Why Free Will Doesn’t Matter

By Tim Dean

diceFree will is an illusion. There, I said it. Now, let’s move on. For it matters not a jot.

Only, it seems we can’t move on. Despite evidence, physical and metaphysical, to the contrary, a majority of people refuse to acknowledge that we have no free will.

But perhaps this is a good thing? Evidently, people who believe in free will behave in more magnanimous ways. Even if it does result in some startlingly incoherent beliefs. And I quote:

If we don’t have free will, a perverse kind of anarchism emerges, one which seems to encourage us to act any way we choose.

Hang on a tic, let’s get this straight… If we don’t have free will – meaning we don’t have choice – we end up having anarchism, where we act any way we choose. Well that’s pretty clear…

All this says to me that the psychological notion – the illusion – of free will is important in every day life, but let’s divorce that from the physical and metaphysical notions once and for all.

Philosopher, Saul Smilansky, has already outlined a similar position, called Illusionism. From what I’ve read of it, it needs some polish – mainly because the topic as a whole is horrifically confused and riddled with equivocation over what different terms, like ‘free’, mean – but it offers a compelling roadmap to escape the free will dilemma. Basically:

Illusionism is the position that illusion has a large and positive role to play in the issue of free will. In arguing for the importance of illusion, I claim that we can see what it is useful, that it is a reality, and why by and large it ought to continue to be so. Illusory beliefs are in place concerning free will and moral responsibility, and the role they play is largely positive. Humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue, and this seems to be a condition of civilized morality and personal value. (Smilansky, 2005)

So free will is a kind of ‘error theory’. It doesn’t really exist, but it’s useful to assume it does.

Why am I sympathetic towards this view? Because my own research indicates a similar thing might apply to morality. Yeah yeah… That’s even more contentious than free will, but let the truth take us where we will. Wishful thinking about free will or morality won’t change the facts.

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2 responses to “Why Free Will Doesn’t Matter

  1. While I would respectfully disagree, I do admit that it’s a bit of a problem. After all, if we have no choice but to have free will, how free is it?
    Great blog!

  2. I agree that it seems Free Will, or rather the Illusion of it, influences people beneficially in terms of ethics and morality. If we have the freedom to choose our actions, we are responsible for them, and accountable for doing anything immoral etc. So the Illusion of Free Will is pretty essential to society and the rules that govern us (ie. The Legal System)

    However, are you arguing that we should do away with the Illusion entirely? And what do you propose is the determining factor in life if Free Will is indeed merely an Illusion? If it would be counter-productive, and in fact, completely catastrophic to the harmony of society to acknowledge our lack of Free Will, could it indeed NOT exist? Or is it merely the Illusion that matters, and the rest is irrelevant…?

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