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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Free Will, an Illusion? An Answer from a Pragmatic Sentimentalist Point of View

Maureen Sie
Appears in : Caruso, G. (ed.), June 2013, Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Rowman & Littlefield.

According to some people, diverse findings in the cognitive and neurosciences suggest that free will is an illusion: We experience ourselves as agents, but in fact our brains decide, initiate, and judge before ‘we’ do (Soon, Brass, Heinze and Haynes 2008; Libet and Gleason 1983). Others have replied that the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘our brains’ makes no sense (e.g., Dennett 2003)  or that scientists misperceive the conceptual relations that hold between free will and responsibility (Roskies 2006). Many others regard the neuro-scientific findings as irrelevant to their views on free will. They do not believe that determinist processes are incompatible with free will to begin with, hence, do not understand why deterministic processes in our brain would be (see Sie and Wouters 2008, 2010). That latter response should be understood against the background of the philosophical free will discussion. In philosophy, free will is traditionally approached as a metaphysical problem, one that needs to be dealt with in order to discuss the legitimacy of our practices of responsibility. The emergence of our moral practices is seen as a result of the assumption that we possess free will (or some capacity associated with it) and the main question discussed is whether that assumption is compatible with determinism.  In this chapter we want to steer clear from this 'metaphysical' discussion.

The question we are interested in in this chapter, is whether the above mentioned scientific findings are relevant to our use of the concept of free will when that concept is approached from a different angle. We call this different angle the 'pragmatic sentimentalist'-approach to free will (hereafter the PS-approach).  This approach can be traced back to Peter F. Strawson’s influential essay “Freedom and Resentment”(Strawson 1962).  Contrary to the metaphysical approach, the PS-approach does not understand free will as a concept that somehow precedes our moral practices. Rather it is assumed that everyday talk of free will naturally arises in a practice that is characterized by certain reactive attitudes that we take towards one another. This is why it is called 'sentimentalist.' In this approach, the practical purposes of the concept of free will are put central stage. This is why it is called 'pragmatist.'

A draft of the book chapter can be downloaded here.

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