A closer look at Illusionism – The Insufficiency Problem

In the first part I gave a basic exposition of the main philosophical positions in the free-will debate which can be accessed here. In this post, I’ll take a more measured look at Saul Smilansky’s Illusionism as characterised in his Free Will and Illusion (2000). All citations in this post refer to this text.

Smilansky believes that the structure of his Fundamental Dualism (the partial truth and falsity of compatibilism and hard determinism), which includes the absence of Libertarian Free-Will, causes the need for an illusion for the majority of people in two ways: (1) the dissonance problem, and (2) the insufficiency problem. In this post, I will only focus on the insufficiency problem.

The insufficiency problem arises due to the absence of libertarian free-will since Libertarian free-will is closely bound up with our personal reactive life and our values amongst other things, giving them real authenticity and a deep grounding. In a simplified manner, it is thought that a person can only be a kind, courageous, evil or spiteful if he has freely chosen those actions. In the case of actually having genuine free-will the moral value of a person or of an action is intimately bound with the decision made by the respective person.

However, the absence of Libertarian free-will entails that our moral values and conceptions, ultimately, lack authenticity and grounding because, ultimately, the actions, intentions and decisions that people make is just an unfolding of an absolutely determined sequence, rather than something we have freely chosen to do. Take, for example, the Charlie Hebdo massacres supposedly authorised by Al Qaeda in Yemen. Now, in the absence of Libertarian free-will, on an ultimate perspective level we cannot say that they are morally abominable people, ultimately, the terrorists were merely the way things turned out, including their beliefs, decisions and actions, and entails that ultimately it was not their fault what happened. It was just gross moral luck on their part to be the people that would enact the atrocities, and the employees of Charlie Hebdo were grossly unlucky to be the victims, when we understand the ultimate perspective as stated by Hard Determinism.

Smilansky also states that this is the case for the Compatibilist, since whether a person or group of people are morally good or bad in a certain instance is ultimately a matter of luck given the metaphysical fact of determinism. The distinctions that are granted on the Compatibilist picture are morally shallow and inadequate when it comes to grounding the authenticity of moral value because, ultimately, we do not choose the people we want to be. For instance, on a basic Compatibilist stance, Kermit the Frog is morally responsible for the reasons that he acts upon and the reasons that he is responsive to, but Kermit does not get to choose the personality of the hand that “controls” him, and Smilansky (on the perspective of the Hard Determinist) finds that this is unfair in authentically grounding moral value: for example, how can a person be said to be freely choosing to be kind when he did not freely choose to be the person he wanted to be. Unless this requirement can be satisfied, moral value does not have authenticity but is a shallow counterfeit version.

Related to this issue of the insufficiency of moral values arising from the absence of free-will is, what Smilansky calls, the Danger of Worthlessness: just as people will try to avoid internal and social moral responsibility, it will also make the achievement of moral worth appear to be a futile endeavour. Whatever good deeds you do in life or the achievement that one does will always be undervalued on the ultimate metaphysical picture because it was determined to happen and you only experience the unfolding of a determined sequence. As Smilansky puts it ““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.” (163)

These are the fundamental reasons, then, that illusion (in the majority of cases) is vital for the individual: in the absence of Libertarian free-will we are left with the Insufficiency problem which entails that we do not have genuine moral values, and there is no real human achievement, which Smilansky calls The Danger of Worthlessness (163).

How does this illusion work then according to Smilansky? Smilansky says that the illusion defends our Libertarian assumptions regarding free-will. This Illusion is “by and large, a condition for the actual creation and maintenance of adequate moral reality” (174) that allows is to have an “independent “mental reality” consisting of matters such as moral depth, the appropriateness of remorse, and deep self-respect.” (165) As well as ensuring that we are deemed accountable in terms of moral responsibility for our actions and decisions.

This Illusion is maintained through a process of motivated self-deception. Not much is said by Smilansky about how it exactly works, but he does mention that in the free-will debate it works as a “motivated element working against “contrary evidence” because of the unpleasantness of the thought of the absence of libertarian free will and what it implies.” (180-1)

Reply to the Insufficiency Problem – Danger of Worthlessness

This reply is more directly aimed at the Danger of Worthlessness subsection of the insufficiency problem, although it should be obvious that the same type of answer could be used against the insufficiency problem itself with some modification and tweaking.

Before we come to the central problem of Smilansky’s position, it is worthwhile to separate the two distinct but almost related notions of metaphysical determinism and knowing how your life is determined to unfold itself. The former notion needs no further discussion in this paper, In the latter notion it means our lives are fully determined from birth to death, but to know that your actions and your choices are ultimately determined does not preclude or diminish your ability to have the phenomenal experience of choosing how to act in any scenario, since we do not know the determinants of our choosing self. The fact that our resultant actions are determined without our knowledge of how that action will turn out, even if we have internalized the insights of hard determinism, does not mean that the phenomenology of rational deliberation and evaluation are not constitutive parts of the action process.

