Strictly speaking, I started this blog to post about sciency stuff every once in a while. However, I have recently started reading into some more philosophical topics, such as the theory of knowledge, free will, ethics, and whether or not anything really matters. Intriguingly, many people seem to come out of this particular rabbit hole with a fatalistic attitude: we don’t have free will, we don’t know anything, all morals are relative, and nothing really matters.
However, there is a plausible case to make that things still matter, in spite of the absence of free will. Before I begin however, I should start by saying that most of what I’ve written here isn’t particularly new, although I do knit everything together in a way that I fancy. I’ve collected a lot of different stuff from a variety of books, podcasts, YouTube channels, and a collection of live speeches and debates. The most important insights presented here have come about by a video called ‘The Good Delusion’ by Alex O’Connor1, where he presents a case for something close to objective ethics. I want to express what I’ve learned about these topics in order to organise my mind by putting pen to paper.
Free will does not exist
With or without free will, it is never easy to make a case for something resembling objective/empirical ethics. Why then, is it necessary that I convince you that free will does not exist? Strangely enough, the ethical framework put forward by Alex O’Connor, surprisingly requires the absence of free will.
I hope that by the end of this blog, you’ll see why that is.
Which ‘free will’ does not exist?
This is the type of topic that can be talked about for hours, only to discover that both parties are using entirely different definitions. Let’s therefore be clear what it is I am disputing. I am arguing that the feeling most people have where one consciously authors the decisions made, is a false intuition. This ability to do otherwise given identical knowledge and circumstances is called libertarian free will, and it is.. nonsense.
The argument against libertarian free will is as follows:
- Premise 1: We can only ever do what we want to do
- Premise 2: We cannot choose what we want to do
- Conclusion: We cannot ever choose what we do
I’ll discuss the premises below by means of some examples, which is a good way to demonstrate the validity of the premises. If you do not find my examples convincing, I encourage you to try and come up with counter examples. If you do so, please consider how language can be a bit tricky here: are we using the same standard of ‘we’ and ‘want’?
Premise 1: We can only ever do what we want to do
Why do we generally feel like we can go against our desires? First consider what it means to say something is ‘desired’. You may have no joy in finishing a boring report, but your future self will be happy you did the job. Even in the most extreme cases, you may not want to put yourself at risk running into a burning building to save a child, but many people cannot live with themselves after failing to rescue someone. All these desires are part of the equation, and whether or not you are conscious of it, you act in accordance with your strongest desire(s). The only way out of this argument, is if you do anything entirely by accident. But clearly, there is no free will in that. As soon as we do something that feels like a ‘conscious action’, we do it because we want to.
Premise 2: We do not choose what we want to do
Can a parent choose to not want to protect their children? Can you choose to want to hurt a person you love? No. Although our desires can change over time, we cannot choose what it is we want. Most people have a strong desire to be healthy. Can you choose not to want to be healthy? Sure, maybe you could train your brain into wanting to live a healthier lifestyle, but this doesn’t change the initial problem: where does the desire to change your desire come from? Did you choose that?
Conclusion: We cannot ever choose what we do
If we can only ever do what we want to do, and we cannot choose what we want to do, it therefore logically follows that we cannot ever choose what we do. That is to say: if we rewind the clock to 10 minutes ago, with all your memories, hormones, and the neurons in your brain firing exactly in the same way, could you consciously choose to do something different than you did the first time? If your answer is yes, were you the causal agent of that change? This would require you to know exactly what caused you to make the initial decision in the first place, which would require more self-knowledge than psychology shows we seem to have. We clearly do not know exactly how decisions are made by our brains, so how could we ever influence that state of affairs after the clock was reversed, if we are not aware of it?
No sacrifice to the good stuff
If you find the idea that this type of free will does not exist alarming, it appears you are not alone. The feeling that everything is already determined seems to inspire some form of fatalism in people. First consider however, that it is plausible that the universe has some inherent randomness in it, so even if you are not authoring it, everything is in fact not fully determined. Secondly, even if everything is already fully determined, the fastest way to know what will happen is to let the universe run its course. Either way you don’t know what will happen next. You are currently watching the most immersive film ever made (full HD, surround sound, bionic sensors and a truly riveting illusion of free will!). Would you ever walk out of a movie theatre because, despite how much you enjoy the story, you already know the ending is determined?
