The Free-Will Question: Philosophical Positions and Illusionism

If you’ve ever taken a course on Metaphysics, or due to some bizarre intellectual fetish have decided to research this area, it is likely that you’ve been exposed to the core triad of philosophical positions that largely constitute the free-will debate (that is, whether we freely choose our actions or not): libertarianism, compatibilism and hard determinism. This blog post will give a brief run down over these positions and discuss the outline of a new exciting fourth position, conceived by Saul Smilansky (the ideas are taken from his monograph free-will and illusion (2000), called Illusionism. The next series of blog posts will discuss Illusionism in greater depth and its potential limitations discussed.

The philosophical debate between whether an individual has an ability to exercise free-will or not, has been a controversial topic for centuries without any side of the debate making any significant progress over the opposing point of view. Despite the protracted stalemate between the arguments of free-will and determinism, recent experiments from the domain of neuroscience and our further developed understanding of how the brain works have potentially suggested that the metaphysics of determinism is more likely to be the correct picture of the universe, entailing that we do not have free-will, at least in the traditional sense of the term.

Here free-will means, simply, I could have done otherwise (than that which I did). For example, suppose at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I decided to buy a strawberry milkshake, I have free-will if, and only if, at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I could have chosen banana milkshake over strawberry milkshake if I so desired. If an individual does not have free-will, then an individual is said to be determined to have acted in the way that they did, for instance, he could not have done otherwise. That is, at 4.00pm on the 18th November 2015 I could only have chosen the strawberry milkshake over the banana milkshake, given those exact circumstances I would be determined to choose strawberry milkshake every time.

The strongest philosophical position in the metaphysical debate that we do have free will is called Libertarianism: they argue that a free decision “must be caused by the agent, and it must not be the case that either what the agent causes or the agent’s causing that event is causally determined by prior events” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy) This view is known as agent causation. The most well-known determinist position known in this metaphysical debate is called Causal Determinism: this theory states that “every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” So, according to causal determinism, human action is not freely chosen, but rather whether I choose strawberry or banana milkshake on November 18th 2015 at 4.00pm has been made necessary by previous events and conditions together with the laws of nature. There is no room left for free decision to choose which drink to have outside of the laws of nature together with previous conditions and events.

It has been suggested throughout the philosophical tradition that the concept of moral responsibility is intimately connected to the notion of free-will, although the significance of free-will is not dependent on the concept of moral responsibility, because it is commonly assumed that to be responsible for one’s own action an individual has to be acting freely. Let’s assume the significance of the free-will debate is closely connected to moral responsibility, and for this reason deserves a closer look at the connection between the two.

Before I give a brief explanation as to why each philosophical position is compatible or incompatible to moral responsibility, I will quickly explain the central condition in what it is to be responsible for an action. It is thought that a central condition in being responsible for an action is having the relevant control over an action, known as the “control principle”, where the mechanism of the action is “up to us” in some sense. This intuitive notion is meant to distinguish between involuntary actions such as having a hand spasm, or slipping on the pavement, compared to voluntary chosen actions such as intentionally picking up the strawberry milkshake over the banana milkshake to drink.

In regards to Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism whether we are morally responsible for our actions depends on whether those theories believe that we have the relevant and necessary control for our actions. In relation to Libertarianism we have full moral responsibility as we have complete control over our voluntary actions since we can freely choose how to act. In regards to Hard Determinism, as our actions are ultimately completely determined we do not have necessary control for our actions, since ultimately our actions are not “up to us” but rather are due to the laws of nature together with antecedent events and conditions. Compatibilism, on the other hand, although it expresses its support of determinist metaphysics it believes that we are still morally responsible for our actions. Even though ultimately we are not in control of our actions, we are still morally responsible as long as we are able to make choices and act upon reasons and be responsive to reasons, in this sense we have local control of our actions.

An interesting position has entered into the free-will and morally responsiblility debate called Illusionism. The (brief) position of Illusionism is as follows, Illusionism completely rejects Libertarianism and asserts that the true metaphysical picture of the world is determinist. However, in regards to determinism and moral responsibility neither the Compatibilist nor the Hard Determinist positions are fully valid, but then neither are they fully invalid either. However, according the Illusionism, this is not an issue, there is no requirement in the free-will question for only one theory to be either fully correct or incorrect (a monist position) rather we can have two theories that are partially correct and incorrect operating at the same time (a dualist position). Illusionism states that it is partially true (and also partially false) that we are not ultimately responsible for our actions (Hard Determinism), but it is also partially true (and also partially false) that we have enough local control to be morally responsible for our actions (Compatibilism.)

However, Illusionism states that we have a false belief (i.e. an illusion) which is maintained by self-deception that we have free-will (when we know that we actually do not) and we maintain this belief in order to escape two problems (1) the dissonance (2) the insufficiency problem. The dissonance problem arises since we are confused how we should properly act in the partially correct (and incorrect) dualist position of Compatibilism and Hard Determinism (what does this even mean when we take it at face value?), and the insufficiency problem which arises due to the absence of free-will. Without free-will it is thought that our achievements and how we decide to act is valueless: “No matter how devoted he has been, how much effort he has put in, how many tears he has shed, how many sacrifices he has willingly suffered. True appreciation, deeply attributing matters to someone in a sense that will make him worthy, is impossible if we regard him and his efforts as merely determined products.” (Smilansky, 2000, 163)

In future posts we will examine Illusionism more closely and examine whether it stands up to scrutiny. At any rate it injects vigour and energy into the free-will debate and has centred discussion on new avenues, such as, whether the illusion of free-will (on the assumed truth of hard determinism) should be divested or not. At the current time I’m agnostic on such issues, but I will be exploring this question eventually on the blog.


2 thoughts on “The Free-Will Question: Philosophical Positions and Illusionism

  1. I am a hard determinist. The way I see it is that you had no choice but to drink the milkshake that prior causes dictated you would desire the most.

    As long as you liked the taste of the milkshake, all is well.


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