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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?

Oliver Burkeman
The Guardian
Originally posted 27 APR 21

Here is an excerpt:

And Saul Smilansky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel, who believes the popular notion of free will is a mistake, told me that if a graduate student who was prone to depression sought to study the subject with him, he would try to dissuade them. “Look, I’m naturally a buoyant person,” he said. “I have the mentality of a village idiot: it’s easy to make me happy. Nevertheless, the free will problem is really depressing if you take it seriously. It hasn’t made me happy, and in retrospect, if I were at graduate school again, maybe a different topic would have been preferable.”

Smilansky is an advocate of what he calls “illusionism”, the idea that although free will as conventionally defined is unreal, it’s crucial people go on believing otherwise – from which it follows that an article like this one might be actively dangerous. (Twenty years ago, he said, he might have refused to speak to me, but these days free will scepticism was so widely discussed that “the horse has left the barn”.) “On the deepest level, if people really understood what’s going on – and I don’t think I’ve fully internalised the implications myself, even after all these years – it’s just too frightening and difficult,” Smilansky said. “For anyone who’s morally and emotionally deep, it’s really depressing and destructive. It would really threaten our sense of self, our sense of personal value. The truth is just too awful here.”


By far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what is seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness).  "For the free will sceptic," writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, "it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible." Were we to accept the full implications of that idea, the way we treat each other - and especially the way we treat criminals - might change beyond recognition.