For example, suppose I was looking at a restaurant menu, at a restaurant I have never been to and I have no knowledge of the menu, so the idea that I already know which meal I am going to choose before I get there would be absurd, since there is no chance of knowing this already determined fact. Although it has been determined which meal I will choose, when I look at the menu and rationally weigh up the decision of what to choose this itself is part of the determined process of the action I will take when choosing which meal to have. That is, how you act in any given moment, even if it decision is already determined, is on different levels, an act of freely choosing and also a mere unfolding of yourself by deterministic processes. As we’ll see its application is relevant here in understanding whether the insufficiency problem will affect the majority of people in the way that Smilansky thinks.

Smilansky, displaying an admirable manner, tests his claims for the normative necessity of the need for illusion in the void of Libertarian free will “in the personal sphere, in the area of family attachments, where it would seem that doubts about abstract beliefs would be least significant” and this is the relationship between parents and children (176). Smilansky asserts that internalizing the ultimate metaphysical insights might affect parent’s performance because it is a “view which encouraged the idea that one’s value cannot ultimately be affected by one’s performance, would threaten autonomy, initiative, and action (176).

I’m unconvinced because how the parent decides to act, although ultimately determined, will decide whether they are a good parent or not (in the conventional manner), even if the ultimate perspective does not distinguish between the acts typically characterising these values. It does not make sense for a parent, for example, when his young baby is crying since she’s hungry not to feed his young child because on a metaphysical level it does not seem to matter.

The important aspect is treating his young daughter as a person (and not some valueless causal metaphysical links in a chain) that feels pain, pleasure, suffering and happiness amongst others, and this will automatically be the guiding principle for action. That is, when the baby is crying because it is hungry, the parent’s performance will be based on whether they care whether the baby is hungry or not, and (in the overwhelming majority of cases) they will feed the baby. The parent desires to reduce the suffering of the baby, even if they completely understand that metaphysically for their daughter to receive the food or not equates to no change in ultimate moral responsibility.

We can give similar examples where internalizing the ultimate metaphysical insight does not matter in the midst of living a life because metaphysical determinism does not equate to the fact that a person is not choosing his life as he engages with it. Suppose a young professional footballer (who has internalized the ultimate metaphysical fact) has been told by an excellent football coach that is an expert in nurturing and assessing young footballers that he will have the ability to play football for Barcelona (his dream football team to play for) if he puts more effort into training for the next few years or he will simply play out his career at Cambridge United (a lower league football team). He will understand that on a grand scheme whether he plays football for Barcelona or Cambridge is valueless (and this is partially true), but in relation to him as a person it deeply matters and is truly important, (which is also partially true) and will give him the motivation to train harder and play for Barcelona. Whether it is gross luck that he should be the sort of person that admires Barcelona and has the footballing ability to play for them seems to be beside the point within the engagement of his life.

As the example of a father’s young daughter exemplifies, choices and actions may be metaphysically valueless, on the Hard Determinist account, but they have pragmatic value that cannot be removed by the lure of the metaphysics.


3 thoughts on “A closer look at Illusionism – The Insufficiency Problem

  1. Okay, that’s very confusing. Let me briefly set the stage and then we’ll get to free will’s place in all this.

    The point of morality is to achieve the best possible good and least unnecessary harm for everyone.

    A key source of both good and harm is human behavior. The point of ethics is to discover the best set of rules/rights to achieve that best good and least harm.

    The people of a state or nation enact these rules as laws. These laws represent agreements as to what rights we will respect and protect for each other. States are constituted to provide the means of creating and enforcing these laws (Jefferson, “…to secure these rights, governments are instituted…”).

    Courts impose penalties designed to (1) repair the harm when feasible, (2) correct the future behavior of the offender, and (3) protect society until the offender is corrected.

    The offender has a right to a “just” penalty. To be justified, the penalty may do no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish repair, correction, and protection. Any harm to the offender beyond that is by definition “unjustifiable”.

    The concept of “free will” is specifically relevant to correction. It presumes that the offender at some point made a deliberate decision at some point to cause harm to the victim or the victim’s rights.

    The penalty cannot do anything to reverse that first decision. But it may, hopefully, give the offender something new to think about the next time he must make that decision.

    If the offender’s behavior can be corrected, then he/she may once again become a free agent in society. But if the offender is incorrigible, and the threat of harm to others is significant, then life imprisonment may be required.

    Please note that people are not classified as morally good or morally bad. Only the behavior may be so classified. If their behavior can be corrected then they might be redeemed in society. If the behavior cannot be corrected, then society uses prisons to protect itself.

    Now to the paradox. Determinism is an observed characteristic or property of the real world. Causes reliably produce effects. We assume there were reasons and causes leading up to the offender’s bad act. And to the degree that society might address these causes proactively through building and supporting better communities, it should do so.

