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.