence, determinism motivates us to find constructive alternatives to punishment in designing a reformed criminal justice system, or, what would be better, a crime prevention system:

There is another lesson which determinism teaches us about crime, and that is the need to intervene more often, more early, and more effectively, in the lives of those who are on the way to becoming criminals. Although attempts actually to do this are spasmodic and half-hearted, the need to do it is coming increasingly to be recognized. Even if we profess to reject determinism, we know deep down that our only hope of making a real reduction in crime lies in tackling at an early stage the chains of causality which lead to it…It is true that the imposition of penalties on convicted offenders may deter them from future crime, because it modifies the causal chain, but this comes too late – too late for the criminals and too late for their victims. (p. 142)

Seeing that contra-causal free will is nonsense, and accepting a for-all-practical-purposes determinism, prompts us to second-guess our retributive emotions, and this too will smooth the way for criminal justice reform. If we can, as Oerton suggests we do, look beyond the offender and see the formative and situational causes of actions unthinkingly attributed to intrinsic evil, we’ll be more receptive to prevention, rehabilitation, and other non-punitive approaches to crime reduction.[8]

Like the critique of free will, the determinism-based critique of retribution is not new. Oerton joins Harris, Coyne, Greene and Cohen, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Bruce Waller, Derk Pereboom, Janet Radcliffe Richards, Anthony Cashmore, and myself in calling for an end to retributive punishment. But of course this is a radical stance from the perspective of a culture enamored of bootstrap individualism and ultimate moral desert. And it should be noted there are determinists who nevertheless defend desert-based retribution, finding moral virtue and human dignity in meting out punishment whether or not it confers any practical benefit.[9] This is just one disagreement of many among those of a naturalistic persuasion, so it isn’t as if reaching consensus about the nonsense of contra-causal freedom would spell the end of history.[10]

Such a consensus is obviously a long way off, should it ever come to pass. Although many, perhaps most scientists and philosophers are skeptics about libertarian free will, public skepticism concerning it is still scarce compared to skepticism about the supernatural. To my knowledge, no humanist, atheist, skeptic, or freethought organizations have yet taken up arms against the nonsense of soul control, even though they are happy to advertise the death of God and the non-existence of Big Foot. Where are Penn and Teller (can we count them as an organization?) when you need them?

There’s much that hangs on the free will debate, so I hope that Oerton’s book, added to the existing literature,[11] and along with the efforts of Harris, Coyne and other increasingly vocal free will skeptics, will spur secularists into action. Getting our ideas about human agency in good naturalistic order is of critical importance, otherwise we’re trafficking in half-baked notions of responsibility and control, and prevented from fully exploring, appreciating and applying causal explanations. These cognitive deficits make us prone to prejudice, contempt, pride and retaliatory excess, and jeopardize the chances for successful approaches not just to crime, but behavioral health and addiction, social and economic justice, and global sustainability.

By exposing the nonsense of soul control so incisively and entertainingly, but without falling into fatalism, Oerton does much to advance the cause of a humanistic and progressive naturalism. So take his good advice: if you haven’t already done so, face up to this false belief, and don’t be shy about sharing your enlightenment.

TWC, May 1, 2013


[1] Re soul control see “Experience and autonomy: why consciousness does and doesn’t matter,” forthcoming in Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Greg Caruso editor, introduction here.

[2] But libertarian free will is still taken seriously in some academic quarters, see here.   

[3] For some good old determinists, including Lincoln, Darwin, Mark Twain and Clarence Darrow, see Doubting free will: the  argument from celebrity-authority. For lists of recent books and articles skeptical of libertarian free will, see Sam Snyder’s The end of free will and George Ortega’s Free will refuted in the news (scroll down). See also Free Will Roundup.

[4] To be fair, Harris is careful to distinguish determinism from fatalism in this talk at 37:45, in this essay on his disagreements with Dennett, and in his book he says we are puppets that pull our own strings. But of course no puppet can do this.

[6] Dennett states nicely in his Erasmus Prize essay the rational desirability of determinism for successful behavior: When the ‘control’ by the environment runs through your well-working perceptual systems and your undeluded brain, it is nothing to dread; in fact, nothing is more desirable than being caused by the things and events around us to generate true beliefs about them that we can then use in modulating our behavior to our advantage!”

[7] Kane hypothesizes that SFAs - tough choices between virtuous and non-virtuous action that end up shaping one’s character - are screened off from prior causes via chaos in the brain, rendering the agent an uninfluenced arbiter. Oerton rightly observes that there’s no evidence thus far for Kane’s brain chaos hypothesis. He then points out that if a virtuous choice is made, and counts as the agent’s responsible choice, “this must surely be because he already has a strong moral character and the influences which spring from it were not screened off.” So the agent’s character is already in play, thus was not self-formed by the choice.  Alternatively, if the influences of pre-existing character really were screened off, then Oerton raises the now familiar objection that it isn’t the self that’s doing the forming, rather the choice is a matter of chance, not character. 

[8] For a thumbnail sketch of what criminal justice might look like if we dropped retribution, see Naturalism and punishment: real world implications of naturalism for criminal justice.

[9] Among them Stephen Morse and Michael Moore; see the criminal justice page at Naturalism.Org.

[10] Concerning disagreements among naturalists, see the videos of the Moving Naturalism Forward meeting.

[11] See for instance Paul Breer’s The Spontaneous Self, Richard Double's The Non-Realty of Free Will, Cris Evatt's The Myth of Free Will, Owen Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul, Sam Harris's Free Will, Derk Pereboom's Living Without Free Will, Bruce Waller's The Natural Selection of Autonomy, Dan Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will and my Encountering Naturalism.

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