    But the offender’s behavior must also be corrected. Therefore there is no “get out of jail free” card that the offender can play by saying “It was inevitable that I committed the crime”. Because society’s response is that there are a long history of previous events leading to the establishment of law and order, including corrective penalties, that were also inevitable.

    Determinism is certainly true. But so is free will. Free will is nothing more than deliberately choosing what we will do next. And that happens through a mental process grounded in the biological organism within the physical universe.

    Universal inevitability, per se, is a useless truth. It provides absolutely no useful information. There is nothing you can do about it other than to acknowledge it and then ignore it.

    The fact that my next choice is inevitable gives me nothing to say what that choice will be. I still have to go through a consideration of my options and make my choice before I can know for certain what my inevitable choice will be.

    I cannot take inevitability into account in any way. If I feel that option A is my inevitable choice, and so, for spite, I choose option B, then option B is actually the inevitable choice, so now I must choose option A instead … etc. It is an infinite loop. Again, useless.

    Nor can I sit and wait for the inevitable to happen. Choosing to sit and wait is a choice that changes what will happen next. So we are unavoidably the deciders of what becomes inevitable.

    The only thing to do with the fact of universal inevitability is to acknowledge it and then ignore it. It is a useless concept. True, yes, but totally irrelevant.

    All we can do is to continue to exercise our ability to think and choose for ourselves what we should do next. And that is all that free will ever was or ever can be.


    1. Marvin, thank you for comment, but I must confess I have a few issues with it and some ground rules that need to be addressed.

      Firstly, you state that you find the post “very confusing” but you don’t add what you find confusing about it, it gives the tone that you are attacking the post needlessly.

      Secondly, its not correct that “[t]he point of morality is to achieve the best possible good and least unnecessary harm for everyone.” This is only true on Utilitarian grounds, Deontologists for starters would not accept this.

      Thirdly, you said “Please note that people are not classified as morally good or morally bad. Only the behaviour may be so classified”. This is not true, there are countless examples in philosophical literature, notably to do with moral explanation (and the philosopher Nicholas Sturgeon in particular) where the proposition is (*) If Hitler wasn’t morally depraved then … such and such …

      Fourthly, “Determinism is an observed characteristic or property of the real world.” Determinism is a particular metaphysical thesis, rather than a type of property or characteristic. However, the notion that individuals come to understand that their brain processes are subject to the physical laws of cause and effect, and this is relevant to them because they understand their brain and its processes are physical in nature is one that some philosophers do hold. However they normally justify such a claim with a story detailing how they come to this understanding. For example, Jones watched a program on neuroscience that showed how this fictional drug reversed the personality defects suffered in Alzheimer’s by removing the amyloid plaques due to the chemical composition released by this fictional super drug.

      Fifth, “Determinism is certainly true. But so is free will. Free will is nothing more than deliberately choosing what we will do next. And that happens through a mental process grounded in the biological organism within the physical universe.” The debate at a simplistic level revolves around two issues. (1) Whether you believe we have free-will or not. That is, as explained in my philosophical positions and illusionism post, (a) whether decisions are caused by the agent irrespective of antecedent events or (b) whether decisions are caused by the agent due to prior events and causes together with natural laws. (There are more positions but lets leave it at this for the time being)
      (2) The notion of moral responsibility. Whether a particular metaphysical thesis in the free-will debate (Libertarianism, Compatibilism, Hard Determinism, Free-Will Sceptic, Indeterminism etc.) is compatible or incompatible with moral responsibility. The experience of having free-will, whether it is an illusion or not, is not really an issue until we get to moral responsibility.

      Sixth, “Universal inevitability, per se, is a useless truth. It provides absolutely no useful information. There is nothing you can do about it other than to acknowledge it and then ignore it. The fact that my next choice is inevitable gives me nothing to say what that choice will be. I still have to go through a consideration of my options and make my choice before I can know for certain what my inevitable choice will be. ” This passage just re-enforces the point that you haven’t grasped what the central issue within the free-will question is. The issue is on how our actions, intentions and behaviour is caused because this informs us on whether we are morally responsible for our actions or not, based on further philosphical considerations. Without the question of whether we are morally responsible then, lets just assume, we are left with “universal inevitability”. But who cares about that, since this is not the issue.

      For what its worth though, the philosophical position that you are stating is actually a basic form of Compatibilism. Daniel Dennett is the most famous Compatibilist philosopher, but you may want to check out the “Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy” which you can find on the internet.

      Just some ground rules for the future though, and its considered general etiquette in philosophical debate/ criticism. (I) If your going to comment on a post – please I’m sure you have innovative and original ideas – then it has to have a relevant discussion with the post at hand. (ii) You can’t arbitrarily use a post to spout your own philosophical agenda and attempt to sully my posts for no philosophical justification. You have your own blog to have posts and comments related to your own “universal inevitability”. It would be bad etiquette and disingenuous for me to select a random post, say that it is confusing tripe, and then give a summary of “freewill sceptic optimism”. Any posts that cannot satisfy these absolutely basic conditions will not pass moderation


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