Next, consider how the ability ‘to do otherwise’ lies at the very core of isolating emotions like regret, hate, and pride, while love and compassion remain largely intact 2 3. The ability of a kitten to be cute, and my positive feelings with respect to the kitten, do not depend on its ability to do otherwise.
What IS in control of our actions?
So. Our actions are determined by our desires, and our desires are ultimately outside of conscious control. Now what? Are all morals ultimately relative, because we all desire different incompatible things? Well, not necessarily. Next time you have a discussion with a friend, try and ask him/her what it is he truly desires.
You may expect different answers depending on whether your friend is a stoic atheist or a deeply religious person, but if you pay close attention, you’ll see that their answers are all the same: they all desire a pleasurable existence, and the well-being of the ones close to them. Ultimately, it seems we all simply desire pleasure, for however long our existence lasts.
I wouldn’t do that if I were me
Can we build an ethics, on such a hedonistic standard as ‘pleasure’? Depending on how you want ethics to function on society, the answer is different. If you want to be able to say someone’s actions are objectively wrong, then we have to wander into the domain of ‘ought’, telling people that they shouldn’t do this. However, it seems to me that the word ‘ought’ has us mightily confused on the topic of morality. What if we avoid confusion, and stay in the factual domain, using the arguments made above? Can we then address this problem?
If all our actions are determined by our desires, and we ultimately all desire
pleasure, then it logically follows that someone doing action X somehow indicates that a person believes that action X is the best way to maintain or improve their pleasure (whether they are aware of this or not). However, it is still possible that the person is wrong about this conviction. If you could present the person with information that shows that not action X, but action Y is the best way to improve their pleasure, then they would do action Y instead. This of course requires that they find your argument convincing (i.e. they actually believe you), and that they indeed have no free will. It is a way of saying: if you believe what I believe, you will not do that.
This ethical framework does not enable you to say that someone’s actions are objectively wrong, but that their action indicates they hold a belief which is objectively wrong with respect to attaining pleasure. Surely, it makes room for empirical science to study better and worse ways to navigate The Moral Landscape4
One of the most common critiques to this way of reasoning is that concepts like “well-being” and “pleasure” are too poorly defined. Can’t good and bad experiences differ from subject to subject? If you really stop and think about it, the answer is no. What varies from subject to subject is merely the stimulus required to trigger the experience that is wanted, but not what is wanted itself. Good is simply what is wanted when experienced 5.
A final point of critique is that this way of reasoning tells us nothing about what is desirable in and of itself. Merely stating that all subjects empirically self-report that they in fact desire well-being and pleasure, does not tell us what they should desire. There is however a bit of hypocrisy in this way of arguing, as nobody seems to be willing to do the same with the other facts we commonly use to reason with. All the times I dropped my glasses, they fell to the ground. Who are we to say they ought to do that, and that they won’t fall up next?
Well well, what matters it?
If free, or ‘conscious’ will6 does in fact not exist, than it almost seems that consciousness isn’t really doing anything. It is just there. Why then do I claim that everything still matters enormously? Well, this is actually quite simple: consciousness seems to be the only space where anything could matter. In order for changes in the universe to matter, they have to matter at least to something or someone7.
In short, our morals are absolutely not relative. Yes, they are subjective, but they seem to be universally subjective: distinct from, but caused by a universal objective reality. If all the things that are happening on this planet were somehow happening without anyone or anything experiencing it, then (and only then) would it be safe to say that nothing really matters. But from where I’m standing, this is definitely not the case. Everything matters enormously, anyone can see.
- The Good Delusion | What’s The Closest We Can Get To Objective Ethics?
- Sam Harris on Free Will, https://youtu.be/_FanhvXO9Pk
- Daniel Miessler on Free will, https://danielmiessler.com/blog/love-hate-free-will/
- Harris, Sam. The moral landscape: How science can determine human values. Simon and Schuster, 2011.
- Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. OUP Oxford.
- Harris, A. (2019). Conscious. Harper.
- Harris, S. (2014). Waking up: A guide to spirituality without religion. Simon and Schuster.