I had high expectations when I began reading Dan Barker's book, "Free Will Explained." Being a firm non-believer in free will, I figured that Barker, an avowed atheist, would give free will the same de-bunking as Sam Harris and numerous other scientifically minded authors have.
I'm a free will junkie.
I find this subject fascinating. I've read most of the books that argue free will doesn't exist, even though we humans believe we possess it. So since the subtitle of Barker's book is How Science and Philosophy Converge to Create a Beautiful Illusion, I expected a rational, reasonable, factual explanation of not only why free will is an illusion, but the benefit of giving up a belief in it.
Well, even before I got through the introduction, I found myself writing more and more question marks in the margins, because what Barker was saying made so little sense.
He admits that free will is a fiction. Determinism rules through chains of causes and effects. So far, so good.
Where Barker lost me is his contention that "Free will is a product of judgment." He claims that "free will is irrelevant -- it doesn't even exist -- until you judge behavior. It is a retroactive product of judgment."
He's talking about a particular sort of judgment, moral judgments. Supposedly free will is a social truth, like marriage. Well, this goes against how almost everybody in the world, aside from Barker, I guess, looks upon free will.
Almost everybody feels like they possess free will, even though it is an illusion. Likewise, almost everybody says "the sun is setting" rather than "the Earth is revolving." We feel like we have free will when we're alone, just as we see the sun setting when we're alone. If someone is by themselves on a desert island, they are still going to feel like they have free will, no moral judgement required.
We choose a flavor of ice cream. We pick a book to buy. We decide where to go on vacation. None of these decisions entail making moral judgments, unless the meaning of "moral" is stretched far beyond its normal usage. I fail to see how a sense of free will only arises after a judgment is made, but this is a core tenet of Barker's book.
Now, what bothers me the most about "Free Will Explained" isn't the crazy way Barker looks upon free will, but the implications he draws from that viewpoint. Unlike virtually every other author who writes about the illusion of free will, somehow Barker is simultaneously able to embrace the reality of determinism while also claiming that we are morally responsible for our actions.
"We can be completely unfree, yet also completely accountable for our own actions," he writes. Barker further asserts that "moral accountability only needs to go as far back in time as the mental decision to act was made."
So even though someone's decision to rob a bank, say, was completely determined by their genetics, upbringing, and countless life experiences, Barker is fine with the justice system assuming that they possessed free will and could have chosen to not rob the bank. Hence, it is perfectly justified, in Barker's view, to exact retribution for freely willed acts, rather than viewing criminality as something that society needs to be protected from, and the criminal rehabilitated from.
Barker goes so far as to write, "Yes, the brain tumor (or whatever) is one of the causes of the action, but the individual human being is the actual perpetrator. It is irrelevant to ask whether the person was ultimately free or not. We only assume the person was immediately free."
Huh? Barker admits that free will is an illusion, It doesn't exist. Yet somehow he is OK with a judge or jury assuming that someone with a brain tumor was "immediately free" at the moment of making a decision, even though the tumor caused them to act in a certain unlawful way.
One of the more annoying parts of Barker's book is when he raises the straw man of determinists failing to praise people or favoring moral education. He says that when his children took their first steps and he clapped his hands to congratulate them, "Should I have acted like a dull determinist and coldly remarked to my kids, 'That's no big deal. You had no choice'?"
Geez. Barker doesn't understand how us determinists view reality. Everything at the level of everyday life is determined, everything! (I'm leaving out quantum phenomena, though arguably these also are determined, albeit in a probabilistic sense.)
A determinist is going to praise their children because this is what they have been determined to do. If they don't, then they have been determined to do that. There's no getting outside of the bounds of determinism in our causal universe.
At the end of his book Barker notes that "Free will is not a scientific truth, it is a social truth." Again, this doesn't make sense. An illusory sense of free will exists in humans because it has some sort of evolutionary advantage. This makes it a scientific truth. The illusion of free will also is a scientific truth, as Barker readily admits.
Yet he persists in believing that it is better that people believe in the illusion, than in the truth. He appears to be fine with exacting retributive justice that is justified by a judge or jury assuming that someone possessed the free will to not commit a crime.
Amazingly, Barker goes so far as to say, "Denying free will is a put-down to human nature." Wow. Discovering the truth that free will is an illusion is a put-down to human nature? I heartily disagree. For centuries people had the illusion that some races are superior to others, which justified slavery. They also had the illusion that women are the weaker sex and shouldn't be able to vote, among other consequences of that illusion.
Belief in free will isn't an innocent illusion. It is used to justify harsh punishments, since our justice system is founded on an assumption that, aside from insanity, people are free to either commit a crime or refrain from that behavior. Books like the one Barker wrote aren't merely wrong, they are dangerous.